Clichés abound in fantasy. The dashing prince rescues the helpless princess. The mentor dies and his student going on to save the world. The villain dresses in a long black cape with a pet snake on a staff.
A cliché, by definition, is anything which is trite or commonplace through overuse. These can be phrases, such as ‘right as rain’ or ‘red as a cherry’. They can also be a character, such as the carefree friend or the grim mentor. And, of course, there are cliché scenes: a handsome prince glimpsing a beautiful princess through a tower window and falling desperately in love. The mentor dying. The villain telling the captured hero all his plans.
How to Use Cliches
Many clichés remain popular because they work. Who doesn’t thrill over the heroic rescue or ache for the main character as his mentor dies saving him? Yet, because of the overuse, once exciting scenes can lose a bit of their luster. Don’t throw out all clichés at once, however. They have their uses.
It is amusing to take a cliché and twist it just enough that it’s recognizable. Keep the grim mentor, but let him make puns with a straight face to infuriate his apprentice. Perhaps the foolish antics of the court jester covers a formal character who drops hints about his king’s table manners along with his jests. Maybe the new knight tries desperately to be heroic, completely fumbling the bows and formalities of rescuing his betrothed, while the demure maiden provokes her captors with irritating pranks they can’t trace back to anyone.
This is especially pleasing when done with phrases. Start with a common cliché phrase, then twist it into something completely new. Instead of ‘pale as death’, find something suiting the character, the setting, and the emotion for ‘pale as the marshmallows he inhaled by the dozen’. Instead of ‘all’s fair in love and war’ change it to ‘all’s fair in love and the pursuit of chocolate’.
Make fun of clichés
Or, instead of simply freshening a cliché, you can make fun of it. If something is cliché, and the character recognizes it as cliché, the possibilities are enormous. They may embrace it, or make fun of it, or use is as a starting point for other actions. ‘Well, since I’m obviously the villain and wearing black, I decided I’d better take a trip to the pet store and find an intimidating animal’ *presents hamster* *alternately presents snake, holding it as far from self as possible with thinly disguised disgust, then quickly depositing it back in its box*
Change cliché endings
Opening with a clichéd line or scene and then changing it halfway through can be hilarious. Although not fantasy, one of my favorite moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron is where Iron Man asks Ultron about something. Ultron replies with ‘I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…’ and then proceeds to attack.
Note the normal course of events in clichés, then turn the character or setting on its head. Maybe it’s the apprentice who dies and the mentor has to go save the land. Maybe it’s the dragon who rescues the prince from the princess.
Overused fantasy clichés
While clichés can be twisted or sometimes used outright, there are several main ones which have lost their effect through extreme overuse.
The villain monologue
These are easy for the writer because we can give our character and reader the information they clearly need. It’s also lazy on our part.
A scene where the villain tells the character his plans could work in the right setting, but it needs to fit with the characters and the themes. Is it something the villain would really do? Does he need recognition? Is he someone who has to prove what he can do or rub it in the main character’s face? Or is he cautious and quiet? There are other ways the main characters can figure out what has happened: vague comments and orders, notes, letters…
The mentor’s death
No matter how heartbreaking the scene, too many mentors have died. Your reader’s eyes will begin to glaze. Yes, they might be sad your mentor is dead, but the death of a more unexpected character, such as a best friend, will have a deeper emotional impact.
Sometimes mentors need to die in a story. But since they are generally wiser and more skilled than the main character, don’t let them die for a minor reason. Only kill them if you must. And, if you do kill them, make the scene as fresh and memorable as you can and make sure there is a valid reason for their death.
He’s reached his position by being cautious and smart. His security is going to be tight. He’s going to hire good soldiers. If your character is attacked by several guards, he’ll have to be very good to defeat or escape them. Slipping past the villain either for infiltration or escape is not an easy task.
Clichés are still used nowadays because they worked. They had power. Even the ones fading from overuse can be dissected. Figure out how they pull on emotions, then build up a new idea around that grain.
Keeping clichés in mind can be very useful. But, because of how common they are, work on freshening your clichés, making fun of them, or turning them on their heads.
In the end, you’ll get a story worth its weight in gold. Or chocolate. Or maybe even moon gems.