Fantasy tropes, memes and clichés

Fantasy writing gets mocked a lot for sticking to certain tropes of the genre. You know: Dark Overlords, goat-herding boys who end up being the hero and so forth. There are lots of fun sites about it; see here and here for a start. I even read two books back to back with exactly the same beginning – a boy goes out into the woods to do something or other, comes home to find his whole village/family wiped out by the villains of the piece. And they weren’t the first books I had read chronicling that identical event, either – or the last.

A beginning writer, on reading URLs like those above (apart from laughing like mad), is likely to despair. How do your write a fantasy that doesn’t tread old, much-travelled ground? Well, the answer is that you don’t let it bother you.

And here’s one reason why not:

A long time ago, when I was thinking about writing a new novel – the one that was to become The Aware – I was chatting to someone who began to mock fantasy. Yeah, he said, castles and forests and wolves and riding off on quests. They are all the same. I was so mad at his dismissive, scornful attitude, that I thought to myself, Right – no castles, no forests, no wolves, no horses… Damn it, there won’t even be a tree in this one!

I suppose it would have been easy enough to set the book in a desert, but I thought that was the easy way out. Besides, it had been done before. No, I wanted something that had never been tried, and so I created Gorthan Spit. No trees, no castles or wolves or brooding forests – but a fascinating place nonetheless.

But then…where did I go from there? Well, my first scene in the book was set in an inn.
And guess what: a book opening in an inn is such a fantasy cliché. It’s a great place to start, you see. You can gather some of your main characters together – have them meet one another for the first time. You can introduce so much of the background, politics, the world, in the conversation of the people sitting around having a drink. And you can write the first bit of the nastiness that is going to overtake your protagonist – the monster/villain who comes to the inn door in the middle of the night, or the soldiers riding up, or whatever piece of villainy that is going to confront your hero or heroine.

My point is this: using fantasy tropes is not altogether a bad thing. They have become tropes because they make a good story. It’s how you use them that counts. Think about mainstream literature – how many coming of age books have you read that all follow similar paths? Does it matter? No, because in the long run what counts is the story. And how well you tell it. Each coming of age story is different. Each writer’s way of dealing with the same issues is a different take on the same theme.

More about good storytelling tomorrow…


Fantasy tropes, memes and clichés — 10 Comments

  1. Great point, Glenda. I love the tropes of fantasy and am a bit suspicious of books that are obviously trying to avoid them. Like, man, if you don’t dig the tropes, why are you writing fantasy?

    OTOH, I love it when a writer manages to turn a new trick on the tropes, as all your books to date have done. (Karen Miller and her alter ego, K.E. Mills, have the same knack, as does my current heart throb Joe Abercrombie.) Even so, I don’t mind the staple fare, either. Give me a castle and nice virgin princess and maybe a dragon or a Wicked Witch and provided the characters are well developed and the plot not too predictable, I will still love it.

  2. I suppose most events in life are tropes or clichés. That history seems to repeat itself in cycles is a cliché about clichés. 🙂 But the people involved (though no doubt made up of many universals and clichés themselves) will be unique; and that can make all the difference, and shift the pattern dramatically.

    To me it begs the question … were we wholly deprived of familiar patterns of events (the tropes, the clichés) would it be much harder for us to identify with the story, would we find it less accessible?

  3. So long as its a good story, well written, I am not even really aware of the tropes – in fact I had to look up the word. On the other hand, some authors can over use them as you know. I have often wondered why so many fantasy books are set in situations with knights on horseback and everyone wielding swords or bows and arrows. There are some “modern” fantasies out there and they are fun.

  4. I think that a successful fantasy story starts with well thought out and plausible world building.
    If you add in good characters, plotting, storytelling and writing then tropes do not matter to me.

  5. I really only like historical fantasy, high fantasy and humour. Urban fantasy leaves me cold unless it includes Zombies or Vampires, in which case I actively dislike it. I also dislike alternative history. Yes, Ru,I think there has to be something famililar about our reading or we will be disappointed, creatures of habit that we are! And perhaps I’m a great C of H than anyone:-)

  6. XD Awesome point.

    I love fantasy–but I usually try to find something that is unconventional and new. Try the Night Angel Trilogy by Brent Weeks–it's the best fantasy I've ever read.

    But anyway.

    Tropes. D8 SCARY.

    I write fantasy~ I'm currently in an arts high school where I study writing, and I have to say that thanks to my teachers, I didn't fulfill even one of those fantasy tropes. In fact, most of my characters and plot points went against them.

    HOWEVER. I do enjoy some of the trope-like elements of fantasy; meaning, in other words, that I think sticking to tradition at certain points in fantasy is also a good idea. Personally, I've tried to combine some of the old with some new ideas with my own, and where I personally think the genre should/is going. Much like Brent Weeks (I hope…?)

    Your point, to me, is a very valid one. While I don't think you should strive to 'break' fantasy tropes, I do think you should know what they are and try to be different, or to modify them in some way.

  7. I've been trying to get the first book of Week's trilogy – but all they seem to have is book 2 in this country at the matter. I will catch up with it somewhere, sometime.

    The other point you have to be aware of is that if you drift too far into the strange, your book might not sell. Because people actually LIKE the tropes…although they love new takes on old tropes even better.

  8. I find that the best way to avoid tropes or to use them originally is to "grow your tale". Well, this only works for those who aren't looking to write just one story and get away with it, but those who want to create myths (mythopoeia) – which is what I do.

    I start with a story germ that is particularly cliched, then I cut it down and add stuff. I let the tale grow "organically", as it develops in my mind.

    This process takes years, and can create a truly original "back-story" for your work. I've been working on mine for over 6 years now.

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