A Few Fantasy Cliches

I thought it would be fun to analyze some of the proported cliches of the fantasy genre and evaluate them. The point here is to interact with the complaints about the high fantasy genre and determine whether or not they are true cliches or just opinions.

We’ll start out with this article from eHow on “How to Avoid Cliches in Fantasy Writing.”

The first complaint is that fantasy stories are “set in a place like medieval Europe with certain types of characters.” This is described as being “one of fantasy’s biggest cliches.” But is it? This is not a complaint about cliche in general, but a protest against a certain type of story – the Medieval romance. (By the way, I am using the term “romance” in its traditional sense, to mean “a story that involves fantastic elements,” which includes fantasy, science fiction, horror and paranormal genres). No matter how badly or baldly it has been done, it is a legitimate story to tell.

Our article writes,

Often fantasies will focus on young men and women who go on a quest and discover that they are the only ones who can save the land. Or a group will go on a journey together and their fearless leader is the key to saving the land.

What exactly would you like us to write instead? A band of characters that go on a quest only to discover that they can’t save the land? Try getting that story to sell. “Dear Publisher, I am submitting my fantasy novel for consideration. It follows a group of characters who don’t save the world from evil and then all die horribly.”

Again, this protest is problematic because, as JOseph Campbell has shown, the great story told over and over in every culture is the story of the quest. The hero is called out of the ordinary world to the realm of Faerie, must battle the darkness, win the Elixir of Life, and return everything to rights. This is the oldest story in the world, and we reject it at our own risk.

And by the way, this quest story is not just used in “high fantasy” settings. As we may expect, it pops up everywhere. Romance novels involve this story (character lives in ordinary world, meets love interest and follows into the extraordinary world of romance, only to find the Elixir of Life – true love – and defeat all the obstacles to that love, and then return to the normal world having conquered and live happily ever after). Stories that are middle-to-low fantasies like the Spiderwick Chronicles, A Series of Unfortunate Events, 100 Cupboards, Percy Jackson and the Olympians all use this story. Because it is the only story mankind can tell.

Make your own monsters. Orcs, trolls, elves, dragons, fairies, ghosts, werewolves and vampires are just some of the creatures that populate fantasy stories. Some editors don’t want to see these types of creatures in stories. If you create your own creatures, you can build your own mythology around them.

Again, this is the beastiary of high fantasy. Nobody’s making you tell stories with elves and trolls, but we shouldn’t be discouraging it either. “Some editors don’t want to see these types of creatures in stories.” Tough. They define the high fantasy genre. Inventing new ones depends upon the assumption that people can just “come up with” something totally new that nobody’s seen before. Foolishness. “There is nothing new under the sun.” There are only so many tweaks to mythical creatures, and most of them get a response from readers like this: “A Gynthnok? Looks a troll with three eyes. Why the heck didn’t he just say troll?” Why are we obligated to come up with something nobody’s seen before? Why can’t we just use them in ways different from everyone else?

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