Thursday, March 05, 2009

Making Something Old Something Better

I run into a lot of conversations among authors about tropes, archetypes and cliches. "How can I write without using the cliches?" "Anyone who writes about Elves is stealing from Tolkien." "There's no way to write something new."

I usually end up in arguments about this. As a classical mythologist, I am convinced that archetypal themes and characters aren't the anathema so many writers think they are. Sure, you don't necessarily want to write abouta farmboy-turned-savior with a magical sword, an ancient mentor skilled in the ways of magic and the stock secondary characters of the D & D world. However, that doesn't mean you have to avoid them either. The hero's journey, as identified by Joseph Campbell, is a route that all good adventures follow. There is a certain path a writer must follow in order to create a hero. And while you don't have to hit every earmark that Campbell identified, you need to hit at least some of them.

So I have an example, not from writing but from popular music. Michael Jackson's song "Smooth Criminal" is not among my favorites. (okay, I hate it) But look what happens when another group takes that song, the archetypal actions of the original artist, and makes them their own.

God love Alien Ant farm.

Sure, all the familiar elements are there. But the music has been changed, the atmosphere is different, the characters are on a different path. The song is recognizable, but it's been changed from the original into something almost completely alien to the original. We, as writers, can do the same. So don't worry about how Tokienesque your Elves are! Don't sweat over your magical sword/book/ring/necklace/kitten. Just write a good story, tell a good tale, supersede the tropes and make them your own and it will work for you too.

And you won't even need to borrow a baby chimpanzee to do it. You can leave Bubbles at home. What we, as writers, need to be worried about is our narrative voice, the credibility of our characters, the complexity of our plot arcs--telling a damn good story. The rest? It will take care of itself. Oh, and just to top that off, check out Nathan Bransford's blog entry for today. Although he's not saying what I am, this advice from a top and incredibly helpful agent might help you to see the bright side of life. My recommendation: listen to Alien Ant Farm's version of Smooth Criminal while you read it. It makes for an almost orgasmic episode of optimism.

You can take something old and create something entirely new and completely original out of it. So instead of worrying yourself into cold sweats about it, sit your butt in the chair and just write.

Annie, are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?