EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook [link] for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!1. Do your damn research.
I can't stress this enough. We live in the freaking Information Age, and the concept of Googling is an alien one to too many people. While I could easily go on a rant about anti-intellectualism, I'll rein it in and say that cliché' is largely anachronistic. People use them because they're familiar, not necessarily what's true. When I started world-building for my Western steampunk/cattlepunk trilogy, one of the characters was the equivalent of a Chinese immigrant worker. So I read everything I could get my hands on about what it was like to be a Chinese immigrant worker. Wikipedia articles, fiction, and non-fiction. I also read authors like Lawrence Yep, whose actual, real ancestors were Chinese immigrants, and that directly fed into his historical fiction. Cliché' fills in what the author fails to describe. Template races like elves and dwarves and dragons are this, big time. If you don't tell us a dragon is a picky eater, capable of teleporting, and spits acid, then we are going to assume your dragon sits on mounds of gold, eats virgins, and breathes fire. However, if you DO tell us all that, you've more or less avoided cliché. Of course, when authors take the time to explain their dwarves live underground, are stoic, and like battle axes, we tend to weep tears of blood. Going back to what mythological creatures really were back in the old days when people seriously thought they were real can reveal surprising depths. Tolkien's elves are anachronistic; their cliché' exists because Tolkien set the precedent. Elves before that were not tall, forest-dwelling immortals who were better than everyone (look up the antics of the Sidhe sometime.) It's just been absorbed to the point of cliché.2. Combine it with something else.
One of the biggest problems with cliché for new writers is that new writers emulate and regurgitate. This is a perfectly natural and acceptable stage in learning to be a writer (or really, any artist.) It's just that people get weirdly protective about their ripoffs sometimes. Aside from that, there's plenty of people willing to jump on a bandwagon. The effluvia Twilight
created is still dripping out of the professional publication scene. We've all seen vampires, werewolves, and zombies. If you're using the cliché', we're yawning already. If you're just dying to do it, do a Mad Libs list of things that interest you and combine it with werewolves. Werewolf steampunk. Werewolf spies. Werewolf punk rock stars. All of those sound pretty interesting and non-cliché. The biggest problem I see when it comes to originality is a highly limited resource pool. This person has seen one werewolf movie, the werewolf movie everyone in the world has seen, falls in love with it, imitates it, and gets angry when people accuse them of being unoriginal when they write those exact werewolves. Get me someone who reads Napoleanic wars historical fiction, plays Japanese RPGS where the players overthrow God, and watches spy thriller movies, and I bet that person's werewolves are going to be something worth reading about. But show me someone whose only exposure to werewolves is Twilight
, and I will show you someone writing an angry letter to Universal Pictures about how they ripped off Twilight
. [link]3. Explore what's been done.
This kind of ties with Rule#2, but only because it's another facet of limited resource pools. I honestly don't know who would get into their head to write a paranormal romance where a girl falls in love with a shallow hot guy, but I can guarantee you that somewhere out there, right this very minute, someone's writing one, someone's publishing one, and someone's reading one. And odds are, they're not aware of the plethora of that story that's been done to undeath and death again. Meyer famously stated once that she didn't read about vampires, thereby, I'm certain, unleashing a cavalcade of young female writers upon the world that will think that not bothering to research is the only way to free the muse. The other argument I've heard is that people don't want to read the kind of stuff they're writing because they're afraid of absorbing the idea. I call bullshit on that immediately, because ideas are a dime a dozen (see Rule #4.) Again, the big problem I see constantly is that people don't have enough
ideas, and stay too far within the realm of what's already been done before. It's kind of a garbage in, garbage out sort of thing; if you're limiting yourself to where you're somehow "allowed" to get ideas from during your creation stage, you're crippling your possibilities. If you've ever read a book where the characters and setting and plot all behaved exactly as you thought it would, with no surprises or reversals along the way, that's an author who didn't bother looking at every other book within his genre and comparing it with his own. Be unique, people. It's the mold-breakers who become timeless. Meyer might have gotten popular, but Jane Austen did it better, and her stuff is still in print. Old women can still tell their kids about Pride and Prejudice
. I got a feeling Twilight
will go the way of lower-back tattoos and bellbotoom jeans, quietly filed away with all the other teen fads in the closet of regret. While I'm on that subject, remember Goosebumps
?4. Learn the definition of derivative.
Whenever I hear people defending crap like Paolini's Inheritance
series with the line about "Every story's been told before!" I wanna sock 'em in the mouth. There seems to be a hugely skewed misconception about what is the difference between derivative and borrowing. Derivative is boring and cliché'. End of story. Derivative is not carte' blanche to be unoriginal, and I have no idea who would want to try so hard NOT to be original. Derivative is not an excuse for having hackneyed characters and a predictable plot just because "it worked for Star Wars and Indiana Jones!" First of all, Star Wars and Indiana Jones pulled off whatever they were trying to pull off, broke the mold, and set a precedent, three things that being derivative inherently fails to do. Second, you're trying to steal thunder and it's failing miserably because people know how that story ends. I cannot stress this enough: you are not clever or cool or a fanboy among fanboys just because you're being derivative. You're being an idiot, and this kind of crap puts you firmly within the realm of imitation. Derivative, again, largely happens because people haven't exposed themselves to a large enough resource pool. If Paolini had read anything other than Lord of the Rings and played anything other than Dungeons and Dragons at the age of 15, I will eat my freaking hat. "Borrowing" is not derivative, though it's often mistaken for it. Borrowing usually occurs when writing gives nods or thematic waves to stories or premises similar to it; Fire-Bringer
and Watership Down
are both animal stories ; they are in no way similar to each other despite both being stories told through animal characters. They touch on similar themes, share elements like prophecy, militarism, and cooperation, and both make use of things like folk hero stories and giving the animals their own culture. If Fire-Bringer
's plot had been about a deer who foretells doom and leaves his home with a band of loyal followers to eke out a new existence and fight for females from a band of militaristic deer, Fire-Bringer
would have been derivative of Watership Down
. It probably would have been popular if it was, because Watership Down
was successful.5. Don't fall into the "speshul" trap.
Oh, man, I really need to address this, especially in the face of DA's artists comments. I see so much crap posted about "speshul" stuff, mostly within the realm of characters. "Don't steal my Pokemon trainer! Don't steal my angsty hot teen with superpowers! Don't steal my sparkledog! Don't steal my horse, my Warriors
character, my wolf character, my tiger character! THEY'RE SPESHUL!
" Honestly, I wonder how many people have bothered to use DA's own search function using a two-word descriptor for their own character just to see what pops up. This rule is double-edged, because it espouses that you both are and are not as original as you think you are. The only danger comes from when you think you are a hundred percent totally unique and sitting on a goldmine character that, if discovered, will rob you of the next Harry Potter phenomenon. (Allow me to break it to you gently that you are not and probably never will be.) You are not "speshul", your story is not "speshul", and if you think you are, you're a dingbat. My case in point would be searching for any animated wolf cartoon on Youtube and trying to summarize five of their plots distinctly. If you give two people, say, a tiger character, and both said people have a large enough resource pool, you will end up with two different, unique tiger characters. One of them might be a ronin samurai with the ability to shapeshift into a tiger. The other might be a tiger who can cover his body in flames and fights hunters to keep his forest safe. But, if those same two people are both in a Warriors
funk and that's about the limit of their resource pools, I can guarantee you both are going to end up with similar characters and might accuse each other of stealing. No one person can execute a character or plot quite like another person, and therein lies true uniqueness. But, it's very easy for people to delude themselves with a hall-of-mirrors thing and tell themselves their characters are unique despite being replicas of (take your pick) Buffy/Sephiroth/Cloud/Sonic/Firestar. Characters and stories only become truly unique when one's own personal and unique experience is breathed into them. Someone might steal your character, but they will never be able to write the story you have. (Also, I wonder if these screechy people are at all aware that any amount of notable success with their ideas and stories will unleash unchecked and exploitative imitation anyway.) I also have to point out that resource pools are affected by age. I doubt the average Warriors
fan has even heard of or would be capable of enjoying the fantastic Tailchaser's Song
, because it's an adult tier book. You absorb different things at age 7 then you do at age 14 or age 20. It's important to give yourself time to hone an idea, because you may not yet have encountered the right idea to make your own reach its fullest potential.