Here’s a great article I came upon the other day that helps you to flex your imagination’s muscles and write something new, something unexpected. In genre fiction, sometimes it’s all too easy to fall into the black hole of what’s come before.
Fantasy Fiction Writing – Six Cliches to Avoid
Fantasy fiction is doing good business at the moment, but there are certain situations that have been overplayed. So much so, that they have become genre clichés, and everybody knows what to expect next. If you’re a writer in the fantasy genre, here are 6 clichés you should try to avoid in your stories.
1. Receiving tutoring from the old wise man.
The ‘Merlin’ gambit, as used in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Dragonslayer and innumerable King Arthur clones. A stable boy or other similar seemingly low-born type is taken under the wing of the local eccentric. There’s usually a beard involved, and a pair of blue eyes piercing from beneath some spectacularly bushy eyebrows. He’ll say things like: ‘All of nature is one’, ‘Use the force’ and ‘You have a great destiny, my boy.’ Try not to give him a grey cloak and an elven sword. Maybe you could try having the youth tutoring the old man for a change? Or, more radical, how about having the teacher as an old woman?
2. Learning to fight.
The ‘Galahad’ gambit. The stable boy gets secret training in weaponry, allowing him to beat a seasoned warrior in his first fight. People say: ‘I’ve never seen the like before’ and ‘He is the best swordsman I have ever seen’. Now how realistic is that? A radical idea would be to have the stable boy being completely useless at weapons. How is he going to fulfil his destiny then?
3. The parting from everything you ever knew.
The ‘Dick Whittington’ gambit. The stable-hand, being under a geas to complete a great quest, must say goodbye to hearth and home. People say: ‘I must go and fulfil my destiny’ and ‘I will return when I have avenged my father’. This is usually done with a great deal of schmaltz and emotion. Sometimes it is done violently, the hero being parted from family by the villain of the piece, who he is destined to kill at the end of the story. Either way, it has been done so often that any tears you are expecting to provoke could well be due to laughter. Try to do something different. Why does the hero have to leave his family? What would happen if he took them with him?
4. Being abducted from earth to a different world.
The ‘John Carter’ gambit. People say: ‘How did I get here” and ‘You have been delivered to us in our hour of need’. This one was heavily overused in the early and mid-twentieth century by H Rider Haggard and A E Merritt among others. Usually it is no more than a ploy to get a character the writer is comfortable writing about into a fantasy situation where said character could never otherwise exist. Edgar Rice Burroughs liked it so much he even had it happen to Tarzan on occasion. And it still happens, the most obvious modern examples being Thomas Covenant and the various present day characters that Stephen King has recruited into his Dark Tower series. Maybe your hero could be someone from another dimension who gets transported to Earth? Or maybe he stays where he is, but everything changes around him?
5. The multi-race bar room.
The ‘Inn at Bree’ gambit. It happens a lot in science fiction a-la Star Wars, but it is just as common in the fantasy genre. After a thirsty day on the road, our heroic stable boy and his companions will visit an inn. Inside, there will be representatives of different races from the world created for the story. The innkeeper will always be fat and jolly, there will always be a silent stranger in a dark corner, and someone will sing a silly song giving the writer his chance to show off his invention of other-worldly lyrics. How about having a human trying to get a drink in a dwarf-only bar, or vice-versa? There should be plenty of opportunity to add tension there.
6. Discovering hidden family truths.
The ‘Ugly Duckling’ gambit. The stable boy gets to the final climactic battle, only to find that his adversary is his father/mother/brother/sister etc. People say: ‘It was kept from you to protect you’ and ‘You cannot kill me, I’m your father’. This has been so overused, it even turns up across genres: witness Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader for example. A variation is to have the hero find that he is suddenly a prince, or even king. This says more about the writer’s own desires than it does about the plot. Wishful-thinking fantasies do not usually make strong stories. But what would happen if the hero already knew his background, but his adversary didn’t?
The next time you read a fantasy story, count how many of the above are still in use. I think you’ll be surprised. It’s even worse in film and television, where all of them can occur in any one movie, and often do. Just look at Star Wars – it contained most of them, and still made huge amounts of money.
And that’s also why the above should be taken with a pinch of salt. Clichés still have their place in popular culture. Just don’t take that as an excuse to use them yourself. At least not too often.
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with seven novels published in the States and three more coming in 2007/8, all in the independent fantasy and horror press. His short work and articles have appeared in the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Greece, Saudi Arabia and India. He also has three shorts produced from his scripts, and several supernatural scripts currently on option, including four shorts, and a supernatural thriller feature.
I think this is really great advice for any author. Cliches can be so damaging to your career and your reader’s opinions of you. It’s impossible to avoid using cliches and contrived situations altogether, but take a new perspective or add in a twist that someone may not have seen before and you’re set!