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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 cliches, and everybody knows what to expect next. I'm both a writer of fantasy, and an editor of an ezine, and I thought I'd pass on some of my experience.
If you're a writer in the fantasy genre, here are ten cliches you should try to avoid in your stories.
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, an elven sword and the best horse. 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?
Meeting elves or fairies in the woods The "Midsummer Night's Dream" gambit. This was much beloved of old romantics like J.R.R Tolkein, William Morris and Arthur Conan Doyle. Charles De Lint has successfully transported the faerie folk into modern habitats, but it's hard to do these days without being post-modern and ironic. It's possible that the Lord of the Rings phenomenon will bring the "little people" back into fashion, but in the meantime, maybe you could try having elves arriving in the middle of a modern city? How would they react?
Arriving at the magic university The "Harry Potter" gambit. The gauche apprentice magician (who is sometimes a stable-boy) meets the doddering old teachers who are all supposed to be master magicians. This one is so old, and Terry Pratchett has so successfully lampooned it, that I'm surprised Harry Potter worked at all. I can only assume that J.K.Rowling's readership is too young to have heard of Discworld. For a variation, suppose your hero is completely self-taught, and finds that the College's teachings are actually diminishing his power? What happens next?
At the council of lords/kings/wizards The "Round table" gambit. People say things like "The crown is rightfully mine." or "You must not misuse your power." or "I cannot be King and man - I can only be King." This is usually either a thinly disguised re-hash of the Arthur story, or is used as a parable on modern politics. Either way, the reader can spot the cliches coming a mile away. The scene usually ends one of two ways: one of the council storms out and becomes the main villain for the rest of the story, or all the council storm out and spend the rest of the story on a near impossible quest until the stable-boy does what the great lords couldn't. Try to find a new way for this group to communicate. Give them all mobile phones, or the magical equivalent, and watch what happens.
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? Forget the fact that the stable-hand always has excellent hand-eye coordination, 20-20 vision, and the constitution of several oxen. Unless he had a hot bath, the smell of the stables would be enough to disarm most opponents on its own. A radical idea would be to have the stable-boy being completely useless at weapons. How is he going to fulfil his destiny then?
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." and "I will defeat this evil or die trying." 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?
First meeting with the sidekick The "Little John" gambit. The stable-boy, having set out on the near impossible quest, meets his future sidekick. Initially they distrust each other, and often fight, but they very quickly end up as an inseperable pair. This is so popular it has spawned a whole genre of its own - the buddy movie. Just don't have them fighting each other on a bridge at their first meeting. Maybe they have to get together through necessity, but hate each other continually? There's plenty of scope for tension there.
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 pulps 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?
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.
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. Cliches still have their place in popular culture. Just don't take that as an excuse to use them yourself. At least not too often.
I did have a giggle reding this review. You are so right. I would love to write a fantasy story and will certainly think of this review as I write. Ha ha!
xandress 05.06.2004 12:45
some good advice here, am on the lookout for any valuable help for my daighter and especially in this are as she loves fantasy. thankyou x
Calypte 19.08.2003 16:47
Excellent set of tips! The weird thing was, while I was reading that I could think of several cases where the cliche had been used really well (and it annoys me that I enjoyed them despite cliches!) On the other hand, I think that doing exactly the opposite of the well-worn route turns out to be just as bad most of the time - or worse - a desperate attempt to seem different when in fact it's the same old story old with a girl instead of a boy. Doesn't make THAT much difference! But you're spot on - anyone trying to write should be very aware of falling into any of these traps.