From Truism to Truth

I’ve been thinking a lot about clichés lately.

Fantasy fiction – especially the sword-and-sorcery stuff I tend to write – is loaded with clichés. I’m not talking about barefaced Tolkien rip-offs, or the usual-list-of-suspects cribbed from last night’s RPG. They may be legion, but they are low-hanging fruit, easy to mock and easy to dismiss. And anyway, they’re just window-dressing.
Want to attract women readers? Throw in the “feisty heroine”. Need to feel more inclusive? Model a culture on ninja-style Asians and make one of those the hero’s sidekick. Want to add a political polemic? Cast the rich guy as the villain, out to destroy the natural beauties of your utopia before moving on to the next big thing.
They’re completely obvious, and you don’t even need to read past the first sentence of the blurb to notice them.
Don’t mistake me: I’m as guilty as anyone else here. My protagonists are women who wield swords. My villains are psychopathic and selfish and you can pretty much see them dancing down the streets from a mile away. And I am unashamedly wedded to the happy ending of the completely fairy-tale kind. I can’t help it. I put my characters through a lot of really crappy things, I frequently make them bleed, and I figure I owe them that much: that there should be a little hope and love and a few square meals in their future.
I’m talking more about the story arcs themselves, and the stereotypes that creep in so easily that you hardly see them. The way there is almost always an identifiable “good” worth preserving. The idea that people need teachers, but that at some point, those mentors have to set their charges free. The fact that evil is extremely hard to redeem, and that in some cases, you just can’t.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that despite a prevalent modern cynicism that seems to discount the value of the unrealistic ending, that claims to no absolutes whatsoever, and feels cheated by even fictional good fortune, in spite of or maybe even because of those things, that there’s a still a need for some of this.
We want those fairy tales, reflecting back into our own lives. We thirst for those easy, familiar resolutions, to keep our own dreams alive. They are based on our deepest archetypes and they reach back into a universality of humanness that we share on the most basic level.
Why fight evil if it cannot be identified/looks the same as “good”? Why strive for a better life if it is eternally unobtainable? Why choose equality, and fairness, even in a fictional world, if the playing field is always assumed to be tilted someplace else?
Because, cynicism notwithstanding, we all still believe.

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