Perhaps before I delve into the heart of this post, I’d like to clarify that this will not harbor a long list of typical fantasy clichés. A plethora of these articles are all over the internet and I will supply a couple links at the end for your reading pleasure. This post – and the series in general – is more of an insiders view to my personal approaches to writing, mostly in regards to fantasy, and my opinion regarding the habits of the speculative fiction genre itself.
So having said that, I’ll admit that my stories never start as fantasy. They grow into this mold, not through careful planning, but through some realization that hits me about halfway through the initial plotting stages. They don’t always end up being fantasy (and I’m just fine with that). I realize that some writers go into it with the intention that they want to write a fantasy, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. However, I’ve found that this type of thinking can be perilous: it can either limit you into believing you have to fulfill all the rules of the genre (whatever those rules are) or conversely you might end up falling into the fantasy genre’s biggest pitfall: the cliché.
I loathe that word, to be honest. I loathe it because it’s also restricting. Somewhere, somehow, the great writers and readers of the age have deemed ‘such-and-such’ a cliché. In another ten years, it’ll change to something else. And now the word cliché is almost a cliché in itself.
Do clichés exist? Yes, definitely. Are they inevitable? Yes, definitely.
Fantasy seems to go through stages. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, there was Mercedes Lackey and her farm girl rising to be the Queen’s right hand in Arrows of the Queen. There was Robert Jordan’s well-known The Wheel of Time series. Since Tolkien’s popularization of elves and dwarves, these races have sprung up in many a fantasy novel.
Right now, the trend wants to move away from the rags-to-riches type approach. It wants to move away from overused races and reinvent new ones. Writers are revolutionizing magic, shying from the wizard and witch. Dragons, swords-of-all-power, vampires, you name it: all of this has now become a sort of taboo.
This revolution has birthed many phenomenal works. For example, the popular ‘gray’ characters of Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series or in Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. Or the backstage tale of a hero’s life in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. The anti-hero is also getting some time in the spotlight in various books like Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. They are all challenging the genre: transforming it.
They are still playing with old clichés.
And though the transformation of a genre keeps things interesting—it’s just a cycle. When anti-heroes and gray characters become a cliché, people will return to the farm boys and damsels in distress. The vampires that have flooded the bookshelves will fade into something else that sells and return in another twenty or thirty years when someone revitalizes them.
All creation is a spin-off of someone else’s creation. The clichés are always going to be there. It’s what we do with these clichés that changes the genre game, I think. It’s more than just creativity—clever thinking. It’s subtlety, confidence. It’s doing something with a “cliché” and making it so good that it doesn’t matter anymore: thought-provoking characters that make us question, words that dance long after the song has ended, a heart that beats beneath the cover regardless of content.
Tell a story that makes readers care. Clichés are the backbone of every story; the weaving of the tale is what transforms cliché into something fundamentally different. This goes for any genre, not just fantasy.
All of this is, of course, my opinion. You are always welcome to disagree. For good measure, as promised in the beginning, if you’re worried about what people want you to avoid when you are writing fantasy, take a look at one of the following sites for the fantasy genre’s current clichés:
Val Kovalin’s list : http://www.obsidianbookshelf.com/html/fantasycliches.html
Or his other article titled “Everyone’s Most Hated Fantasy Fiction Clichés”:
Eric Christensen’s article: http://fantasy-faction.com/2012/ten-fantasy-cliches
Or you can just search Google for “Fantasy Clichés” and find other lists on your own.
Regardless, my personal advice is to worry more about how you tell your story, rather than what you’re telling it about. Good writing tends to break away on its own.
On that note . . . What clichés make or break the fantasy/speculative fiction genre for you? How do you approach your own writing to avoid these?