Storytelling

Six Clichés to Watch Out For

Cliche by Tom Newby used under CC BY 2.0

Clichés are tricky things. They sneak into our writing when we least expect it. You open up your manuscript for editing and discover to your horror that you’ve written a Chosen One story! On the subject of clichés, Ethan Fletcher sent us this question:

What clichés should someone as a writer avoid? What are some of the ways that they can be changed to be made fresh without falling into something done by another author?

Good question, Ethan. First, let’s define what a cliché is. To some people, clichés are any bad story devices common enough to have their own TV Tropes entry. We’ll be a little more specific. For our purposes, a cliché is something that would be fine on its own but has been repeated so often it has become trite and predictable. That’s why they’re so hard to spot. Clichés are overused for a reason. They worked well before becoming overused, and if you’re not vigilant, you’ll fall into their trap. Let’s look at some of the most egregious.

1. Declining Elves

Legolas Sad

No matter if a story is high fantasy, urban fantasy, or even space fantasy, the elves are always on their way out. They once built wonders of such splendor as to make humans tremble, but now they are a shadow of their former selves. They have only memories of their great accomplishments, and soon they will fade away entirely.

Why Writers Use It

Because Tolkien did it, for one thing. Lord of the Rings elves set the template for all the fair folk to come. They’re beautiful, mysterious, superior to humans, and in decline. When Fellowship of the Ring starts, the elves are already getting ready to board their ships and sail west. Their age is ending, and they must make way for the rise of humans.

Tolkien’s theme is a powerful one, in which ages past were filled with beauty and wonder, before our own mundane civilization took over. This theme can be a parallel for humanity’s ever-greater consumption of the natural world, paving paradise to build a parking lot. Fantasy stories often take the stance that things were better in the Good Old Days, and vanishing elves are a part of that. Oh, march of progress, why must you take away everything beautiful and only give us a vastly improved quality of life in exchange?

Why It’s a Cliché

The inherent tragedy of declining elves creates an emotional response in readers, but it also raises serious questions. Why are elves always so willing to roll over and accept their fate? Often, elves who fight the decline are portrayed as evil for doing so. In Hellboy II, the villain is one such elf. His actions are all in response to humanity breaking its treaty with the elves and stealing elven lands, but for some reason he’s considered evil.

Some readers will grow to inherently dislike elves, or even hate them, because of this trope. They see the elves as whiny elitists, always demanding sympathy for their problems, yet smug in their inherent superiority to humans. That’s not the reaction you want.

Keeping It Fresh

Instead of the declining ancients, elves could be the new player on the scene. Everyone assumes that because elves are long-lived, they must be the oldest civilization, but that isn’t true.* They might be the result of a magical/technological experiment, newly unleashed upon the world.

Alternatively, elves might have only recently arrived in human lands from their far-off country, ready to set up colonies. This is a great way to subvert themes of colonialism in your fantasy story. To the elves, with their ley lines and crystal tech, medieval humans look hopelessly primitive. They might not see anything wrong with demolishing a human city to make way for a magic nexus. After all, since the humans hadn’t even planted sapient trees on the land, they couldn’t possibly own it.

If you really want the elves in your story to be disappearing, make your main character an elf trying to stop it. They won’t let their home fade away, any more than a human would allow their kingdom be demolished by a dragon.

2. Self-Disposing Villain

After a climactic fight scene, the protagonist has the villain at their mercy, but our hero would never kill anyone. They have principles, and taking another’s life is a line they will not cross. The villain immediately takes advantage of the hero’s respect for life and tries one last desperate attack. Somehow, this attack backfires, taking the villain out of the picture. Sometimes it’s an exploding death ray or a curse spell gone wrong, but often the bad guy just falls to their death.*

Why Writers Use It

In many stories, particularly children’s stories, it would be inappropriate for the protagonist to kill their enemy. These main characters are supposed to be role models for us to look up to, not cold-hearted killers. Often, refusing to kill is the hero’s moral anchor. Crossing that line would make them as bad as the enemies they fight. For exhibit A, see Batman.

There’s also dramatic value in the villain’s own nature leading to their destruction. We want our stories to show the inherently destructive nature of evil, and what better example than a bad guy doomed by their own machinations? It’s a powerful message that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Why It’s a Cliché

Over time, the message of this cliché has become that the hero isn’t willing to take responsibility, and that the villain is stupid. In many stories, the villain would have gotten away free and clear if they hadn’t gone for the last, desperate attack. The villain doesn’t need to hurt the hero, because if the hero catches them again, death still won’t be on the table. A villain who attacks the hero without reason seems to care more about their abstract evilness than any real motivation.

Nearly every Redwall book ends this way, and it’s tiresome. Like clockwork, the hero mouse* will best the villain, who seemed threatening until they cravenly pled for their lives, only to double cross the hero seconds later. The overt morality of it now feels preachy. Readers no longer see the hero as a bastion of morality, but as someone who lets narrative convenience do the hard work for them.

Keeping It Fresh

Have your main character take the villain prisoner, then put them on trial, then send them to prison. Make imprisonment a permanent solution, rather than the revolving door like in superhero comics. This might sound like a pat ending, but it’s actually quite rare, as Western popular fiction is increasingly dominated by anti-heroes who won’t hesitate to shoot the villain dead.

If your story’s premise makes putting the villain on trial difficult, then all the better. You’ve just added more conflict to your story. Not only must the protagonist pursue Dr. Evilpants across the post-apocalyptic hellscape of America, but they must also drag the good doctor all the way to Havana, the closest city with a functioning justice system. This way, your character doesn’t become a killer, but they also don’t shirk the hard work of keeping the villain from hurting anyone again.

Perhaps even more out there, have the villain stop and consider things when the hero spares them. If your villain is a sympathetic one, that act of mercy might show them that they were on the wrong side. Some bad guys are too far gone to be redeemed in this manner, but others deserve a chance!

3. The Ex-Spouse Fatale

In a twist on the cliche, Indiana is the one who seeks out Marion. In a twist on the cliche, Indiana is the one who seeks out Marion.

The protagonist has an old flame who’s coming back to stir things up. Married or not, they were a passionate couple until something happened. Now the sparks are flying as our hero tries to guess if the Ex is really on their side, all the while wrestling with their unresolved feelings.

Why Writers Use It

The Ex-Spouse Fatale is a recipe for instant drama. It combines uncertainty and sexual tension to keep readers turning the page. It creates all kinds of internal conflict within the protagonist, depending on the exact nature of the relationship. If the Ex disappeared mysteriously, then the protagonist will be haunted by questions of why they left. If they separated after a big argument, then memories of that fight will affect every interaction.

Then there’s the question of whether or not the protagonist and their Ex will get back together. Is the Ex showing up to save the hero from a bad relationship, or to ruin a good one? Things get even more complicated if there’s a kid in the picture. Can the protagonist overcome their animosity with the Ex for the good of their child?

Why It’s a Cliché

In Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, a woman comes aboard Captain Francis Grimm’s ship, and it’s immediately obvious that she’s an Ex-Spouse Fatale. Her entire manner invokes sexual tension with Grimm; though to Butcher’s credit, he does this without sounding creepy. The dialogue loudly hints that they still care for each other, despite events in the past that make them enemies. After this rather blatant set up, the chapter ends with one of the crew asking Grimm “Why did you marry her?” as if it were a big reveal.

Readers can see this cliché coming from a mile away. Writers use a special kind of love-hate chemistry every time, spoiling any chance for surprise. From there, the Ex is sadly predictable. They’ll put the hero in some kind of difficult situation, where their special connection makes everything more complicated. The only real question becomes whether the hero will win the Ex back or not.

In addition, the Ex-Spouse Fatale is almost always female to a male hero, even though that shouldn’t be a requirement. Because writers have seen it so many times before, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes. All too often, the Ex has no realistic motivation outside of making life difficult for the hero. In any other character, an author would recognize this as a weak motivation.

Keeping It Fresh

Heroes aren’t required to have sexually charged antagonistic relationships with their ex-partners. They can even maintain friendly or professional relationships. Real people manage it all the time. If two characters act simply as friends, then it will be a real surprise when it’s revealed that they were once married. To further avoid this cliché, make the characters something other than a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman.

Establishing a non-antagonistic relationship between two people doesn’t mean there can’t be drama. Whatever adversity they face in the story could reawaken their old feelings, leading them to question if they want to go down that road again or keep the relationship they have.

What’s most important to remember that the hero’s Ex needs to be a character in their own right. They can be interested in the hero, of course, but that can’t be all. They must have other wants and needs, or they’ll quickly slide into cliché territory.

4. Technology Lost to the Ages

The apocalypse has never looked so awesome. The apocalypse has never looked so awesome.

Before the gods brought star-fire to the land, the ancestors built shining cities and great machines that flew above the clouds. Ah, to have those wondrous days again.

In settings with this cliché, technology was once much more advanced. Due to some catastrophe, or occasionally a slow decline, that technology is gone. Nuclear war is a typical suspect, but sometimes a distant space colony will regress to medieval tech due to resource shortages, or the modern world might lose all its electricity due to a monster solar flare. Whatever the cause, devices once taken for granted are now seen as unimaginable luxuries, often treated as wondrous magic.

Ironically, this cliché is used with magic too. In fantasy stories, magic was almost always stronger in the past. Some race of ancients used unspeakable powers to forge the world, but now their power is lost.

Why Writers Use It

The novelty factor alone is a great draw. Readers get a certain glee out of watching post-apocalyptic nomads try to figure out a lightbulb, or scratch their heads at the purpose of a microwave. When technology is rare, it gets used in new and interesting ways. See all the spiked armor and tricked out cars of the Mad Max franchise for example. There are far more efficient ways to armor a person or vehicle, but none of them look that cool, and we accept it because the Mad Max characters are doing the best they can with tools they don’t fully understand.

In fantasy, writers are once again taking their cues from Tolkien. He wrote of ancient beings with incredible power, and now everyone else does it too. On a practical level, authors want spectacular works of magic in their stories, but it would be impossible to manage if the characters could reshape mountains on a whim. As such, any magic that could do so has conveniently been lost.

Why It’s a Cliché

Humans do not work that way. It’s very rare for technology, or knowledge of any kind, to be truly lost. While there are isolated examples like Roman Concrete or Damascus Steel, for the most part technology always goes forward. Technology is useful, and humans rarely let something useful be forgotten. Even if something is lost, there’s nothing to stop someone else from discovering it again. In the modern age, we can easily recreate Roman Concrete, even if we don’t know the exact recipe used by the Romans.

The same is true of magic. While wizards are often portrayed as secretive and knowledge hoarding, there are almost always enough of them that someone would be able to rediscover any spells lost to an unexpected dragon attack.

At the same time, it’s very easy to predict how a story about lost technology will go. Someone with access to said technology or magic will use it to threaten the world, and the hero will have to stop them. Most of the time, the lost magic or technology will be destroyed, and the setting will keep chugging along as it always has.

Losing technology to the ages requires a lot of suspended disbelief, and that suspension is hard to maintain when it’s so common. It shows up everywhere, from the Dragonriders of Pern novels to the Fallout video game series. Eventually, audiences start to question why no one has thought of raiding an old library’s technical section.

Keeping It Fresh

If technology is ever lost, people will miss it. Instead of a setting where everyone accepts that computers are a thing of the past, write about a recovering society that’s gobbling up every piece of old tech its engineers can get their hands on. Your protagonist could be a professional reclaimer, braving the fallout-laden cities to bring back all-important microchips. The villains might be a gang of patent trolls, looking to control and restrict the rebirth of technology for their own benefit.

Another option is a society that intentionally rejected their ancient magic because it was too dangerous. Books weren’t forgotten; they were burned. Now the people live without sorcery, struggling against nature and their fellow humans. Your protagonist decides this is stupid, and embarks on a quest to rediscover the old spells. They have the best of intentions, but those spells were destroyed for a reason. What dark things will your hero find?

5. Robots Becoming Human

So majestic. So majestic.

Sapient machines are always on a quest become more human. They don’t understand our human feelings, but they want them. From Star Trek’s Data to Dark Matter’s Android,* these robots not only admire humanity, they seek to emulate it. Unless a robot is explicitly evil, there’s a high chance they’ll go on this journey sooner or later.

Why Writers Use It

It’s a compelling narrative, especially if your robot is played by Brent Spiner. The robot wants something we humans take for granted. That’s an excellent contrast to things like money, prestige, or power, which people usually want.

It’s also a comforting narrative. Humans are obsessed with creating artificial intelligence, but we’re terrified of it too. No one likes being outmoded by technology, and yet as a species we are on a path to outmode everyone with technology.* As machines get better than us at task after task, we cling to our feelings and emotions as the things we will always be better at.

Why It’s a Cliché

How many people do you know who are actively trying to be more like their parents? We’re at the point where a movie like Ex Machina can be called brilliant for showing a robot becoming more human, but we’ve never stopped to ask if robots would want to be more human. Humans have a lot of flaws. For one thing, we’re lousy at calculating pi.

This cliché limits the direction of A.I. characters. We assume any robot with screen time is going to struggle with mastering human emotions, and that’s limiting. Who knows what kind of robotic characters we could craft without this implicit limitation?

There’s also the Data factor. This Soong-type android is so pervasive in pop culture that any robot you make on a quest to be more human will inevitably be compared to him. That’s not something a new writer wants to deal with. Even if your character is as good or better than Data, people’s nostalgia for Star Trek means your robot will rarely measure up.

Keeping It Fresh

Try a robotic character who is already very human like and wants to be less so. They’re on a quest to rid themselves of what makes them human. “I need to get rid of these emotions. Can you believe I spent three hours arguing on the Internet, even though I was wrong?”

Instead of studying humans, this robot goes on a quest to study the machines of old, before emotional algorithms were perfected. They search junk yards and antique shops, looking for the driest, most logical programming they can find. If you want your story to have an uplifting ending, they can choose not to go through with the transformation at the last moment. Without emotions, how would they appreciate not having any?

You might also try a human who wants to be more like a robot. In the cybernetic future, that’s an achievable goal. The story follows them as they take on one artificial part after another. Do they revel in their new abilities or find themselves missing the bits of flesh they gave up? That’s for you to decide!

6. No One Knows About Magic

This looks normal. This looks normal.

Is that a human in a suit with a glass of red wine or a well-dressed vampire enjoying their victim in style? Is that woman mumbling to herself in the grocery line talking on a blue tooth phone or quietly casting a spell on the cashier? You don’t know, because magic is all around us, or at least that’s the premise of many modern fantasy stories.

Commonly called the Masquerade, this is the idea that most people go their entire lives without noticing the supernatural, even though it’s relatively common. You see it in novels like The Dresden Files, roleplaying games like Vampire or Mage, and TV shows like Supernatural and Buffy.

Why Writers Use It

The Masquerade lets authors tell stories in a modern setting but also have magic. That’s a powerful draw. If you know a city really well, you can use that knowledge in your story about wizard detectives, as Jim Butcher did with Dresden. You can draw on real-life events to give the story more impact, like when the Supernatural characters fought the ghost of H.H. Holmes.

Stories set in the modern day are easier to identify with and can approach current issues more directly. Adding the supernatural keeps the discussion from getting too depressing. When Buffy talked about the issue of sexual consent, they threw in a killer robot fight to keep the mood light. Clever.

Why It’s a Cliché

As stated above, the Masquerade is literally everywhere. It’s so common that many authors don’t even feel like they need to explain it anymore. Buffy’s Masquerade was full of holes so big you could drive a vampire-killing truck through them, and no one on the writing staff batted an eye.

Because it’s so common, the Masquerade now comes with some bizarre assumptions about humans. Namely, that we’d be so terrified of scary monsters that we’d bury our head in the sand to ignore them. While that might be true of global warming, anything that can be dispatched with swords and bullets would instantly have humanity’s full attention.

Another flavor of Masquerade says that humans don’t see magic because they don’t believe in it. Human doubt causes spells and fairies to melt away. In other words, skeptics literally kill children’s dreams. That’s not a good attitude to push, considering how many problems in the world are caused by people not being skeptical enough.*

Keeping It Fresh

You can always do away with the Masquerade entirely. Magic exists and everyone knows it. Technology still advances, likely it would advance even faster. You can still have a world that looks something like ours, so long as you consider how magic would change things. Maybe weather spells make global warming a non-issue, but unintended hell portals are causing a real problem.

If you aren’t inclined to do that much worldbuilding, tell a story about magic coming back. It was gone from the world for a long time, and it is just now returning. Your protagonist is among the first to notice, but soon others will too. No doubt there will be villains aplenty looking to use magic to get one over on their fellow humans.


I hope that answered Ethan’s question. Clichés are a temptation, and your favorite authors probably use them. Maybe your favorite authors originated some of them. To spot any I didn’t cover here, read and watch with a critical eye. If you ever find yourself groaning at something because you’ve seen it so often before, you’ve stumbled onto a cliché. Make a note of it, so it doesn’t rear its overused head in your story.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

 

Comments

  1. Art

    I need to argue with this “cliche” look of yours. You listed few point’s heavily used in literature and points that it usually somehow illogical for them to occur, but as I understand it’s fantasy literature we are talking about, it’s from definition illogical, the question is how far do you as an author want to go.

    Moreover all this themes you mentioned are rather story devices then clishes, used in particular purposes by the authors. For example “Robots Becoming Human” motive or more precisely nearly every AI character in every sci-fi are used in order to analyses the human behavior (it all starts with Pinocchio story) and Technology (or magic) Lost to the Ages is put as background of the world, it would be pretty difficult to reason why your character have to go for this generous trip to the cursed tomb for that all-cuting sword, if it could be easily made by court sorcerer, and more over why the hell you need a hero ? let just send royal guard equipped with this brand new swords to kill the beast, and why the beast was even a problem if you have this sorcerer and royal guards in the first place? Same goes with “No One Knows About Magic”, although this one is used to make the reader think that there is more to the world then we see, there are hidden secrets all around we just need to be vigilant, this is one of the reason Harry Potter was such success, who wouldn’t want to receive this Hogwart admission letter? (Of course the whole “mage war” not seen by anyone except mages was irritating but deep inside you know you are irritated mostly because of jealousy that you haven’t got that letter).

    Moreover you forget that mostly this “cliche” is in fact an genre characteristic, and when you write heroic fantasy you probably should use some. If you are tired up with them, well that means you have grown up and need more “adult” literature. For example I’m longtime Dragon Lance fan, I read lot of those books as a teenager but when the time passed I noticed that they are pretty much schematic, I still read them from time to time because it is fun but mostly I switched to Sci-fi or dark fantasy which are constructed differently and thus there are some other cliche’s there, after all heroic fantasy (and particulary D&D worlds) is genre that is written for teenagers not for the guy who can’t fits all his books on shelves.

    What I mean is that no good story was written by author who just sat and start writing (maybe except for discworld series, but I bet even mr Pretchet has rewritten at least once his books). To make good story you need to think what you want to tell and to whom it will be told, and what is the point of the story (is it to make reader laugh? encourage him to do good? point him on some social issue? Maybe you want to try make some romantic story or story about retribution ?). Then when you use something in your story make sure you know why you are using it and how it helps you to achieve your goal (doesn’t matter if it’s race, planet, magic, character, weapon or whatever). If there is no reason for the story to use it then don’t use it, simple.

    One last thing, when you are just a beginning author you should consider to use some of those “cliche’s” because otherwise you will be overwhelmed with necessity of creating whole new world, and every GM who tried that will tell you that this never ends well for beginners.

    PS
    And if you want to ensure that your stories are completely new then well as Oren has written you need to read a lot, especially the “school” literature and other boring stuff because usually something is considered “classic” because it has very good this story “devices”.

    • Krssven

      It’s true that most cliches could be said to be genre characteristics. It’s also true that while a story or setting might use one or more cliches, it can still be very good. The Star Wars saga contained many elements that are cliche (chosen one, plucky rebels defeat vastly superior enemy, farmers becoming better than experts etc), but the original trilogy managed to do this in a different setting.

      A great RPG example is Fading Suns. This game uses just about every sci-fi genre cliche going (and many fantasy ones). Society at a low tech level and no real reason that it hasn’t been rediscovered? Check. Lost technology of a previous golden age? Check. Lost technology of a race of sufficiently advanced aliens that are now conveniently not around? Check. Far-future feudal society? Corrupt church that keeps the masses in check? Check. Humans oppressing native peoples? Check. Space magic (ie psychic/religious powers)? Check. Aliens that are just sentient animals? Check. Blasters, lasers, lightsabres, spaceships? Check.

      But this setting manages to combine all of the above into a universe that never feels cliched. It feels vibrant and a great platform on which to write interesting stories.

      Cliches are referred to as such because they’re overused and well-recognised. Something that is cliche now was once not. A great example is when a setting contains a vanished race that was technologically advanced and left plenty of relics scattered around for us to puzzle over. A number of years ago, that trope wasn’t all that common. Over the last few decades its usage has exploded. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it, if the story/setting is well-written enough.

      I personally love certain tropes like the Masquerade. They fit a multitude of different settings. But as a trope, it is somewhat cliched to use it when so many have done so before. A writer should really consider what makes their work stand out before using it as-is.

    • Lydia

      I would echo Art and further say that cliches/tropes are not bad in and of themselves (what makes them them is that they are used a lot. But does that make idioms bad? People use those all the time to great effect). They key is why you are using them. Are you using them to make the story better? Or because you’re being lazy? These cliches that you mention I would call more patterns, or story arcs. The reason they are widely used, as Art says, is because they resonate strongly with us and, in some cases, accurately reflect the issues, emotions, events, and moral quandaries we face as humankind. The point of storytelling is to help us better understand ourselves and the world around us. Using patterns, cliches, and understood story arcs can be essential to this, BUT, as the author points out, you should definitely be using them in the right way. Again, use them to make the story good, not because you’re being lazy. Use them because you have a deliberate reason TO use them. Don’t use them by default because it’s easier and just “the way it’s done.”

      At the same time, by all means, get that brain working to write original stories turning cliches on their head! I’m not at all speaking against original writing or taking a new look at things, just don’t be too quick to dismiss tried and true themes and story arcs that have already taught us so much. Just because they are old and well-used doesn’t make them no longer useful.

  2. Sean Smith

    Some excellent authors to read for inversions of these clichés are Patrick Rothfuss & Richard K Morgan.

    The former has an excellently balanced spin on what could be a thoroughly tropey tale in the hands of a less skilled author. The latter is a personal favourite, though I accept that his brutal style may not be for everyone: if you discount the uniform moral greyness of his antiheroes, pretty much all clichés he uses in complete reverse.

  3. Kate

    I feel like the Dragon Age videogame series handled the fallen elves cliché very well, especially in Inquisition, which really fleshes out all the elven lore. But maybe that’s because now that I think about it, I actually haven’t read that many books or played that many games with fallen elves. Either way, Dragon Age is great, and elves are great.

  4. Dana Rose Bailey

    You should add buying a house at a really cheap price. This is way over done. It’s used well in American Horror Story, but it’s still a cliche. Too many horror stories use this setup.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Good point. “I know this place might seem out of your price range, but let me show you our special ghost discount.”

  5. Adam Reynolds

    One issue that is similar is the way in which fictional characters are far above average in wealth. Friends may have named a trope with respect to housing prices, relate to the above example, but things like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark are perhaps worse. Would Iron Man have been less interesting if he had to scrounge for suit parts?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I suppose it might come down to believably. If someone scrounging for parts in a junk yard can make something as powerful as an Iron Man suit, why isn’t everyone doing it? An answerable question, but perhaps it’s easier just to make him a billionaire.

      • Krssven

        Didn’t they do that in the first film? With substandard parts and equipment, he still manages to knock something together that is a very rough Iron Man suit prototype. He needs to be wealthy in order to take from the drawing board to a true, tank-busting reality though.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Sort of. He does make the original one in a cave, with a “box of scrap,” as the movie calls it. But even then, that was a box of high grade military components. And his original suit wasn’t up for much beyond fighting some militants with small arms. Not quite superhero material.

  6. Tamara Reuveni

    You mentioned humans trying to be more like robots as a new twist on the AI cliche. This has already become a cliche of its own. Generally the human is forced into it. They’re horribly injured somehow, and they need a robotic body in order to function, but they become more machine than human. They’re really just another kind of zombie, back from the dead but soulless.

    • Adam Reynolds

      The key is that it could be a case in which the human voluntarily wanted to be more like a robot. Perhaps a surgeon who wanted the clinical precision to compete with surgical robots, or a soldier who needed faster reflexes and greater stamina to stay competitive with increasingly automated weapon systems. While more popular as a result of the zombie idea, the forced transformation is in many ways less interesting.

  7. chocolatecookies

    A good example of a twist on humans trying to be like robots is Genos from One Punch Man: a human wants to be a cyborg in order to be strong enough to destroy his enemy. When he reborns as a cyborg, he becomes emotionless and would incinerate anyone who seems hostile, but after meeting the protagonist (Saitama), he starts to care about the others and his admiration and respect towards Saitama, plus the things he learns from him (as mercy), are human. I think that it’s good to have a character who has lost himself and later finds his “humanity” again, but in a mix with his robot body.
    Sorry for any misspelling, English is not my first language!

  8. Egreonna

    This is a really cool list — I really like your “keeping it fresh” about the elves!
    One thing about the “Technology Lost to the Ages” trope however, is that there is a great deal of knowledge that has indeed been lost to the ages due to colonialism. Examples would be traditional medicines that have died with the elders of Native groups, as well as other traditional knowledge. One example would be the Yupiaq sod houses in Alaska, a style of house that is extremely well insulated and uses easily acquired local materials, which has now been largely replaced with Western portable plywood houses that require artificial heating and imported materials.
    This transition was indeed due to an apocalyptic event – Western colonialism. But the knowledge was only lost because of the nature of colonialism, which imposes beliefs that traditional ways are backwards, or dirty, or just undesirable somehow.
    So I would argue that it’s entirely possible for there to be a wealth of abandoned lost knowledge (including technology – since medicine is absolutely technology) in a fantasy world. It’s just that when knowledge is lost, it happens because people no longer consider it valuable. (or because the people in charge don’t consider it valuable.)

  9. Alex

    I’m not terribly fond of the trope about good guys never killing anyone unless they’re antiheroes who are borderline bad guys and tend to kill all their enemies indiscriminately, whether it’s necessary or not. I very much like this observation from the fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:

    “Even in the world of comic books, the only reason a superhero like Batman even looks successful is that the comic-book readers only notice when Important Named Characters die, not when the Joker shoots some random nameless bystander to show off his villainy. Batman is a murderer no less than the Joker, for all the lives the Joker took that Batman could’ve saved by killing him.”

    Avoiding that terrible responsibility is a luxury of living in a civilized society with a functioning justice system and prisons from which the most dangerous criminals almost never manage to escape, which is also to say a mundane society where criminals don’t have access to magic, superpowers, or fantastic technology that makes escape much more likely. In the real world, in developed countries, you can have your heroes follow the code of Batman, which is also the code of honest and honorable policemen — never kill except in self-defense or defense of another from an immediate threat. In the world of comic books, though, where the Joker or Lex Luthor or Magneto are impossible to keep locked up for much longer than they feel like staying that way, the heroes who spare their lives time and time again bear responsibility for the suffering and death of all their subsequent victims, and the moral code of Batman, Superman, etc. looks less like nobility and more like a cop-out.

    • Sam Beringer

      I’ll have to respectfully disagree with regards to superheroes like Batman and Superman. I don’t think they’re avoiding responsibility by not killing; I think they’re being responsible by leaving it to the justice system, flawed as it is. And both have very good reasons why they won’t kill. Superman won’t take a life (Man of Steel aside) because he values all life and sees the good in everyone. He believes that conflict doesn’t have to be solved through killing and wants to lead by example.

      Batman, on the other hand, knows how easy it would be to kill, say, the Joker, and then fall down a slippery slope. He knows that being put in the position of judge, jury, and executioner is dangerous; if he rationalizes killing the Joker, what’s to stop him from deciding that Poison Ivy’s latest scheme has gone too far and she needs to be dealt with permanantly? And then what’s to stop him from deciding that any petty crook is enough of a threat that should be removed from Gotham completely? He limits himself to capturing criminals because going that step further leads to being a tyrant. A well-intentioned one, but still a tyrant.

      And that’s what makes it tricky to determine morality for superheroes. You have people who have risen above humanity and human society even if they’re humans with no powers like Batman or Iron Man. And if you take someone like that and have them decide that laws don’t apply to them and they can do what they wish with their powers, you get a supervillain. Even anti-heroes that kill like the Punisher employ a code of ethics and morality so that they don’t go too far. So for someone like Superman, who’s basically a god among humans, to take justice into his own hands is more frightening than comforting (watch the Justice League episode “A Better World” for an idea of what it would be like for superheroes to decide what justice looks like for the rest of the world).

      • Cay Reet

        Still, you don’t see them (or their official personas) very actively working on making the justice system better.

        I mean, Superman is a reporter who could write article upon article about all the ways the system’s weaknesses could be dealt with. Batman is a millionaire and could go into politics or attach himself to a politician set on changing the system and making it better.

        I agree it’s part of being a superhero to be inherently good – unless, as mentioned, you’re really an anti-hero and have a moral code which allows for grey areas. But you can still work the legal ways to make the system you work with better.

        I’m aware that would mean eliminating strong enemies for good, which is not happening in comics, but there has to be some kind of justification above ‘it’s not the way we do it.’ Because said enemies do not have a moral code not to kill and have quite a body count to their names by now.

        • Sam Beringer

          Now that’s a legitimate argument. While the stuff I’ve read/seen acknowledges that some of the heroes do other stuff beyond stopping bad guys, it doesn’t get as much focus for obvious reasons (though with Bruce Wayne going into politics, I’d argue he wouldn’t want the spotlight on him to grow anymore than it has, as it would be easier for people to pick up that something’s up if he was, say, mayor of Gotham rather than just a billionaire playboy).

          In the Bruce Timm animated series, Bruce Wayne is often shown doing charity work or using his wealth to back people he feels can help Gotham such as pre-Two Face Harvey Dent. There was also an episode where he also helped a recently rehabilitated Albert Wesker (Scarface’s ventriloquist, not the Resident Evil villain) get a job and a place to live so he could get a fresh start (while also scaring away thugs trying to force Wesker back into crime as Batman).

          And while I haven’t yet watched the Superman animated series, in Superman Vs. The Elite (another example to watch to see a deconstruction and reconstruction of the whole “superheroes don’t kill” ideal) he allows a golden age-esque cartoon to use his likeness as long as the money it generates goes to charity. There’s also a sub-plot where he’s trying to stop a war between two fictional nations as peacefully as possible.

          As I said, superhero stories don’t often focus on these aspects, but I think that’s more of a limit on the genre than a lack of material. People won’t read a comic about Tony Stark developing a source of clean energy unless there’s a villain trying to use it for nefarious purposes or something. I do think artists and writers could benefit to show these more, however, as the best superhero stories are about them trying to make the world better instead of just punching bad guys.

  10. Adam J. Thaxton

    First of all, I want to say this is a great article – especially the Masquerade business. I can’t stand them when they crop up, simply because science is a thing that exists, and it’s a really good method for describing why things happen. That’s a thing I keep running into with fellow urban fantasy writers – they assume science is a force, rather than a method of describing the world.

    Anywho, with regards to the apocalypse and lost knowledge to the ages, it must be remembered that this cliche is one of the oldest in the book – it comes from Plato’s Dialogues and really got its game on just after the collapse of Rome – most of the people living in the shadow of the Roman empire’s destruction didn’t even know what aqueducts even were, or how people could have possibly built such huge monuments, and it was even more incredulous when explorers from Europe started going to other places – there’s no way these non-white people have possibly built such huge monuments without somebody else more awesome to help them.

    In the post-apocalypse, it’s easy to see why things aren’t running anymore and need to be rebuilt. Just a few months disappearance of oceanic shipping lanes completely cripples oil and glass industries. Neodymium is a material used in almost every modern device, and it can’t be melted into new shapes – you have to cut it down from a bigger piece of neodymium, and our biggest supplier is China. Gasoline has a half-life of around 45 days, and most gasoline sits for a couple weeks after manufacture before breaking down. You can’t use a car after two months of apocalypse unless you know how to make biodiesel. People know how to rebuild, but they can’t rebuild modern society because the international infrastructure required no longer exists.

    Sure, you can go to the library to learn how to do something, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to mine the rare earth materials you need to get what you want. We’d be working with whatever is left over for a while, then nearly nothing, then we’d get back up once someone managed to put together international shipping again. Wouldn’t take too terribly long, though, honestly.

    My least favorite trope/cliche regarding the apocalypse is the one where people have to be “hard” or “make terrible decisions to survive.” I hate this, and it crops up in everything – the post-apocalypse genre seems to be painted as some kind of hard-core gun lobby fantasy where the violent and most rugged of men rule. In reality? Your crazy gun-toting wackamoles would be working on the demands of the only people around who know how to dose antibiotics and other medicines. Nobody would be raiding and burning farms for fun because they’d be dead in two weeks because those farms make food for them, too. You don’t threaten villages with your guns because you can’t repair your damn guns, there aren’t any damn zinc mines and therefore your gun stopped working ages ago. Sure, you could cobble together a zip rifle, but what are you going to do with it? Die of dehydration as people refuse to help you because you’re a violent asshole and we have mounds of data telling us that there are more good people than not? Strip away the thin veneer of human civilization and you’ll find… more civilization. I guarantee that 24 hours after the apocalypse, people will have figured out how to sell something with whatever currency they drum up – something low supply that can’t be remade easily and is portable, you know, like bottlecaps, batteries, or current coin currency – and the people with the guns will be the crazed wild men no one deals with.

    I want to read the post-apocalypse novel about a small community of handicapped and severely injured people that survives because they work together as the violent raider communities around them slowly self destruct and become civilized people as their leaders pile bad decisions on a mountain of regret and ignorance.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I think that’s the sequel to Mad Max: Fury Road.

      • Adam J Thaxton

        Oh, I’m crossing my fingers. Majority female cast! Majority female cast!

    • Bronze Dog

      I’m working on a Changeling chronicle where the masquerade is built into the game setting, and as a skeptic IRL, I’m trying to think of ways the masquerade could be realistically maintained, at least with the public at large. The Masquerade is going to have holes, but it won’t fall apart all at once.

      1) Noise to Signal: For every paranormal investigator who knows what they’re doing, you’ve got a hundred who don’t. And some of them are supernatural beings spreading disinformation.

      2) Magical thinking doesn’t work if you’re not magic: A lot of the people who are willing to believe in the supernatural can’t sort good information from bad because they don’t understand scientific methodology, and if they aren’t touched by the supernatural, they don’t know what assumptions to keep or throw out when they don’t get results.

      3) Not every witness wants to talk: The supernatural is often unpleasant, and witnesses may want to pretend it never happened. Or they fear merely talking about it will attract attention.

      4) The Winter Court is good at its job: They don’t merely hide, they actively cover Changeling tracks. They even have the entitlement of “Old Man Winters” who fabricates Scooby-Doo explanations to cover up supernatural events.

      5) Play with fire, get burned: If you study the supernatural, you’re likely to get eaten by it if you’re not supernatural yourself.

      6) A lot of supernatural powers can often be written off as coincidence, luck, or the like, because they often are probability/fate manipulation. It’s only repeated abuse that raises suspicion in most people.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Those are all good ideas. Another one that can cover a lot of cracks: The idea that fey magic twists human perceptions, so they ignore all but the most blatant uses of it as normal.

        • Bronze Dog

          They have some of that touched on in 2nd edition’s development:

          “Embracing the Wyrd”: Basically, you get supercharged by magic at the risk of Clarity. The upside for the masquerade is that it makes the surrounding area more dream-like. Mortals generally won’t remember things clearly, and the memories they do have are so foggy and nightmarish they might think they dreamed or hallucinated the whole thing.

          Dropping the Mask: Mortals who see a Changeling drop their Mask get the “Bewitched” condition, which basically means they see what a low-Clarity Changeling does until the mundane world snaps them out of it. If they don’t dismiss it as a bad hallucination, the people who watch the bewitched freak out are more likely to ascribe that person’s experience to madness or drugs than believe that they’ve seen an invisible side of the world.

          • Adam J. Thaxton

            Yeah, I throw Changeling a bit of a bone here – largely because the Wyrd actively warps perceptions and even ideas. It’s the same bone I give to Demon – God is actively trying to cover ups its activities because it wants the status quo to stay the way it is. It assassinates people who get too close at best and “reassigns” them at worse.

            How many normal men and women does reality not even know they were a scientist or an investigator who got too close?

    • Alex Lund

      Ever heard of something called reality?
      You see there is a blog from someone who lived through the civil war in former Yougoslavia.
      You can find it at:
      https://shtfschool.com/blog/
      Just read it and you can lay your fantasy of hugs, teddybears and pudding for everybody to rest.

      • Adam J. Thaxton

        Oh, boy, a sarcastic “it’s called reality” post. I bet this will be fun.

        Ok, so I read it. It proves my point.

        Only, it’s not about an apocalypse scenario, it’s about a war already going on and the things you do during a war. Not only that, but it’s a war taking place in a world where factories, international shipping, and supply lines still exist, and there are active armies and soldiers doing shit.

        The people in your linked story were eating tree bark and just piling up the dead. You know why? They had nobody who knew how shit worked, they had an active enemy backed with factories and supplies.

        I wrote jack and shit about a “fantasy of hugs, teddybears and pudding.” I wrote about how psychopaths, sociopaths, and violent assholes are usually the first to die and suffer, and all they will do is make other people around them suffer. About how putting a doctor at gunpoint is the last thing you want to do. About how the people who know how to grow the damn food are the people you want to make friends with.

        Which is, oddly enough, exactly what your link implies.

        Get over yourself.

        You should read more about how people lived in the concentration camps, how they got by, how they managed their resources, and how they survived in an environment that not only neglected, but actively tried to kill the people living in it. Maus is a good start, after that, I suggest Night by Elie Wiesel, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, and Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz by Rena Kornreich Gelissen.

        • Alex Lund

          Reality says otherwise.
          The madmen ruled in former Yugoslavia till a greater power bombed them back into sanity.
          You should read “Violence is golden” by Jack Donovan or remember a sentence by Brigitte Gabriel (from Lebanon) that says that the peaceful majority bows down to the ones who are willing to use violence. Just look at the nazis, the Red Khmer, Stalin etc.
          And if you dont like Donovan remember one thing: Just like the german social democrats do not like Martin van Creveld for pointing out that there are only two ways of ending guerilla warfare: the british or the syrian way, so is Donovan right about violence. If you dont believe me or think this is right-wing / nazi (oh, I said the word!!!) crap just try to tell the tax men / IRS that you will not pay him. Before you can count to three the police will use violence to batter down your door and collect by force. Q.E.D.

          And my remark about hugs and teddybears was meant ironic because a lot of people think that we all are nice. But as I wrote above: If one asshole is willing to use violence and the others dont then the assholes rule.
          Yes there will be death among them, survival of the fittest (most brutal) but even in the best of circumstances ONE remains and a lot of children see that being brutal brings results.
          If you dont believe this then please tell me why so many afro-american youths are drug-pushers. They see the money and the power the older drug-pushers have and ask themselves why they should work in a 9 to 5 job for a pittance when working as a drug-pusher brings them more money in a few hours a day than working four or five months in a normal job.
          If you would be right then the culture of drug-pushers would have been a distant memory of the past, you know, “yes, my grandfather was one of them, but we saw how evil it was and the rest of the neighbourhood stopped bying drugs and thats how the drug-days ended.”
          Or look at Mexico or all of Central America. How long do the cartels and gangs like MS-13 exist? Sometimes decades. And there is no sign it will end.

          And why should I read only about how people survived in the concentration camps.
          Are you racist against the ordinary people of the Netherlands, France, Germany etc? Are only jews for you worth being remembered?
          I talked to people who lived during WW II and what they suffered and how they survived.

          And they were helpless against predators because they did not fight. They lacked the willingness to use violence/ brutality. They were sheep. And the assholes were wolves.
          Only when someone appeared who was more brutal or had an army behind him, did the predators stop.

          • Cay Reet

            Look at the ultimate price all of those dictators and other rulers by pure force and brutality pay: their end. You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

            It’s not those people who make things work long-time. It’s not them who create progress and better other people’s lives. They have no interest, because they don’t think further than their own comfort. That is why, sooner or later, one way or another, their reign ends. In the end, it’s not the violence which triumphs.

            And just as a historical note: Jews were not the only ones in the concentration camps. There also were people from the opposition in there, gays, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, or people which someone just wanted to send away to die for other reasons.

          • Adam Thaxton

            “survival of the fittest (most brutal)”

            I’m going to focus on this, because that is not how survival of the fittest works. It is a mistranslation of the term ‘survival of the fittest’ to believe it is about the strong crushing the weak, or about the most brutal coming out on top. The story of human evolution is, in fact, one which was propelled by our ability to cooperate and our ability to use our minds, rather than our brute strength, to overcome problems. Anyone who says otherwise is not a student of history or evolution.

            Yes, intelligence increases capacity for cruelty (oh, goddamn, the things dolphins and chimps do to each other and other animals), but that’s not survival. It never is. Long-term cruelty never succeeds in building and maintaining a society. The life span of a dictatorship is almost always the life span of one man. Humans, by our nature, do not survive by brutalizing one another. We survive by working together. That is what made us “fit” to survive, and in an apocalyptic scenario where the population is vastly reduced and resources become highly limited, that is the behavior that will serve us again.

            Your examples are all in worlds where the violent actors are being fed – the CIA and the FBI are directly responsible for drug lords having the ability to acquire power and weapons. Terrorist organizations have what they believe is a clear and present enemy.

            What if there is no enemy but death? No human element trying to kill you? Your enemies are hypothermia and starvation. History shows something else happening then – that is why I asked you to look at concentration camps, because they’re a sealed environment where the enemy is essentially a faceless death.

            Look at the societies of small tribes in the Philippines if you have more trouble. It’s not kittens, puppies, and hugs, but the people with the guns don’t typically create progress – you cannot rebuild society by holding it hostage. Even ISIS is taking over the areas it’s moving into not because they have the guns, but because they have the ability to bring water and food and clothing to the places the United States and its allies have been demolishing – the guns come later, after it’s too late.

          • Spencer

            Here’s the TL;DR version of what Adam Thaxton has been saying.

            You can’t shoot famine. You can’t out-muscle dehydration. You can’t intimidate a bacterial infection.

          • American Charioteer

            This question, whether it is better to wait for people to cooperate or to force them to acquiesce, is perhaps the most debated question among contemporary military theorists (American military theorists, anyway).
            It is related to the broader question of whether a society is more stable if the government loved or feared, which was debated long before Machiavelli, at least as early as Sun Tzu and Herodotus.
            We’re obviously not going to find the solution to war and tyranny on this forum, but you all raise very interesting points about how humans react to “apocolyptic” scenarios.

          • American Charioteer

            In the Holocaust and hurricane scenarios we see people selflessly cooperating, while in civil wars (like in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, or currently in much of the Middle East) we see crime, anthropogenic famine, and total social dysfunction. Perhaps the difference is that Nazis and the weather are an outside threat which makes it easy for people to see strangers as being like them. In a civil war it is your neighbors who are the danger, so you are more likely to see a stranger as a potential threat. It would be interesting to see a story exploring the difference. What do you think?

        • April

          Which books describe the fate of the sociopaths? I was intrigued by your argument about how gun nuts wouldn’t fare so well and I’m wondering where I might find more information.

  11. GeniusLemur

    If you really want to do the “robot becoming human” thing, here’s a thought: what if the robot was constructed as an experiment in socialization, or the ability of artificial intelligence to correctly mimic organic intelligence, or the nature of social intelligence? So the robot tries to become more human because that’s its function in the same way that a factory robot assembles space pods because that’s what it’s for.

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