Cliche is the enemy... right?
We're taught this: be original. Kill those cliches. Find a new way to do it, a new way to say it. Do something different and unique and you'll break into the market, or so we're told.
Except what if the market ain't quite what we're told it is? Because I look around and, well, cliche sells. There's that old saying "we want the same, but different." And yet, looking around, there's a lot of stories that seem to be much more "the same" than they are "different".
People lined up to buy Christopher Paolini's books. How might we explain this? Yes, much of his readership is quite young, and so these readers simply might not have been exposed to the preceding stories yet, and thus remain unaware of the fact that the stories are highly derivative. But many experienced readers snap up his books, too. Are they unaware? A few, perhaps, but on a mass scale? It seems unlikely.
The conclusion I come to is that a portion (a surprisingly large portion) of the market wants it. They want the cliche. Cliches are familiar and comfortable. You know what you're gonna get. A boy, a dragon, a quest, a battle of good against evil (and maybe a pretty girl thrown in for good measure). Great literature? No. But people seem to want it.
I think a lot of readers want a certain experience. They've had it before, and now they want it back. Simply rereading the old story won't quite do it... so they want something mostly the same, but slightly different. Just different enough so that it's not identical... but same enough that they know what they're gonna get. A situation: a documentary that looks really interesting is on at 8 o'clock... at the same time as your favourite sitcom, the one you watch every week. How many people, do you think, will choose the sitcom? It probably won't offer anything new, anything challenging or life changing. But you know what you're gonna get. A couple chuckles, some familiar faces. You know, what if the documentary is boring? Am I going to miss Favourite Sitcom just for that?
This is the triumph of the common and familiar. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush...
There's a lot of cheesy romantic comedies out there (I watched one last night). Why are they continually in demand? I think they evoke a particular feeling, a particular experience, and so people will watch irregardless of stock characters and obvious plot devices.
An original story, a unique story, is challenging. It demands something of the reader. You have to experience something new and come to grips with it, interpret it and then assimilate it into your own understanding. It takes work, and though this is, I think, the work of art, it isn't always what people want.
Perhaps there's a nostalgic element to cliche. This use of cliche is connected to this other use of cliche, which is connected to this earlier one... and so and so on. It's a way to tie personal experiences together into an inter-connected history. Perhaps these cliches are appreciated not simply for what they are, but rather as symbols for a summation of similar experiences. They are mental triggers waiting to be pulled.
Now, maybe it's not just any old cliche that works... or maybe it's simply that cliche can be handled well or poorly, much like any other writing technique. Do it shabbily and people will drop the story in a heartbeat (oh yes, those cliches...). Do it well and the cliches offer comfort, a pleasing frame of reference. Do it the same, but different. Maybe that's wrong, though. Maybe for many writers it's Do it the same... but do it well.
I can't say it's for me. I think I need newness. If it's not new, what is there to explore? To find and discover? Without that, for me, I think the stories would come out stillborn. But I do think it might be interesting to look a little closer at the market, and to really see what it is many readers want. We might be surprised...
So what about you? What's your relationship with cliche?