What is a Fantasy Cliche?

So, have you ever really considered this question? If I asked you to give me an example and explain why it’s a cliche, could you?

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of the word:

A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

Archetype is another word you often see cropping up in fantasy-related discussions:

An archetype is a universally understood symbol, term, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. Archetypes are often used in myths and storytelling across different cultures. Archetype refers to a generic version of a personality. In this sense, “mother figure” may be considered an archetype, and may be identified in various characters with otherwise distinct (non-generic) personalities.

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Here’s a list of classic fantasy cliches and archetypes:

  • The quest story
  • Stupid barbarians/old wizards
  • An object that holds the power to destroy great evil
  • Evil without a reason
  • Orcs, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.
  • The chosen one/orphan
  • Prophecies
  • Lack of strong females
  • Drawn out fights
  • Characters who never get injured in battle
  • Unpronounceable names
  • Invented language systems

So, if we think logically, if we invert those cliches, we should get some pretty original stuff, right?

  • Smart barbarians/young wizards
  • Evil with a reason
  • No fantasy species, only humans
  • Lots of strong females
  • Short, bloody fights
  • Protagonist frequently injured
  • Realistic names

Yeah… the problem is, a lot of those have been done to death too. Sometimes badly, sometimes well.

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How do we be original?

The trick is, taking a cliche or archetype and tweaking it very slightly. It’s a really nice psychological ruse. Just have a think about all your favourite stories/games/movies – do you know how they tweaked a stereotype or overused idea? Here’s a few ways in which a small change can have a big effect:

  • A young boy is destined to defeat a great evil, but he doesn’t discover this until he has grown older. Now a middle-aged wizard, he must fulfill is true purpose.
  • A stupid barbarian and a clever thief – a classic team, right? Not this time. The barbarian is a master thief in disguise and uses his deception to confidence trick others.
  • Elves, orcs and dwarves dominate the surface world. Humanity dwindles. But now it has a chance. Empowered by a powerful wizard, humans acquire potent new abilities and take the fight to their sadistic oppressors.

Even just taking a story like Star Wars and swapping out Luke Skywalker for an advanced servant droid who is destined to defeat the Empire, the whole dynamic of the story changes. How will he interact with C-3PO and R2-D2? Will he fight for more rights for droids in the galaxy? Will he see humans as his slavers? We could even have followed Darth Vader as an antihero and it would have made the story entirely different.

What’s the lesson?

You don’t always have to come up with a completely original idea – in fact, I believe there are no truly original ideas and there never were. Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed. The key is how to make something feel original by putting your own twist on it and creating intriguing characters.

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9 thoughts on “What is a Fantasy Cliche?

  1. debyfredericks 10-Jul-2012 / 15:16

    “Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed.” What a great insight! What you didn’t say, I feel, is how much execution matters. Nobody would have cared about Harry Potter if J. K. Rowling had been a lack-luster author.

    • mqallen 11-Jul-2012 / 06:13

      For the aspiring out there, Rowling is great at some things, not so good at others. That’s not a slam on Rowling, just a reminder that you need to be great a some things and passable at the rest. One of the coaches my wife has used has a list of 6 things you need to be proficient at but suggests you just need to excel at 2 or so to succeed.

    • James 11-Jul-2012 / 08:03

      Definitely agree – execution and style are huge elements in writing.

  2. mqallen 10-Jul-2012 / 15:21

    Good food for thought. I think there are some tropes that should be avoided at all costs (young farm boy saves world has been beaten to death). For others, it all depends on what you do with it.

    One area that you touch on with your list is the intersection RPG games and novels (your second picture is a give away :). There is a lot of overlap but they aren’t the same. Things like long battles can work in a D&D game because everyone is doing their bit and combat is what many D&D games are all about (forget this plot stuff, I want to kill and loot something). Similarly, lots of races appeal to the players. Both of those in a book can smother the novel. It takes time to describe fight scenes and races, time that isn’t usually moving the book forward.

    You definitely hit on some that drive me crazy. Some I’m okay with as a reader but as a writer I would never do- like Evil with no reason (but it worked for Harry Potter and LOTR), few or weak females (see LOTR again), the Chosen One (see both HP and to some extent LOTR once more). LOTR had the virtue of being “first” (ish) but HP wasn’t and it was quite successful.

    Definitely a good idea to turn these around. Anyway, enjoyed the post. One of my next ones is going to be on RPG gaming versus writing.

    • James 11-Jul-2012 / 08:02

      Thanks, I’ll be sure to check out your next post.

  3. tmso 11-Jul-2012 / 02:21

    Good post. I tend to like cliche and cling to them with sword in hand to defend my using ’em, but you are right. Adding just a bit of twist can make a big difference. Thanks!

  4. mqallen 11-Jul-2012 / 06:15

    “Nature already beat humanity to all the greatest stories, long before we existed. ”

    At the risk of sounding snarky, how did nature beat us at all the great stories? Nature doesn’t plot.

    • James 11-Jul-2012 / 08:01

      True, it doesn’t plot. I guess you’re right in a way – it’s humanity’s view of nature that creates the stories. Animals don’t have stories, as such, but they do undertake epic journeys, fight for survival, protect those they love and overcome change.

  5. claude dancourt 11-Jul-2012 / 22:19

    You can also check this site : http://www.rinkworks.com/fnovel/
    I found the list a while ago, and I have to say it covers a lot…

    But you’re right. No one cares if the novel is not fully original, as long as it’s entertaining.

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