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.

Fantasy Clichés Come in Pairs

So, if you read, write or play fantasy books/games you will be familiar with the idea of the fantasy cliché. To some, a cliché may just be an idea or a type of character that is overused or crops up frequently. To a fantasy writer, clichés act like warning beacons, flashing at us from either side of the runway as we bring our novel gently in to land. Steer too far towards them and you are in danger of wrecking your work. But equally, sticking the thing on autopilot and staying away from clichés too much can have much the same effect.

Here’s a few examples of what I view as clichés and their titular ‘pairs’:

  • A woman is incapable of speaking up for herself, fending for herself or resisting the urges of our dashing hero.
  • A woman is more than capable of getting stuck in when a fight breaks out and sassing the members of her all-male gang.
  • Our hero is a young, handsome prince/pauper who is in actual fact ‘the chosen one’ and must save the world.
  • Our hero is a surly, stubble-wearing rogue who cares only for himself and must reluctantly save the world.

When things become clichés, you often find that people go the complete opposite way in order to be original. But being original is not about avoiding or following clichés. It is about inventing something that is very much ‘you’ and presenting it to the world. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this, it’s just a matter of considering what really is original and what isn’t in the modern world.

Thanks for reading!

~ James

Fantasy Dos and Don’ts

Right, new week, new load of posts coming your way! Today, I’ll be pointing out some of my most important dos and (mostly) don’ts when writing fantasy fiction.

DON’T…

Try to be Tolkien – The last boats to the Grey Havens set sail in the 1950s. Would you write your novel using a quill from the 6th century? Nope. Then don’t write it using ideas that were popular over 50 years ago.

Describe clothing – By this, I mean don’t describe it down to the shiny brass buckles on someone’s boots. In fact, if you can help it, you shouldn’t be describing clothing in any detail unless it plays a major role in the story. Nobody cares if your character looks like a medieval superhero or is wearing the legendary plate armour of some god with an impossible name. Be imaginative and describe things through actions and dialogue. The reader is hardly going to picture your characters walking around naked unless you tell them they’re wearing clothes.

Live in the dark ages – How many fantasy stories involve a world that’s a blatant copy/paste of medieval Europe? Loads. I’m sick of it and so are many readers. Fantasy should be about imagination and dreaming up worlds that are more exciting than our own. Why not write about a floating city in the sky? How about using the Aztecs or an Australia-style colony as inspiration for your world? You can use medieval Europe to inspire you if you really want, but take some time to research the period and make it a bit more unique and think about it some more.

Have long battles – Battles are not exciting for the soldiers involved. They are brutal, unforgiving and grim. Don’t try to describe military formations or tactics. Don’t assume someone is a hero because they are a skilled fighter. Don’t dehumanize war. Conflict is always about the people involved and the interesting part usually comes before or after a battle. If I come across a battle that doesn’t drive character development, I get bored very quickly.

Make your hero awesome – Heroes are more interesting when they grow from ordinary people. Does a sunflower start out as a sunflower? No, it begins as a tiny, insignificant seed. You water it and care for it and it becomes something greater. As a writer, you need to do the opposite. Throw some crap at your ordinary person and watch them struggle through it. Put them through difficult times and give them some hard choices and they will emerge a hero. The same goes for your villain. The only difference is the decisions they each make.

Make them drink mead – A personal peeve (and old habit) of mine. What follows is the unimaginative fantasy writer’s thought process on food and (especially) drink. If characters are not rich and/or live in the ‘north’, they must drink mead/ale/beer (out of tankards, usually at an inn) and eat nothing but great chunks of meat and loaves of bread. If characters are rich/nobility, they must drink nothing but wine. This is complete and utter rubbish. In fact, it’s a typical 20th/21st century attitude. Give your poor fantasy denizens some variety and diets that won’t kill them before the story ends. Why not forage for berries, seeds or nuts? Why not go fishing? Why not use magic to purify water so it can be drunk? Before you put such clichéd drinks as mead into your story, find out what it actually is and who would have drunk it. If I catch any modern-day authors describing their characters chowing down on salted pork and guzzling a tankard/flagon of honey mead (mead is made with honey anyway) I shall hide in a cave somewhere until I am inevitably defeated by a bloodthirsty paladin and his plucky band of adventurers.

DO…

Be original

Be creative

Be edgy

Try to change the status quo!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the fantasy genre. I grew up reading the kind of stuff that we view as clichéd today. Fantasy can include heroic deeds, amazing creatures and world-shattering magic, but it should be done differently and it should be done with style. Have you ever read a fantasy story about a secret agent who must thwart a sorcerer’s plans to destroy the world’s energy reserves and force it to rely on his magic entirely? I thought not. Get out there and write something new.

Check back tomorrow for the second (and final) part of ‘And Don’t Call Me Shirley’. This week I will be looking at place names in fantasy fiction.