I love fantasy, and yet, I find it endlessly annoying at times.
I’ve read amazing fantasy stories that capture my imagination and drag me into a world I never want to leave. I’ve also read stories that bring me into a world that’s too familiar, too similar to what I’ve read elsewhere.
For all its awesomeness, fantasy tends to slip into clichés.
Let’s face it—clichés are unavoidable. As writers know, there’s no such thing as a truly original story. The appeal comes when a story takes an unexpected twist or turns a cliché on its head in a creative way.
Unfortunately, fantasy doesn’t do this as often as it should. It has become drowned in a sea of clichés, stereotyped characters, and lookalike stories. Here are three of the most obvious clichés that need a twist or an original take to keep the lure of fantasy alive.
(Forgive me if I go into a writer’s rant.)
1. The nobody character who becomes a hero
You all know the story. A character lives a humble life and then something happens to yank them into a grand adventure wherein they become the hero who saves the day.
I’ve seen this. So. Many. Times.
This cliché is different because its popularity is rooted in our human existence. Unlike some clichés, we resonate with a nobody character who becomes the hero. Cheering for the underdog comes naturally since we’ve all been there in one way or another. Deep down, we internalize the story. If they can do it, so can we. That’s the timeless appeal.
What better way to tap this than with the underdog story?
Yes, tons of stories follow this pattern and many are successful, so what’s the big deal? The difference is the successful ones put a spin on it.
I’m not against an unknown character rising to greatness, but every time I see the start of such a story, I shudder and think, “Here we go again. Are they going to make it special enough to grab my attention?”
Some have done it well. I’m looking at you, Harry Potter.
Other stories do the same thing but without any spark of originality, slapping a big red “cliché” sticker on their foreheads. Those are the ones that need to fall on a sword and die.
2. The gray-haired, gruff mentor/guide
This one irks me the most. It’s so overdone it’s painful at this point, and not only in fantasy. Here’s a short list:
- Obi Wan Kenobi
- Gregory (Seventh Son)
- Master Shifu
- Several characters—I’m ashamed to admit—from my own stories
After awhile, they become uninspiring and predictable.
I’m not arguing against mentors, or old characters with a crotchety streak. What I am arguing is that there needs to be something new about them, something different we haven’t seen before.
The mentor is a woman.
The old guy is pleasant and doesn’t make a living on sarcasm.
Something new. Please.
We don’t want to read a book and find out we already know one of the characters—who strangely enough used to live in a different world and who’s predictable down to the pipe and the pinched bushy eyebrows.
3. A medieval setting with knights, princesses, and castles
This one isn’t as bad as the other two. A medieval setting is part of what makes fantasy unique, and it can be done in so many different ways that it doesn’t have to sound clichéd.
A great example of this is the kingdom of Er’Rets in Jill Williamson’s Blood of Kings Trilogy. It’s a typical medieval setting, but with a major difference—half the land is covered in darkness. That’s all it takes to make a fantasy world interesting.
However, if the medieval kingdom is the same as every other kingdom, without any significant difference to set it apart, it becomes bland and boring.
Fantasy worlds spring out of the writer’s imagination, so nothing should be impossible. Every fantasy world should be unique in one major way. They need to capture our attention and imagination—we read fantasy because we want to explore new places.
We need innovative worlds to lose ourselves in, not an endless bombardment of setting elements that have already been trampled to death.
Fantasy needs to stop falling back on its old standbys and venture into new territory. If all we continue to get is lackluster clichés, eventually they’ll become so stale that we’ll lose interest and search for adventure in other places.
That would be a sad day indeed.
What fantasy clichés annoy you? What does fantasy need to change in order to remain interesting? Please share your thoughts in the comments.