Hello! First, I'd just like to say it's awesome how you're answering everyone's questions, and I really enjoy reading your answers. Secondly, I have a question about the fantasy genre. There seems to be a problem with this genre: it is very cliched. The dwarves, the elves, the dragons, the evil kings, the magic, the heroic characters, and even the plots are all the elements which many fantasy books share. How does one write in this genre without being cliche, but still being classic?
For the sake of over-explaining things (as I regularly do), common elements don’t always mean a cliche. You can’t classify something as being romance if it doesn’t contain any romance. I think the broad definition of “fantasy genre” just means “clearly made up” but the “high fantasy” section is what contains the elements you refer to (typically. I’ve seen some books only use one of the races alongside humans, or other variations).
I see what you’re saying that a lot of the tropes show up, so I’ll first explore the difference between “classic” and “cliche”:
Classics are “real” whereas cliches are a “fantasy”.
(I don’t mean “fantasy” in the genre sense, but the “idealistic situation” sense.)
Classics have a sense of grounding to them, that the stories can speak to someone beyond the superficial. Cliches are ephemeral and often kick out reality for the sake of the trope.
It’s pretty much about depth. You can have a cliche that turns into a classic by exploring it realistically and developing it well. In fact, certain cliches can be beneficial since they give the reader something to be familiar with.
Classics revel in the consequences where cliches are excuses to make events happen.
Because readers are familiar with them, cliches are often used as “easy stepping stones” to get to the scenes that matter. For example, the love interest of an action hero getting kidnapped. The kidnapping isn’t important, it’s the scene where the hero has to make a choice and go through the emotional turmoil.
They are “cheap” or “implausible” if kept at face value, but exploring them into a sense of reality can move then into classic territory. What if we got a scene that explored the personality and backstory of the kidnap victim instead of making them an object for the hero to run after?
Related to the prior points, any story element can seem cliche in basic form. The motivated hero, the evil king, a direct label is always going to make you realize how common things are. In the actual story, an element is typically only cliche when it’s not developed properly. “The evil king” may show up in a lot of stories, but it’s only “cliche” when that king has little character and exists solely to be a villain for the hero to take down. What if that king is locked in a political battle and the negative effects that the people complain about could have been 10x worse had the king taken another option? Things aren’t always black and white.
Sometimes classic and cliche elements do overlap.
It happens. There’s no such thing as a 100% original idea for anything in storytelling– but that’s perfectly fine! It’s okay for a story to have some cliche elements because not everything can be well-developed or you’d have an encyclopedia instead of a story.
Walking the line between classic and cliche with the elements that fantasy novels tend to share:
- You can use the common ideas (like certain magical races) but put your own spin on it to avoid the true cliche. Give unique lore, or just explore part of the race that a lot of fantasy tends not to.
- Never have a race exist just to fit a certain story ideal or niche. Give them an active role in the world or at least some interesting history. Not ever story element can get explored, but you can made it a little less predictable.
- Don’t stereotype your characters. If you really need the races to fall into traditional roles, then so be it, but you can still avoid the biggest part of the cliche by having unique characters. I can understand if a hero team needs a bunch of different weapons specialists, but maybe the archer is an orc instead of an elf.
- A lot of the classic fantasy feel comes from a triumph of good over evil, feelings of collective hope, a physical journey and exploration, etc. Like I’ve mentioned you start getting into cliche territory when the elements aren’t properly explored (AKA are just used for plot events rather than for affecting the characters or the theme).
- Give your magic unique rules, or get creative in ways to use and integrate it. Some magic is more like science, other types only exists in artifacts, occasionally it’s limited to a certain race, etc.
There are definitely many more ideas that can be given for avoiding cliches, but the base line is: thoroughly explore what you want to write about and give things your own unique touch. It’s okay to have common elements, but don’t rely on them alone to bring out feeling in the reader. It’s more about how a story is told, rather than with what it’s told with.
Good luck with your fantasy story!