Fantasy authors are deeply afraid of cliches. Or, more accurately, fantasy authors are deeply conflicted about them, either incapable of not using them or desperate not to use anything like them. Take a quick Google trip around the Internet and you’ll find any number of cliches to avoid like the plague:
1. Any combination of elves, dwarves, and orcs.
2. Any farm boy or shepherd who seems entirely inept and powerless, only to be discovered as “the one.”
4. Did I mention orcs?
And on it goes. Of course much of this derives from Tolkien’s work, who either created or incorporated most of what we know today as “classic” fantasy, and there’s little doubt that slavish imitations of Tolkien are as irritating as they are common. And in the drive to escape the grip of Middle Earth, writers have gone to extraordinary lengths to list, laugh at, and mercilessly mock anyone who has any story element which could seem to be connected to Tolkien at all (Google “hate Tolkien” and you’ll get 915 results, many of which assert how “odd” this opinion must make the person seem to everyone else…except the other 914, I suppose).
This is a troubling development for anyone who has written a work of epic fantasy. In my case I’ve written work both in and out of the sub-genre; The Third Sign is definitely a work of epic fantasy, though I hope with some significant departures from the norm (and absolutely no orcs), while Icarus isn’t anywhere close to the epic model (different kind of voice, different kinds of characters…a very different kind of book, though still fantasy), and my current work in progress has little in common with either of the first two (different series, for one thing). But part of the reason I set out to write Icarus was the feedback I got on TTS: this is great, but epic fantasy is oversold. Traditional fantasy is a hard sell. Classic fantasy is a crowded market. And so on. (As my editor for TTS pointed out, one reason epic fantasy is allegedly “oversold” is because people keep buying it, but I’ll let that pass.) So I wrote a book about two characters in a volcano, one who sounds vaguely like a Wild West prospector, and their encounters with giant salamanders and regional governors who graft crystals to their arms. I promise Tolkien didn’t write anything like that, even though he does have a kind of volcano, I suppose.
We’ll see what the response is like to Icarus. But I’m starting to wonder whether all of this hand-wringing about avoiding cliche is well-founded or counterproductive. For one thing, just about all of us began with the “standard fantasy tropes” as kids, whether they came from Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons, and there was a part of that traditional fantasy world which appealed to us and drew us in. That doesn’t mean we have to stay there as adults if we don’t want to, of course–although we can–but let’s at least be honest about our origins. And while we’re on the subject of honesty, let’s go one step further: none of us, and I mean none, would even be a blip on the publishing screen without the fantasy standards. There’s a reason that the fantasy bookshelves are filled with books portraying obscure prophecies and seemingly inept shepherds, and it’s not because a few editors are stubborn; it’s because readers are comfortable with these kinds of books, and they enjoy reading others like them.
I seriously doubt anyone, fantasy fan or not, is too much different in their reading tastes when it comes to that behavior–people tend to read books which are like other books they’ve enjoyed, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course it’s a good idea to venture out of one’s comfort zone periodically, and I tend to read pretty widely. But there are times when I also enjoy being able to pick up a classic fantasy and know that that’s what I’ll get, not some odd steampunk novel about a self-aware mechanical dishwasher and its chat room romance with William Gibson’s brain. (Though that’s actually kind of a cool premise, now that I think of it. Please credit me if you decide to use it, especially if it somehow becomes a fantasy cliche. 🙂 )
The same is true for vampire novels (I swear, if I read one more book about an angst-filled vampire who spouts pop psychology and facts from Philosophy 101 between draining the blood from his hapless victims I’m going to punch a wall. You’re freaking immortal, can summon bats and turn into a wolf on command…would you get over yourself, please?), and paranormal romances, and near-future detective thrillers. They’ve been done a million times, but people keep buying and enjoying them, and not necessarily because they’re intellectually lazy; it’s because they’re enjoying a genre in which they feel comfortable, and I fail to see what the great risk to civilization is in that.
Now again, it’s important not to get typecast, and in my case having a number of different series and sub-genres is essential. I’d be bored to tears writing the same material over and over again, and I’m interested in building a career as a well-respected professional writer, not some two-bit hack who wrote one book ten years ago and can’t stop repeating himself. But there’s a sizable gap between that writer and the one who can use tropes without being dominated by them, and I’d like to think that when I am writing in the epic mode I’m decidedly in the latter category.
Though I did have this awesome story about this huge chasm of fire where these short creatures had to throw the Bracelet Of Power, see, and I was thinking that…
What? Too soon?