We all know they’re bad. We know we shouldn’t use them. But cliches are there for a reason. They aren’t just a part of literature, they are a part of life. They are expectations. They are things we assume will happen.
I like to challenge cliches. Not just avoid them, but completely turn them on their head and then fish in their pockets for loose change.
The first novel I wrote started out that way. It went through a half dozen attempts at writing before I became a good enough writer to write it and a dozen or more major rewrites before it eventually became Children of a New Earth.
The seed, the kernel of the novel, lay in the post-apocalyptic stories of my youth in the eighties. Mad Max and it’s many spin offs had a simple cliche notion, that once society collapsed it humanity would quickly devolve into punk rock barbarians and para military organizations.
Why? Why does every writer assume this?
I see two underlying assumptions that drive this cliche. The first is the idea that humanity is basically evil, that we restrain these impulses because of society. Without societies control people would become vicious and cruel. The second assumption is that evil is inherently stronger than good. That good people are hampered by what they won’t do. Evil may lose in the end, but only be heroic actions of a few.
These are easy assumptions to buy into. Look at any place on the globe where law and order aren’t routinely imposed and you can find the worst in humanity, on display for all to see. It’s easy to see power when it’s being wielded in weapons and dished out in cruelty.
I wanted to explore an alternative world view in my first novel. I wanted to pose the question, what if society collapsed and people said, “hey, that was pretty stupid. Let’s not do that again.”
The novel changed many times over as it was written and rewritten. The finished novel focuses more on the survivors, especially the next generation and the survivalist enclave of Freedom Ranch. But the original kernel is still there in the stories told by other survivors, in the Quiet Earth Society, the Ten Thousand Warriors for Peace and the Cult of the Iron Mother. These groups fought back against martial law and the growing power of paramilitary groups. Even though they were low tech and peaceful (though not to the point of being pacifists), they won.
They won because there are two paths to power and their opponents only understood one of them. There is destructive power and constructive power. You can invest in weapons to destroy your enemy. You can use fear to control your followers. This is the destructive path to power. Or you can have the knowledge to make things. You can reach out and build connection with your followers. This is the constructive path to power.
In the words of a former Quiet Earth Society member and minor character, “The early military dictators were a stupid lot. They fought over politics. We went straight for the food supply. Once the countryside was on our side, it was over. They just didn’t know it until winter hit.”
Did I succeed in proving my point? I will have to leave that for the reader to decide. But it is an entertaining story and it shows how turning a cliche around can lead to a new novel idea.