Friday, September 16, 2011

Something that is not cliche

Yesterday I wrote about some common cliches in young adult literature.

Today I want to mention something that is not a cliche.

Have you ever heard of the "Hero's Journey" theory, or read Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces?  (Or The Power of Myth documentary and companion book by Bill Moyers, talking about Joseph Campbell?)  If not, I recommend some light (read: dense) scholarly reading for your weekend (read: month), but here's the short version.

The reason why a lot of stories seem the same is that there are some fundamental archetypes in literature, and that the collective human spirit responds positively when we recognize these archetypes.  The big one is the "hero's journey."

Tell me if the following sounds familiar:

1. A character, usually of unusual birth or heritage, lives in the ordinary world.
2.The character discovers that he or she has some special gift or destiny, but initially refuses to believe in it.
3. The character finally commits to his or her destiny after receiving some sort of (usually mystical) aid from a mentor.
4. The character faces an initial round of challenges that only tangentially relate to the ultimate destiny.
5. The character faces a second round of challenges, which are more existentially upsetting to the character, and often involve the death of the character's mentor.
6. The character goes one some sort of quest to achieve his or her ultimate destiny.
7. The character embraces his or her own mortality.
8. The character achieves an enlightened state of some kind.
9. The character achieves his or her ultimate goal to the benefit of humanity.

Now that's condensed a little from Campbell's actual theory, but you see where I'm going with this.  Ancient myths, including major world religions, are filled with this pattern, but it carries through to film and literature today.  Luke and Anakin Skywalker, Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Ender Wiggin, Shea Ohmsford, Neo, Simba, Percy Jackson -- the list goes on. They aren't all perfect fits, but there are more hits than misses, am I right?

(And now do you see why so many people WERE NOT shocked when Dumbledore died in Book 6?  Harry can't achieve enlightenment until he stands on his own, my homies.)

Is this pattern "cliched?"  It could be.  But there's a reason why it works, over and over again.*  

So if you find yourself writing in a cliched pattern, don't be too disheartened. 

A cliche is only bad when it's lame.  When in doubt, just remember--a girl falling in love with her stalker is irrefutably lame.

And that may be the deepest thing I've ever said.

* Unless you completely overdo it up by insisting on adding a throw-away character like Qui Gon Jin, just so he can "mentor" Anakin long enough to fit the pattern, then kill him.  SERIOUSLY.  Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, George Lucas.

(Just figured I'd end with the dorkiest thing I've ever said.)


  1. Well said. I HATE a stalker romance and George Lucas's many many mistakes (why oh why did he have to kill the new trilogy like that?!). Also, have you ever heard of the Marriage Plot. Much like the Hero's Journey, but an archetype for romantic stories. Really interesting.

  2. I can see this hero's jouney in the fantasy WIP I have. But I'm guessing that's the standard for most high fantasy.

    Even though Dumbledore died, I'd hoped he was just...I dunno...faking it then someone would magic him back to life. Sappy, I know.

  3. The Hero's Journey works and it works well. The originality can come from the twists on how the mentor dies or how the hero embraces his mortality. I knew Dumbledore's death was coming, but there was a nice little twist to it. :)

  4. Love this post! You're so right...cliches are only bad when they're lame.

  5. I've read a similar book but now I can't think what it was called. I like that structure. You're right, there's a reason it works.

  6. Dumbledore's death wasn't the shocking moment. The killer was. (For some of us.) Cliché would have been if Dumbledore had jumped in front of an Avada Kadavra spell to save Harry's life.

    Good description of the Hero's Journey. There is definitely a big difference between an archetype and a cliché.

  7. Nice. I like the hero's journey. It inspires. Great post.

  8. The hero's journey is what makes stories worth reading. Not every story or show can be like Seinfeld. : )

  9. There's a reason why there are guides to structuring stories--those structures work!