Overused Standards of Fantasy Literature

by R.D. 

Throughout my life I have read many fantasy novels and played many fantasy role-playing games. I have read the stories of Elric of MelniboneThe Lord of the Rings, and the many works of Piers Anthony. Other books I have read include the Deathgate Cycle, Dragonlance, the Icewind Dale TrilogyThe Wheel of TimeA Song of Fire and IceThe Sword of TruthHawk and Fisher, and many others too numerous to list here.

I have played many fantasy roleplaying games including D&DTalislanta, and Shadowrun. I also have played many computer based RPGs both on console systems and PCs. Within all these works I have observed many standards authors use to tell their stories. Standards that I feel have caused stagnation in the realm of creative fantasy literature. What once were original writings by imaginative storytellers has become copied over and over by succeeding fantasy authors. Contained within this essay is a list of such standards that appear repeatedly within fantasy writings.

First of all, I wish to say that I in no way claim to be a great author or storyteller of any sort. Certainly I have never been published. I merely state my observations as a lifelong reader of fantasy literature. These are merely my own personal observations and opinions and all are welcome to agree or disagree with me and, yes, I will strongly criticize some standards I feel are vastly overused.

I also wish to say that, despite my observances, there is nothing wrong with utilizing and rehashing established fantasy standards in order to tell a story. Certainly if you truly enjoy stories of elves and dragons, then by all means write about them. My point in writing this is that I feel there is a lacking of imagination in fantasy writing these days.

To me, fantasy means imagination. Imagination means thinking beyond the established. Perhaps there are authors who would like to branch out and create entirely new world’s settings and creatures to populate them, but are afraid that the general, fantasy-reading public will reject such stories in favor of the familiar, established fantasy standards.

It is my hope that this quickly written essay will engender thought in its readers and perhaps spur some to create beyond the familiar. There is nothing wrong with loving your elves, but I implore you, dear reader, to think and create new and exciting things. Now, on with the list.

The Great Disaster/Cataclysm/Doom, etc

It seems every world in fantasy literature has some monumental disaster in it’s ancient past caused by nature, man, magic, or some divine influence. This disaster is always a turning point for that world’s history, usually reducing some super-advanced society to medieval or even Stone Age existence.

Some examples are the Wheel of Time series, the Dragonlance series, or the Song of Fire and Ice series. Sometimes the central theme of a fantasy story is the necessity of the heroes to thwart a repeat of the disaster that shattered the world in the ancient past.

Fantasy stories also always take place hundreds or thousands of years after the disaster with the current society never having quite reached the level of sophistication and advancement of the preceding society. I cannot recall ever reading a fantasy story taking place immediately following a great disaster. Nor have I ever read a fantasy story where the current society has achieved or surpassed the level of sophistication and advancement of the preceding society.

The Ancient Super-Advanced Society

This one usually ties into the Great Disaster scenario described above. Whether their technology was magical or mechanically based, nearly every fantasy world sports an ancient society that was destroyed by some event whether it is a disaster or conquest. Remnants of that society usually still affect the present-day society whether in lore, artifacts, or ruins. Most often the Ancient Super-Advanced Society was a stable, idyllic place to live but was destroyed by a disaster or conquest stemming from political or religious corruption.

The Ancient Scholars’ Language

Stemming from the Ancient Super-Advanced Society, the ancient language is often referenced in fantasy literature. This is usually a language used by select groups of sages, scholars, priests, or magic users. Some words from that language are often incorporated into the world’s current language and used even though the current language has words of equivalent meaning. This is intended by authors to instill a greater sense of fantasy to the reader, but is it necessary needed?

An example that comes to mind is in the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind. One character refers to something called the Con Dar, which is an ancient word meaning ‘blood rage’. Why not simply say ‘blood rage’? Creating ‘ancient words’ to reference people, places, things, situations, or events has become have become overused. After all, what makes the ancient language any more special or useful than the current language when only a select few scholarly types can understand it? In the real world, how many average people speak fluent Latin?

The Quest for the Uber Artifact/Weapon

The Big One! This is the ultimate artifact in any fantasy setting, able to cause incredible destruction or ultimate salvation for the fantasy world. It seems every fantasy setting must have one and it is often the main object of the obligatory quest with opposing factions willing to risk all to possess it. Whether the product of ancient technology or magic, or the construct of some divine whimsy, the Uber Artifact/Weapon is always the only thing in an entire fantasy world that can defeat the current threat to that world.

Also, why is the Uber artifact usually a sword or crystal of some sort? J.R.R. Tolkein, regarded as the father of modern fantasy by some, used a simple gold ring as the Uber Artifact of Middle Earth. Even Tolkein didn’t send Frodo on a quest to obtain The One Ring, but rather to destroy it. Also, Frodo already had the Ring in hand at the beginning of the quest, so why do many fantasy authors send the heroes on a quest to find their artifact? Sometimes the scenario involves the heroes transporting the Uber Artifact from one location where it is stored to another location where it must be used. Why not store the item near where it will be used?

If I may digress for a moment, I feel that in the Lord of the Rings, the fellowship of the ring failed to utilize a great resource they had at their disposal: the eagles. Why didn’t Gandalf ask the eagles to fly Frodo and the One Ring toMountDoom? After all, the eagles later fought the Nazgul in the air, so why would they not do so earlier? The quest could have been ended in a couple of days and at the cost of far fewer lives and a lot less destruction. Perhaps all my years enlisted in the Air Force have me thoroughly indoctrinated in the use of air power. Ah, well.

The Enemy

Admittedly, no story is worth reading without a villain. The villain may not necessarily need to be a sentient creature. The villain could be a disease or force of nature, or anything else threatening the world. In fantasy, though, the villain is most often some ultimate warrior or mage that commands a vast horde and is bent on ruling or destroying the fantasy world and can only be defeated by the completion of a quest to obtain the Uber Artifact/Weapon. This theme is so overused it has become tired. The point is, at their core, most fantasy villains are the same basic villain repackaged for each fantasy world.

The Conquering Horde

The Conquering Horde is one fantasy standard I nearly left out of this list because real-world history is CHOCK FULL of conquering hordes. However, ever since Tolkein, fantasy writers have always employed some sort of horde or army bent on conquering the fantasy world. There’s not really much more to say on the subject but I felt it needed to be addressed here.

The Undead

I am so sick of undead I could vomit. Vampires, zombies, the local lich, and so on, it seems the undead are the one fantasy staple no author can do without. Sometimes fantasy creatures themselves are not enough so authors make undead versions of them. The dracolich, anyone? Almost every fantasy story in existence has undead. The Enemy or the Conquering Horde is often undead.

Even sci-fi videogames like DoomHalf-Life, and Halo fall back to blasting variations on hordes of undead. The recent proliferation of zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead, or 28 Days Later is evidence of this obsession with the undead.

Why is it assumed that zombies are all of the flesh-eating variety? Maybe that zombie horde shambling down your street only wants to get out of the grave for awhile and have a few beers or shoot some pool or something. I imagine lying in a graveyard can get boring after awhile. Anyway, the undead need to be laid to rest for a while, folks, pun intended.

Elves, dwarves, trolls, oh my!

As if the undead weren’t enough, it seems most fantasy authors cannot resist ripping off Tolkein’s versions of fantasy races. Even if such races aren’t directly referred to in name as ‘elves’ or ‘orcs’ then they are usually only variations of them.

These races have become tiresome for me personally to read about. I thought fantasy writing was about using one’s imagination, not ripping off the imagination of others. That’s not fantasy, its regurgitation. Simply giving your elves darker skin and calling them Drow does not make them any more or less elves. It’s only an aesthetic change. People in the real world appear in different skin tones but are still human.

There is a role playing game called Talislanta that was originally published in the 1980s, and in a d20 version, whose selling point was “No elves.” I truly enjoyed the game world because it was so imaginative although established Tolkein-style races have obviously inspired some Talislanta races. However, no matter what the game world, it seems most fantasy fans cannot live without their precious elves.

For evidence of this, go to any fantasy art website and browse the images posted. The Elfwood fantasy art gallery is a prime example of how, in my opinion, fantasy has become stagnant. There are truly imaginative and original works at Elfwood but the vast majority of the art reflects tired subject like elves, unicorns, goblins, etc. There are more dragon pictures on Elfwood than any other type. It’s also a here’s my interpretation of Legolas gallery as well. Once again, no imagination, simply regurgitation. Seagull chicks would feed well on it.

Fighters, Thieves, Mages, and Priests

If there has been one single influence of Dungeons and Dragons on fantasy literature, it must be the classification of heroes into specific archetypes. Now it seems every fantasy role-playing game out there must have variations on the Big Four: Fighters, Thieves, Mages, and Priests.

This has bled over into fantasy literature as well. Whether or not a fantasy novel is based upon Dungeons and Dragons, the character archetypes usually fall into the categories of the Big Four. Even if the main characters of a fantasy novel start out as average, everyday folks, they eventually become versions of Fighters, Thieves, Mages, and/or Priests. Follow the development of the main characters in the Wheel of Time series for an example. That’s all I will postulate on this subject except to say that the same rules of imagination used for fantasy races and creatures apparently apply to character archetypes as well.

The Medieval Setting

Ah, yes, medieval times. Castles, kings, chivalry and the black plague! Fun, fun, fun! I admit I vastly enjoy real world medieval history. Often medieval fantasy doesn’t truly reflect the realities of medieval history, though. This isn’t really important since fantasy is supposed to be about grand adventure and grand imagination, taking the glorious aspects of medieval times and amplifying them while downplaying the not so glorious.

For example, travel in a fantasy world is about riding horseback over incredible terrain and having grand encounters along the way. It’s not about going for weeks without a bath, having to walk alone into the woods to relieve oneself, or freezing in the rain at night. This is not a bad thing, though, since no one wants to read about the mundane.

Aside from the fact that medieval settings are very interesting, why is fantasy literature mostly set in Camelot-style kingdoms with royalty and peasants and castles and armored knights? What about a setting in ancient Greeceor Mesopotamia. Egyptian civilization is ripe for fantasy literature, Stargate notwithstanding. Some authors may argue, I have written about the medieval orient, not about medieval Europe! The key word is medieval. Even oriental fantasy and real-world history contains variations of medievalEurope. Samurai are the oriental equivalent of the European knights after all, cultural differences aside. There are European dragons and oriental dragons, but in essence they are dragons.

But what about a truly imaginative setting? I reference the movie The Dark Crystal as an example. Yes, the gelflings are directly influenced by elves and faeries (gelflings) but aside from that, look at the strangeness of the world. Again I will also reference the RPG Talislanta. The point is, once more the same rules of imagination apply to creating fantasy settings as they do to creating races, creatures, and character archetypes. Imagination is rarely unleashed to create beyond the familiar.

Crystals

Why are crystals so vastly important to fantasy literature? Earlier I mentioned that Tolkein used a simple gold ring as his Uber Artifact. Fantasy authors, and I may come across as sexist here, particularly female authors seem obsessed with crystals. Perhaps it’s the New Age fascination with the supposed healing effects of gems and crystals that has influenced fantasy literature.

If not crystals then there are runes, stones, runestones, you get the idea. Geologists, it seems, have completely overlooked the mystical side of their science apparently. OK, end of sarcasm. Crystalshave become a real yawner for me. If I may refer back to The Dark Crystal again it’s a crystal, original world setting aside. Whether it’s the quest for the uber crystal of world shattering or the crystal sword of troll slaying, crystals, in my lofty opinion, are overused, having lost their originality many years ago.

Well, there it is. It’s by no means complete. There are many things I could include but for now I must go forth and accomplish other things that are demanding my attention. As I said before, these are simply my opinions and you are welcome to agree or disagree as you like.

Some of you may love me or hate me for my opinions. Regardless of what you feel, take what I have written here to heart and begin thinking beyond the established. Unleash your imaginations and share with the world what you, personally, have created. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope you found it inspirational or at the very least, food for thought.

  • http://Cutthroatcreeks.wordpress.com Andrew clark

    Shadow of the apt series & china melvilles fantasy stuff are very different.

    Also cutthroatcreeks.wordpress.com is a site for a mosaic novel set in a more noirish non-traditional fantasy world. I would love you to have a look & join in if you fancy it.

    • James

      I agree. China Melville’s A city and a city was simply the most imaginative piece i had come across in a long while. It seems that most authors these days simply don’t have enough imagination to create their own archetypes?

  • Svafa

    I recently read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and I think you might enjoy it. It does have some of the typical “over-used” tropes, but it also has a few good twists. For instance, while the first book does have a story about overthrowing the Evil Overlord and freeing the world, it is a trilogy and the second book is about what happens when his kingdom comes crumbling down. Again, it does fit into a lot of the standards, but I was pleasantly amused and think of it more as a coming-of-age story with a fantasy backdrop really. Plus, it has one of the most intriguing “magic” systems I’ve seen in quite a while. And it’s pretty much just humans, at least for the first book, but none of the typical elfs, dwarfs, or trolls, none even re-skinned and given different names even.

    Out of your list the one that bugged me most was the ancient scholars language. I’m not certain it’s a fair complaint. That’s sort of the way language works, and honestly I find most fantasy worlds and literature to include too few examples of borrowed words and ancient “forgotten” languages. Yeah, very few people speak fluent Latin, but much of the words written here have Latin roots, and are nearly identical. Take that last word, for example, “identical”, which has its origin in the medieval Latin word “identicus” meaning “the same”. And that’s just the vulgar tongue, let’s not get into academia and scientific fields where Latin and Greek run rampant, just to name the two most common of the “ancient scholars” languages. They have a very good basis in reality to include such languages in fantasy worlds, and again, I’d be skeptical of a world without such languages.

    On a lighter note, what is it with ultimate weapons and crystals? Seriously?

  • Thiago

    I agree with Svafa on the language topic, it’s just the way language works.

    Other than that, I’d like to point something on the topic of classification of the heroes.

    I won’t say there aren’t authors who really think about it and do this on purpose, probably as you said, inspired by RPG and other novels, but in my opinion, even if someone just go on writing a history about someone, eventually the reader can classify the character according to his actions. I think there’s no way around this, it’s a need to understand, simplify and characterize these characters, at least I do this, sometimes without even noticing it.

    Other than that, great post.

  • Richard

    You don’t seem to have connected “medieval setting” with being responsible for most of your other complaints.

    Rome was remarkably advanced compared to what followed afterwards, when the hordes of barbarians invaded. So advanced that for centuries afterwards in western Europe written latin, or greek was the standard lingua franca between educated people who, most importantly, spoke different languages in their day to day lives. Any setting which apes medieval western Europe is going to have to feature those aspects; or it won’t hold together very well.

    The hunt for “the one object” in the face of “implacable hordes” and “insatiable villains” may have more to do that the ‘classic’ authors you are reflecting their life experience from the 1930s and 1940s. Outsized personalities perpetrated monstrous evils in all corners of the globe, but it came to an end… largely because of the discovery of an important new weapon.

    I suspect you’ll find the work of more recent fantasy authors (Jordan, Martin, Rowling) reflects their life experience coming of age in the 70s and 80s, and combat is more likely to be one of internal struggle in the face of endless battle.

    Speaking of which, a lot of your argument really does seem to fall apart in the face of the most successful fantasy series ever written: Harry Potter.

    R.

  • http://staceysrpgworld.blogspot.com/ Stacey Chancellor

    This is interseting stuff. I have been in a sci-fi/fantasy book club for almost seven years, and this topic comes up a lot. Writers using the same cliches over and over, again. Which is why we love it when a fantasy novel kind of does something different. A few examples:
    The Bone Doll Twin by Lynn Flewelling
    Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
    A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham
    Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
    Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

    So there are authors that try. But I also think, that is the author is good enough…he/she can get away with cliche…i.e. Patrick Rothfuss.

  • josh

    Well, for what my two cents are worth, i completely agree. This might be a bit unrelated, but it is really, really difficult to find a story that is actually original these days!!! and if it is original, it usually sucks (sort of like the movie i am number four…) ugh that was a bad one!! ouch!!!. anyway, tolkien had it right, but too many have copied… also i believe that bleach, the anime, is very original, as is star wars. There are a lot of original stories out there, but finding them amidst the dead-beat copies can be tedius and daunting :)

  • http://www.boards.4chan.org/tg/ dusty_thoreau

    I really like reading your works, but please, please proofread your posts.

    Also, if you know or not, there are others who read through google for this blog; just an fyi.

  • MaxCarrion

    Bleh, complaints about key tropes of a genre, how very very… bleh. Might as well complain that sci fi over does the whole space ships and aliens thing or spy/terrorism books over use the CIA and SAS. I’d say for the most part the fantasy I read doesn’t even hit half these tropes. Seriously, Tolkien Fiest Warcraft books just because they all have Elves, magic and castles, nor does this make the Fiest and Warcraft stuff unoriginal cause some of it appeared in Tolkien first. Incidently Warcraft civilisation have surpassed the sophistication of the pre “world tree destruction” society.

    Seriously, you want us to learn new names and descriptions for a dozen non human races in every fantasy book? Can’t we just call the vicious, ugly, stupid bad race “orc” and the graceful, aloof, wise good race “elf” rather than making the “evil race” a slightly different skin tone, height, give them pointy foreheads and rename them “glom” in the name of originality, does that really bring much to the story? Or will it just cause a little confusion when much later in the book the heroes are following a band of glom and you can’t remember what the hell a glom was.

    There’s plenty of originality in fantasy with worlds based on medieval Europe, Victorian England, Ancient Egypt, Gaelic, Barbaric, Ancient Greece, Feudal Japan, Norse, Celtic Chinese even some native American, I may have read books with Mesopotamian influences but how would I know? Just because the “classic d and d” setting has knights and castles and a lot of authors go there it’s far from all there is.

    So yeah, some ideas are more popular than others, clichés happen in all genres and usually for a reason but there’s so much more out there that don’t follow these tropes, might as well complain that the man in a romance novel is ruggedly handsome, it’s a popular choice but it’s far from all there is to the genre or any given book that uses it..

  • Svafa

    @MaxCarrion:
    I’m with you on the race thing. Personally, I like new and interesting races, but the race needs to be introduced and developed well to be remembered and set apart. Many fall flat when attempting this, sadly.

    On the other hand, what I really dislike is re-skinning a standard race and calling it something different. It’s hard to forgive a writer who has a thin, dexterous race with pointy ears and a love of the wilderness, but insists that they are not elfs. If it looks like an elf, smells like an elf, and tastes like an elf, it might as well be an elf; just call it what it is. I am much more likely to embrace the character if they’re named an elf than given whatever special race-name the author pulled out of his hat. I’m even willing to go with the “my people’s name” thing, so long as we’re all on the same page: they’re an elf.

  • AD

    I’m guilty of using those clichés in my fantasy games. You know, a few moths ago, when I was trying to come up with fantasy game ideas, I thought to myself, “What is fantasy really?”. I concluded that all fantasy HAD to have the above clichés.

    But thankfully my players have helped break me of that habit, and now run different plots typically. But seeing these written down is more helpful than a psychiatrist telling you to lay off the dope.

    Originality sometimes require learning the rules you need to break. Its hard to climb out of box that you don’t know your in.

  • Lee

    Try reading “The Alterverse” by my friend Donald Semora, it is coming out this month (late August) and will be on Amazon. His writing breaks every mold you listed.

    He writes in an original way using fantasy as his model. However, the book does not follow the cookie cutter fantasy model.

  • http://azentia.wikidot.com/start Blair Giles

    Well, I’d have to say that I agree that most of those are cliches. I would also say though, that I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. It all comes down to whether it’s written well, which for me comes down to believability/plausibility.

    Most of Raymond Feist’s series have the uber-horde in them at some point. They’re all still good books. Likewise, he has written books with elves and dwarves, as well as the Empires Trilogy (with Janny Wurts) that had none of the usual fantasy races.

    One of the reasons they ‘setting’ cliches, such as races, work so well, is that because everyone knows them already, so they require less explanation.

    Having said that, there are some series that I love that don’t follow too many of these cliches, if any…
    - The Cycle of Fire series, by Janny Wurts,
    - Tales of the Bard trilogy, by Michael Scott
    - Several books by Sherri S Tepper, notably Raising the Stones.

    One area where I would disagree with you though, is the blaming of D&D for the proliferation of the fighter/thief/cleric/wizard archtypes. If anything, I’d argue that D&D adopted these basics as they are the common archtypes used in fantasy. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were a fighter and thief. Conan and Beowulf were both fighters. Gandalf and Merlin were both wizards. (Now I can’t think of any specific examples of clerics that predate D&D, however the introduction of supernatural mythologies dates back to Greek and Norse tales, as well as their dark counterparts in the works of Poe and Lovecraft).