Avoiding Fantasy Cliches

Jeff Salyards had a great guest post on SF Signal on Tuesday about avoiding cliches when writing fantasy. I think a lot of writers, particularly when beginning (and yes, this includes me), write in a way that imitates their favorite stories. And until you find your voice, that can be a fine exercise as you explore the strengths and weaknesses of your writing.

But because that world creation is not wholly original, our characters are not fleshed out. Our characters become caricatures. Our setting is too familiar. It begins to read like every other “sword and sorcery” or “urban fantasy” story. There is nothing unique about it.

Focus on making your characters and world unique. I know, this is easier said then done. But, thankfully there are ways to check and see if our writing is full of cliches. For writers focusing on fantasy, I would suggest looking at The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel by Diana Wynne Jones. Ostensibly a travel guide, it’s really a catalog of cliches within the fantasy genre. If you see something from your story in this book, you should probably change it. And if you include something from the book to make fun of it as a cliche, even that is quickly becoming a cliche, as Salyards points out. So skip that, and focus on writing a truly original fantasy story devoid of cliches.

And if you need a little inspiration on avoiding cliches, check out this interview with George R.R Martin. In it, he says:

Following Lord of the Rings fantasy was largely taken over by Tolkien imitators who were delivering Tolkien-like books but who didn’t seem to capture any of the power of Tolkien. Some of the lesser writers who borrowed some of his tropes turned into bad clichés. You know, the whole thing where the dark lord is stirring and his ugly minions are coming out and they’re horrible minions because they’re ugly and they wear black and the good guys go forth because…they’re really pretty and they wear white. You know, the world is not that simple.

The good guys and bad guys was fun when you were seven but you should look around and see what the world is like and I wanted to weld fantasy with the historical fiction, which is more gritty and realistic. You can’t tell the bad people because they’re ugly or the good people because they’re pretty and I deliberately turned some of these conventions on their head. Yeah, the Night’s Watch, they’re a bunch of scum but they’re heroic scum and yet they wear black. And I took ravens, which of course in Tolkien are birds of ill omen and I made them a good thing a means of delivering messages from castle to castle. The guys in the King’s Guard wear white but was once an institution that was heroic but now is hopelessly corrupt full of political appointees are greedy so I was playing with all of the tropes and turning things on their head.

So get writing, avoid cliches, and your story is bound to be that much better. Good luck.

One thought on “Avoiding Fantasy Cliches

  1. Thanks so much, Eric. I appreciate the shout out.

    I think George R.R. Martin’s quote is spot-on. I love seeing writers take existing tropes and find a way to make them their own (or at least add a new wrinkle or two to distinguish their take from what’s on the shelves already).

    Best,
    Jeff