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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Leela Bruce Goes To the Mat With the Cliche Police (A Story of Good Gone Wrong)

Leela Bruce here.  And today, I'm going to tell you a story.
A site with funny stuff that you should totally check out.
Last night, I ran into a patrol of the cliche police coming out of a bookstore.  I just rounded a corner and there they were.  Obviously they were headed in to continue their relentless pursuit of cliches, scouring various writings like hawks--books, blogs, short stories, articles and such--in pursuit of phrases and ideas that have been so overdone that they start to lose meaning.  One was a guy with a chiseled chin, the other was a woman who looked like even though she could kick some ass, she wasn't afraid of her own femininity. They maintained a cold professionalism, but the sexual tension between them crackled and buzzed with their every word.

Clearly they hadn't yet realized the irony of their very existence.

"Hey," they said to me.  "You avoid cliches right?"

I knew.

I knew who they were as soon as I spotted them, but their words cinched it, lock, stock, and barrel.  The fucking cliche police!  I felt my fists begin to tingle.  Sometimes you have to hunt down bad writing advice like a wild animal to beat the shit out of it.  But sometimes...not often, but sometimes...bad writing advice finds you.

"Oh yes," I said.  "I avoid them."  They smiled with humorless displays whitened teeth, and turned from me to continue their way into the bookstore.

I grinned sweetly and added: "....like the plague."

Some bad advice is bad advice because it just sucks. If someone tells you that they really have found a site that gives away trips to Disneyworld, that's bad advice. If someone tells a guy to be an asshole because women love assholes, that's bad advice. If you're having marriage troubles and someone suggests opening it up to other sexual partners that's really bad advice. If someone tells you to put your cover letter for a book query in Comic Sans, that's really, really, really bad advice.

But like the best comic book villains, the most dangerous bad advice is the kind of advice that used to be good, but just lost sight of what mattered in its fanatic zeal. Avoiding cliches is such advice. It's the Magneto of the writing advice world. It has strayed from the path. It is fanatical, pedantic, prescriptive, judgmental, often outdated, and usually the kind of limp one-size-fits-all bumper sticker oversimplification that gets me primed to do some serious ass kicking.

But it wasn't always that way...

Righteousness is so cliché.

Once upon a time, back in the 18th century, the cliche police were a force for good.  They noticed that certain phrases lost meaning.  They realized that the fifth or sixth time a metaphor was used, it stopped being delightful and provocative, and just became stale.  They set forth across the countryside, like paladins of yore, with the noble goal of informing writers everywhere that the words they had chosen weren't adding anything to their prose.  They pledged their lives to quality writing, swore fealty to something higher, and worked their fingers to the bone trying to make the world a better place.  They used the french word for stereotypes--"cliches"and struck out to make a difference.

Cliches can be problematic, they pointed out.  Overused expressions lose meaning.  They don't really tell a reader what is going on, but can be vague and uninformative.  They tend towards lazy   The cliche police helped writers reach more readers. Who couldn't see the benefit of a force of paladins constantly trying to combat stereotypes?  These were the good guys.

But then...something went rotten in the state of Denmark...

No one knows how it really started.  It was like watching the grass grow.  But slowly, the cause became less about helping writing be better and became more about fighting cliches.  They would no longer ride into libraries and bookstores with tender smiles, but with suspicious scowls.  The language changed.  Where once it had been about clarity and good prose, the cliche police had begun to talk about cliches as evil--something that needed to be stamped out.  They had begun to expunge them with a prejudice that bordered on zeal.  They forgot the people.  It all became about the cause.

Soon after, out of the clear blue sky, they widened their search to include tropes and idioms.  Anything they felt was even slightly overdone became "a cliche" and cliches were "to be destroyed at all costs."

We are the righteous.
And frankly I'm tired of this whole "you've been corrupted" thing.
Would my armor be this cool if I were corrupted?
I don't think so.
But when it all went to hell in a hand-basket was when they turned on the writers themselves.  They started blaming writers for giving shelter and comfort to cliches.  Writers were rounded up for aiding and abetting the propagation of cliches.  Writers who used cliches were forced to wear a scarlet C on their clothes. Giant databases of cliches were compiled along with all their known associates.  Where once the police had talked about "making a more creative world," now they talked about "bagging their first cliche" and "kill scores."  Many kept the remains of dead cliches as trophies and wove them into their armor, again missing the irony of such an act. Writers lived in fear.

The thing is, there is still some good in them.  A glimmer of their purity lingers, and some of what they say is still so relevant and important for writers to keep in mind.  And when you look them deep in the windows to their souls, you can see that a part of them--some small part of them--still wants to help people.  That's why it was really hard for me last night when I was kicking their asses up one side of Oakland and down the other.

I mean it was sort of hard.

Okay, it was bittersweet.

All right...I felt a little dirty about how much I fucking loved it.  Okay?  Are you happy?  Can we move on?

Cliches are like memes.  Not the pictures of cats with the misspelled words, privilege denying dude, or ridiculously photogenic guy (although those ARE memes), but the ideas in our society that spread like self-replicating viruses.  The reason they spread like wildfire is because they are really GOOD at expressing the idea they mean to convey.  The reason a good metaphor gets stale and loses its verve is because we love it so much!  We grab it and stroke it and pet it and call it George, and we eventually break its little neck.  And of course some people go on petting it even though its little neck is broken and saying "Please don't be dead, little cliche.  Lenny won't let me tend the cliches if you're dead."

But here's the thing to keep in mind while you're off expunging cliches from your manuscript because you're a real artist who writes real literature that is concerned with the human condition.

Cliches are part of the human condition.

Have you ever actually listened to people talk?  We talk in cliches.  We think in cliches.  We often act out cliches.  The human condition is a motherfucking walking talking cliche.  There is a reason stereotypes exist and there's a reason yesterday's cliches are today's idioms.  The more cliches you expunge, the more your writing is fresh, innovative, and totally not how any humans actually communicates in this plane of existence.  So if you want that Circulation-1500-Literary-Journal feel to you writing, go ahead and go cliche police all over your own ass.  But when you're following the more mainstream wisdom to write how you speak in order to establish a more intimate and casual connection with your reader, you may want to consider that part of the human condition is that we like our familiar comforts--the toilet at our house when our bowels rumble, the meal our mommy made us when we were sick, and the phrases we actually hear echoed around us all the time.  They set us at ease.

Also "the human condition" is a cliche in case you were keeping score.

In the sixties there was a major literary shift away from the omniscient narrator and a deep push into character studies--even in genre fiction, you can see this influence taking hold.  Even in omniscient 3rd, the narrative tends to jump from one focalizer and get into the heads of characters rather than staying above it all.  (Consider the Woundwart chapter in the 1972 novel of Watership Down.) While it is true that a purely omniscient narrator should avoid a lot of cliches.  A first person narration or a close third that rests inside the head of a character even if it's somewhat omniscient [such as the character of Ender in Ender's Game] would, and should, reveal the voice OF THAT CHARACTER.  If the character is a bubbling cauldron of cliches, avoiding them would be pretty f'ing stupid.  Rick Blaine wouldn't be very Rick Blaney if he weren't constantly saying "hill of beans" or "here's looking at you, kid."

The reason to avoid cliches is that they can dilute your meaning.  An intense combat scene with the cliche "dropped like a rag doll" will actually mean less to a reader than a concrete description of the character falling.  So if you're reading this and thinking you can give out the advice that cliches don't matter and you can leave them in, I might be beating the shit out of YOU in a few months.  However, if a cliche isn't vague and meaningless, if it really is the perfect description of what's happening or it is doing the job of characterization, leave it in.

Of course there really are some cliches you want to avoid as if they are villages that have been afflicted with the viral form of the Black Death.

Character cliches are worth understanding so that you can avoid them.  You can't avoid every trope ever because it's all been done before.  The only thing you can do is breath your personal essence into a tired old scenario and give it new life.  But what you can do is avoid the really huge, really overdone tropes that are so tropish that they've drifted into cliche territory when you are making your character.

You may not even realize you're doing it because you had formative experiences based on such characters and you're just pulling from your cherished memories.  So it's good to know them so you can be careful.  The brooding prettyboy (Cloud Strife), the sex interest who is a dirty badboy/bad girl (anything Hugh Grant is ever in), the love interest who is "pure" of heart (every princess ever), the robot that wants to be human (I'm not dignifying this with an example), the ambiguously suave guy that is obviously the devil (O'Conner gets a pass) , aliens that all have one single overwhelming planetary culture that defines them in a very narrow way (Klingons anyone?), evil twins, scientists who don't care about the cost, generals/admirals who are practically salivating to use nuclear weapons.  There are so fucking many of these, I would need a sandwich, a bottle of electrolyte drink, and six expresso shots to get through half of the list.  Yes, you can have a couple and no one will care.  Yes you can start out with a stereotype and then go deeper or turn it on its head to great delight.  We would all like to read about how Princess Peach really likes Kupa a lot more than Mario and spends inordinate amounts of time using the pulse mode on her hand held shower nozzle.  But if you populate your stories with cliches and never take them anywhere....well you will deserve every righteous beating the cliche police give you.

Racial/ethnic stereotype cliches should be anathema to a writer.  If you're using them you should either be trying to deconstruct them, or very very ashamed of how lazy you are being as a writer.  Everyone will end up with a person of color in their stories, and unless you ARE the ethnicity in question (and often, even if you are), someone is going to have a problem with the way you portrayed that person as not being correct, or as not being didactic in a perfectly public service announcement kind of way--or they may have trouble with the fact that you did do that and the character didn't seem real.  You walk a razors edge between appropriating other cultures and presuming everyone experiences the world in the same way that you do.  And you WON'T make everyone happy with how you strike the balance.  You won't.

But you won't make anyone happy if you don't even try.  And if you dive into ethnic stereotypes without a second thought, you will end up with the sort of characters that get writers labeled as racist assholes.  And you will deserve that label.   You have so much creative potential when it comes to breathing life into characters.  Magic negros, wise, folksy matriarch housekeepers, kung fu knowing Asians, wise Asian asshole mentors, black male thugs perpetuating violent crime, are the sort of characters that demonstrate no imagination or creativity whatsoever.  These are all offensive and they are stupid.  And you should know better.

The same is true of gender stereotypes.  Make your women all wear high heels and fuck their way to the top and your men all bumbling buffoons who think with their dicks, and you are going to get some righteous flack for being a sexist (not to mention a gender essentialist). The same is true of sexuality stereotypes. Make your villains all effeminate and more cultured than the protagonist and you have taken the lazy color-your-villain-by-numbers route. 

I know! I'll give the black guy powers. Powers that seem almost MAGICAL.
And then he'll be a mentor figure. And he'll make a noble sacrifice.
And the white person will totally learn the lesson.
Jesus is this ever some sweet post-racial ambrosia!
There isn't a formula for getting cliches out of characters.  I can't tell you what's over the line and what isn't because there is no line.  This entire issue is intertwined with your compassion and your generosity and your humanity as a writer.  The more you treat these characters with integrity and truth, the more you won't need to worry about some formula.  We all have a weak spots and the suck of them is that you don't even know they're there unless you take the time to figure it out.  Stephen King probably wrote so many "magic negro" characters without ever realizing it and without ever thinking himself racist. Probably the worst thing we can say about him is that he is a product of when and where he was born and raised, and to acknowledge that he seemed to have stop doing it since it has been brought to his attention. Finding your insensitivities may mean you have to cull that knee-jerk urge to say "I'm no racist!" and listen to someone who isn't you tell you that something you do offends them.

It's humbling.  It's sobering.  You get to feel like shit for something you didn't even realize you were doing and surely didn't mean to.  You're a writer, though, so suck it up.  Your ability to portray a character with integrity is on the line, so feeling like shit for a while and walking away better for it is the least you can do.  Otherwise you deserve what the cliche police give you.

And really, what you should be doing is empathizing with how fucking lucky you are that you only have to feel like shit for doing something you didn't mean to, rather than knowing what it means to have it done to you.

Some stereotypes are based on truth and so some characters should conform to them.  That's right!  Characters should be a little cliche!   I said it.  You probably conform to dozens--if not hundreds--of stereotypes about your race, ethnicity, creed, gender, and class. That's part of the human condition too.   But you probably shatter many others as well.   What I can tell you is that every person is their own main character of their own story.  If you treat each character as if they are MORE than just their stereotype-conforming traits, if you also give some words to the parts of them that are not stereotypes, then you get more leeway with the parts that are.  There's no equation, but  ignoring someone's full humanity in favor of making them nothing more than their cliche is basically the ultimate not rowing with both oars.

Of course, as a writer, one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox can be a cliche that you turn around.  I don't mean to parade through the cliche police's rain, but the reason that a reader finds a good twisted cliche more fun than a barrel of age-appropriate toys is because they recognize where something is going and are happy as a clam-eating gourmet to be surprised.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a seven season show and a movie essentially wrapped around the premise of reversing the helpless female cliches of action and horror movies.

Which is a very round about way of telling you that even though I beat the piss out of these cliche cops, I didn't kill them.  I took them to a rooftop while it was raining so hard that you would have traded out cats and dogs for pumas and wolves and I waited for a lightning flash.  It was like two hours of waiting, but when it happened I grabbed the dude by the lapel and I said:

"I want you to go tell all your friends about me.  I want you to tell them Leela Bruce is kicking the shit out of bad writing advice."

"WHAT ARE YOU!?!???" he cried.

I paused.  "Dude, I just told you.  I'm Leela Bruce.  You have a hearing problem or what?"

"Sorry," he said.  "It's the rain.  Plus it's really windy up here."


"What?" he said.  "I'm sorry, the wind on the top of a skyscraper in a storm is really loud!"

Anyway, it sort of ended less awesome than it began.  I had to take them to coffee and let them stanch their wounds before we could have a real conversation. I may have even ended up telling them that I really admired some of their earlier work.  That part's less important.