Friday, April 27, 2012

Four Fantasy Cliches to Avoid

In our search for originality, it is often beneficial to find out what NOT to do. Often, the mistakes that others make can point us toward the right way to go.

Recently, I've identified four fantasy cliches to avoid. Avoiding these cliches will not only help your novel be more compelling and original, it'll appeal a lot more to your audience.

1. Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons (etc.)

Many, many fantasy novels have borrowed races from other novels, especially from Tolkien's epic. There are things we find compelling about such creatures, but honestly, they're worn-out and used...a lot. Dragons especially have a special place in the fantasy lover's heart.

But just because they have a special place doesn't mean we should use them. Unless you're writing something that deliberately takes from old legends—such as an Arthurian fantasy like D. Barkley Briggs' "Legends of Karac Tor" series—these fantasy cliches have to go.

Granted, there are original ways to use such creatures, ways to break the cliche on purpose. I'll leave that to your discretion. But unless you know what you're doing, I'd strongly recommend staying away from such fantasy creatures.

And honestly, very few of us know what we're doing. Including myself. ^_^

2. Mind Readers

Quick! Name five books that have mind readers in them!

Pretty easy, wasn't it? Mind readers, however they are renamed, are often used in fantasy. How many of us have wished they could read other peoples' minds? Wouldn't that be cool?

Unfortunately, it's been used time and time again. Again, to avoid further cliches, I'd recommend you'd stay away from mind-readers. Like the other cliches, it's possible to break the mold and put a new twist on things, but until you're experienced, you should probably stay away from it.

3. Going to Another World

Ever since Narnia, this has been a popular one. (Not that there was much BEFORE Narnia...) People (particularly kids) going to other worlds from Earth is something to be avoided at all costs. Worse yet, kids that go to other worlds and find out their great calling. (*headdesk*)

Like all cliches, this can be used in a good way. See The Restorer by Sharon Hinck, for instance. That was probably the best use I've seen since Narnia for this cliche.

4. Chosen Ones

This is often grouped with #3: an ordinary person discovers an ancient prophecy (or some other babble) that means that they're chosen for a great task.

While this has been used well quite a bit, I'd still recommend that you bypass this one. (That's one of the many cliches that The Prophecies fell into, by the way.) It's just been used too often and too much.

And honorary mentions: medieval fantasy (fantasy with swords, spears, and castles), people with special abilities, revelations about relatives (think "I am your father"), and people with unusually-colored eyes, such as red, green, yellow, and purple.

(That last one was a joke, by the way.)

However, I didn't include those because they're too diverse to be lumped in with other cliches. There's too many different ways to do medieval fantasy, for instance: in fact, it's pretty much a sub-genre. Just because something is medieval fantasy doesn't automatically mean the author will fall into medieval fantasy's worst cliches.

Of course, there are many other cliches to avoid, but these are the most universal ones. As to the others, learn to discern them. Don't trust the first ideas that come to mind, as Daniel Schwabauer has said. Too often, those are the easiest ones and are most likely to be borrowed from somewhere else.

What other cliches (fantasy or otherwise) can you think of? What are some examples of these cliches in modern-day fiction?

Until next time.


Emilyn J Clover said...

Wow..... this will be so hard.
But I'm not going to throw out all these things just because I just read this. I am going to consider it very carefully.
Everyone is chosen in a way, by God, for some reason to live here. I always liked the feeling of purpose. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. That's what I will show(through story and not words), that purpose is important, before showing the ultimate purpose, following God.
The one subject character that people will never get tired of is man.
Time travel is another thing, but people love the subject of time travel. It's hard to write a story with time travel in it without getting complicated. There may be some flaws in it and you might never know till it is too late.
I have to think about whether or not I should have time travel in my books, because I've already worked it into the stories.

Casey J. Coburn said...

I'm relieved that I'm only guilty of the first one (I was guilty of the second one, but that was many years ago when I didn't know any better). XD

I'm doing the third one with a novel I'm working on right now (Celtic Secrets), but the main characters go to a world that's a real mythological place: Faerie. I heard about it in a book of lost worlds and mythical places.

So...does that count as bad? I'm not sure. XD

Anyway! Great job on this post, Jake! I enjoyed it, and it made a lot of sense! ; )

RED~Scribe said...

Green eyes are unusual? You wound me, Jake. My eyes are green. :P Hazel, actually.

I definitely agree with one, three and four -- two, however, still has twists to it that I feel can be explored. But that's just me.

Emilyn J Clover said...

Have you read the book the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eldra? It makes me feel that mind reading isn't necessary. There are actually lots of books(most of which are secular I believe, not all of them) that have mind reading in them. Haha, my eyes were 'dubbed' hazel long but I'm not sure if they are or not. I look in the mirror and look into my eyes and I see dark green. But maybe it's just the lighting.

J R R Tolkien wrote an essay about Faery stories, and I think that every fantasy writer should read it. You can find it in the book Tree and Leaf(which has one of his short stories and poems in it too).

Starsinger said...

Ditto Eldra's first paragraph, although mine are a very green hazel.

I've done most of those things in bygone times, I never got that far before I hated what I was writing.

Modern cliches, this is the one that popped into my head: love triangles.

Casey J. Coburn said...

Another cliche that drives me crazy is when the main character is young, completely 'innocent', and they have to be mentored by some older guy in order to do something great or whatever. That's kind of like the "Chosen One" cliche, I guess...

Green eyes? I have green eyes as well! They're kind of grayish-green, but still clearly green. XD Not to contradict you, Jake.

Jake said...


Very true! Like I said in the post, just because it's a cliche doesn't mean you can't use it: you just have to be careful not to copy other stories that have been written with the same cliche.

@Greeneyed people

Oh. Yeah. Green eyes. o_O I have a bit of green in my own eyes, actually. But just a bit.

To justify the statement, I was thinking emerald green or forest green when I wrote that post. So I wasn't saying that all ye greeneyes are unusual. ^_^ I should have been more specific, however. Life lesson 38734897242.

@Star Dreamer

Love triangles. Ugh. I avoid romance altogether, actually. After all, we write what we know, and honestly, few young writers (if any) really know how to write romance.

Casey J. Coburn said...

But I like being unusual! 8D

Truth is...*whispers* I knew that you actually meant emerald green or forest green or any variations thereof. XD I know that because I used to be guilty of using those eye colors, and people always told me it was unrealistic. XD

Right, that was random. XD I'll stop posting random comments now.

RED~Scribe said...

*bursts out laughing* I understood what you meant, Jake. I just wanted to mess with you. Although now I'm surprised at how many people have green eyes... But how many of you can say that you're also a redhead? :P


Yes, I've read Voyage of the Dawn Treader (several times, actually). As far as mind reading (or telepathy) goes, there are still ideas to explore -- but only if you really know what you're doing. Actually, one of my WiPs started out having several characters who could "read minds," but it's since expanded into something different... and much, much more unique. So I feel it can also be a good springboard.

Starsinger said...

*looks at ground* *kicks at imaginary stone* *mumbles* I've done the whole unusual green-eyed thing as well.

I normally try to avoid romances as well. This was since I read the Twilight series... *grabs a bucket* *poofs before she feels totally sick*

Emilyn J Clover said...

Another cliche is goblins. I almost put them in my book just because "Ooh, goblins! That's fantasy! Lets put some in my books!"
lol, I may make people similar to goblins...
Also, I tried to avoid romance because I myself wasn't into romances. (Then came the Epic focus features movie Jane Eyre. That movie made me cry so hard because of how the main character was treated as a child and then grows up to these chains of events including falling in love) lol, when I watch the beginning again, I inwardly think(this is a chick flick?? but it's sooo good!).
Anyway, I decided to do a sort of prequel about the parents of the main characters when they were growing up(because I got a great idea about their personalities), and then I realized I would have to put in some romance(if I didn't, then there would be no main characters for the other books lol). So that is probably the only romance there will be in the series. But I think I understand clean romance enough to write it. Besides, people back then didn't get married for love a lot.

Star-Dreamer said...

1. Dwarves, Elves, and Dragons (etc.)

True. :) Personally, I like the stories that don't copy everything tolkien tried to do... but I must admit; I'm a sucker for dragons. ;) And even elves and dwarves on occasion IF the story and the writing is original enough.

2. Mind Readers

Quick! Name five books that have mind readers in them!

Well, that's easy enough! The Inheritance cycle... lol! all four books. ;) And... Graceling. :)

I'm still using it in Eldrei, though. Hopefully in a unique way, but it's become so much a part of the character that it would literally KILL him if I just took it out. :P

3. Going to Another World

This one is so very very true... Honestly, it's annoyingly true.

In Eldrei I hope I'm doing something that's original with this one. My characters are NOT going into another world, for say, but they are going into another land... a land that the human race was banished from long ago. My hope for this idea was that it would be a tribute to both Tolkien and Lewis without being over obvious, but I don't know yet... Eldrei isn't done being written, so... *shrug*

4. Chosen Ones

hahaha! Very true!!!

I try to stay away from chosen ones, but it's so easy to fall into writing about them. For the most part, though, I've tried to keep away from them. Like, Arien and Tibain (in my WIP Eldrei) can't avoid the fact that they are heirs to a throne... the history behind that is long and complicated, but they weren't exactly "chosen" for the job.

Curron wasn't either (unless you count being "chosen" by God, but no one else ever guessed what Curron was.) Basically he just has a gift that, in his world, is more normal than he ever new before, but what he doesn't know is why he has it.

Aura... well, ok, so Aura is kind of a chosen one, but it's not really her fault. She can't help the fact that her mother was a fairy queen that disappeared... and she fights her "destiny" (if you can even really call it that... <_<) all the way to the end.

I don't know... like I said, it's hard not to write about chosen ones, because an MC has to have something particular about them in order for you to write about them, right? They may be ordinary and common at first, but there has to be something special about them, or we wouldn't want to read about them. right? Maybe not a magical power or a prophesy about them... but something. :D

Star-Dreamer said...

Another thing to consider is how to take a cliche and make it original... A good example would, in my opinion, be Artemis Fowl. Elves aren't just elves in that book, and fairies are a bit more than the little pixie people with wings. ;)

Cliches are so very very hard to avoid in any kind of writing, BUT... if they can be turned into something original, or at least more original than the cliche itself, some good writing CAN come out of it. :)

Jliessa44 said...

I think that for the first one I know what I'm doing and with the second one quite honestly that's the only way two of my characters can communicate... Although I might rename my elves and dragons and make them new species in the final draft.

The others however I strongly agree with. The whole chosen one bugs me. Your character can be special without everything revolving around them, and the other world thing... I think you should stick with one world and then stay there.

Another thing that bothers me is when this little kid goes out and defeats the evil ruler with little to no training. That's just not realistic, sorry.

Sunayna Prasad's blogs said...

I'm glad I learned these. I'm using a cliched topic in my novel, which are wizards and magic, but I'm modernizing them a lot. They use modern technology based off today's technology, they start learning magic at the age of nine, and they dress like regular people. I don't want to spoil anything else, but this is a good list. Personally, I don't care if I read about elves, dwarves, or dragons, but some non-fantasy cliches I don't like anymore are cute little girls named Susie, or the MC's school doing the play, The Wizard of Oz. I want to see fictional schools do other plays, like Fiddler on the Roof, Annie, The King and I, anything but The Wizard of Oz.

Sunny Smith said...

I realize I'm cashing in late on this one, but I just wanted to say that I agreed completely with you. Being original is always best!

Hana said...

No one has a deeper antipathy to cliche than I do, however I feel that if someone has an original take on a common genre, offering a different perspective, they should follow it. Twilight, now a multi-million dollar franchise, was made possible in part by Stephanie Meyer's belief that her book defied the cliche stereotypes given to fantasy novels. I'm not a die hard fan, however I can admire the result. Time travel also has thousands of yet concealed aspects, things waiting to be read into or overturned by another author. All of the ideas you mentioned above (I'm not disagreeing) HAVE been overused, however the creative writer could take an old subject and transform it. I don't think its honest to say that every outlook has been taken and that authors must (at all cost) stray from these common foundations.

One Cliche I was surprised you neglected to mention was the ever-dull realistic fiction novel. Perhaps this is because you are a boy and have not yet been exposed to the similar works of Sarah Dessen- teenage novels with similar beginnings and endings but characters holding dissimilar names. Its really a crime. I, personally, adore writing teen fiction, so long as I never finish with the all too familiar 'happy ending.' Life has loose ends, odds that won't match up, people that end up alone, afraid, and without hope. You can't tie a story up with a pretty red bow and and call it a masterpiece. Often, things are left unfinished, words remain unsaid, and regret lingers in the air. If we are steering from cliche its not the subjects I stress to look out for, more-so the endings. A brilliant quote tells novelists not to write because they need to say something, but to write because they have something to say. I have little interest in the life of a girl who lives in a well-to-do household with a white picket fence. Don't tell me that she secretly adores her eldest sisters boyfriend, that they share a kiss that turns into more. Don't write about how he asks her to run away with him, convinces her that the sister is wrong, cruel, and unforgiving. Finally, don't end this story with the boy going off to college and the girl finally confronting her actions, realizing the importance of family and sisterhood. Don't tell me that because I've heard it before. But then, what can you do with that pretty house and its white picket fence? Inspire yourself. Be real. Paint the picture of paradise, perfection and loveliness, then smoothly tear down each facade. Show me the ever-evasive perfection, take me to the office of the wealthy father (what is he smoking? Why is he smoking it? But you thought his life gave him no reason for sadness!) Take me into the mind of the mother,(She tries to keep up appearances, it becomes an obsession. If she can convince everybody else that she's fine perhaps she can convince herself). You may as well eliminate one of the children. Find a reason to. Discover a way to do this so that each character feels equal blame. Shatter an already torn family, and then finally rebuild them, leaving some things open-ended, remember that- although you may become attached to your characters- not every scar can heal.

I appreciate your advice on avoiding cliche- although I disagree in some aspects- I believe it inspired me put forth some of my own!

*BTW, I read in one of your comments that 'we write what we know.' I hope you don't mind my disagreeing, but I strongly feel that it is an authors job to write about the unknown, to "write in a way that scares you." :) It was, of course, only my 14 year old hugely undeveloped opinion.

Jake said...

Hello, Hana! Thank you for your thoughts. And hah, of course I don't mind that you disagree!

This'll be a little on the long side, sorry. I get rather loquacious when I talk about subjects I love.

I definitely agree with you on cliches. Cliches have the power to turn into something original - in the right hands. For starting novelists, however, most of them really *can't* write a cliche without falling into old pitfalls. I should know! I was one of those novelists. My first three novels are full of fantasy cliches, including dwarves, mind readers, and "Chosen Ones". I simply didn't have the expertise to turn the cliche on its head.

Once a novelist gets experienced and seasoned, then they're ready to take on the cliches.

But rules, like the ones I just stated above, can always be broken. There are always exceptions. The main thing is to tell the story that you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Listen to advice but only take the advice that you recognize as beneficial to your story.

Next, your thoughts on realism. This was so interesting and intriguing to me that I'm actually writing a blog post about it. So, if you don't mind, you'll get a sort of extended reply then!

Finally, "write what you know".

I think you misunderstand what I'm saying here. I'm not saying you should only write things you really understand and know a lot about. In that case, I'd be writing "realistic fiction" books about some Kansas kid who goes to Africa. What I *am* saying is that the more you know a subject, the more in-depth your portrayal of that subject will be.

Oftentimes, "write what you know" applies to characters. I have a character who suffers from loneliness, because I know that feeling. I have a character who desperately longs for forgiveness - because I know that feeling.

Now, if I were writing a character who lost all of his friends and family in a holocaust, I wouldn't know what to do, because that's never happened to me. I've never broken my leg, so that makes it a lot harder to break my character's leg - I wouldn't know how to describe it!

A simple example of "write what you know" would be a book set in China. If you made up Chinese words and said the Great Wall was blue, then the book certainly will be a lot worse for it - because you didn't know about your subject.

The more you learn, however, the more you can use what you learn in your novels, and the more realistic and compelling your novels will be.

Again, thank you for your thoughts! I apologize for the atrocious length of this comment. ;)