Anonymous asked: I’ve been inspired by Tolkien since I could understand basic language, my brother read it to me since I was 6. I’ve always wanted to create a world, really a world, like Tolkien did and write various stories in the setting. A couple of weeks ago something clicked and I’ve been world-building since - and it’s going great. But it seems like every single one of my muses has died since. Any tips for basing stories in a self-made fantasy world that aren’t the typical ‘search quests’ or prophecies?

First, you should be ecstatic over this world that you have. Having a universe that gets you excited about writing will give you the energy you need to get through the difficult journey that is writing.

The problem that you’re having is avoiding cliché.

Cliché(n): A trite phrase or expression; a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation.

Although writing fiction is a creative process and writers love creating things from scratch, at the end of the day, many stories and themes end up being echoes of works we’ve already read. Here’s how to avoid it.

  • Know the clichés of your genre. One of the best ways to become a good writer is to read often. This is so that you notice what works in writing and you notice what doesn’t. You get a general feel for how literature operates, and you should use that to your advantage, but this also means recognizing the things that grow tiring, predictable, and annoying. Recognizing the “Chosen One” and the “Really Long Walk” as hackneyed plots in fantasy is a start. For a comprehensive list of fantasy clichés, take a look at DragonWritingPrompts’ Not So Grand List of Overused Fantasy Cliches.
  • Know the difference between being inspired and plagiarizing.If Tolkien inspired you to write, that’s beautiful. It is the dream of many writers for readers to get excited about their work and then try their hand themselves. At the same time, Tolkien probably wouldn’t be too pleased if you wrote a story similar to his.
     “Learn from reading, by all means, but do not copy… All writing has influences but copiers reach well beyond homage towards blatant stealing… besides being ethically wrong, [copying] never works artistically.” (x).
    People read stories looking for something new, not something they’ve read before. You know that, so recognize other authors when they creep into your drafts.
  • Use original plots and themes. The best way to not be cliché is to think creatively. If this was easy to do, though, we wouldn’t be having this problem.
  •  Write about something that gets you excited. If you’re excited, it’s often because something feels new. For example, this world that you’re building is getting you excited because it’s new. If a plot or a theme does the same, grab it and run.
  • Trust your gut. If something seems familiar, or you think to yourself, “Hey, is this too similar to story x,” it probably is. The moment you realize that is a little heartbreaking because it usually means undoing a fair amount of hard work, but so it goes. 
  • Exercise in your universe. Do writing exercises that you find in a book or online (like WriteWorld’s Blocks) in your universe. Whenever you practice writing, think in your world. You might get a fun or interesting idea. 
Use your world to your advantage. Assuming you didn’t build Middle Earth, your universe will have distinctions that make it inherently unique. 
  • Toss a couple of things in there that would make the clichés you’re afraid of impossible. 
  • Making your readers excited about learning about your world will bring them in.
  • The more unique your world is, the more compelled you will be to do something interesting. Don’t just rely on wizards and elves. Create your own race if you want. Go wild. Really strong and vivid worldbuilding makes your story seem infinitely more creative. 
Lean on your characters. Although you’re writing fantasy, you’re still writing literature. The regular rules still apply to you. Create thrilling, engaging characters that you care about and will move your plot and will bring up interesting themes. These characters, if they are real enough and speak to you, should be able to move your story in a fresh and compelling direction. As you start dropping characters into your world (wherever you choose to do so in your process), think about how they can engage with this environment and each other. If things come easily, double check to make sure you’re not rewriting something you’ve read.

To be a fiction writer, one must be creative. You have to get excited about creativity, you can’t shrink away from using it. Actively avoiding cliché is challenging because sometimes things just feel natural, but that’s what you need to avoid. Surprise your readers by surprising yourself.

Further Reading:

You may also want to check out this post when WriteWorld asked what the most common clichés are in writing. Be sure to look at the notes to see what our followers have to say! There’s also this article from WriteWorld on cliches which may be of some interest to you!

Thank you for your question! If you have any suggestions or concerns about this article or anything about writing, please use our ask box! 

- O

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    I should note that even cliches can be well done. It is all in the approach and execution.
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