Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction

The word “cliché” makes some readers shudder. Others gag. It brings to mind something so overdone, so stale, so lacking in originality it makes you roll your eyes and mutter, “not this again.” Since at least J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy fiction has been the Fertile Crescent of clichés. I’ve read numerous articles pleading for authors to avoid them at all costs. But are the clichés in fantasy fiction really all that bad?

Was any of this cliché in 1977?
This week I’m starting a six part series of posts on the top five clichés in fantasy fiction. I’ll focus on how certain elements earned their “cliché” status, but I’ll also discuss why some of these may be essential – or at least valuable – to fantasy fiction because they represent elements the reader craves. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the top five clichés in fantasy fiction:
  1. The Farm Boy with a Secret – Think Garion from David Eddings’ The Belgariad, Rand from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, Shae Ohmsford from Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, Eragon from Christopher Paolini’s novel bearing the same name, and even Luke Skywalker (yes, Star Wars was fantasy in my view, not SciFi). For a while it seemed like any young protagonist who grew up on a farm was a child of prophecy, the son of a wizard, or something akin to a Jedi knight.

  2. The Wise Wizard – This one goes back to Merlin, and maybe well before him. Since then we’ve had Tolkien’s Gandalf, Brooks’ Allanon, Eddings’ Belgarath, Paolini’s Brom, Lucas’ Obi-wan Kenobi, and many others. It seemed like every old guy was a wizard!

  3. Orcs! – Or maybe Trollocs, Goblins, Mord Wraiths, Urgals, Sand People – we’ve seen their kind before!

  4. The Magic Weapon – Think Excalibur, Narsil, Stormbringer, the Sword of Shannara. Everyone in fantasy fiction had a magic sword.

  5. The Overwhelming Ancient Evil – or his twin, The Evil Sorcerer. This is Sauron, Lord Foul, the Warlock Lord, Torak, Galbatorix, Emperor Palpatine, and even Morgan le Fay (in some versions of the Arthurian Myth). These guys or gals are bad, and we know it!
Yes, you’ve seen these before. Many, many, many times before. But could there be a good reason why? For more, check back next week when I’ll explore Cliché #1 – the Farm Boy with a Secret. In the meantime, let me know what you think – what are your top five clichés in fantasy fiction?


BJB said...

Here are five more cliches of fantasy fiction, in no particular order =
1. Short beings. These come in various forms, including dwarves, elves, fairies, smurfs, etc.
2. Poetic made-up names -- for characters, places, weapons, creatures -- pretty much for everything.
3. Lengthy journeys across great distances. Why can't fantasy fiction stories be set in a single, confined place?
4. Dragons.
5. Drawings of maps of the fantasy world of the story.

Joseph Finley said...

I am definitely doing a supplemental post on "short beings" - I love that one!

BJB said...

Yes, so much to say about short beings. Hobbits, Yoda, even Oompa-Loompas! And don't forget to mention, short beings in fantasy fiction are often children. Be they Hogwarts students or the children in Narnia, for example. As you continue on this topic, please discuss: at what point are these devices cliches versus the crucial elements of making a story fit the genre. Without them, do you have fantasy fiction, or something else, in which case, is it fair to call them cliches?

Joseph Finley said...

I like the way you're thinking. Maybe some of these aren't clichés, but just fundamental elements of fantasy fiction. I promise to touch on this in the next five posts in this series.