Of late there has been discussion of tropes and clichés in fantasy. They stand like sphinxes guarding the gates, eating the unwary.
Conversation on the topic can only lead to better writing. It has caused me to think about their possible presence in my own novel as well. I hope that to posses foreknowledge of the perishers, is to be sufficiently forewarned.
Clichés are not tropes. Tropes and their execution however, can with time and mishandling, become clichés. Clichés are never a welcome part of a good story; least of all those belonging to the fantasy genre. To say otherwise I fear, is to misunderstand both.
A good story can combine familiar, even mythic elements with more original fare. A skillful writer will breathe life into the mix, leavening the comfortably familiar with the hopefully novel. Otherwise, what you get is a flat, cliché laden confection that can only please the most undemanding of palates.
The bulk of commercial literature, in any genre, consists of this - true enough. But what careful author or discerning reader could be fully satisfied, unless limited by their own meagre talents, with dwelling in such a literary ghetto? One of the reasons why I think fantasy gets a bad reputation is that too many writers and readers aren't comfortable demanding more and breaking down the walls formed by low expectations.
Disliking clichés has nothing to do with hating fantasy. Good fantasy, great fantasy, does not rely upon clichés more than any other genre of literature. Clichés do occur in life, in dialogue, and likely enough in most authors' early drafts of their novels. Clichés should serve as warning signs: alerting the writer to a turn on the tracks ahead that may dead-end the quality of the story being constructed.
I do not believe that clichés are ever valid story shortcuts. By their very definition they are worn out ideas and expressions whose power has been leeched by overuse and overexposure. If not used in a knowing, comedic way, few writers will be able to turn these base materials into gold - and even then, should be used most sparingly.
A cliché altered, a trope deconstructed, is no longer a cliché. Or one being used as a knowing signifier to the reader saying "Ah-ha, you were expecting that - but we have given you this, instead" which is only meaningful and of value of course, if there is some meaning, some greater reason behind the reversal of expectations; a salient point to learn from the upending of the trope or the familiar scene rather than an empty flourish of craft. Playing with clichés can be done, but it is not an unfair comparison to say it can resemble dancing above a pool filled with sharks.
That's a cliché, isn't it? Circling fins and all. But I'm not sure it adds anything to the sentence that I couldn't have done just as well by saying tread with care, watch your step, or is fraught with danger. It's a playful flourish - at best. Too many of these can weigh down a novel like rococo butter-frosting on a cake.
The element of play is present in most great novels, playing with words, playing with expectations, and playing with the vast repository of novels and stories which have gone before the one being created. Most of the time, clichés are lead weights, false notes, missteps, and I would warn all but the most masterful of authors to treat them with the care that they require.
Else you risk a novel that is doomed to mediocrity before it is even finished - or worse still, an end product that's all frosting and no cake.