October 13, 2010

as common as dirt : the woe of clichés

The following passages are from Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a book all fantasy writers should read. I have decided to include this for personal reasons mostly, but if it will entice you to read the entire book, then so be it. This could partly be considered a book review, partly writing advice, and partly a WiP Wednesday post. We’ll call it a conglomeration.

PRINCES are of three kinds:

1. Acknowledged heirs to thrones. These Princes are bad lots, fat, greedy, willful, and cruel at best, usually noted for their pasty (OMT) or puffy (OMT) faces and their rude, discontented manners. In some way, these will have managed to disguise their natures in front of their Royal fathers the KINGS, who will think the world of them. At their worst, Princes will either be under the thumb of the REGENT, who will have sold his soul/services to the DARK LORD, or the Prince himself will be a MINION OF THE DARK LORD. In this case, there is no nasty sort of cruelty and slyness these Royal heirs will not stoop to. They recognize those of better natures at once and attack them with everything they have.

2. Unacknowledged heirs. These are:

A. Princes who have been thrown out by their Royal father. These will have been framed by a Chancellor or younger Prince (who will be fat, see above) and disinherited for crimes they did not commit.

B. Lost heirs (see MISSING HEIRS), who have been stolen or removed for safety at their births. These will not have a notion of who they really are, but will find out in the course of the Tour.

Both A. and B. are invariably basically GOOD, but hasty, naïve, and with a lot to learn, which the Tour will mostly teach them. Both will be seeking their BIRTHRIGHTS.

3. Ruling Princes. These rule slightly lesser COUNTRIES and are normally average to good in their natures. Sometimes they are even better than good Kings, from having a Princely nature.

                                                                                                                      Pages 149-150

Most likely, if you write fantasy, you’ll have created a prince character. I, in fact, have three mentioned in my first novel, and they pretty much fit the descriptions that the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones has pointed out.

The idea behind The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is that every fantasy story takes place in pretty much the same world, and the same characters pop up in nearly every story, and the book is a guide to this world and its detailed intricacies. Entries include Nunneries, Swords, Confrontations, Zombies, and odd things like Colour Coding.

Fantasy is probably the most clichéd genre of them all. It wins the Cliché Crown. So how do you break out of the clichés?

The best thing about fantasy is that there are no rules. Yes, Jones’ book identifies the most common uses of certain elements, but it is not a rulebook. It is a guidebook, mostly written for a good laugh. Wizards don’t have to be old and mystical, and Saving the World doesn’t have to be the ultimate goal. Some people will try to argue that there are certain laws for fantasy, but that is their opinion and a list of their rules. You don’t have to follow them if you don’t want to. I’m not going to.

Here is another bit from Jones’ book:

WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possible agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES AND GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES…
                                                                                                                      Page 228

You get the idea. This pretty much describes every named wizard in all of fantasy. If you have wizards in your stories (kudos if you don’t), they most likely fall prey to these stereotypes. At least one of my wizards does.

From these two passages, I’m pretty sure you get the idea of what the book is about. Read it for a good laugh and some good insight on the genre.

Back to clichés.

Sometimes clichés are good. They’re something familiar for the reader to hold on to, but when there are rows and rows of books that have the same exact story and the same exact characters just with different names for the mountains and the wars, it’s too much. That’s why fantasy has a bad reputation. There are geniuses in fantasy. Tolkien wrote the book on epic fantasy, and I’d say 95% of the sub-genre is an attempt at copying his genius. Then there are geniuses like Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling that took the fantasy genre to a new level. Their books are in a sub-genre of their very own. There are of course several more, but I have yet to read the entire collection of fantasy novels. I’m not saying write about Discworld or Hogwarts. It’s been done. It’s time for you to be different from the mold. Break out of clichéd stories of princesses and dark lords and venture into a strange world that even you don’t recognize. Don’t be afraid to write about a society of purple, water-breathing dragons that eat diamonds just because it’s never been done before. You don’t have to write about ageless elves or bearded dwarves or lost kings of men. You can if you want, but you’ll just be another writer in the shadow of an already written world.

Be different. Don’t be afraid. Write.


  1. SOME of those things, it could be argued, are no longer cliches but archetypes. But still, the same thing applies. Personally, I'd love to see a story about a society of purple, water-breathing dragons that eat diamonds.

  2. Archetypes are more like roles in a story, in my opinion, like the "mentor" or the "hero". But when someone can write a book that defines characters, geography, and plot that could include thousands of books, then we have a problem. All books are going to have the archetypes (which I plan on writing a post about next week), but there is a huge difference between archetypes and cliches.

  3. ZOMG! Awesome post.

    When I started writing fantasy way back when, it was cliche city. But slowly I started realizing how bored I was with other authors who just rehashed the cliches. I kept going back to the true genius writers and being disappointed in the clones and derivative writers.

    Thankfully posts like this help to remind me to watch my own writing for the creeping cliches.

    Be bold, break rules! Don't just make the wizard "old and bearded" because "that's how all wizards are supposed to be, right?"

    I mean, he CAN be old and bearded, so long as it's for a reason and not just a cliche. :)

    Great post.