Avoiding Fantasy Cliches 101

Screw the intro! I’m jumping straight into the blog!

Avoiding Fantasy Cliches 101

Step 1: If you are an up and coming fantasy author, take the following list of words out of your writing as of this moment unless you’re speaking about them ironically: elves, dwarfs, fairies, fae, orcs, trolls, goblins, magic swords, magic spells, wizards, witches, magic horse, curses, AND ESPECIALLY…Dark Lord. Yes, you can keep dragons. Their sheer awesomeness has kept them from becoming a cliches except for the slaying them for some chick part and this nifty little list to also avoid: Dragon Rider, Dragon Keeper, Dragon Dancer, Dragon King, Dragon Queen, Dragon Prince, Dragon (Royal Anything), Dragon Slayer, Dragon Stealer, Dragon Tamer, Dragons vs (ANYTHING), King of the Dragons, Sword of the Dragons, Slayer of Dragons, (ANYTHING) of the Dragons, and yes, that includes Double Dragon. Does any of these titles sound interesting? They should because more than half of the list is available on Amazon. So before you continue, get those words out of your writing. And if you don’t agree with me this is obviously not the blog for you. I’m not here to teach you how to be another Tolkien clone. There’s another blog for that. If anything I’m trying not to make more Tolkien clones. The world has more than enough.

Step 2: Avoid obvious cliches such as: the wizard who kidnaps a young farm boy or the dark lord who slaughters the hero’s parents so they have to live with their aunt and/or uncle who either terrible and live (Harry Potter) or are wonderful so one or both aunt and uncle are killed. (Spiderman, Star Wars). Also avoid things like the sword from the father, the ring from your mother, the magic sword that can do anything, and the plucky princess who can take care of herself but constantly needs the male lead to save her.

Step 3: This is a little trickier but try and avoid slant cliches. Slant Cliches aren’t exactly like normal cliches in that they’re glaringly obvious that you can easily think of several examples off the top of your head. Slant cliches are there but they’re not as obvious and their either in danger of becoming a cliche or they happen so often in so many different stories that they’re cliches but they tend to do undetected. One example is, hero loses a body part. Whether that body part is a hand or an arm or a leg or an eye or all of the above, during either a long first story or the second or third book, depending on the length of the series, the hero loses something very important and must learn to cope. I’m not saying this can’t be done right but sooooo many people do it wrong. There’s either obvious foreshadowing or zero foreshadowing, and the hero never seems to complain that the very important limb they lost is gone. The character tends to just move on and only mentions the issue in passing. Other slant cliches include overly family plots such as the king is murdered and the entire kingdom falls into turmoil as several successors fight for the throne or the bad guy and good guy are actually related or the good guy starts fighting along side the bad guys until he meets some woman who’s with the good guys so he betrays the bad guys and becomes a good guy or good guy is cursed or poisoned and he needs to cure himself before time runs out. Do these sound like good story ideas? They should be. They’ve already been written and rewritten. I’m not saying that they’re aren’t a few more good if not great  stories hidden behind these cliches but they reason why they’re called slant cliches is the fact that when start using them, they have a very bad habit sliding into regular old boring cliches. My advice is to think of the most unique and interesting story you can. That way you have a better chance of avoiding cliches.

Step 4: As much as I hate doing this, because it generalizes too much, but I found that it has helped me as well as a few friends of mine. Take the list of cliches I’ve given you or make up your own. Look at each word on the list. Make up another word to describe the cliche word, and finally give three reasons why it’s NOT like the cliche it started out to be.

Example: Orc – Koloss – Unlike orcs they have blue skin, they range in size from 5 feet to 15 feet and their skin is either very tight or very loose depending on how big or small they are. This example is from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy

Another Example: Vampire – Half-Breed – Unlike Vampires, Half-Breeds aren’t immortal but have incredible longevity. If left alone, a Half-Breed can live to be as old as 250. Half-Breeds drink blood, not to sustain themselves like vampires but to use magic. While traditional Vampires limit their blood consumption to humans, Half-Breeds only consume the “magic blood” of people called Mages (NOT WIZARDS!). Unlike most traditional Vampire victims, almost all Mages are trained assassins, can use magic without drinking blood and therefore, very hard to kill. If I have to explain where this example came from, you obviously don’t know me well enough.

Take Care, happy writing and I’ll see you next week. Thanks for reading.


About berleykerr

A Steampunk Author from Los Angeles.
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38 Responses to Avoiding Fantasy Cliches 101

  1. jezzarath says:

    Some good advice there, Sadly its damn hard! The difficulty is that a huge chunk of the cliches are what make fantasy, fantasy in the 1st place!

  2. Flash of Brilliance says:

    Oh jesus, the plot line for my story is somewhat of a slant cliche. The king is murdered, the evil magician woman turns out to be the mother of the girl, the murderer, who’s really the royal advisor, turns out to be the king’s nephew and the princess escapes, etc. Maybe I need to do some serious reworking…

  3. averythorne says:

    Yeah the core components of fantasy are, like, all cliches. Perhaps the best thing to do is to give things a modern spin, to depart from the Lord of the Rings inspired rubbish and start looking at newer forms of inspiration.

    • berleykerr says:

      Now you’re thinking ;). Brandon Sanderson introduced a concept of moving metals and manipulation exclusive to his Mistborn Series. Plus his story isn’t about a crew of warriors setting off on an adventure to defeat the dark lord. It’s about a crew of thieves robbing the dark lord who already defeated the crew of warriors 1,000 years ago. So are there still unique stories out there.

    • John says:

      I agree with that. The problem with LOTR is that Tolkien did such a gosh-darn good job of it, and wrote such a comprehensive masterpiece of fantasy, that it’s hard to write any fantasy books that don’t take elements, even accidentally, from it.

  4. Blake says:

    What about this: a kid is transported to a cold, brutal, mountainous fantasy-world. Yet the part I like is,, nobody knows WHY he is even there! The whole plot is that they have to figure out the mystery of the boy’s appearance there….

    • berleykerr says:

      Very Nice!!! Excellent idea! It plays on past cliches but with a twist which makes it very NON-cliche. Now that’s a story worth reading.

      • Matthew says:

        I have Dwarves in my story but most of their stuff is stone for example, plates and cups. They also live to about 200 years old. I don’t think Tolkien came up with that.

  5. Layloa-Jean says:

    This is quiet helpful. Mines a urban fantasy and im trying to make it culturally diverse. not too many of one race. now i can add and subtract some things. Thanks!

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  7. jwrodriguez says:

    If I may say so, I’ve been reading a lot of articles here and there about “Fantasy Cliches” and so on. And it does bring up something: that with all the things that are said to be cliches that are out there and aspect that can even be seen as mildly cliche then why bother writing at all?

    • berleykerr says:

      While there are certainly a lot of cliches out there, I’m no where near as picky about them as other people. My rule when it comes to cliches is this: if I can name 5 or more examples from different source materials as well as different authors, I consider it a cliche. Ex: the magic sword cliche (Sword of Shannara, Excalibur, Sword of Godric Griffindor- Harry Potter, Narsil-LOTR, Sword of Truth, Sword of Omens- Thunder Cats) and I can still think of other, less famous examples. Anything less than 5, and I consider it a coincidence.

      • jwrodriguez says:

        Again, my question still stands. With so many cliches, and if anything can be a cliche then why bother writing at all?

      • berleykerr says:

        This may sound like a cliche answer, because it is, but that’s a question you need to answer yourself. There are a lot of stories I don’t consider cliche, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy being one if them. Which means, for me at least, that not every story has been written yet. There are still a few more great stories out there waiting to be written. Another cliche answer is, keep writing because you love it. I know I do. If I spent all my time worrying about whether or not my story is a cliche I’ll never get any work done.

      • jwrodriguez says:

        That may be. After all, that’s one reason why I do like to write fan fiction because there isn’t as much of a strain to be original or to avoid cliches. Because you’re doing it for the fun of it. With original fiction there seems to be this pressure to do things different from everyone else.

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  9. Kennedy says:

    I’ll be honest, because I go to school I’m trying to start early on NaNoWrMo, because otherwise it would be me chosing between my story and my grades. I never really finish anyway, but it’s a good way to ignore that the seasons are changing. I HAVE a story, and there are some cliches but I’m trying to make them end differently. It’s about a woman from a noble family. Their country has been occupied. (Yes, she knows how to use weapons, but because of that is an outcast and is never really accepted, and this does not change in the end) She DOES become betrothed to the king as they’re trying to reclaim their land, but after her brothers and father die in war the king essentially changes his mind. Is that a good way to beat that cliche?) Also she has a common ancestor who was a sorceress, and later this woman is taught how to use magic. (The only sign of her using magic is bleeding from her eyes.) And at the end she goes off an lives in isolation. IS THIS EXTREMELY CLICHE OR AM I BEING PARANOID???

    • berleykerr says:

      The marriage to the king thing is a slant cliche. At least she’s not a princess and him a prince. So that’s good. My rule with cliches is this, if I can think of five other stories at the top of my head that share the same elements, it’s a cliche.

  10. Terygotus says:

    Okay, I give. My fantasy book is guilty of the elves cliche. There are elves mentioned by the characters, and one of the main characters is a half-elf. But he’s the only real elven character. This story might be subjected to a bit of a rewrite, but so far it’s working for me. And there’s a dragon.

    Other than those, I can’t seem to find any cliches on this list that fit my story. Woot!

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  13. Whimsy says:

    Alas, I always feel a bit at a loss when it comes to discussion of tropes and cliches. There really is a trope for everything, especially in a genre that is partially defined by a love of legends and archetypes. There’s definitely a personal factor involved in what an individual will find a cliche, but what seems to knock a trope into cliche territory is its current popularity.

    Just as an example: I never used to mind Vampires; I didn’t even used to mind that some stories romanticized them. In a way, they fill certain archetypal storytelling roles in our culture–there are similar creatures to do that work in other culture. Then one day I noticed that every vampire story in sight had a romantic and/or sexual slant to it. Everything started to look the same, even when there were tiny little differences. It’s hard to care that Our Vampires Are Different when they’re only different in superficial ways (woo, sparkly skin). It’s gotten to the point where I’m probably not interested in -any- spin a potential author might like to put on a blood-sucking species–at least, not if the lead girl is into the blood sucker.

    I think, though, that those archetypes will still have a role in future storytelling. I like legends. I like classics. If the rest of the storytelling is good–the characterization, the society, the plot–I really won’t mind the occasional cookie-cutter Dracula-esque vampire race. But! I need a break first.

  14. zach says:

    I wanted to say at first that the losing a body part doesn’t seem like a cliche but it sort of does now, i suppose thats the point of it being a slant cliche, i wonder though if it could escape cliche territory by being a more realistic portrayal of a character losing a body part, like a lot of stories when the main character loses an arm or something like that they get an awesome prosthetic that gives them more power, and i can’t think of many fantasy stories off the top of my head where the main character has to deal with a hard rehabilitation process
    i can only think of A Song of Ice and Fire when Jaime Lannister loses his hand, it’s portrayed realistically I’d think, he goes from being one of the best swordsmen in the setting to basically being unable to take on a stable boy more or less, i think it also adds to it that it begins some form of character development, although i could see that trope going cliche
    I think it could avoid being cliched by actually realistically researching about things like coping with loss of parts of the body, i think most examples in stories really don’t take a realistic route with it, i was writing a fantasy story where the main character loses an arm, and i was worried it was cliche, but i don’t know now, it’s caused by his own impulsiveness and it results in his life getting harder and him dealing with a lot of trauma and rehabilitation
    also just as a side note i feel like a character losing an eye is usually an excuse to give them a “cool”eyepatch

  15. ChasingSuns707 says:

    I definitely understand the point of avoiding cliches, and I try to do so when I can. My question is this though. If I have a young protagonist who turns out to be lost royalty, or an evil overlord of a dark kingdom as a villain, would it still be considered a cliche if there is more depth? For example, if the evil overlord has complex motives, which make his goals more logical and therefore add more depth to his character, despite the fact that he’s still that kind of character. Just wondering, because some classic tropes and archetypes are the reasons why we fell in love with the genre. So I guess the question is, how much tweaking to the cliches is enough? Is it even possible to do this?

    • berleykerr says:

      Yes! I believe it is very possible. Take Darth Vadar/ Anakin Skywalker for example. The Chosen One cliche, something I was planning on doing a blog about, is one of the most complicated, overused and at the same time fun cliches around. Other chosen men like Aang, Rand Al’Thor, Paul Atreides, Eragon, Harry Potter, Richard Cypher, and there are a bunch of Chosen women, though fewer, as well, all fight on the side of good throughout out their respective series. Darth Vader actually turns evil, kills kids, hunts down good guys, kills Jedi, kills subordinates, entire planets full of people and even tries to kill and eventually succeeds killing his mentor/father figure/best friend and even tries to kill his pregnant wife. The premise for his story arc starts cliche or the concept is cliche but those who follow it know its anything but. Turning a good guy bad and back to good is hard but Star Wars showed it is possible to do. Its impossible to avoid all cliches but finding a unique twist on them, like Darth Vader can not only allow people to forget the cliche but appreciate it and even embrace it.

      • ChasingSuns707 says:

        That’s exactly what I was thinking. For example, I have dwarves and elves in my story, and yes they are very reminiscent of the Tolkien elves/dwarves. But I wanted to put a new spin on them, like for example the elf government is actually super corrupt, pretty racist, and even condone and use slavery. I also put the dwarves on pretty good terms with everyone because they rely so heavily on trade with the other nations (think Iron Bank of Braavos mixed with Tolkien dwarves). I am of the belief that cliches can be used in a right way, but it just takes a bit of working with until you come up with your own original spin. What is your opinion of the use of dragons? Have they just been done to death, or is there room for a little bit more?

      • berleykerr says:

        Call me an old fool but I still strongly believe that a dragons’ sheer awesomeness keeps them from being cliche, at least when it comes to certain things. A HUGE “NO” to dragons being used to guard something, especially princesses. Whether its guarding Princes Fiona or an egg for the Tri Wizard Tournament or Gringotts Wizard Bank or an entire dwarf mountain kingdom full of treasure that the dragon guarding it has zero intention on spending or using it for anything other than sleep or to show he’s hoarder. I’m strongly opposed to reducing dragons down to just guards. I love how George Martin uses them in Game of Thrones in the history of Westeros. Aegon the Conquerer used only three dragons to conquer and unite an entire continent. And then they went extinct and that lack of an advantage created a power vacuum that makes the series such an interesting read and a good show to watch. If you’re going to use dragons find a way to make them unique or make them give a unique contribution to your story.

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  17. For Me To Know says:

    I personally believe that some of the creatures in the first paragraph are what makes up most fantasy. Well, that sort of makes it a cliche, but, quick question, do you really think that avoiding all the listed creatures is possible without hard work or plot revising? I’m just asking because some of the creatures are in the story I’m writing. I have too agree, though, on most of this list. Magic swords? Magical horses? Dark Lord… really depends on how it’s made, I suppose? These are just my thoughts. I’m not trying to say, “YO LIST SUUCKS”. Honestly, I like it!

  18. JS.Hamilton says:

    A cliché is a poorly used (obvious, trite, tired, etc.) trope. Cliché being inherently bad, trope (or convention) being neutral. While the list is not bad, I think some struggle with the distinctions you do not provide that separate the well used tropes from the tired clichés.

    The term “wizard” is a synonym for mages, and when you get into a “happy not glad” tailspin, it’s not compelling advice. There’s nothing wrong with using wizards and calling them that. I think the cliché aspect kicks in when the author has have done nothing more than cut/paste the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide into the text when explaining how they work, and ignored why they work that way, how they used to work before they changed, etc.

    There is no trope that cannot be ruined by poor writing or poor story-forming. Likewise, there are none so tired they cannot be redeemed by excellent writing and storytelling. As we speak, someone is breathing new life into a Conan-like warrior who is about to go rescue a princess. R. Scott Bakker did exactly that with his Prince of Nothing books, which are chock full of tired old tropes remade into excellent fiction.

    • berleykerr says:

      I agree for the most part. But if that wizard, mage, magician, illusionist, magic-user is a wise-old man who is powerful, gives grandfatherly sage advice to the hero and sacrifices himself because, reasons, then you’ve got a character that many readers have already seen millions of times before. It’s like rewatching Spider-Man’s or Batman’s origin story for the second or third time, times a thousand. I already what’s going to happen to him more or less just from his archetype alone.
      In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy “magic” is called allowmancy and “mages” are allowmancers. No one ever says wizard or magic. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series “magic” is The One Power and “wizards” are called Aes Sedai. Again, “magic” and “wizard” are never used. Although I’m not saying these tropes won’t work in a well written story, but why give your readers spam when you can give them steak.

      • JS.Hamilton says:

        You make some good points. But, to borrow from your closing line – a steak is a monstrous restaurant trope. Depending on how often you have steak, and how well it’s prepared, it could easily be looked at as a clichéd meal. “Let me guess – it comes with potatoes?” My point is that innovation is not the elimination of what we’ve experienced before, it is the introduction of new material into an established paradigm or the reverse.

        Trying to introduce a new paradigm with new material is rarely successful – the risks multiply, the audience/consumers are often unsettled and won’t/don’t/can’t trust it, and it’s often extremely difficult and time-consuming to do. I prefer my innovative content, as a reader, to be no more than 15 or 20 percent. This highlights the innovative elements “Wow, the girl and guy in this action film never hooked up, and they’re OK with it. Different.”

  19. aiedave says:

    Very interesting stuff!

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