Thursday, December 07, 2006

Making Cliches Work For You

Fantasy is built on archetypes, where the fine line between subconsciously resonant and cliched is a difficult one to discern. When chosen with care and deliberation, however, even a cliche can work to the storyteller's advantage. I've just finished two books, surprisingly enough in sequence, that handled this in a masterful fashion: Dave Duncan's The Magic Casement and John Moore's The Unhandsome Prince.

The first book is a "serious" fantasy story, though the first few chapters (and they are long chapters; ten in the entire book, subdivided) are light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek - partly to illuminate the mindset of the young characters, partly to pave the way for the changes to come. And of course you know - instantly - that the prophecy will come true, that the stableboy will get the girl, that the charming and "perfect" young man is not all he seems. Freed by that framework, the joy of the story is discovering how that will come to the pass. (Warning: by the end of the first book, only #3 has been answered!)

I call the first book serious because Unhandsome is definitely not: a down-to-earth comedy that pays homage and loving satire to the conventions of the genre. In this vein, long description or background would be inappropriate, but Moore manages to convey sympathetic characters and a compelling plot despite a lack of intricate detail to invest in. Some of Moore's details as to how a fantasy world would really work are great fun. For instance, the Assassin's Guild isn't an actual guild, but instead a front populated with royal guards. Anyone who comes in trying to hire one is roughed up and told to stay out of trouble (until word gets around).

Neither of these books would work without the implicit, sometimes instinctive understanding of the cliches or archetypes. They work with them consciously, giving us a "home" to start from and then launching off in unexpected directions.

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