This being November, I’ve been wasting my internet time on my favorite pre-holiday activity: lurking on the NaNoWriMo forums. In fact, if you post in the fantasy section, I’ve probably read your description of your story in 15 words or less or your critique of the above user’s excerpt. Reading the NaNoWriMo fantasy forums is an exercise in masochism on my part because they make me so freaking mad. Allow me to give you an example. Nine times out of ten, when you navigate over to the forum to see what’s new, you will find some variation of the following:
- Top ten most hated fantasy cliches
- How do you avoid cliches?
- Help! I’m worried my novel is too cliched! T__T
- How my novel is going to lift fantasy out of the stinking pile of cliche we all know it is
Ok, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. There seems to be a pervasive and palatable fear among aspiring fantasists that doing something that has been done before will contaminate your novel beyond all saving. That the entire fantasy genre is nothing but D&D fan-fiction about destined heroes saving the world, though sometimes now the paladins have gears glued to their swords. Every time I read one of these threads (and I read every one – masochist, remember?), two thoughts pop into my mind. First, have any of these people been in the fantasy section of the book store in the last ten years? And second, as forum user Anekochan so eloquently asks, “This is the Fantasy forum, right? Then, why do we all hate Fantasy?”
It would seem to me that, if you’re going to take a month of your life and dedicate it to something as all consuming as writing a novel, you would want to at least like the category you’re writing in. Yes, fantasy has cliches. Newsflash: everything has cliches. There’re story shortcuts, common ground we all know so that the writer can skip over the dull details and get to the good stuff. When I say “hardboiled detective” an entire setting pops into your mind. You know exactly what he looks like, what he wears, how messy his office is, and that he is a he. That’s a cliche. But cliches are useful tools, because when you take one and change it just a little, you can create a seed that can germinate into an entire novel. Say this hardboiled detective is actually a woman. Ah ha, now you’re more interested, because the cliche is slightly off.
Our brains are drawn to interruptions in order, like that one bathroom tile that doesn’t line up with the others. Authors can abuse this to create hooks that draw the reader in. Let’s go back to our hardboiled detective. Make him a wizard and you’ve got Harry Dresden and the basic premise of one of the most popular urban fantasy series in the history of the genre. According to the NaNoWriMo fantasy forum users, Jim Butcher shouldn’t have bothered, because hard boiled detectives are cliched.
The idea that the fantasy genre is nothing but cliche is in itself a cliche, and an ignorant, incorrect one at that. Every book contains an idea that’s been done before. If it didn’t, if the book was actually totally new, it would probably be too weird and alien to read. This focus on cliches and the idea that writing fantasy is somehow shameful is ludicrous and unproductive. Fantasy is one of the most vibrant and lively genres our current literary system has created. I actually believe that fantasy is in a golden age right now. That we will look back on this time years from now with longing for the good old days.
If you’re a budding fantasy author, and you’re ashamed of you genre, do yourself a favor. Go to the bookstore and start reading the backs of books. Heck, scroll up to the top of this page and click on the Orbit links for sample chapters. Hell, go to my site where I’ve got two chapters of The Spirit Thief up for free. If you read, I guarantee that you will find cliches, and I also guarantee you that they will not mater. The presence of cliches is not nearly as important as you seem to think it is. All that matters, all that matters is writing an interesting, entertaining story that makes the reader want to turn pages until they reach the end. If you can do that, you will have the most important thing an author can produce: a book worth reading.
And isn’t that what we’re all in this game for?