Feature: Avoiding the Clichés

Wes ChuTheDeathsOfTao-144dpiWesley Chu’s second novel, The Deaths of Tao, is published this week, a sequel to The Lives of Tao, which was one of the entries for Angry Robot’s Open Submissions in 2011 (a new Open Submissions period is currently running). In this short piece Chu, who recently visited the UK for the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, talks about one of the problems that face many novelists…



The fine folks at Sci-Fi Bulletin have asked me to put together a guest post about writing “aliens among us” in novels without hitting all the old clichés. I’m not exactly sure how I’ve come to be a subject matter expert about this, but I’ll give it a gander.

So, let’s talk about not hitting these suckers. Um…well, I’ve never put a lot of thought into avoiding these clichés so who knows, maybe I hit them after all. I guess the first thing we need to do is figure out what they are.

Here’s what I think are common alien clichés:

  1. They want our resources: water, air, carbon, and women (always the women!).
  2. They’re more advanced than us.
  3. They usually want to kill us.
  4. They want our real estate.
  5. They want to enslave us.
  6. They want to eat us.

Did I cover enough of them? Chances are, I’m missing another fifty clichés or so but let’s start with this sample size. I guess the best way to see if I hit any of these clichés is to make a case study of my Tao series.

In The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao, the Quasing crash-landed on Earth and can’t exist in our atmosphere. For millions of years, they’ve moved from host to host, sustaining themselves within the warm cocoons of Earth’s native creatures. Over time, they realized that primates and later humans were evolving at a faster rate than other species and eventually migrated to us in order to achieve their goals, which is to have humanity advance enough for us to one day take them home.

There are two rules to their existence on Earth:

  1. They can communicate with their hosts but can’t directly control them.
  2. They can’t leave the host until the body dies.

So, how did I do on these clichés? Let’s compare and see:

  1. The Quasing originally only wanted to return home and are depending on humanity to become technologically advanced enough to take them home. However, over the course of thousands of years, plans change… Technically, human man hours are resources but we have that covered in number 5. I’m going to call this one a PASS (Not cliché)
  2. While the Quasing are able to fly through space, their technology and evolution are from completely different compositions that are incompatible with Earth. PASS
  3. “They usually want to kill us.” The Prophus are actually trying to protect humanity while the Genjix could care less about the native Earthlings as long as they don’t get in the way. PASS
  4. Again, the Quasing originally just want to get off this mudball of a planet. A couple things have changed, so we’ll call this a PUSH (not the original intent, but plan adaptation needed)
  5. The Quasing realized that controlling/influencing humanity is the best way to achieve their goals to get off this planet. That and we’re their principal tool to get stuff done. FAIL (big time)
  6. The Quasing don’t eat. Really, humans are unappetizing anyway. PASS

TheLivesOfTao-144dpiObviously, this self-analysis is subjective. Hell, I think I could argue it from an angle where I fail at every single point. So at the end of the day, how does a writer avoid the old alien clichés when writing a novel about “aliens among us?”

I say don’t worry about it. Be true to the story you want to tell. If that cliché is honest to your plot, then so be it. Screw it. If you think tweaking it so it’s a cliché makes your story stronger, then by all means make the change. However, it serves little purpose if changing a plot just to avoid a cliché hurts your story.

One of my first writing mentors once told me that just about every single idea under the sun has already been done in one way or another. There are very few truly original plots these days, just variations that are tweaked or improved upon. There are many books out there that use these common clichés and are just great stories, so focus on what’s important. Write the story you want to tell and make it the best story you can tell. Worry about reviews and being categorized by someone else.

Bottom line, if the story is strong, the cliché doesn’t matter.

Click here to order The Deaths of Tao from Amazon.co.uk


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