Monday, February 24, 2014

Ten Fantasy Cliches dealt with in the LORE series

I am uncertain as the the author of the original post, but what he/she wrote got me to thinking and I thought I'd share with you how I deal with the cliches prevalent in Fantasy. My 'rebuttals' are posted in italics.



TEN FANTASY CLICHES THAT SHOULD BE PUT TO REST

Anyone who follows celebrity gossip knows there is a downside to fame. Addictions, bankruptcy, and sex scandals threaten to tarnish a star’s image. Perhaps the biggest downside of fame is that, for most, fame is temporary. Why? Imitation. A hit record or a hit movie creates an army of fans. Producers start looking for the “next big thing” to satisfy the demands of those fans. Copycat acts start appearing, the market becomes saturated, and the fans move on.

The copycats are even worse when it comes to fiction because that market does not move as quickly. Imitation survives far longer than it should, until it calcifies into cliche. But there is hope. Writers can avoid using cliches, and readers can avoid stories that are lousy with cliches. To that end, I offer the following top ten list of fantasy cliches that deserve to be put to rest, once and for all.

1. A Prophecy or Destiny

One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading is watching characters develop as they struggle to overcome challenges. If the readers, or worse the characters, have some foreknowledge of how these challenges will be met, the drama loses all impact. It’s a shortcut, a cheat code. At best, the reader will want to skip the hundreds of pages a character spends resisting prophecy or destiny. At worst, the reader will throw the book across the room, suspecting that the ending has been spoiled. And as far as false prophets, a surprise interpretation of prophecy, or a mistaken chosen one, skip those as well. These twists are no longer surprising.

Fantasy is by nature about destiny and fate and the great and grand designs, and I believe one cannot entirely avoid inserting a telling a two. I do, however, agree that knowing what will happen is not so good. How did I avoid it? I do not reveal the prophecy until after it’s fulfilled, and then I employ the fulfilling to explain how much the characters have grown … without expounding upon it, of course- it flows in with the tale.


2a. The Orphan/Chosen One

Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and King Arthur/Wart. Across media, this is a common cliché, often related to prophecy. As children, we all dreamed of being picked from obscurity to become a celebrity, a hero, or a doer-of-great-deeds. Let’s leave those dreams in childhood and not in our fantasy novels, okay?

Agreed, and how do I avoid it? My main character Rayne chooses himself, and he is a very flawed ‘chosen one’ and nothing is ever quite what it seems.


2b. The Wise, Old Wizard

Otherwise known as the bearded deus ex machina. Does the protagonist have a guide or a mentor? Fine. But I draw the line at stories in which the protagonist and his friends have been struggling for the past two chapters, only to have a wizard swoop in and solve their problems with a wave of his wand or a magical phrase. I think readers would prefer a wizardless solution, where the protagonist solves problems for himself.

Yes, my main character has a mentor, but this is more a father figure and they fight as father and son would, really clash heads! There is no wizard in LORE that sweeps in and saves the day. The characters have to sort things themselves.


3. The Dark Lord (Corollary: the Pure Superhero)

Similarly, I would argue that it is acceptable for a story to contain a tyrant king or a bloodthirsty general. But if the antagonist is evil for the sake of being evil, that story has crossed the line into cliche. A villain never sees himself as a villain but as a hero in his own mind. Unjustified evil is boring. And so too is unmitigated goodness. That’s why Batman is better than Superman.

When I started writing the LORE series there was a Dark Lord, but I soon grew bored with him. He is still there, but he isn't called the dark lord (he has a much better title!) and he doesn't perpetuate evil for the sake of evil. He has very good reasons for his choices, although his manipulations are on a grander scale than a man sitting alone and plotting evil upon his neighbour would achieve. Also, as the story progresses, there is a chance you might even sympathise with him, and in the future you may even come to encourage him into choosing a new path …


4. White Hat Good/Black Hat Bad (Corollary: good people are beautiful; evil people are ugly.)

Any story that relies on some form of simplistic shorthand to divide good from evil should be avoided. Now that’s not to say that you can’t have symbols or uniforms for opposing sides in a war, but any sort of Manichean marker, such as the color of clothing, race, or species is too reductionist. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy fell victim to this cliché, with his Aryan/good elves and dark/bad Orcs and Uruk-hai, but George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series flipped the cliché, with (mostly) honorable men wearing the black of the Night’s Watch, while corrupted men wear the white of the King’s Guard.

I agree. It takes all kinds and good and evil is in the hearts and souls of the characters, not in their features. Prepare thus to be surprised by who is what in LORE.


5. The Races/Species are Uniform

Just as an entire race or species shouldn't be purely angelic or demonic (even angels or demons need complexity and variation), members of a race or species shouldn't look or act the same as if they were clones of one another. Look at humanity: the variation is quite dramatic. Yet it is rare to see such variation among elves, dwarves, or other fantasy creatures.

We do fall into this hole, admittedly, and the main reason for this is the confines placed upon us by the length of the tale. A writer cannot expound on the complications of every race used and still maintain a reasonable word count able to translate into a readable book. What do we do? We generalise and sweep a race that populates our narrative with one broom. However, the race or two that is integral to the tales in LORE are as complicated and different as a race should be.


6. Men, Front and Center (Corollary: women are to be put on pedestals or martyred.)

Take a look at the protagonist and secondary characters. Are they all men? Are the women in your story afterthoughts? A beautiful princess in need of rescue? A goddess sacrificing her immortality for the sake of a handsome hero? A grandmother or witch? Just as races or species shouldn’t be simple stereotypes, neither should female characters. Look for stories that challenge sexist conventions. Readers prefer strong female characters. Choose Buffy Summers over Snow White.

How do I avoid this? There are strong men and women in LORE!


7. Unrealistic Fighting (Corollary: unrealistic healing from wounds.)

A hero cannot take on a dozen assailants simultaneously and win. And a group of assailants would not wait to attack the hero one after the other. The hero would likely be killed, or at least horribly injured. And in a society where medical knowledge is limited, these injuries would have long-lasting consequences (barring magical healing, but see cliché number 8). Broken bones not set properly would cause pain and limit motion.
Arthritis would be common, not to mention pain and nerve damage. Again, George Martin does inflict long-lasting injuries on many characters in his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Yes, indeed, and thus my characters do get hurt, they do die, and they do suffer.


8. Magic Without Limits

This follows from cliches two and three. Magic should be constrained in some way. There should be a cost to acquiring a magical ability and limits on the exercise of magic. Otherwise, magic can be used to solve all problems and overcome all challenges posed in the story.

I cannot stress enough how much I agree with this! There is magic in LORE, but it is judiciously employed. It doesn't magically save the day.


9. The Church of Witch Burning

Religion can be a difficult subject in fiction. Historically, churches have been a source of community, of spiritual and worldly education, and of political power. Although a fictional religion can stand in opposition to magic or magicians, or even actively struggle against them, a fictional religious order shouldn't be reduced to one overarching cause. Religion becomes reactionary, making it difficult to justify all those religious adherents. Check out Mary Doria Russell’s portrayal of the Jesuits in The Sparrow or Walter M. Miller’s monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz for examples of a more complete portrayal of a religious order.

How do I avoid this? While there is religion (because a believable fantasy world and its people requires it), it isn't the driving force behind the story, ever. Although, let it be said there is the Order of Taranis … but this is something beyond religion.


10. Strange Spellings

Stories should not have to rely on capitalizing words or spelling them differently to invoke a sense of mystery or power about the word or concept. The context in which the word is used should be sufficient. The same goes for changing the names of recognizable animals in order to make the beast sound more fantastic. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series relies on creative spelling and excessive apostrophes quite heavily: Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, and Ko’bal, for example.

Now, come on, there has to be a little strangeness! Still, ‘normal’ words are spelled ‘normally’ in LORE, while the made-up ones are easy to read and remember. There is strangeness, yes, but it never overshadows the story.




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