That’s So Cliché

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Let’s Make a Bad Guy)

Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.

And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.

Let’s Make a Good Guy)

Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!

Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.

But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.

Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.

Shortcuts in Communication)

The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.

Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?

Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.

Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.

“Hey, good morning.”

“Good morning. How are you?”

“Doing well. And you and your family?”

“All doing well, thanks for asking.”

“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”

“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”

“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”

“Definitely. Well, see ya!”

There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.

Stories Should Say Something)

And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”

To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.

Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.

The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.

I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.

A Story for Every Day

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I once had the privilege of knowing an artist. Sculpture was his primary expertise, though he made wonderful drawing and paintings as well. He took me to an art gallery once, and I of course wanted to know his opinions on all of the various pieces. He was quite resistant to divulging that, though, simply stating that if I liked a piece that was reason enough to call it good.

He did at least explain to me one piece of criteria he used when evaluating a piece, though, and I was struck by what he said. He explained that he would never buy a work of art on the same day that he met it. Rather he would remember it, and then wait until he had a truly joyful day. He would come to look at it again in that mood and see if it still spoke to him as strongly as before. Still he wouldn’t buy it though, now he would wait until he had a truly heartbreaking day, then he would come to look at it again and see how he felt about it then. He explained that if something was going to be in his house, it needed to be a work that could speak to him at all times.

With that I understood why he didn’t want to influence my opinion on any individual piece. In the end all that mattered was whether it spoke to me or not, and whether it resonated with all parts of me, or only during one particular mood.

I’m sure you have heard the saying “this too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a time when a monarch commissioned his wise men to give him a quote that would both cheer him when he was sad and give him pause when he was joyful. “This too shall pass” was the result of their combined wisdom. A saying that has not one meaning, but many.

Some of my favorite stories are ones I appreciate because of how they are able to speak to me at any point in life. Although I also appreciate how I have been able to find meaning in books that once I disregarded. But what is it that makes a story timeless? How do you write a tale so that it can fit to every mood and every day? Well, there’s a few different approaches that seem to work well.

 

Speak to Many)

The first approach is simply to broaden the audience you are speaking to. Caution has to be exercised here, though, making a story too broad can also make it meaningless. A story that tries to be all things to all people tends to be too unfocused to have special meaning to anyone.

But consider how A Christmas Carol works to make Ebenezer Scrooge as relatable of a character as possible. It uses flashbacks to extend its story over the entire duration of a man’s life. So many moments are captured that almost any male will be able to connect with the experience at one point or another. We have the youthful version that has no friends, the young man who has no money, the driven man who has conflicting interests, the old man who is full of regrets. Wherever you happen to be in your own life arc there is an Ebenezer Scrooge for you.

I certainly have returned to this story multiple times and often find it is different scenes that speak to me most each time. For an added bonus, this approach also has the benefit of making Scrooge a more interesting and rounded character, one full of nuance and development.

 

Emotional Paradoxes)

Another approach is to write in a way that evokes two emotions at the same time, a phenomenon that arrests a reader’s attention and prompts deep introspection. A slight variation of this is to evoke the two emotions so closely to one another that the first is not forgotten before the second begins. To accomplish this one must realize that an emotionally charged scene creates an aura that lasts longer than the scene itself. When George Bailey desperately pleads for a second chance at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the shadow of his intense remorse still lingers even after he receives his wish in a moment of triumphant joy.

This enables the viewer to be feeling both emotions in the same moment, which disparity both confuses and fascinates the mind. If those two scenes had been separated so that they were experienced independently, then they still might have been moving but they would not have been timeless.

When our mind recognizes that we are receiving conflicting emotions it processes how this came to be. It looks for a meaning behind it all. For example, in this particular case one might conclude that because the happiness immediately followed the sorrow means that the former caused the latter. George Bailey was in a bind, and was only able to be happy because he was willing to first be sad, healed because he allowed himself to be broken. That learning experience makes the moment stick. Every time we see it the mind will remember the previous process, and either reaffirm the conclusions or else produce another interpretation.

 

Captivate the Imagination)

The last approach is to ask the reader to supply their own meaning. This is not to suggest that one should make a plot intentionally obtuse, but rather it is an acknowledgement that sometimes stories deal with elements that defy our human languages to fully express. Rather than try to find the right words, the author instead tries to find a way to replicate the right feelings. The reader will only be able to find closure by experiencing the story and then giving their own silent interpretations to it.

Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is an excellent example of this sort of tale. In this book a man wakes up in bed, reminisces on his life situation, and presently comes to discover that he has transformed into huge insect! A very strange plot follows, detailing the way he deals with this embarrassing turn of events, the burden he becomes on his family, and the tragic demise that eventually befalls him.

As bizarre as the story may be, one cannot shake the sense that it isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. There seems to be some sort of purpose behind it, some allegory or moral to be revealed. In some ways these sorts of stories feels like reading through a dream, and people have long believed that special meaning can be found in their night visions.

 

With my next blog post I’d like to try my hand at writing a memorable story, and I’d like to try to approach it with the third of the methods I’ve mentioned here. I want to write something that feels different and even dream-like. Something that is based off of a sense or a feeling that I do not know the words to express, but which emotion I hope to recreate in the reader. If I succeed, then we will be able to mull these inexpressible things together, and maybe some good will be able to come of that. Come back Thursday to see how it turns out.