Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Personal List of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Cliches

Femme Fatale: This is my cliche stance!
Every single story (TV, movie, or book) has tropes. Nothing is wrong with tropes. In fact, we LOVE tropes. Especially if it's an interesting and original twist on a trope we love and recognize. When does a trope become cliche?

When the trope becomes so predictable, and it not only kills any kind of tension in your story, your audience (yawn) gets bored. That's when a trope starts going in to cliche territory.

Below is just my personal list of cliches that I'm sick of. These are cliches that will require some kind of crazy-ass twist in order for me not to groan and throw my hands up. For me, once something goes into the cliche universe, it's almost impossible for even the most creative genius to resurrect such a tired, overused, and boring cliche.

1) Normal everyday Joe/Jane learns about their secret heritage. Learns some awesome skills/unlocked powers and kicks everyone's ass.

2) Lasers hitting metal and making an explosion. Oh, and laser guns recoiling. Yes, this is science fiction, but you can't make me suspend that much belief.

3) The old mage/wizard/teacher that helps the hero save the day. I don't mind characters having teachers, but when they're used deus ex machina, I get bored. 

4) Sentimental little sayings between loved ones. I've read a few books with this little mechanism. It's to do two things: foreshadow the death of one of them AND to make that death more painful for the reader. One book I read had a mother and son have their own little cute saying. I think it was something like "Only you and me forever" or something hokey like that. The moment I read that, I thought to myself, That mother is toast!

5) Evil bad guy/gal that's evil and ruthless only for the sake of being evil and ruthless. Just so you know, tyrants never see themselves as evil. Tyrants believe they are HEROES. Give us some three-dimensional villains!

6) Speaking of villains - how about villains that are scarred, maimed, or defective in some way? Whether an eye patch, a robotic claw, or a big ass jagged scar across their face...sick of these visual cues. 

7) Elite or royal guards that couldn't defend their lunch from the cafeteria bully. Oh, and the bad guy's minions/sidekicks are blindly loyal and moronic.

8) Humans are determined to be so unique and amazing to aliens because of our capacity for emotions. And then we're told that emotions (our capacity for love) is both our greatest strength, and our greatest weakness. (Yack, barf, barf).

9) Prophecy of the Chosen One. Pretty sick of this. Many times, it ties into Cliche #1 above. Writers try to avoid this cliche by sliding a little "Accidental Hero" trope, or "Anti-Hero" trope in there, but we all recognize this cliche. And it's so overdone.

10) Main characters that don't die. As a reader, I don't ever feel real tension if I'm sure a main character is seemingly immortal, no matter how dangerous the obstacles are in front of them. Thank you George R.R. Martin for breaking this cliche.

11) Magic Schools. From Hogwarts to Camp Half Blood (Percy Jackson), I'm bored of this one. A school for wizards, vampires, gods, werewolves, heroes, etc.

12) Speaking of vampires and werewolves, I'm sick of them too. You can go ahead and add angels who come down and fall in love with humans. Damn you Twilight. Had to put a paranormal twist on Romeo & Juliet.

13) Female cliches. We're all tired of the damsel in distress one. But what about the smart-mouthed kick ass one? I think we've rocked the boat too far in the other direction. It seems tons of paranormal romance, sci-fi, and urban-fantasy stories have a very pissed off female that kicks everyone's ass. But then her heart melts when she falls for the alpha male.

I especially get annoyed when this tough woman finally "lets go" and isn't such a wisecracking ass kicker when she finally gets some good lovin' from some stud. Isn't this characterization demeaning to women???

14) Love triangles. 'Nuff said.

15) Evil Dark Overlord Villain Dude dies by falling. I guess nothing is more satisfying than watching the bad guy falling in slow motion. I guess bad guys never heard of HAND RAILS.

How about you? Are you sick of any cliches?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

No love triangles in my books! I had a hard enough time doing a love line.
And it's horror, but the old "Let's split up" bugs me. Yeah, someone is toast at that point.

R.S. Hunter said...

The Dark Overlord cliches seem to usually go hand in hand with the Prophecied One cliche. So sick of those, especially in epic fantasy.

On a related cliche note, can we stop with the urban fantasy novels that feature covers that have a woman in leather pants with a lower back tribal tattoo holding a bladed weapon of some kind?

Jay Noel said...

Alex: Yup, especially if that character is African American. TOAST!

R.S.: YES!!!! I've made lots of remarks about those stupid overused covers.

Miranda Hardy said...

Some of those make my blood boil. I got so angry at a book I read today because it felt like the author forced a love scene in a story that didn't belong. For the first time ever, I prefer the movie over the book.

Dafeenah said...

Keep preaching. In my whole life I've never NOT finished a book. It's just been a rule for me. I always finish the book until recently. I'm an avid reader and have been since I was able to learn to read so thing jump out at me real quick sometimes and I'm seeing things alot in many books today. I've actually had 5 the last month I just stopped reading because it became so predictable. I've NEVER done that before.

Christine Rains said...

Great list! A lot of those things bother me too. I've always wondered why aliens are so enthralled with humans as well.

Jess said...

Er… I can be accused of using the Chosen One trope. But all the rest, I'm right there with ya!! Thanks for sharing!

Cherie Reich said...

*thinks back to my space fantasies* Nope, I don't think my laser guns ever exploded something or recoiled.

Carol Kilgore said...

I may have done some of these at one time or another. I think most writers have. However, it's how we learn and build on our skill.

Jay Noel said...

Miranda: I am reading a book right now where the protagonist is in love at first sight. And it's so forced. Hate that.

Dafeenah: Weird, but I've had four books in a row that I just stopped reading for the same exact reason.

Christine: We like to think we're special, I guess.

Jess: The Chosen One isn't bad by itself, if it's done differently. There's lots you can do to turn that cliche upside down.

Cherie: I never got the laser gun recoil thing!

Carol: We all start somewhere - and we usually start with what we know.

M Pax said...

I hate a book where I know how everything is going to go and end before I finish chapter one. Why should I read the rest? I like the unexpected. Surprise me. If I know the ending, make the in between interesting.

Cindy said...

I think out of all those I dislike #13 the most and I see a lot of it. Why can't a female hero be nice?

Vero said...

Awesome list, Jay! :D

My top peeves of all times in sci-fi are the "humans are special because love" and the battleaxe female protagonists.

Even on good ol' Earth we have animals that are capable of deep, devotional love, they just don't yak about it or post endless status updates to annoy everyone silly. Aliens are very likely capable of emotions, as long as they have glands to secrete hormones.

And the female protag being awesome because she either acts like a man, or acts like a battering ram? I want to see a woman who is strong for a particular character trait that helps her deal with disaster, not because she's essentially a breasted man or a rabid butch.


Anyway, awesome post. :) Here's another extensive list of sci-fi cliches I always love to browse for a good giggle & eyeroll.

Cynthia said...

I guess those bad guys haven't heard of parachutes either.

Julie Dao said...

Agreed that the trope of the kickass woman has gotten too common. Why can't someone write a female character who is strong and tough but doesn't wield blades and pick fights?

Re: your comment to Alex, my friends and I used to joke that if we were all in a zombie movie, I'd be the first one to die, and then my African-American friend, and then my blond friend (in some racy scene, like she's in the shower). We need to have a story/movie where the Asian/black person/blond girl survives!

Adam Gaylord said...

Great, now I have nothing to write about.

James E. Snelling said...

Jay, you have made my day! My graphic novel (The Jaded Enemy, plug-fans) only has ONE of the above; a love triangle - and it's one of simple attraction, not a dramatic Twilighty affair.

As for my own contribution to the list: The heroine firing two pistols at once (one in each hand), in an attempt by the producers to make her sexier and more badass. No thank you.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I disagree that Twilight is a paranormal twist on Romeo and Juliet. Westside Story is a twist on Romeo and Juliet. But the thing with Bella and Edward is not that at all. There is no forbidden love affair between rival families. And it isn't a tragedy. Rather it is an allegory of the Mormon belief system. Girl enters into a celestial (sparkling) marriage with man and it lasts forever (death does not do them part). Both are elevated to the level of gods (with super powers) and co-exist with others (humans) who do not share their powers so they are not as special as them. If anything, Twilight is a celebration of the LDS religion, and the roles that the Book of Mormon outlines for all humanity.

Anyway, I enjoyed your list of tropes. I just wanted to point out my reading of Twilight (backed up with comparisons that you can check point for point) and determine on your own if my allegorical reading hits the mark better than Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Sue Ann Bowling said...

1. My protagonist doesn't kick anyone's ass. He's scared to death of what he might become.
2. Metals are reactive. Think of a laser hitting sodium in air.
3. Maybe the hero has to learn he's not all-powerful, but sometimes has to ask for help..
5. Mine thinks he's saving the universe for the crossbreds like him.
10. I have main characters that don't age, but they can be killed.
Actually, just about every trope you've given can be turned on its head and used legitimately.

The Golden Eagle said...

"I guess bad guys never heard of HAND RAILS."


I totally agree with your list--and as to #13, yeah, it is bothersome when the kick-ass protagonist breaks down as soon as she's "in love". I can stand smart-mouths so long as they stay that way throughout the whole story.

Jay Noel said...

Mary: I'm with you. I like surprises.

Cindy: Or how about we stop putting scantily clad women holding some sort of weapon on covers? Overdone!

Vero: I like "battleaxe female." I'm going to write that down!

Cynthia: Good point!

Julie: You read my mind!

Jay Noel said...

Adam: Not true! You can take any number of these cliches and twist it up for a nice change.

James: Guns akimbo - I covered that when I posted about gunfights. Shooting two guns at once is a horrible way to hit a target.

Michael: I guess the common threat is forbidden love. And young foolish love at that. I'm not very knowledgable of the Mormon religion, but I have heard that comparison quite a bit. I too read Twilight, but I was so angry and frustrated, I'm pretty sure I didn't catch any of that!

Sue Ann: You rock! Proof that you can put original spins on things we're familiar with.

Eagle: It plays with the stereotype that even hardass women can be broken by a really good looking guy.

Morgan said...

Oh the joys of tropes... ;)

Fabulous list, Jay... I think you've nailed it ;)

(And laughing at Adam's comment) ;)

Emily R. King said...

Jay, you crack me up. Hand rails. Ha!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Really loved your list. I look at slight-framed women knocking burly men down with no regard to physics.

Yes, grab a thumb, roll down, and the burly man goes down too. But 10 goons swarm over one woman? The woman goes down.

THE CHOSEN ONE is one trope that I wish would sleep over in limbo for a decade or two.

Everything I hated about vampires, zombies, and other supernatural cliches I tried to put on its ear in my novels. I had fun ... hope that others do, too. :-)

Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. It meant a lot, Roland

Jenny S. Morris said...

Nerd + Makeover + Prom =perfect ending.

I have a hard time not liking the tough chick that kicks ass but it's just because in my fantasy I can crouch like Scarlett and look that good right before I round house kick the bad guy out.

Great post!

Phats said...

I agree on the kickass woman getting some lovin one I would think that's demeaning to women as well but who knows.

Jay Noel said...

Thanks Morgan!

Emily: I think every villain's laire should be inspected by OSHAA.

Roland: I completely agree.

Jenny: Eye candy is great. But I just wish they'd add another dimension to that character-type.

ilima said...

Yay. It's safe to say I have none of those in my MS. Well, except #14. Why stop at one cute boy when you can write two? (don't shoot me)

DEZMOND said...

evil people often see themselves as heroes, it's true, even in real life.

Marian Allen said...

When I was young and television was new, they ran a lot of WWII movies. As soon as you met the green young sweetfaced kid who wrote letters to his mom or sweetheart, you knew he was a dead man walking. Or if somebody signed his GI insurance benefits over to an orphan. Wave goodbye.

I subscribe to Pixel of Ink, which notifies me of bunches of free Kindle books every day, and I zip through the offerings pretty fast, based on the tropes you mentioned:

Joan Amazing thought she was just an ordinary teenager until she discovered her power to -- NEXT

Eleanor Exceptional has the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect boyfriend until an old flame -- NEXT

Frank Nobody never asked to be The Chosen One -- NEXT

But, as you say, if there's a twist, I'm all over it!

Good list. :)

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Laura Eno said...

I once put a guy in a red shirt right before he died. I couldn't help it. :)
This is a great list, Jay!

Elizabeth Twist said...

LOL @ Laura Eno. Priceless! I would read that story.

Great list, Jay. Most of it made me sad that Joss Whedon isn't writing Buffy for television any more. He did the chosen one / mentor / wisecracking kickass heroine in the best way, probably spawning many of those imitations that have you so supersaturated.

YES YES YES to the villains who fall. It is crazy how villains never seem to take basic safety precautions. While I liked the Star Trek reboot, the design of the Romulan mining ship drove me nuts. REALLY? Your ship's interior consists of a whole bunch of narrow walkways and platforms that are open to nothing? AND you have gravity in there? Why is your ship so dangerous? Isn't space dangerous enough?

The Desert Rocks said...

Wait a minute Jay...LOVE Triangles are my life!!! LOL

Brinda said...

Just when I think I'm so tired of something that I CAN'T READ ONE MORE STORY, someone writes a killer one. Examples: Daughter of Smoke and Bone (angels) and The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy (wolves).

Jay Noel said...

ilima: How about two girls and one guy?

Dez: THAT's a real villain.

Marian: I do the same exact thing on Pixel!

Laura: You just had to do it!

Elizabeth: It was a safety inspector's nightmare.

Eve: Can you choose any other polygons?

Brinda: I will have to check that out. I've been disappointed lately.

Mr. Shife said...

I think #7 and #15 are easily my favorite ones. It is extremely rare when you don't see any of these cliches at all in sci-fi movies. Hopefully there is something coming out in the near future that is original and awesome. Take care buddy.

Anonymous said...

#13 pains me as the heroine isn't so much as tough as she's become either a bitch or a whiny. Pains me.

My favorite though are explosions in space. I always here my dad "you can't have fire and explosions - there's no oxygen." Never fails to make me smile.

Lydia Kang said...

Those tropes can all be irritating, but I love it when a book has a particular trope, and it's so well written that I don't realize they've used a trope until after I finished it.

Deniz Bevan said...

Great list! I find that silly about the kick-ass women, too - the idea that there's one man out there that turns them back into silly clumsy girls. Can't they work together as a team??

Milo James Fowler said...

Too true, Jay. Reminds me of the DO NOT SUBMIT lists posted by many SF/F magazines.

Jay Noel said...

Shife: There's a lot of original stuff out there, but it does take effort to find it.

Jenna: I love Firefly for understanding there's no sounds in space.

Lydia: Tropes are perfectly fine - as long as it's a good story. But when they are so overused and mundane, they become cliches.

Deniz: You are SO right! If the character is a strong woman, keep her that way.

Milo: Yup - editors I'm pretty sure get tired of it more than any of us.

Arlee Bird said...

You just about covered the main ones and I think you speak for many of us on some of those. Good list.

Wrote By Rote

the weirdgirl said...

I've just started writing my urban fantasy novel and luckily I haven't broken any of your cliche rules! Woohoo! But admit it, if you put ALL of these tropes into one bad ass of a sci-fi spoof... that would be hilarious.

Lauren said...

Jenna Howard--explosive decompression would blow oxygen or other flammable gasses (and thus flames) into space. They would be snuffed once the oxygen level got low enough, but it's very possible. Yes, explosions can happen in space, even in the absence of oxygen. Just no flames.

The problem with putting a book down because it's predictable is that you can't tell until you get to the end if it actually is. So you may be looking at the one fantastic exception, but...

That said, if I think I know where a story is going I read from the back. Cheating, but oh well.

My writing group is always getting upset with me because I don't have a "love interest." Still working on that.


Jay Noel said...

Thanks Arlee!

WG: You're right. Maybe we should write "Twilight Hungry Potter"

Lauren: I've read plenty of good books without LOVE interests in them!

Callie Leuck said...

I love reading these kinds of lists because....

Sentimental sayings. *oh crap* Guilty. *scribbles some frantic notes on Chapter One* What sentimental sayings? *looks innocent*

"Tyrants believe they are HEROES." - This is a fun one to explore. I'm playing with this one.

Villains with visual deformations - AGREED. Over it.

Prophecy of the Chosen One. - playing with this one too. Don't hate me though; it's not as straight-forward as all that. It always bugged me when the protagonist would win effortlessly against the villain simply because he/she is the "Chosen One." Frankly I found it to cheapen the victory.

"Main characters that don't die." -- I don't mind this as much as I mind "People not damn well staying dead." Tolkien does it, and then everyone thinks it's okay.

"I guess bad guys never heard of HAND RAILS." No, it would be beneath them, and also ruin the whole brooding, dark lord image they have going on. Duh.

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IdeaMan said...

You need to moderate the stuff above. My pet peeve character behavior which is not believable as human behavior:

The "suspicious character" who gets introduced halfway through the book who somehow morphs from suspicious to homicidal. Expressing suspicion is an attempt to deal with conflict verbally. Outspoken, suspicious people are LESS likely to be homicidal.

The character who had an abusive childhood or traumatic journey and is just fine. The bad guy who commits horrible atrocities gets destroyed and everyone lives happily ever after with no PTSD, phobias or unresolved grief.

The society that gets completely turned upside down by "the chosen one" and everyone's cool with that. No reactionaries to be found anywhere.

You can invent all sorts of technologies and magic but when it comes to human nature, its got to be believable and so much of SciFi/Fantasy is just this really stilted, old-fashioned and cockeyed view of human nature.

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