Written in response to this question:
Hello! I’m trying to write a werewolf story, but I’m too worried about things we see in every single one (painful transformations, silver weakness, it’s a curse, etc), so I’m trying to twist them kind of (painless transformations but you feel the beast fighting for your mind, silver weakness is a myth, it’s a rare virus spreading by blood, etc), ’cause “all cliches and predictability are bad” but I never saw anything about cliches that are necessary to the story. Is there any such thing?
Ooh, a fun question! Thank you for asking. Get ready for a long answer! I have a lot of thoughts on this.
I already wrote one very big post on werewolf tropes we commonly see in fiction, and which ones I do and do not like. That’ll help a lot on this topic! But I have more to say, in regard to the points you brought up.
To me, a werewolf is – by definition – a variety of types of people that can, in different ways, turn into a wolf or wolf-man hybrid…
But also, to me, a lot of the fun can get removed with people trying to subvert too many of the fun werewolf tropes we’re familiar with today. The good ones, I mean. Especially the ones that came from folklore, or at least have an amount of basis in some legends.
For instance, painful transformations do have basis, though of course that wasn’t always the case, and I am very biased in that I love them – but non-painful ones and/or mental ones also sound very fun! Personally, I do both.
More than that, though, today we have so many people throwing around the word and idea of subversion that, frankly, almost none of the “classic” werewolf stuff remains. Just to use the examples you gave-
In quite a lot of things today (Teen Wolf, Harry Potter, Warcraft, Twilight [with both the retconned “we’re not actually werewolves” Quileutes and the “children of the moon”], and a lot more), werewolves are not sensitive to silver and that’s 100% a myth. Now, I don’t mind that at all, frankly, because a lot of very stupid and silly and preposterous things result from the Hollywood contrived silver weakness concept, which was never remotely in folklore, but I also think it can be done well and can be fun if properly worked into a setting (I myself use this trope in my main werewolf setting and series, heavily worked into lore so it isn’t just a random weakness).
Here’s the big one for me, though. A curse or a disease – which way should it be handled, and which one might be considered cliche? This is a can of worms for me.
First off, the concept of being a werewolf very much started off as a wide variety of things – a curse, a blessing, something one was born with, some other type of magical ability…
And being a werewolf was never, in folklore, considered a disease. This is completely a modern concept, and one that basically everyone everywhere uses today thanks to the Early Modern period and later concepts. This is a huge topic I could go into even more detail about.
Be it a disease spread by bite and/or through saliva, a disease spread by bite or scratch (ugh, the scratch thing…), a disease spread through blood, an experimental “disease” caused by “science gone wrong,” a disease spread through sex (don’t get me started, though, really)…
Today, it is pretty much always called a “disease.” This is especially when it is associated with madness and/or bloodlust. This is where the word lycanthropy first comes from – in the Early Modern period, people called those suffering with the “insanity” of being a werewolf were said to have lycanthropy. Later, this term was picked up by popular culture, so the term we still have today for people with certain types of mental illnesses is “clinical lycanthropy.”
Most pop culture today tends to turn lycanthropy into a disease instead of a curse. Even in terms of fantasy settings where one might think of it as a curse, it’s still largely considered a disease. D&D, for instance; it’s called an affliction, a disease, etc. Look on the wiki of any number of modern things with werewolves in them and it’ll refer to it as a disease first, if it refers to it as a curse at all, and many paranormal TV shows and the like will have some kind of reference to various bodily fluids in terms of how it’s spread/how it works/what it’s infecting.
Can it be both a curse and a disease, in a way? Yes, definitely! I actually kind of prefer it that way, myself. Though if I had to pick just one, I would pick curse, personally. I also prefer a less scientific explanation than “just” a disease, more often than not, though that’s just me – especially if it starts turning into some kind of STD or something… Bluh.
Details, though. In my setting, just to clear things up, I refer to it as both a curse and a disease. It is, of course, in this case, a setting in ancient transitioning into medieval times, so they wouldn’t really have a more scientific explanation, but some people are looking for a more logical one sometimes. Anyway, I do have other werewolves in other settings that are done differently, so don’t take all those ramblings as meaning that I only like werewolves done one way.
There are lots of ways someone can become a werewolf in folklore. And there are lots of reasons that werewolf might transform.
So, ultimately, you might be more unique in terms of werewolves if you dialed it back toward some of the “classic” “tropes,” like making it more of a mysterious curse.
But that, of course, is 100% up to you! There is no right or wrong way to tell a story that you want to tell. There are just people who’ll tell you which way they would prefer it told. Like me! I can definitely tell you how I prefer a werewolf story handled, and I’m very flattered you’d ask me for my thoughts on it.
And I will say this emphatically, while we’re at it – I love what most people call “cliches.” They are cliches because they are fun and they work. I am a classicist. A traditionalist. I love traditional stories, storytelling, and classical myths, folklore, and – generally – tropes, at least and especially when it comes to things like monsters.
Werewolves, vampires, dragons, elves, dwarves – I like the classics. I think people trying to subvert them too much is creating a world in which we are losing perception of what those things were in folklore and what they were meant to be and represent, and that’s pretty tragic to me, because now everyone is subverting. That’s a big part of my research and academic work.
People cry “cliche, cliche!” but there is no cliche. Because you can hardly find the stuff that is based on what used to be considered cliche anymore, since everyone is scared of being considered “cliche,” and thus are all mutually adopting new cliches in attempts to avoid the older ones.
That being said, sometimes it’s cool when people swap things up, of course, and I definitely don’t want to shoot anyone down!
I also would argue that cliches don’t necessarily mean predictability. A “cliche” done well is a beautiful thing. It’s all about the storytelling. It’s much more about that than the idea of “cliches” themselves.
So let’s reframe the word “predictability” – think of it as “familiarity.” Familiarity can be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask. I think some familiarity, at least, is a good thing. Because if you can recognize a werewolf as a werewolf, then that’s good. If it’s so different people don’t even recognize it as a werewolf, I kind of start losing interest, personally.
I don’t like “our [creatures] are different,” but that is just me.
Getting back on track – are there any werewolf tropes necessary to a story? Completely an opinion piece.
In my opinion? I don’t think so. I think you can make some radically different werewolves that are still werewolves and they’d be neat. BUT I have basically never seen this done, and my favorite werewolves remain ones that others might consider “cliche.”
Is it necessary to have a werewolf that howls at the moon? Absolutely not. Is it more fun than one that doesn’t? It very well might be. Is it necessary to have the werewolf be based in magic instead of science? Nope! Is it necessary to have being a werewolf be based in some kind of disease? Absolutely not. Is it better to have werewolves as rare monsters or as a plague sweeping across the earth? I can certainly tell you I deeply detestwerewolves being turned into the zombie plague and/or plague rats, but hey, some people juggle geese.
A whole ‘nother can of worms is if there are cliches necessary to the storytelling itself and progression of the werewolf character(s), or werewolves as monsters within the setting itself if you are not telling a story from a werewolf POV. I’d pretty much reiterate what I said above in that case, too.
If we get technical, no, recognizable tropes are by no means necessary. If we get personal, I wouldn’t call them necessary, but they are familiarity and they are a personal preference – so I rather like at least a few of them.
Bottom line, though?
Tell your story the way you want to tell it. That is the most important part. Don’t feel like you have to alter something just because someone somewhere might call it “cliche.” Even if they think that, they are likely to enjoy it, anyway!
And ultimately, your story is yours; do what you want with it and have fun. Don’t let anyone anywhere tell you something you do is going to be bad just because of a silly term like “cliche.”
A “cliche” story can be just as amazing or just as terrible as a wildly original one. It all depends on how you tell it. And if you enjoy telling it, and tell it the way you want to instead of letting anyone strongarm you into altering things from your vision, it will be a story well told.