Walk into any book store, and you will find shelves and shelves of fantasy books. But the same clichés run through most of them, and many are so predictable that you only have to read the back cover to guess the entire plot. Now, while I don’t suggest getting rid of every fantasy clichés in your novel (if you do, your novel might not be considered fantasy any more 😉 ), maybe you can have fun putting your own twist on a couple of these age old clichés. So here is a list of 10 of the most popular fantasy clichés and suggestions to inspire you to change or twist the clichés to make unique, interesting novel ideas.
And while, of course, not all fantasy books include these clichés, many of them do. Now there is nothing wrong with a classic fantasy story, sometimes it is fun to let your imagination take over and do something different. If there are any fantasy clichés that really bother you and I forgot or if you know of any good fantasy books which break out from the basic fantasy mold, let us know in the comments!
- The Prophecy of the Chosen One
You know this one had to be on here, right? Plenty of fantasy books have some sort of prophecy revolving around a reluctant hero who appears to be no one and their journey of saving the world. Some examples are Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings), Harry Potter (Harry Potter), Aidan (The Door Within), Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle), and many, many others.
A couple of ways to change this: Instead of a prophecy about the hero, could you have a prophecy about a rising villain? What if the heir to the prophecy is a spoiled rich brat who has known about the prophecy all of his life instead of a humble farm boy? Or you could just cut the prophecy and *gasp* have the character motivate himself to save the world! This cliché is actually so popular that I had to write an entirely different blog post about how to twist this one fantasy cliché.
- A Medieval European World
There are very few fantasy worlds that are not based on Medieval Europe. Most fantasy novels, if you get rid of all the magic and magical creatures, you are left with Medieval Europe; the clothing, the social order (knights, lords, kings, and serfs), the castles, the weapons, and everything else is based on this one time period. This is almost a defining feature of fantasy, but it could be very interesting to twist this.
A couple of ways to change this: What is you had an Arab nomadic based fantasy culture in a desert? Or perhaps you could base your world on tribes in the Amazon rainforest? Wouldn’t that be really interesting?
- Names must be Finnish/Welsh/Celtic/Norse Based
This cliché almost falls under the previous category, but I wanted to give it is own section. Eragon, Caspian, Moraine, Gandalf (literally “staff elf” taken from an old poem about dwarves), etc. are all from one of the languages above (or some closely related language). I’d challenge you to look up your favorite fantasy character’s name and just try to prove this wrong.
A couple of ways to change this: Why not have Spanish, Arabic, or Native American based fantasy names? If you are in school, you could even use your foreign language class to provide inspiration. Moreover, wouldn’t it be cool to mix cultures? We could have Arabic based names in a Native American based fantasy world?
- The Main Character Wields a Sword
On the rare occasion, we get the treat of an archer main character, but it is rare. Most heroes (or even mentors and main villains) are swordsmen. Why? I really don’t know or care, but we need to add some variety.
A couple of ways to change this: Archers are totally and completely awesome and main character material (Check out this cool video.) But bows and arrow are not the only other fantasy weapons out there. Of course, we could have an ax wielding main character, but what about quarterstaves (huge sticks that are pretty fearsome to see in action)? These weapons are not just for side characters– let your main characters have some fun, too.
- Only Bows, Axes, and Swords Allowed for Other Characters
There are other Medieval weapons, you know 😉 But we rarely see them in fantasy novels. While the occasional bad buy might have a mace, no other weapons are really seen.
A couple of ways to change this: I mentioned quarterstaves above because they are one of my favorites, but there are so many other fun weapons for both side and main characters. Why not add in some javelins, lances, quivers of spears, morning stars, halberds, fighting knives, or even blow darts? Research and find some obscure weapons, or go invent your own! There are plenty of other ways to kill people. Muhahaha!
- Governments must be Monarchies
Again, this cliché goes back to fantasies being based in Medieval Europe which– guess what?– mostly had monarchies. So let’s change that.
A couple of ways to change this: Can you have a republic or democracy in a fantasy world? Or perhaps a totalitarian government or a plutocracy? If you are writing religious fantasy, you could even have a theocracy. Or go a step farther and have different nations have different types of governments in your fantasy world. Not sure about what these governments are? You can do some quick research on Google or check out my blog post on types of governments here.
- Only Mythological Creatures are Elves, Dragons, Dwarves, Humans or a Variant Thereof
While a fantasy book will contain the occasional dryad or other creature and some authors will make up their own creatures, elves, humans, and dragons almost always get the spot light. Some fantasy books do make up their own creatures, but most of the time, those creatures seem a bit underdeveloped.
A couple of ways to change this: Why not center your fantasy world around selkies, centaurs, dryads, naiads, or some other mythical creature? There are even some lesser known ones! And don’t just include them, why not center your story around them? Also I’d highly suggest that you use an already established mythological creature— not only are there literally thousands of creatures but there is a lot of really cool history and inspiration. Here are two great links for researching underused fantasy creatures:
– Epic, Underused Mythological Creatures for Fantasy Stories (Hannah Heath)
– A Giant List of Legendary Creatures by Type (Wikipedia)
- A Complete Lack of Science
Most fantasy worlds completely or almost completely lack a scientific development past the Medieval age. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?) I suppose authors assume that magic just replaces science, but what if you worked with both science and magic?
A couple of ways to change this: What if the scientists and magicians were in conflict, or your world combined the two “studies”? Maybe your world does not see science and magic as opposing force? Perhaps you could scientifically explain your magic?
- Medieval Technology
With the notable exception of the Urban Fantasy genre, fantasy worlds tend to be less technologically developed that ours. We’ve got air planes, internet, and cars, but what technology can a fantasy world have? Does magic necessarily have to replace technology?
A couple of ways to change this: Think about the basic ideas of your fantasy world, and then imagine that people worked on making these ideas and harnessing the magical energies better for a couple of hundred years. Could your fantasy world have unique technology instead of being stuck in its Dark Ages? This cliché ties closely into scientific development and scientific communities. Maybe figure out how science and technology might work with magic.
- There must be some Quest
Don’t get me wrong: I love a good quest. But does every fantasy books have to center around one? Must there always be a character/a group of characters who journey to complete some heroic action? Must the world always be in danger? And must that threat always be solved with a quest?
A couple of ways to change this: Why not center your fantasy books around a war between two nations and their battle strategies (with a “fair” win and not some magical item destroying the other side)? Perhaps your characters could be trying to unite a nation or trying to lead a rebellion in order to form a new fantasy nation? Or maybe after your character chases down the lost sword and defeats the evil overlord suddenly, they must not face the problem of actually ruling and saving a people who have been oppressed for generations?
But before you start changing all the fantasy cliches in your novel, I am throwing in a twist:
It is okay to have clichés in your novel.
In the modern world, uniqueness and individuality are heavily emphasized. This pressure to be unique is immense and oppressive, especially as authors, and is probably why you are reading this post in the first place. However, some clichés (even a couple of the ones mentioned above) actually point to truths about our world, and sometimes by twisting clichés, we can end up writing unrealistic fiction. In fact, Tolkien himself has some interesting thoughts on clichés that might surprise you. I don’t have the space here to get into a detailed discussion of what Truth and Tolkien have to do with fantasy clichés, but if you have the time, I’d highly suggest reading this post on Why it’s Okay to have Clichés in your Fantasy Novel.
Phew. So fantasy clichés. What do you think?