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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Reader Question: Vampires and Elves and Dwarves, Oh My!

(Yet again I have forgotten to write down who asked this question. If the person who asked sees this, let us know who you are in the comments.)

Cliches in fantasy (and science fiction) seem to be a hot topic these days, what with urban fantasy paving the way towards over-saturation of the market, and science fiction apparently losing some of its appeal amongst certain groups of readers (though claims that science fiction is dying are premature at best). The question that has prompted this post asks a very important question:
Should writers stay away from the cliches of fantasy?
The kneejerk reaction should, for anyone, be "yes." The problem with fantasy as a genre has always been its tendency to repeat itself to excess, with writers of talent essentially spouting rehashed Tolkien-esque stories and continuously mining Tolkien and the select few "original" authors that followed him for those staple creatures we have come to identity as clearly "fantasy"--elves, dwarves, dragons, etc. Urban fantasy has, unfortunately, been saturated with similar levels of repetition; vampires used to be fairly powerful creatures to insert into fantasy novels, but these days they are, for the most part, little more than furniture items without substance--if you want a better vampire, read the original Dracula.

But kneejerk reactions are rarely efficient or proper. As in politics, immediately reacting to something without considering the larger picture is not only a bad idea, but dangerous. If you spend your days worrying yourself over whether or not you're using a cliche, you'll end up getting little done whatsoever. Writers should spend time writing, not considering the implications of using such-and-such creature or such-and-such trope. It's quite impossible to avoid the cliches of the genre with any efficiency. Some may argue against this, but this is true of all fiction. No matter how hard you might try to write a truly original novel, you will most certainly fail. Cliches are a part of the human brain, and have been for a while.

Certainly being aware of the cliches you're using is important, but fretting over them is counterproductive. Instead, pay attention to how the cliches are used. Are you using elves in exactly the same way as Tolkien? Why? Injecting difference into the mix can help alleviate obvious repetition. Twist Tolkien's elves on their head and see where it goes. Or, there's always the more adequate method of dealing with cliches: write well. Nobody with any sense reads a well-written fantasy novel and says, "That is the most cliche thing I have ever read." Good writing can, and does, completely change how a reader perceives a cliche. If you can tell a good story, then it is irrelevant how many cliches populate your fiction, because ultimately what the reader wants is a good reading experience--obviously.

What do you think? Should writers avoid cliches? Why or why not? Feel free to leave a comment!


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  1. As crazy has this summer has been for me :P I would say, "No writers should not avoid cliches."

    I'm only in my 30's but may be that is too much OLD school by now *LOL* I enjoy familiar, Elves, etc. Why do I gravitate to RP magical, high family hierarchy, outstanding powerful elf?

    Devils advocate. I also like new and technology; so from a writers point, I would include both.

    Yes, Cliche's should not be forgotten :)

  2. I agree. Don't forget the cliches!

  3. Anonymous8:46 PM

    I COULDN'T AGREE MORE WITH THE AUTHOR OF THIS POST. I'm really getting bored of reading about how everyone should hate elves and dwarves because they are so yesterday. Really, what's the point of fantasy then? If your interest didn't spawn from a childhood love of fairie tales involving knights, damsels, and dragons, go read speculative fiction and shut the @#$@# up. Honestly. Were you aware, oh mighty intellect, that Tolkien stole his ideas from the Germanic myths of old? And, off-genre, Shakespeare stole many of his greatest ideas from others, and just inserted his own genius to make it a classic. Before attacking elves, dwarves, et al. and attacking anything remotely inspired by Tolkien, answer this question: what have you written lately that will be spoken of with affection one hundred years from today?

  4. Anonymous9:11 PM

    I just want to make clear that I do agree with the author of the post, but I get so tired of hearing some folks blast the things I love dearly. Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, these are the things which define the genre--not that they are necessary to a good fantasy tale, but they shouldn't be off limits either. So, please forgive the angry post above. I love the cliches.

  5. Anon: Yup, Tolkien stole from a lot of sources, including Wagner (he took heavily from Wagner, actually).

    The problem with that last question is that it assumes we can know if our writing will be revered in years to come. Most writers cannot know this, and anyone who thinks they know is arrogant and kidding themselves.

    Then again, I'm confused why you said "you" in your post when you said you agreed with me at the start...some coherence issues there.

    They are certainly defining elements, but they are overdone. Cliches are cliches for a reason. If all you do is write another Tolkien ripoff, then you're not doing much for the genre at all. Nothing wrong with using dragons and elves, just make sure you use them in a way that doesn't draw attention to the fact that you're just copying someone else.

  6. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Sorry for the lack of clarity. I stumbled across your post after just having read a series of the usual "Oh, how I hate elves and dwarves because we've already read about them ad nauseum" blogs. Some fellow was droning on about how writing elves and dwarves is a rip off of Tolkien, whom he further declared was barely tolerable because of all the tripe that it inspired. The "you" I was referring to was in the general sense of that sort of reader, and, of course, nobody can know how his or her writing will be judged by future generations. I think I'm just tired of reading so many blogs by people who have never created something so beautiful and inspiring themselves, who find it easier to tear down others than to lift themselves up.

    Sorry that I vented on your page, but you struck a nerve--and I agreed with you.

  7. Anon: To be fair, few people have matched Tolkien's genius in the 50+ years since LOTR hit shelves. By few, I mean maybe 10 writers...tops.