Friday, September 01, 2006

Fantasy Cliches And Why I Want To Kill Them

So the title is a little harsh, but hey, harsh can be fun.

I played D&D as a kid, read Tolkien and a few others so I have some familiarity with the genre. I watched a lot of the fantasy movies, blah blah blah, so I have some kind of leg to stand on when I criticize the cliches. I do so because I would like to see more original ideas in the genre. The genre suffers from several problems, some innate to the genre and some due to the general hackery of fantasy writers. Now I am talking strictly about books written in a pseudohistoricaal medieval setting, not Harry Potter or any of the modern fantasy or vampire books. I'm talking typical Fantasy here. The kind with Frazetta covers, ya dig?

Now I warn you that I will sound like I am tearing apart the very basis of Fantasy and that I am not a fan. This isn't true. I am merely tired of the same old crap. I used to like the cliches, but how many near exact copies of Lord of the Rings and Conan can I take, come on.

Also, I expect most to say, "lighten up dude, it's just fantasy," in response to my dislike of the implications of the fantasy setting worldview. I am not trying to multiculturalize or legislate rules re: fantasy. I want a larger range of fantasy worlds. Y'all can keep writing the same old baloney, I just won't read it.

The following are several of the problems.


Fantasy has this tendency to create races as living stereotypes. Now these stereotypes don't necessarily connect to real world stereotypes. I can't really match up dwarves or what-have-you to real ethnic groups. That is not my point really. My point is that its endorsement of stereotypical thinking.

This is all reinforced by the tendency to develop human-like structures to their societies. The demihumans (to steal from D&D) have a typical human sexual reproduction and family format. There has been a tendency to try and create an ecological niche as if there were at one time Cro-magnon elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, etc all competing for the same resources in the stone age. They have their own cultures, societies, rules, etc. Once you make these magical races biological it creates a setting that seems to endorse a biological deterministic framework. Goblins are innately inferior because of their evil Goblin heritage/genes. Elves are innately superior (and coincidentaly quite Aryan in appearance) because of their Elven genes/lifespan/abilities. And I think that is where they go awry in multiple ways.

If you start to go biological you then need to really think out the world beyond all levels of frustration. To create a semi-realistic setting you have to walk through all of evolution on the planet and explain why Elves don't rule the world. Once you do that you have to think up reasons why different groups are innately evil and how they could have survived at all without some kind of kindness/cooperation within their group. From everything I have seen a society that is as cutthroat as the Goblin races are usually depicted would be out-competed by early man who was at least somewhat cooperative at the tribal level. The point is that you would have to recreate a pseudo-biological history of the entire planet. It's just too annoying.

My favorite method is to return to myth and to return to the general idea that these are magical creatures not biological. They don't have families or societies as we would understand them. They are creatures of magic and spirit and so embody ideas not real species. Like the Fae of Ireland they may reproduce by stealing kids and feeding them magical food under the hills. Stuff like that helps you avoid all the biological and ethical complications of a decent fantasy setting. This was very much inspired by the Hellboy comic book by Mike Mignola. He's bloody brilliant (as some denizen of Harry Potter might say).

And so in designing the setting you create a roughly Earth-like evolved planet with magic creeping in at the edges.


The next major problem is the idea of the prophesied chosen one who will save the world from darkness. I am so utterly tired of the chosen one vs dark lord BS. Are we that short of ideas that the only plot to be redone in infinite variety is some kind of Tolkien + Jesus mish-mash? It is just so painfully, sickeningly done to death. What about the little stories about interesting characters in interesting fantasy settings? Fahfrd & The Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber is a notable exception. They should be more interesting than me or the butcher down the corner, but does it always have to be about saving the whole of middle earth? Why this need for the epic in every single novel/series? Just laziness to me.

Back to this chosen one nonsense. In the real world there are no chosen one's who change the course of history. The exceptions are Jesus, Buddha, and other such major religious figures. By and large history is made by the mass movements of people with leaders that seem to know how to ride the crest of a movement. The leaders ARE NOT THE MOVEMENT. I do not want to read about another Jesus figure sans pacifism and compassion. It doesn't appeal to me and while it has its place within Fantasy it is not the only plot one could do. To me the chosen one syndrome encourages simplistic thinking about life. Simple is comforting, but wrong and unhelpful.

The chosen one is often a farmboy, who is secretly the long lost son of the king. Besides being a tired cliche I disagree with its implications. It implies that no one could possibly become a great man without some kind of genetic link to other great men, feeding the eugenics BS throughout Fantasy novels. Why can't the farmboy, merely be a farmboy who rises to greatness? (The exceptions is Conan, the Fantasy genre's self-made man.) Why does it have to turn out that he belonged to the ruling class all along? This leads to my next pet peeve...


Fantasy novels make certain entirely false assumptions about authority figures.

Firstly they depict rulers as either entirely enlightened, just, nearly holy rulers, or evil usurpers of the throne. They are very much wrapped up in the nobility and the justifications of the nobility.

Let's set some things straight. Kings and the like started out as bandit/warrior/Mafioso who basically ran a protection racket and made themselves rich off of that. That is the entire basis of "nobility." All this rightful king bloodline nonsense was cover for Machiavellian Mafioso politics. There is not one shred of decency or admirability in the Lords and Ladies. They generally starved the people to live in luxury and for that should never be praised in my book. They gave nominal protection, but the primary protection the people needed was from their own King or a competing King.

The wise gentle authority figure is pure fiction. Kings of the past are generally quite similar to dictators of the modern era, e.g., Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Stalin, Hitler, the Kings of the Middle East, "President" Musharraf, etc.

Do any of these strike you as similar to King Arthur? No? That's my point.

And so I merely wish Kings to be depicted as well rounded humans who were driven primarily by greed and power lust, but had a human familial side as well. They can vary character, but at their hearts they are all amorally ruthless when it comes to keeping themselves in power.

I can quite easily picture an adventurer type getting stuck between Machiavellian Kings, why is that so rare?


I know the genre was born out of reinvention of the ancient European epic, but does it all have to be? I enjoy it and all, but I'd like to see more novels set in fantasy setting based on extrapolations upon Asian, Native American, and African cultures. Fantasy is a big what-if anyway. Why can't you imagine how A pseudo America would develop after a few more centuries of settled culture and technological advancement? Or a pseudoAfrica? All of these can create interesting imagery. Or you can try (and this is hard) to make up your own fantasy cultures from scratch. Start with maps, then how folks look, make up language and culture, clothes, food, animals, social structure, the way magic works, the whole kit & kaboodle. That sounds challenging!

Perhaps the problem is the fantasy audience. Perhaps they just want the Lord of the Rings re-told in slightly different ways over and over and over again.

I dunno.




Budd said...

You should try George R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice series.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog :-)
Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day :)

Anonymous said...

exactly the peeves i have with fantasy. just typed.
Should you find yourself in want of something different, check out China Mieville. Gaslamp fantasy/Steampunk, but very, very different.

Anonymous said...

Reading what you have written has helped me in many ways you wouldn't think possible. I love the fantasy world so I want to embrace it, or am atleast trying to. I will make sure to try and keep as much cliche's out of my fantasy as possible. I don't want to turn out like Christopher Paolini and just get the recognition because I was young. (I want to be rich like him of course! I would love to have a video game and a movie, but then that would all be very overwhelming...) I want to be remembered for a story that even adults can enjoy. I've also tooken up your challenge you've written above. I have two books full of world-building information for my plot.

I've always though that if I wrote about elves and dwarves that it was plagiarism. I'm happy that my brain is so stuck on this. It refrains me from ever writing a tolkien-ish story. Maybe if more people who strongly don't believe in plagiarism thought this, there wouldn't be so many tolkien wannabe's.


Anonymous said...

Read WARHAMMER Fantasy and WARHAMMER 40K, and you shall be enlightened.

Write your own book, if you think you can do better and see how well it sells. Don't be lazy, go on, do it. ;)

Anonymous said...

Dude, i agree. A whole lot of modern fantasy is just a reproduction of the same well-worn (mostly tolkienesque) cliches. Since your ideas of fantasy are so firm, why not write one yourself?

Still, about dictatorship and monarchy, although I HATE it, there HAVE been good-guy monarchs (if you doubt this check up King Alfred the Great, British king who saved Britain from Norse invaders, introduced demi-democratic regional governments and made the ability to read accessable to ALL Englishmen, noble or not).

And if you're searching for something UTTERLY UN-DERIVATIVE, check out IAN IRVINE'S 'THE VIEW FROM THE MIRROR QUARTET' (i think that's what it's called.

Anonymous said...

Write what you enjoy, write the book that you want to read and turn a blind eye to this bloody list of cliches. As C.S. Lewis once said, you shouldn't give a darn about being original. 9 times out 10 when you just set out to tell the truth, you end up being original anyway.

I think this list of cliches is, in and of its self, cliched. Every fantasy writer has heard it a thousand times and still new books are being produced, containing a few of these cliches, and are wonderful, rich, intelligent stories. So get down of your high horse; if you want to read a cliche-free stort, write it yourself.

Anonymous said...

"Since your ideas of fantasy are so firm, why not write one yourself?"

"So get down of your high horse; if you want to read a cliche-free stort, write it yourself."

A few things-
First, I love Google. Hence why I'm here. I was actually searching for a complete list of the cliches in Eragon, but then it just kept trying to sell me the book and I realized that he's so popular that no one will dare to do it. So I searched the cliches in general to find a list that fit him. (Not hard. At all.)

Second, look at the quotes from the replies here that I've listed above. I've done this, made a world from scratch, done a book on it, compared it to several books to make sure it's not totally Paolini-esque. However, editors actually rejected it because of the infamous "it's good, but would anyone read it?" reasoning. I didn't even mention that I was a teenager. It's not formulaic like people have come to expect, so the editors are afraid that people won't be interested in picking it up. Hence, it's hard to get books published in the first place, let alone ORIGINAL works. Cliched works are proven to be just what the reader ordered, because they've sold so well in the past.

"I want to be remembered for a story that even adults can enjoy. I've also tooken up your challenge you've written above. I have two books full of world-building information for my plot."

I salute you. Here's hoping that you get a novel or two of it published.


Anonymous said...


While I gotta say I'm also tired of the same old--I refuse to read something fantasy now without recommendation--I also think you're being a bit excessive. I'd have to say that the number one cliche would be the determined avoidance of cliche. I have to piggy-back off of the C. S. Lewis quote there and say this: you can only be original if you're not trying to be.

Next, not all monarchs are bad. Alfred the Great was a good one, but there were others. Few, but some. And the Machiovellian politics are a Renaissance idea, and only apply to Absolute Rulers. The early ones required some level of popularity. You're commiting the sort of generalization you're condemning.

Further, the most spectacular failures I have seen are the ones where people make the worlds from scratch. Absolutely spectacular. Don't do it.

Finally, unless you've really studied or participated in a non-European tradition for years, or are of a non-European tradition originally, I wouldn't suggest trying to write outside of it. Take a real tradition and work out of it, adding your own personal flairs and spins. This works best.

However, I'll agree with you on the rest of it. Biological determinism and royal bloodlines are getting tiresome indeed.


English Clergyman

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the author needs to get out of D&D games, and read more.

I've seen many of those tropes in D&D, but fantasy writers are on a whole different level, and it's more than vaguely insulting to people working in the field to have them painted with such a broad brush, on so many points.

- Etarnon

Anonymous said...

"The wise gentle authority figure is pure fiction."

Maybe you should read up on Marcus Aurelius. He wasn't a saint by our standards, perhaps; but compared to the standards of his times, he certainly was more moral and conscientious than the vast majority of his countrymen.

"Why this need for the epic in every single novel/series? Just laziness to me."

The reason is not laziness on the part of authors. The reason is because Epic is what publishers buy.

Not to say you don't have some good points - Star Wars and it's galaxy of trillions but only one family matters just makes me gag.

Unknown said...

Here's one to add. Why does every other female heroine/antagonist have to have been sexually abused to justify her hatred of men and her subsequent ruthless behavior? Why???

Peter Greenwell said...

I've responded to your post on a point-by-point basis here -->

In the main, I agree with you.

AvatarRising13 said...

I agree with some things and disagree with others. For instance, if you live in America you were raised in the Western tradition. The roots of of our laws, thinking and government can all be traced to Greece at the very least, continuing through Mycenaea and Rome to England and then America. It is almost impossible to imagine a completely new system outside of our own simply because, well, it is our own. And our system took thousands of years to get to this point. I seriously doubt even the most capable of fantasy authors could create a totally new system in a few months.

The idea about racial determinism is interesting, but flawed. If you are taking it that far, why would they even be in competition. There is more to self-aware life than evolution. There's cultural anthropology. Fantasy from Tolkein has achieved this unique ethnodiversity that works simply because it is familiar. Pushing the envelope is well and good, but even the most interesting novels and games use these cliches. And to tell the truth, it has been ages since I've read a book whose species are so cliched.

And you attack only one cliche regarding characterization. How come there is no literature in novels? How come no one has ever read a book containing these cliches? How come your wise sage doesn't realize he is typifying the "wise sage"?

I'm sorry you are so disenchanted with fantasy, but you have to take the cliche with the originality. Perhaps you need to read an author who is skilled at wielding cliches and originality. Diana Wynne Jones is an amazing author. The Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin both poke fun at fantasy cliches, but she does it with love.

Just think about this- do you want to read a book about medieval squalor in which your farm boy never rises above squalor because an author decides to forgo cliches and accurately represent feudal systems. The farm boy then goes on to die of dysentery or flu or, what the hay, a nice case of bubonic plague.

Anonymous said...

I think there is alot of creative potential in subverting cliche rather than avoiding it. As was stated above to be truly original is as arduous as it is unlikely; but to take a cliche and look at it from a completely different angle you can keep a tale familiar enough to be palatable while giving it new life.

Anonymous said...

hi, i just read this, and I agree with you on some things, but the thing is, if you have a cliche and you do the opposite of it, sometimes it can be even worse than the cliche itself. people want to read fantasy, and if fantasy means cliches, why don't we just let them get on with it? people want to write it and people want to read it. it doesn't really matter about the cliches as long as you can put your own spin on things. i agree we dont want to read LOTR copies all the time, but some of the best fantasy authors have put their own ideas in too, as well as the cliches which makes it unique. so the cliches don't really matter anymore.

Tara said...

This is really, really old, but it makes me very, very happy.
That's all.

Anonymous said...

When Terry Brooks first published his Sword of Shannara novel, it received a lot of criticism from some people claiming that he had ripped off Tolkien and used far too many "fantasy cliches".

The author of the science fiction novel Dune, Frank Herbert, defended Brooks, saying:

"Don't fault Brooks for entering the world of letters through the Tolkien door. Every writer owes a similar debt to those who have come before. Some will admit it. Tolkien's debt was equally obvious. The classical myth structure is deeply embedded in Western society.

That's why you should not be surprised at finding these elements in The Sword of Shannara. Yes, you will find here the young prince in search of his grail; the secretpowers of nature; the magician; the wise old man; the witch mother; the malignant threat from a sorcerer; the holy talisman; the virgin queen; the fool, and all of the other Arthurian trappings.

What Brooks has done is to present a marvelous exposition of why the idea is not the story. Because of the popular assumption (which assumes mythic proportions of its own) that ideas form 99 percent of a story, writers are plagued by that foolish question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Brooks demonstrates that it doesn't matter where you get the idea; what matters is that you tell a rousing story."

Don't worry about your ideas not being original. Worry about your story being good.

Readers will forgive a lack of originality as long as a story is entertaining, compelling, and interesting.

Anonymous said...

I will not approve on it. I over polite post. Specially the appellation attracted me to read the sound story.

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Nick P said...

I don’t check the comments on my blogs very often but as I’ve been directed back to this one I figured I’d respond some.

Many suggested I read more fantasy as my complaints are not based upon a wide enough pool and that fantasy ain’t so bad. I agree. I never said I was an expert. I was mainly sharing why when I read the back of novels in the SFF section I tend to read more SF and less F.

I also do plan on reading some more fantasy to widen my horizons. After googling some I am most intrigued by China Mieville’s stuff and will probably take a stab at George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice Series. I have already Cook’s Black Company Trilogy on my read pile.

Unfortunately my read pile currently contains, The Elegant Universe [layman string theory], a Thomas Pynchon book, a Parecon book [non-capitalist economic system], the complete novels of Dashiell Hammett, and a famous Propaganda book by Bernays I can’t remember the exact title of and don’t feel like googling [although you can if you like].

I’m a fairly diplomatic man in general but I decided to be more aggressive in my phraseology to push my point. I do not require an abandonment of all clich├ęs per se, but a different mix would be nice. I don’t believe fantasy is dead I just don’t like how most of them look these days and I’m not risking the money at the book store. I’d rather buy some Raymond Chandler or William Gibson or something.

Many have suggested writing my own book. That I may do one day, but I have to stick to my primarily loves which are comic books and generally contemporary or futuristic settings. And since I have a full time job and an awesome wife w/muscular dystrophy who needs my help a good deal I’m going to make time for drawing and writing my favorite things.

I don’t have a high horse really, it’s more Shetlandesque. And I’d be happy with some more Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser-ish stories. I just like smaller scale stories with well developed characters who may even fit inside a semi-cliched world. I enjoy mimicking mythic structures but surprise me a little. Brooks’ Shannara series is exactly what I’m not interested in based upon plot summaries. I’m not saying he didn’t do a good job at the typical genre and mythic structures. He may have done awesome, I just don’t care.

Good guy monarchs. Haven’t researched them but I suspect they are far and few between and are only good on a relative scale comparing them to other despots. Since good kings are the exception in reality they should also be the exception in fiction in my untrained unqualified opinion. From what I can tell good kings are highly over-represented in fantasy fiction. At this point I’d like to refer you to Dennis the Peasant’s lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which most of you probably already know and fairly sum up my mindset.

In the end folks, I’m a reader not a professional critic or even a professional writer. I make no claims to be an authority and if you disagree my feelings are not hurt. I’m just a dude and I’m not smarter or better than anyone. Just my thoughts and feelings here folks, not a scientific or academic study.

PS – Spammers I do not approve of your nonsense responses. You stink.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog. So much useful information. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. Now I know what to NOT write.Your awesome,man. Or WOman.

Anonymous said...

Hi, as a writer (not professionally) I call myself A. E. Lucky. I was researching "fantasy cliches" for a parody I planned to write that made fun of as many fantasy cliches that I could work with, and I came across this site. I have to agree with you that fantasies should not use every cliche; however, I believe trying to avoid every cliche out there is like trying to avoid the color black. Some of them will have to be used at one point or another, but maybe instead of trying to avoid them, the writer could try giving them a different spin.
For example, I plan to write a saga titled "Brothers of Shadow" with the cliche of elves being superior, beautiful, and whatnot. But my main characters consider them to be obnoxious, vain, and overall a pain in the rear. So I just took that superior-elves cliche and gave it a spin where others are not brainwashed into the same idea.
But thank you for the cliche ideas. If I ever get published, look for the name A. E. Lucky.

Anonymous said...

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- Murk

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Anonymous said...

Seems like you just genuinely dislike the high fantasy genre; perhaps you should try reading some S&S or proper historical novels instead? After all, high fantasy is mostly about the things you seem to dislike - epic struggles, great heroes, and saving the world from dark lords etc. There's plenty of very important reasons as to WHY high fantasy books are about that kind of stuff, too.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic blog post. Thanks for discussing

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