Talking Owls…and Other Clichés

It’s ironic, really. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog about owls. And here I am again…talking about owls.

I wonder if January at my place is some sort of holiday or pastime for these two. Just like last year, I woke up late last night/early this morning to the hooting of two owls. Only, this time my reaction to them was decidedly different. It’s been over a year now since I moved into my apartment, so what was once a foreign and frightening noise to me has become rather commonplace now. It’s been a while, though, since I’ve heard the owls outside my window, which is probably why I woke to that sound last night.

I was still half asleep when I heard a low hooting outside my window, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “I wonder if it’s sitting in a different tree. Its voice is really low.”

A moment later, a higher-pitched hoot answered the first call.

“Oh,” I thought. “I recognize that voice.”

I laid there for a minute, listening to the owls “talk” to each other, and then a random thought came to me, “I wonder if the one with the higher-pitched voice is the girl and the one with the lower-pitched voice is the boy. Do owls even work like that?”

I had to laugh at myself for the thought, but it did get me to thinking about something else as well: the concept of anthropomorphism and clichés.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism is when a person, usually a writer, gives human-like qualities to something that isn’t human. The main characters in my book, Random, and Kadin, the talking elvin wolf in my old Star Series, are all examples of this. They talk, smile, laugh, argue, and think – more or less – like humans.

Anthropomorphism is listed as a fantasy cliché on most of the lists I’ve looked at and, while not considered to be as big of a cliché as prophecies and super mega evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil villains, it still isn’t looked on very highly. Not that it’s any less common. Look at Disney. Actually, that may be part of the reason I so often make use of it, but that’s a post for another time.

I’ll be the first to admit that one of my major challenges with writing is that I have the tendency to use clichés…a lot. And anthropomorphism isn’t the only one I’ve been guilty of. My problem is that most clichés don’t even bother me. If I like the characters, that’s all that matters. Even if the plots aren’t that impressive, as long as the characters are loveable, that’s usually good enough for me. Furthermore, I like dragons, I don’t mind the old wizards (unless we’re talking about Gandalf, and then I just want to throw things at him), and the fact that a world can perpetually remain in the feudal era doesn’t bother me in the least. And yes, I like talking animals, too.

With 7 classes, a club, volunteer work, real work, and an honors project to think about, writing for fun hasn’t been at the top of my list of priorities, but I have been giving thought to the rewriting of the Star Series. There was a time when I had a grand plan for these books, but nowadays, all I really want to do for the moment is get the four I’ve already written back up for sale. But that requires addressing the issue of the massive number of clichés found in their pages. And, as you might expect, anthropomorphism is one of the top problems to look at.

I’ve been told, “It doesn’t matter as long as you give it a fresh perspective.”

Knowing how to do that isn’t easy, though. Perhaps it is merely the result of a lifetime of trial and error. I don’t know. I guess, in the end, as long as you do your best, you have to trust that the story has told itself the way it wants to be told. After all, even stories tend to take on a life of their own.

Some clichés are easy to address. Others, such as the problem of anthropomorphism, are much harder, for me at least. It may end up being that I’ll never fully eliminate it from my stories, though, and I think that’s ok. The challenge isn’t so much that I use that cliché as it is in making the problem unobtrusive in the story. Mastering that, I believe, is one of the great marks of literary success.

Ah, the musings that can be inspired by owls…

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2 thoughts on “Talking Owls…and Other Clichés

  1. What’s tough about cliches–tough as nails, I might say–is that most of the time, the writer is the last person to see them. That’s where having a writer’s group comes in handy. I find myself using the term “safe haven” a lot in Narrative Writing these days.

    When I retire, I don’t know what I will do to get feedback from other writers. Guess I will need to start a local group or one online. Hmm.

    1. That is very true. My best work has always been that which has been critiqued by more than one person. The more eyes, the easier it is to catch and correct cliches early on. Not sure what I’ll do once I graduate. Hmm… Maybe we should start an online writing group?

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