Thoughtful Thursday: Fantasy Clichés

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI’m taking a writing course next semester and was thumbing through the textbook when I saw the chapter on clichés. The clichés mentioned were not particularly Fantasy-related but it did get me thinking about all the typical clichés we see in Fantasy. Genre fiction seems to be particular prone to this writing faux pas, and I’m not exactly sure why.

Maybe writers of Fantasy get so wrapped up in building a fantastical world that they forget that a farm boy can only become king so many times. It could be that authors have spent so much time developing complex lineages that they fail to realize that there have been more than a few princesses who have learned the error of their ways.

I will also admit that seeing a clichéd story line doesn’t usually immediately turn me off (see my review of Alexey Pehov’s Shadow Prowler as a good example of my level of tolerance). I love a well-written peasant-finds-hidden-power-within-himself story, and I think many Fantasy fans feel the same way. That forgiving nature may be another reason why we see recycled story elements  so often. What clichés do you loathe to see in the stories you read? Which ones do you tolerate? Are Fantasy authors guiltier than other writers? Leave a comment below and we’ll pick one of you to choose a book from our Stacks.

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff since September 2009) is a Cyber-Security Analyst/Network Engineer located in Northern Kentucky. Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on authors like Tolkien, Anthony, and Lewis. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. When he is not reading books he is likely playing board games or Tabletop RPGs. Justin lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife, their daughter, and Norman the dog.

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  1. It was a dark and stormy night…

  2. For me, the worst cliche I can come across in a fantasy novel is “magic can do anything because it’s MAGIC!” Not only is it a tired cliche, it also smacks of lazy world-building and a lack of forethought into what makes magic work in the first place.

    I can forgive farmboy kings and people with grand capital-D Destinies, but I cannot forgive all-powerful magic without consequences.

  3. I absolutely hate prophecies. So tired of the whole “only the chosen one can defeat the dark lord of DOOM”. Why exactly is nobody else able to kill the bad guy? They don’t really allow for good twists and sort of give away what is going to happen.

    I can handle the orphaned boy learning magic, finding out he is a descendant of kings and getting revenge against the bad guys who killed his parents but please no prophecies that only he can triumph over the darkness…

  4. I’m tired of the adult/teenager who doesn’t fit in and then finds out that at least one parent wasn’t human.

  5. Studly Ram struggles with the strange feelings he harbors for his buddy Blinkum until one day he discovers–Blinkum’s a girl!

    “My goodness! The sarcastic, scruffy yet strangely handsome rascal I’ve been traveling with all this time is really the prince/wizard/secret agent I’ve been searching for!”

    The good guy decides to let the villain live, and turns his back. The villain reaches for a weapon, and —

  6. For me, this question explains why China Miéville has been so successful.

  7. A hooded stranger walked into a crowded inn…

  8. I just realized that Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series pretty much nails everyone of these so far…

  9. Gary Chambers /

    One of the most annoying clichés in my mind is the one where some otherwise powerful witch/wizard/whatever has some problem that prevents them from using their magic/whatever when they actually want to.

    And yeah, basically everything of Tad Williams that I’ve read is basically a giant mess of clichés, with the possible exception of War of Flowers. I like his work, for the most part, but I’m honestly a little surprised that he’s as popular as he is.

  10. I’m like you Justin. (You just made me take a second look at Shadow Prowler.) In fact there is a handful of cliches that are things I like about fantasy. However I think it all depends on the writing. Some authors can pull off a cliche so well, no one cares that it is one.
    A fantasy cliche that I do hate is a main character being a child or teenager character and said character not even acting like a kid to start with, makes it even worse. I realize that’s probably a personal pet peeve cause I’ve been an adult – in only the years sense of the word not the maturity level – forever. So I can’t relate.
    However, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, I loved that book and Jorg the main character is like 13 or 14, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

  11. I find myself imperivous to noticing even the most cliche’d fantasy. The one thing I do hate is when a character (usually a kid or teenager) won’t ask for help solving a really important problem because they are embarrassed, think they should do it on their own, or think they no one will understand them. Drives me buckets every time.

  12. I have grown to dislike the ‘raiders killed everyone in the tribe except young girl/boy who then vows to grow up and avenge the deaths’.

    And the quest novels where you have the requisite group of adventurers… Elf, blade, magician, dwarf, shapechanger who must save the world or kill the evil dark lord.

  13. I seem to have a fairly large tolerance for all the things you’ve mentioned.

    I think the reason why the cliches are so, well, cliched, is that people can identify with them. Everyone secretly dreams of growing up to run the world. Everyone knows the girl who just won’t listen to reason. Everyone wants to be important, and the books allow you to intravenously live some of that through the characters. But it’s a lot harder to identify with some sociopathic meat head, or drug taking skinny. I have a hard time trying to even get involved in a book for 700 pages when its filled with obscene scenes every few pages like R. Scott Bakker does.

    What I hate the most now are the authors like KJ Parker, Joe Abercrombie and China Mievelle who go to such revolting depths to try and avoid use of cliches.. and in the process are giving birth to a whole new set of cliches. These sorts of authors tend to pop up every so often, they want to be Iconoclastic and edgy, and for a while they succeed. The Genre is big enough to give them safe harbour also, but I personally feel when you stray to far away from what makes “Fantasy” Fantasy, you aren’t really doing anything but writing Historical-Fiction in the mold of Gary Jennings rather than Bernard Cornwell.

    Granted we all have our biases. Mine extends beyond Fantasy novels. Even if you look at something as characteristic of American literature as the Beats. I enjoyed ‘On the Road’ but disliked ‘Desolation angels’ because of how debauched William Burroughs had become. He was no longer some one I wanted to read about, or even read books from.

  14. I love a good pig boy story, but get tired when they’re always related to the king/evil wizard/god-like figure. Why can’t they save the world using their persistence and dedication? In the fantasy nature vs nurture debate, genetics always trumps.

  15. Recently, I have observed that many reviewers have begun to look down on a cliche that isn’t a phrase at all; it is the development of symathetic youthful characters into heros/wizards et al.
    Should that be problematic? Only when a less than gifted or “by the pound” series writer can’t or doesn’t have the time or desire to create a new slant on this theme. After all, such plot devises (the Trek, et al.), have been with us since the Greeks began to collect stories. Without them, it is unlikely any fantasy would be written, after all, after a couple thousand years, it is most unlikely a new author will find a completely new plot devise. Even if he or she did, it would soon be copied and not be novel any more.

  16. Bibliotropic, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks. Please contact me (Tim) with your choice and a US address.

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