LESSON Originality is Overrated: Why Tropes and Cliches are a Writer's Best Friend

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Jorick, Apr 5, 2015.

  1. In my years as a roleplayer I have seen far too many people obsess over the idea of being totally original. With this workshop I hope to help people see the light on this matter. What is that light? Simply put, the idea of being completely original in writing is a farce, a sham, an empty dream. Partial originality is a nice idea, but most of the time it also ends up being just an illusion. Come along on this magical journey of cynicism and you'll understand what I mean.

    Why Being Totally Original Is Nonsense

    Yes, nonsense. Quiet the voice of the special snowflake in your mind, for it has no place in reality. The problem here is that total originality is synonymous with unique, and being unique is nonsensical. You are not unique, your characters are not unique, your plots are not unique. This is simply a fact, not just me stomping on your happy thoughts. Let's take a look at the definition of unique, shall we? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.” As much as you may want to think otherwise, you are not, in fact, unique. You are very similar to billions of other humans out there, and your various creative ideas share aspects with the creative ideas of many of those billions of people. If you grew up being told that you are unique and special and unlike anyone else in the world, the fact of the matter is that you have been lied to. You and your characters and your plots are not unique, and that's all there is to it.

    However, this is a good thing because uniqueness is nonsense, as I've already said repeatedly. Why is it nonsense exactly? It's simple: consider what it would mean to actually be truly unique. To make something 100% unique would mean making something 100% incomprehensible. If you were to create something completely unlike anything that has come before, then there would be no frame of reference for the reader, nothing to relate to, no points of understanding upon which the unfamiliar can be comfortably balanced. Here's something totally unique for example: Garvordox olpharint gorshawed Feshrikun Alcavacky. I can almost guarantee you that nobody else has ever put those letters together in that exact fashion, thus it is unique. Note how it makes zero sense because it is super duper unique and totally original and unlike anything that other people have done before. That's what total originality looks like. A truly unique character or plot or whatever would be incomprehensible garbage, not some super special neat thing that shows off how creative and amazing you are.

    Seriously, uniqueness and complete originality are pure nonsense. If anything you should be aiming for incomplete originality, although that is not without its own issues.

    Why Originality is Overrated

    Now that complete originality AKA uniqueness has been thrown into the trash bin, it's probably worth noting that most people never actually consciously try to go for that sort of originality, so I would not be surprised if many of you reading this were confused by my taking a couple paragraphs to shoot it down. Don't worry, the uniqueness thing will come into play very shortly, just bear with me here.

    The more common kind of originality is that which I've previously called partial or incomplete originality, but I'll drop the qualifying adjective from now on in order to sound like less of a pretentious jerk. There are a couple kinds of original creations that come into play in roleplaying and other kinds of writing. First there's the kind defined as “created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation”; this is the sort of original that's used in the phrase 'original character,' and it's totally fine, this sort of originality is to be expected as the norm in all non-fandom roleplays. The other meaning of the word original is the one I'm going to be focusing on here: “not dependent on other people's ideas; inventive and unusual.”

    On first look this might seem to be free of any problems. However, there is indeed an issue that arises with many trying to be original: they stumble into attempting to be unique with parts of their roleplaying. See, the problem is that people tend to interpret the whole originality thing as meaning that if they want to be original then they have to totally eschew tropes and cliches and character archetypes and so on. For some reason a lot of people seem to think that using such things would make their character or plot dependent on another person's ideas, or somehow make it so they're just copying the work of others. There is a lot of value placed on being original, because being unoriginal has a highly negative connotation in creative circles, so people do some weird stuff to strive for originality. Ever seen someone playing an “eccentric” character whose list of quirky flaws and peculiar mannerisms is as long as the rest of the bio put together? Those awkward beasts tend to be the result of a desire to be original. Similar goes for characters with a patently ridiculous number of mental and physical health troubles in a roleplay that's not about people in a hospital/asylum/whatever, and even in those settings a lot of people tend to go way overboard in order to stand out from the characters with just one or two problems. Hell, it even applies to people throwing a single personality quirk onto an otherwise totally stereotypical character: it's often done just to try to be original, not because it's something that makes sense for the character or will add something worthwhile to them.

    The thing to keep in mind is that originality is overrated. Seriously. It's not as important as it might seem. It's okay to play a simple character that is about as unique as a sack of potatoes. If you want to play a character that's basically just Legolas, you don't need to also make him a kleptomaniac for the sake of originality. Just take the archer with overpowered dexterity idea, alter it as needed to make it fit into the world you're using, and have fun with it. Nothing worthwhile is gained by making a tiny gesture toward originality, and nothing worthwhile is lost by being unoriginal. The supposed importance of originality is built entirely on the idea that it's not cool to do something that someone else has already done before, but that's just more nonsense. There is no inherently greater value in something original than there is in something that embraces tropes and cliches. In fact, outside of writing we tend to view people striving for originality for the sake of originality as being pretentious assholes (hipsters) or annoying little shits (“quirky” kids on the internet), so it's kind of awkward that originality is seen as a high virtue in the arena of roleplaying. I figure it stems from hatred of plagiarism, but the source of this phenomenon is not exactly important. The important thing is that originality is really not that important, so don't worry about it when you're creating things.

    I think that's enough negativity and naysaying for the moment, so it's time to talk about things that are actually worth paying attention to in your creative writing endeavors.

    Why Tropes and Cliches Are Great

    Do you know why tropes and cliches get to the point of being so common that they're called tropes and cliches? Because they work. The reason they got used often enough to become perceptible yet unspoken patterns is because they're easy to grasp (dark color schemes = bad guy and vice versa), or they accomplish plot things rather well (the magical problem solving object can only be found in a certain place so the hero has to go on a quest to get it), or they're just plain fun and entertaining so people like seeing them (the dashing rogue). These common elements act as a sort of cultural and narrative shorthand that make it so people can understand what's going on and get engaged without the need of tons and tons of explanation first. Here's a quick example:

    A knight in gleaming white armor rides into a town square where a loud argument is taking place. He makes his way through the watching crowd and finds two people in the center arguing: an old man and a young man. When he asks what's going on the old man tells the knight that it's none of his business. The young man butts in and says a girl was just recently kidnapped by evil cultists and she needs to be saved. Old man says that they can't do anything, that there's no way anyone from their little town could fight the cultists or their foul demons and hope to survive, so they should just assume the girl is dead and move on with their lives.

    Just given that rather brief explanation you can make a lot of guesses and reasonable assumptions about the characters and their likely actions and motivations thanks to the power of tropes and cliches. The knight will almost certainly volunteer to help because he's a knight in shining armor and it's his duty to do good. The young man is clearly a hot-headed youth and will almost certainly tag along, whether openly or by slipping away from his elders who would keep him from harm, odds are high that he is or wants to be in a relationship with the kidnapped girl, and assuming the rescue is successful they'll probably end up together. The old man is the typical super cautious and conservative village leader type, mainly there as a source of early conflict, and he'll continue to be a roadblock as long as he's in the picture; given his dire warnings and lack of action it's possible that he's actually working with the cultists, but that could just be rampant speculation. The cultists are probably performing some kind of dark ritual in which they'll sacrifice the girl to gain power or perhaps summon some powerful demon, because that's just what cultists do with young women.

    See all the stuff you can infer just by knowing how these sort of things usually go? That's why it's great to use such things to your advantage. You can skip a lot of exposition nonsense just by giving people familiar landmarks to explain what's going on without needing to actually say everything directly. If you want to get tricky with it, you can give people these tropes and then subvert or reverse them to change things up. This is a rather common tactic, and it works just fine because you're giving people familiar ground to start on and then changing things rather than starting off with something different than the norm out of nowhere. Regardless of where your end goal is, starting from points of familiarity is always a good idea, and that's where tropes and cliches come in. Dumping a ton of exposition on people is annoying, so use the easily available shorthand like knights in shining armor and nefarious cultists and obvious romance plots and so on instead of explaining all the minute details of every little thing. It's far easier and less annoying to a reader to say the knight is wearing shining armor than to spend three paragraphs in the guy's head explaining the whole knightly code of honor thing that really needs no explaining. You know that thing people say about how you should show things in your story rather than tell them? Tropes are perfect vehicles for showing rather than telling. Seriously, they're ridiculously versatile and useful.

    There's a strong argument to be made that there is such a thing as over-reliance on tropes and overuse of cliches, but that is in no way an argument against their use. You could also say there's such a thing as overuse, of, commas, but that's not a good reason to never use them. Moderate your use of them and only go out of your way to put your own spins on things when it actually makes sense or fits in with the world/plot/character. Making a knight in shining armor a secret racist is pointless unless he's actually going to encounter some other race and have to deal with them and struggled with his prejudice, for example. If you make him a racist just to be able to point at it and say "see, look, he has a flaw, he's not just a typical knight in shining armor" then you're being a shitty writer and roleplayer, to be perfectly blunt about it. Throwing in new things to change the formula derived from tropes and cliches purely for the sake of trying to be different is the laziest way of trying to make your creations interesting enough to stand out from the crowd. If you can't find a more natural and realistic way to tweak things, for example by making the knight cruel to animals because he was attacked by a dog as a kid and show that by way of his poor treatment of his horse and other animals he encounters, then you're better off sticking to the formula and just using that as is. I've focused on characters a lot through this workshop because they seem to me to be the biggest offender in this area, but it can apply to settings and plots just as well. You don't need to cram a dozen strange new races into a fantasy world to make it super neat and original, just stick with the Tolkien races and you'll be fine; you don't need to try to plot out some elaborate scheme full of twists and turns in order to keep people on their toes and make sure they don't expect whatever is coming next, just say "oh no there's an evil guy and you need the magical object over there to defeat him!" and it'll be plenty good enough to work with. There'll be plenty of time and space later on to add in changes and tweaks to veer things off of the obvious path, no need to start with the crazy and potentially alienate readers/players from the get go.

    In Summary

    Tropes and cliches are the foundation of any good story, world, or character. Ignoring this fact and striving to be unique will make your creations garbage of one kind or another, but garbage all the same. Embracing this fact and just rolling with the tropes will make your creations reasonable and workable in damn near every way, but they will perhaps feel a bit boring. Understanding this fact, making use the tropes, and then building on that foundation is how you can make something great. All of the greatest works of fiction were built upon these humble foundations of tropes that have existed for long centuries of storytelling. Lord of the Rings is the story of a quest to take down the evil overlord, starring such characters as the reluctant hero, the hero's faithful companion, the secret royalty hero, the burly warrior, and the graceful archer. Star Wars (the original trilogy) is the story of plucky rebels fighting the evil empire, starring such characters as the lovable hero, the dashing rogue, the badass princess, and the wise old mentor(s). Harry Potter is the coming of age story of the chosen hero working to take down the evil overlord, starring such characters as the courageous hero, the goofy but loyal sidekick, the smart one, the gentle giant, and the wise old mentor. For all three of those tales that I have reduced to their foundations, a large reason why they're so widely loved is that they used their tropes wisely to pull the audience in and then built on them in cool ways.

    'Trope' and 'cliche' are not naughty four letter words; they are tools. Use them as such rather than avoiding them and they'll improve your creations immensely.​
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    Well played, sir. Well played.
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  3. Yeah, I agree with this.

    Alot of people when they try to make something completely original, they make it complicated, and hardly fun. Tropes make it alot easier. I like having multilayered characters, but I always like to have a trope in mind with that character.

    One example is I have a character who started off in an RP to like another person's character, but circumstance generally screws over any of her attempts. Me and the other player agreed they fit the star-crossed lover trope, and have played it from that angle, and it's made an interesting story so far, more focused.
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  4. "Garvordox olpharint gorshawed Feshrikun Alcavacky."

    This tells me Garvordox is very excited... his/hers/its college application was accepted! Congratulations, Garvordox!
  5. Having troops and cliches in a story is going to happen it's unavoidable. I don't think most people would expect you to come up with something completely devoid of those elements. That's insanity, but orginality to me means breaking the ground by introducing something new to the formula and inspiring other works to do the same. Ground-breaking works are few and far between, but when they arrive they are to transform writing. Take Maus by Art Spiegleman, nobody respected graphic novels or comics until it was published. It not only told a powerful story, but used animals to represent characters which was never done. If you're saying orginality is overrated, you don't appreciate the value of it at all. Just because you, or other roleplayers can't be orginal doesn't mean it isn't valuable. Don't take this as an insult but if we didn't have orginality or at least innovation everything would stagnate at a point.
  6. Not exactly. I say it's overrated because lots of roleplayers tend to place an extraordinarily high value on the idea of being original, despite the fact that, as you've noted in your post, actual innovation is a rare thing. They seem to think originality is all-important despite it being next to impossible that they will actually achieve it, thus they overrate the concept. 'Overrated' means that it's valued more highly than is should be, not that it has no value at all.
  7. I think you're conflating your personal experiences with roleplayers, with orginality being overrated. Not all roleplayers think orginality is essential for a roleplay. A lot of roleplays I saw on Rpnation and a limited amount on Iwaku rely on troops/cliches and still gain popularity. You shouldn't generalize all roleplayers wanting orginality, because it isn't true. People also like roleplays that don't require much effort and just have fun with it.

    The value of orginality isn't diminished because it's difficult to get or some people view it as essential. In fact that makes orginality even more valuable than you think.
  8. Not all, no. But a lot of them.

    I don't think Jorick's trying to say that originality isn't valuable -- just that it isn't as "essential" to a roleplay as many would believe, and that there's nothing wrong with building a roleplay out of well-established tropes.

    In fact, this is even more true for roleplays than it is for books/movies/etc, probably, because if your idea is too original then there's a good chance that hardly anyone will really latch onto it, and your RP isn't likely to go anywhere.
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  9. No not a lot of people. I could go on Rpnation or even Iwaku and go over all of the troops and cliches used in roleplays. For example the school setting is a popular setting for most modern roleplays. That shows that people do use cliches and troops in roleplays. It's unfair for you generalize most roleplayers valuing orginality. But, hey if you admit that then your premise is gone.
  10. I very purposely avoided saying anything about all roleplayers placing too much value on originality. I used phrases like 'a lot' to make clear that I was speaking of a subset of roleplayers, not all of them. There is no generalization in my post, so I figure this is a misinterpretation on your part.

    Also, you still seem to be missing what I mean by 'overrated.' Something being overrated simply means that someone or some group of people put a value on something that is higher than it deserves. This is not to say that it has no value, or that I personally place no value on it. As Kaga indirectly pointed out, this thread is largely aimed at those who think originality is a necessity for roleplaying. No matter how valuable originality actually is or how scarcity affects that, my point here is that originality is not in fact necessary. That's the whole of it.
  11. Ok, you're right. A lot of people use tropes in RP's. And that's good!

    But there are also a good number of people who look at things like high school roleplays and call that "unoriginal", and then place originality on a pedestal like it's something they have to strive for -- as if just using a well-known trope is "points off" or something.

    And there are enough RPers out there with that mindset that this sort of thing is good to bring up from time to time.
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  12. And I add on... For whoever decides to take this advice.

    Typically "originality" occurs like this:

    "The Anti-hero and The Dragon are fighting on a super skyscraper roof top, they're nearing the- Wait... They just fell off...
    Huh, guess there's a new trope."

    And then it isn't original anymore.

    Personally I don't think it's about making something new, it's more about rearranging them in an new way. Tropes aren't typically made on purpose, a writer sometimes could be doing something that already fits a clichè, then do something completely different, and bam [You got "Originality"]

    TL;DR: Don't force anything into being original. Just try not to copy a work and you'll be golden.
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  13. You used "a lot" which implies the majority or at least a signifigant amount of roleplayers do over value orginality. Please be specific next time so I don't "misunderstand" what you said next time. If you did use a lot in the sense that the majority of roleplayer overvalue orginality then you are making a generalization.

    Orginality is very valuable. I've stated examples of orginal works being influential to whole genres or writing. Just because some people think it's essential, it doesn't diminish the value.

    I agree with you that tropes are going to use when writing something. It's insane to think people are going to write orginal works. Doesn't make orginality any less valuable.
  14. In regards to people who over-value originality in thinking that all tropes should be avoided whenever possible because they're "unoriginal"? No, originality isn't that valuable.

    Even the groundbreaking "original" works that you're referring to still built themselves on top of tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that.

    All that's meant by the term "overrated" here is that it's ok to build a story or character on tropes. It's not necessary to avoid every pre-conceived idea like the plague just because they're "unoriginal".

    No one ever said that coming up with new ideas has no value; simply that some people place a little bit too much value on it and try too hard to be original when tropes are a totally a-ok thing to use. That's all.
  15. This is what I meant that you don't appreciate the value of orginality. Groundbreaking works are definded as doing something that has not been done. Just because you live in a time where it is not orginal anymore doesn't take away that was orginal at its time. That's like saying the telephone isn't groundbreaking because everyone has one today. It's absurd.
  16. No one ever said that original things of the past aren't groundbreaking.

    Only that roleplayers shouldn't place so much focus on trying to be sooo different and not relying on tropes, when it's perfectly ok to use tropes, especially when the groundbreaking things that we look up to also used tropes. Not that there's anything wrong with that! Not that that makes these things any less remarkable! It just shows that using tropes is ok. People don't need to be so focused on "originality" that they avoid tropes like the plague.
  17. I never said using troops was a bad thing. We're bound to use to them at one point. What my problem is that you're saying originality isn't that valuable, when it is. They're influential on genres and what other people write. You shouldn't deminish the value of orginality just because some people believe it is essential to a roleplay when it is not.
    #17 Kes, Apr 8, 2015
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 8, 2015
  18. Alright, this is getting silly and going in circles. @Iallcsz, you continue to misunderstand what is being said here so let me lay it out in crystal clear fashion.

    Saying some people overrate the value of originality does not diminish the inherent value of originality. The people Kaga and I are speaking of are those who take the inherent value of originality and then add superficial value to it to the point that they behave as if originality in roleplaying is more important than other things that should be paramount, such as having fun or creating a good collaborative story. By the way, this is predominantly about roleplaying, not about writing novels and such, and roleplaying has rather different priorities than novel writing. Pointing out this tendency some roleplayers have to worship originality and then explaining why it's silly (which is the whole purpose of this thread) is not in any way, shape, or form saying that originality is bad. "Originality is overrated" does not mean "originality is bad," it means that some people overrate the value of originality. 'Overrated' and 'bad' are different words that have different meanings. We are using the word 'overrated' and you appear to be reading it as 'bad' for some reason. Please stop.
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  19. I never say roleplayers have to worship orginality. I don't know where you got that from either. Or why you're saying that i'm going in circles. You said "a lot" have the view that orginality is essential. Which means by definition a majority or at least signifigant porton of roleplayers hold that view. That's a generalization you have made. Those are your words not mine. What I've been saying over and over again is that orginality is not overrated because:

    A. Roleplayers fequently use tropes and cliches in their roleplays and they are still popular / sucessful.

    B. Your generalization that " a lot " of roleplayers think orginality is essential has not been proven and therfore be asserted as false. Despite your personal experiences with it. So your premise goes out the window.

    C. Orginality when it does come influences other people's works. Making it valuable regardless of its age.

    So if this is about roleplayers, you are still asserting that "a lot" of roleplayers think orginality is important. Which has not been proven by you or Kaga. Orginality is not overrated.
    #19 Kes, Apr 8, 2015
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 8, 2015
  20. So how am I going in circles? Please tell me.