Fantasy has a weakness.
Shocker, I know, coming from a fellow who writes and breathes fantasy. But for all its glorious strengths, fantasy has a whopping Achilles heel.
It’s too cliché.
Back in the day when fantasy was getting started as a genre with Tolkien, Lewis, and others, they could write anything and have the luxury of it sounding new and original.
Since then, hordes of copycat books and series have sprung up, most notably following Tolkien. Elves and wizards became cool, and everybody wanted to hop on the fantasy bandwagon and take a ride to success.
Some books do a good job of avoiding the annoying clichés, and others put in a fresh twist to keep our interest piqued. But for whatever reason, a lot of books don’t. Instead, they toil in Been-Here-Before land.
In case you’re wondering, that’s not Wonderland.
It’s a shame.
After Awhile, Everything Starts Sounding the Same
I’m not talking about contemporary fantasy genres such as urban fantasy or magic realism. They have their own downfalls, but right now I’m dealing with fantasy that takes place in a separate world.
Think Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Wheel of Time. You get the picture.
- The quest to save the world from the evil ruler
- The chosen one rising from humble origins to save the day
- The medieval setting of castles, swords, and brave warriors
- Usually some sort of magic system
Nothing wrong with those, but if there’s not enough to set them apart as unique stories, the similarities become irksome.
Wait. Aren’t all genres guilty of that? Romances follow a formulaic pattern with no significant variation. Thrillers all seem cut out of the James Bond cloth. Why does it matter if most fantasy stories sound familiar?
Because more than in any other genre, the magical wonder of fantasy is the chance to enter a unique and enchanting place that captures our imaginations and follow a story that reflects the truths of our world. It’s utterly foreign yet hauntingly familiar.
It’s appeal is the offer to venture into unexplored worlds, experience new cultures, discover wildly imaginative creatures, and meet characters that draw us into their lives.
That’s the heart of fantasy, and that’s why fantasy should never feel old or overdone.
We’ve Been Here Before, Sam
I don’t mean to pick on one series, but I’ve read the Inheritance Cycle, and I think it’s a good example of the cliché problem I’m talking about. It draws from several stories, and while that isn’t a bad thing, there’s not enough contrast to the originals to make it captivating.
- It borrows the idea of true names from the Earthsea Trilogy.
- It’s basically Lord of the Rings with different clothes on.
- One of its characters is the twin of Perrin from the Wheel of Time series, right down to the blacksmith hammer and the obsession with rescuing his captured girl.
With so many fantasy books out there nowadays, it’s impossible to find a setting, plot, and characters that feel totally new. That’s not the point. It’s fine if some elements of a story or world feel familiar, as long as others invigorate us with unexpected twists or mind-blowing possibilities we’ve never seen done in the same way.
The balance between the recognizable and the innovative.
Think of a house. It’s basically the same structure—walls, windows, floors, doors. The beautiful differences come from the creativity of the architect and designers. Having a common structure doesn’t mean it has to mirror the appearance of every other house.
The same should be true of Fantasy.
Fantasy Should Always Capture Our Imagination
As Brandon Sanderson has pointed out, fantasy should be the most diverse genre. With no limits to the imagination, nothing should sound redundant.
You can’t completely avoid archetypes, and common story and setting elements. The key is to mix it up in a new way. Try something daring. Do something unexpected.
- Skip a quest altogether
- Avoid making the hero a nobody who saves the world
- Play with setting details
- Create a magic system no one’s ever seen
Frankly, as a fantasy reader, if a book doesn’t give me the thrill of exploring new worlds and concepts, meeting new characters, and gallivanting on exciting journeys that aren’t painfully familiar, what’s the point?
I don’t want to read predictable, boring stories, and I’d bet the One Ring that no one else does, either.
Having you read any cliché fantasy stories that drove you crazy? As a reader, what do you think fantasy is lacking or can do better? Please share your thoughts in the comments.