Anyone who follows celebrity gossip knows there is a downside to fame. Addictions, bankruptcy, and sex scandals threaten to tarnish a star’s image. Perhaps the biggest downside of fame is that, for most, fame is temporary. Why? Imitation. A hit record or a hit movie creates an army of fans. Producers start looking for the “next big thing” to satisfy the demands of those fans. Copycat acts start appearing, the market becomes saturated, and the fans move on.
The copycats are even worse when it comes to fiction because that market does not move as quickly. Imitation survives far longer than it should, until it calcifies into cliché. But there is hope. Writers can avoid using clichés, and readers can avoid stories that are lousy with clichés. To that end, I offer the following top ten list of fantasy clichés that deserve to be put to rest, once and for all.
- A Prophecy or Destiny
One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading is watching characters develop as they struggle to overcome challenges. If the readers, or worse the characters, have some foreknowledge of how these challenges will be met, the drama loses all impact. It’s a shortcut, a cheat code. At best, the reader will want to skip the hundreds of pages a character spends resisting prophecy or destiny. At worst, the reader will throw the book across the room, suspecting that the ending has been spoiled. And as far as false prophets, a surprise interpretation of prophecy, or a mistaken chosen one, skip those as well. These twists are no longer surprising.
- (2a) The Orphan/Chosen One
Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and King Arthur/Wart. Across media, this is a common cliché, often related to prophecy. As children, we all dreamed of being picked from obscurity to become a celebrity, a hero, or a doer-of-great-deeds. Let’s leave those dreams in childhood and not in our fantasy novels, okay?
(2b) The Wise, Old Wizard
Otherwise known as the bearded deus ex machina. Does the protagonist have a guide or a mentor? Fine. But I draw the line at stories in which the protagonist and his friends have been struggling for the past two chapters, only to have a wizard swoop in and solve their problems with a wave of his wand or a magical phrase. I think readers would prefer a wizardless solution, where the protagonist solves problems for himself.
- The Dark Lord (Corollary: the Pure Superhero)
Similarly, I would argue that it is acceptable for a story to contain a tyrant king or a bloodthirsty general. But if the antagonist is evil for the sake of being evil, that story has crossed the line into cliché. A villain never sees himself as a villain but as a hero in his own mind. Unjustified evil is boring. And so too is unmitigated goodness. That’s why Batman is better than Superman.
- White Hat Good/Black Hat Bad (Corollary: good people are beautiful; evil people are ugly.)
Any story that relies on some form of simplistic shorthand to divide good from evil should be avoided. Now that’s not to say that you can’t have symbols or uniforms for opposing sides in a war, but any sort of Manichean marker, such as the color of clothing, race, or species is too reductionist. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy fell victim to this cliché, with his Aryan/good elves and dark/bad Orcs and Uruk-hai, but George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series flipped the cliché, with (mostly) honorable men wearing the black of the Night’s Watch, while corrupted men wear the white of the King’s Guard.
- The Races/Species are Uniform
Just as an entire race or species shouldn’t be purely angelic or demonic (even angels or demons need complexity and variation), members of a race or species shouldn’t look or act the same as if they were clones of one another. Look at humanity: the variation is quite dramatic. Yet it is rare to see such variation among elves, dwarves, or other fantasy creatures.
- Men, Front and Center (Corollary: women are to be put on pedestals or martyred.)
Take a look at the protagonist and secondary characters. Are they all men? Are the women in your story afterthoughts? A beautiful princess in need of rescue? A goddess sacrificing her immortality for the sake of a handsome hero? A grandmother or witch? Just as races or species shouldn’t be simple stereotypes, neither should female characters. Look for stories that challenge sexist conventions. Readers prefer strong female characters. Choose Buffy Summers over Snow White.
- Unrealistic Fighting (Corollary: unrealistic healing from wounds.)
A hero cannot take on a dozen assailants simultaneously and win. And a group of assailants would not wait to attack the hero one after the other. The hero would likely be killed, or at least horribly injured. And in a society where medical knowledge is limited, these injuries would have long-lasting consequences (barring magical healing, but see cliché number 8). Broken bones not set properly would cause pain and limit motion. Arthritis would be common, not to mention pain and nerve damage. Again, George Martin does inflict long-lasting injuries on many characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
- Magic Without Limits
This follows from clichés two and three. Magic should be constrained in some way. There should be a cost to acquiring a magical ability and limits on the exercise of magic. Otherwise, magic can be used to solve all problems and overcome all challenges posed in the story.
- The Church of Witch Burning
Religion can be a difficult subject in fiction. Historically, churches have been a source of community, of spiritual and worldly education, and of political power. Although a fictional religion can stand in opposition to magic or magicians, or even actively struggle against them, a fictional religious order shouldn’t be reduced to one overarching cause. Religion becomes reactionary, making it difficult to justify all those religious adherents. Check out Mary Doria Russell’s portrayal of the Jesuits in The Sparrow or Walter M. Miller’s monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz for examples of a more complete portrayal of a religious order.
- Strange Spellings
Stories should not have to rely on capitalizing words or spelling them differently to invoke a sense of mystery or power about the word or concept. The context in which the word is used should be sufficient. The same goes for changing the names of recognizable animals in order to make the beast sound more fantastic. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series relies on creative spelling and excessive apostrophes quite heavily: Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, and Ko’bal, for example.
Readers may recognize elements of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey among my clichés. Please understand that I am not criticizing these stories themselves. I am criticizing imitations of these stories. A familiar character or plot device becomes a cliché only if it lacks originality. Execution is the key to storytelling. If an author is able to bring creativity and beauty to a story, the idea will likely rise above cliché, becoming something else entirely. For example, the first book of Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight is about a boy transported to a sword-and-sorcery world where he must find a magic sword and become a knight. Yet Wolfe’s talent prevents that story from becoming a cliché.
I encourage readers to look for stories that challenge conventions that twist clichés into something new, favor complexity over simplicity, and aim for originality. Celebrate those stories, and ignore the knock-offs.