The power of clichés
Over the last few weeks, I’ve become fascinated with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. I’ve always been drawn to the creative possibilities of randomness, and this is a particularly interesting example: in its original form, it’s a deck of cards, designed to be drawn from at random, each of which contains a single short aphorism, paradox, or suggestion intended to help break creative blocks. The tone of the aphorisms ranges from practical to gnomic to cheeky—”Overtly resist change,” “Turn it upside down,” “Is the tuning appropriate?”—but their overall intention is to gently disrupt the approach you’ve been taking toward the problem at hand, which often involves inverting your assumptions. This morning, for instance, when I drew a random card from the excellent online version, the result was: “Use clichés.” At first glance, this seems like strange advice, since most of us try to follow William Safire’s advice to avoid clichés like the plague. In reality, though, it’s a useful reminder that clichés do have their place, at least for an artist who has the skill and experience to deploy them correctly.
A cliché, by definition, is a unit of language or narrative that is already familiar to the reader, often to the point of losing all meaning. At their worst, clichés shut down thought by substituting a stereotyped formula for actual engagement with the subject. Still, there are times when this kind of conceptual invisibility can be useful. Songwriters, in particular, know that they can be an invaluable way of managing complexity within a piece of music, which often incorporates lulls or repetition as a courtesy to the listener. Paul Simon says it best:
So when I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.
This kind of pause is one of the subtlest of all artistic tools: it provides a moment of consolidation, allowing the listener—or reader—to process the information presented so far. When we hear or read a cliché, we don’t need to pay attention to it, and that license to relax can be crucial in a work of art that is otherwise dense and challenging.
This is a simply particular case of a larger point I’ve made elsewhere, which is that not every page of a story can be pitched at the same level of complexity or intensity. With few exceptions, even the most compressed narratives need to periodically rise and fall, both to give the reader a break and to provide a contrast or baseline for more dramatic moments. As the blogger Mike Meginnis has pointed out, this is one reason that we find flat, cartoonish characters in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon: any attempt to create conventionally plausible personalities when the bounds of complexity are being pushed in every other direction would quickly become unmanageable. And I’ve pointed out before that the plot of a movie like Inception needs to be simpler than it seems at first glance: the characters are mostly defined by type, without any real surprises after they’ve been introduced, and once the premise has been established, the plot unfolds in a fairly straightforward way. Christopher Nolan is particularly shrewd at using the familiar tropes of the story he’s telling—the thriller, the comic book movie, the heist film—for grounding us on one level while challenging us on others, which is one reason why I embedded a conventional procedural story at the heart of The Icon Thief.
If there’s one place where clichés don’t work, however, it’s in the creation of character. Given the arguments above, it might seem fine to use stereotypes or stock characters in the supporting cast, which allows the reader to tune them out in favor of the more important players, but in practice, this approach can easily backfire. Simple characters have their place, but it’s best to convey this through clean, uncomplicated motivations: characters who fall too easily into familiar categories often reflect a failure of craft or diligence on the author’s part, and they tend to cloud the story—by substituting a list of stock behaviors for clear objectives—rather than to clarify it. And this applies just as much to attempts to avoid clichés by turning them on their heads. In an excellent list of rules for writing science fiction and fantasy, the author Terry Bisson notes: “Racial and sexual stereotypes are (still) default SF. Avoiding them takes more than reversals.” It isn’t enough, in other words, to make your lead female character really good at archery. Which only hints at the most important point of all: as Niels Bohr said, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth, and the opposite of a cliché is, well, another cliché.