Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Cliché’s in Fantasy Literature

Time to start a fight.


A few months back, I read a book on writing with excerpts from a variety of short stories. In one of the stories, the main character looked into a mirror and saw “her pale face, drawn and tired, with shadows encircling her eyes, etc…” Actually, that’s not a direct quote, but it gets the point across. Since I’ve started writing, I’ve been repeatedly warned about clichés. The above is an example of the infamous “mirror cliché” that many first time writers use–having your main character look into a mirror and see his/her reflection just so the author has a mechanism to visually describe him/her. Professional writers find such to be woefully uncreative. It is kind of surprising that I ran across the above description in the book I was reading, because the short story cited was from the Reader’s Digest a number of years ago, and Reader’s Digest was a reasonably big name at the time… but I suppose even the mirror cliché enjoyed a brief life when it was considered clever and droll.

Anyway, I know it will probably win few endorsements, but I want to point out a problem with labeling the mirror cliché a cliché. Yes, to a certain extent, I’m going to defend the mirror cliché. How? By pointing out the logical consequence. If we accept that the mirror cliché is never to be used, then no characters in stories will ever look in mirrors. Or, if they do, they won’t see anything, because to describe what they saw would be cliché. And so, looking in mirrors would become a forbidden action. Are we to say that a character cannot look in a mirror no matter what? Would it not be strange to live in a world populated by people who refused to look in mirrors?

I recently completed a vampire fantasy novel entitled Drasmyr (which should become available very soon). It is my first novel. I wrote the original draft in 1995. Didn’t get it published, went back to it a few times, still didn’t get it published… you know how it goes. Anyway, there are several mirrors in the book… that’s partly for atmosphere: you know, vampires and mirrors–they go together. Anyway, at one point in the original draft, one of the minor characters did fall prey to the horrible mirror cliché. After carefully reviewing it, I was forced to leave it in. The scene could not be removed. I saw no way the character could discover he was bitten unless he looked into a mirror or some other reflective device (unless someone else told him–but that would ruin the story line). After reviewing it, I made the decision that it was acceptable to use a mirror as long as it was being used for some reason other than pure description. For example, seeing the vampire bite on your neck, or hinting the character is going mad, or whatever.

I guess what I’m saying is that to a certain extent, I don’t mind a certain limited use of clichés. “The bone-chilling wind blew through the shutters.” I mean, how many different ways can you say “very cold?” As long as you’re not building the entire work around them and you make the effort to sprinkle the book with a number of delectable original thoughts, I think the occasional low-level cliché is fine. There are, of course, exceptions: some clichés you should probably never use because they are just beyond the pale. For example, “Clean as a whistle.” But even that could be used if it occurred in a dialogue as a means of developing the speaker’s character. When I encounter clichés in my own writing, if I think of something else to replace them with, I do so, but I’m not going to lose sleep over the “bone-chilling” wind–unless it’s the first sentence in my book; that would be bad, very bad. Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject.

And now, I’m sure, I’ll be ripped apart. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Cliché’s in Fantasy Literature

  1. Dennis Langley

    No fight. All things in moderation. I agree that some clichés just should not be used. However, with careful use of and/or modification, some clichés can still be used with good effect.

  2. P. rhoeas

    There’s an issue with mirrors in all fiction, I think, because they have such a long history of being [over]used for purposes not only of description but identification. There’s a lot of Lacan-lite “aha that’s who I am!” stuff when it comes to reflections. I think mirrors are fine as an object – like “she checked herself in the mirror and then…” or whatever – or even a motif – like if this “she” I just made up was always looking in mirrors, symbolic of her vanity, low self-image, &c. &c. But I agree it’s so easy to fall into the trap where the mirror becomes a clunky excuse to go into a [frequently] wanky full-on write-up of all a character’s physical attributes, as if every time we looked in a mirror we were relentlessly cataloguing every detail of our expressions and appearance. I mean, I do that sometimes, because I’m neurotic, but the veriisimilitude is hard to accept when it’s presented without consideration for the character’s state of mind.

  3. David Marshall

    As with all devices, the use comes down to the context. For example, spies and PIs sit with their backs to the wall or sit where they can watch the door in the mirror. It’s not use mirror per se you have to worry about, it’s the way you use it in the story.

    And thanks for dropping by my site and offering a like.

  4. Pingback: On Orphans and Abused Children in My Stories | The Write Stuff

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