The Words that Built the Story: A Study of Cassandra Clare’s Writing Style

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When you think YA urban fantasy, you think Cassandra Clare. Since 2007, Clare has been one of the frontrunners of this subgenre. Her Shadowhunter Chronicles saga is one of the most popular YA series of all time, garnering a humongous fanbase. The Mortal Instruments has been adapted into a movie and a television show.

However, Clare’s books are also some of the most polarizing. You either love them or you hate them. What causes readers to have such opposing views of her work? I would argue that the answer is her writing style.

Clare’s writing relies mainly on two things: simile and character archetypes. Many writers utilize these tools, but for Clare, they are the foundation of her writing style. For some, it’s overblown and repetitive. For others, it’s beautiful and familiar. Either way, you will not find a page in one of Clare’s books that does not focus primarily on these things.

Simile, for those who may need a reminder, is a type of metaphor, a comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as’. Clare uses metaphors in the broad sense, but similes pop up quite a lot. She writes in City of Ashes that a river “slice[s] through Manhattan and Long Island like a scar.” That same river is also compared to steel. The use of several metaphors do help to describe the scene, but, strictly speaking, they’re not necessary.

Simile and metaphor find their origins in poetry, so it’s safe to assume prose writers use them to create a poetic effect. Essentially, metaphors and similes are pretty, but they also rely on connotation to help garner the essence of the thing. Scars call to mind violence and pain, so comparing the river to a scar not only creates a vivid picture but helps create the atmosphere of the scene.

Steel is strong and sturdy, very difficult to penetrate. This becomes reflective of both the characters and the situation, while also helping you picture the river. Simile and metaphor control tone. And Clare aims to keep very tight control over her story, thus the frequent use of these tools.

I would argue that the bigger offender is her heavy reliance on character archetypes. Take the Mortal Instruments characters: among them we have the bad boy with a heart of gold and tragic backstory, the nerdy best friend, the “I’m a what” character, and the villain. Yes, these characters grow throughout the series, but we see these archetypes duplicated in other series.

In The Infernal Devices, we have variants of the “I’m a what” character and the bad boy with a heart of gold. However, she subverts these a bit. Tessa’s “I’m a what” is more focused on identity and what makes a person human. Will’s bad boy antics were a front, dropped halfway through the series. Although she took these archetypes a step further, the fact remains that they are still there.

We see this again in The Dark Artifices, where several parts of what is now the “Jace” archetype are found in Emma and several parts of the “Clary” archetype are found in Julian. This is where her stories can get a tad repetitive. While she still finds ways to make the characters feel new, they still stem from the original archetype. Clare enjoys reusing archetypes and finding fresh ways to portray or subvert them.

In this same vein, several people have noted similarities between the major tropes and character archetypes used in The Mortal Instruments and the ones used in Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Clare has admitted to being heavily influenced by these other stories. She finds ways to mix and match themes and concepts from these stories and tell us something new.

However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the plagiarism, both confirmed and alleged. Back before Clare released her first series, she wrote Harry Potter fanfiction. In that fanfiction, she took dialogue from other sources (including Buffy). She later went back and added citations before finally deleting the whole thing.

More recently she has had a lawsuit filed against her from author Sherrilyn Kenyon of the Dark Hunter series alleging Clare ripped her off and stole characters and plot lines. However, nothing has come of this lawsuit thus far. Still, it must be noted that she has a history of plagiarism and there’s no telling how much that has affected her writing style.

Overall, I would say her writing style is one evocative of emotion. The similes and metaphors dictate tone, while the (albeit altered) archetypes are easily accessible. While not my favorite writing style, I still appreciate the way Clare tells her stories.

As for the plagiarism, it does color my reading of her work somewhat, never knowing for sure if it’s original or not. However, I will offer no comment on the current lawsuit and allegations until something comes of it (innocent until proven guilty, after all). But regardless of all of this, Clare has still written one of my favorite series of all time (The Infernal Devices) and for that I will be forever grateful.

UPDATE: The lawsuit has been dropped. As Clare’s lawyers pointed out in their rebuttal, many of the things Kenyon alleged were plagiarized are actually common fantasy tropes. No one owns tropes.

The other things Kenyon claimed were plagiarized from her work actually appeared in Clare’s work before they did in Kenyon’s. However, no counter-suit has been filed because it seems to all be pure coincidence.

No evidence has ever been found that any of Clare’s books were printed with Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter symbol.

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