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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dealing with Cliches in Fantasy Fiction - Ross Kitson

The Writers' Blog welcomes its second UK author in a row. I personally enjoy the different spellings of such words as favorite. Ross brings us a thoughtful blog about cliches. He writes fantasy fiction and his novel, Darkness Rising, is recently published. I hope you will comment on your own thoughts about use of cliches below.

The Cliche Cracks.

First of all thanks to Gary for the opportunity to ramble on his excellent blog and hopefully share some useful aspects of my own experience in writing.

I’ve created for most of my life but only taken to formal writing in the last three or four years. As a teen I was an unashamed nerd, wallowing in role-playing games of every genre and it was this that drove me to read everything in fantasy and sci-fi and horror that I could get my spotty mitts on. As writers we are first and foremost readers.

After years of drawing maps on graph paper, poring through monster manuals and creating traps that would make the dude out of Saw pack his bags and retire to Alaska, one of my mates challenged me to write a book. I’d toyed with the idea for years but career had sort of got in the way (I work as a doctor specialising in critical care).

So I set about creating my book. I approached it with the analogy of building a house in mind—well perhaps a scuzzy trailer badly positioned next to an algae choked lake. So the foundations were the thoughts, the ideas, the notes jotted on any blank surface (my palm-top = my hand). I planned epic vistas in my head on the commute to work each day. The foundations were laid with maps, history, cultures, characters and, of course, plot. Then the frame went up- a bare metal skeleton of where the story would go, from start to end. Then the writing, the filling in the gaps—the detail, the dialogue, verbose prose and drama. And when it was built? The decoration came with the self-editing—making it personal, readable, attractive to others.

What a great analogy, I thought. And I looked at my new build and thought—right, time to get in on the market. But then a creeping sense of dread—like Chthulu itself was tickling my bits with his squid chin. Was that a crack I saw, running down the newly plastered wall? I followed it down, deeper and deeper. Crom’s halitosis, I cursed, it runs into the foundations.

It was the crack of cliché.

It permeates every genre—the cliché—but perhaps the fantasy genre is one of the most affected. It began with a casual comment from a friend who read the MS along the lines of ‘disadvantaged hero gains great ability and embarks on epic quest.’ It struck me like a soggy halibut. Everything about my book was cliché. I had a main character as a slave, who then gains powers and escapes. Does she escape to lead a fruitful life gambolling in the fields? Hell, no. She embarks upon an epic quest (groan), with a group of companions (agreeably not a wizard in a pointy grey hat, a dwarf, elf and four hobbits), to find an ancient artifact (noooo.....), from an undead sorcerer (groan...). My heart sank as I saw my 170k MS dissolving before me... why hadn’t it occurred to me that this was cliché city? And it was the first book in a trilogy...OMG, a trilogy...fantasy cliché.

So I found myself self-flagellating in an Opus Dei –like fashion. I trawled the internet looking for lists of fantasy clichés and ticking down them. ‘Oh, God, I’ve got dreams...’, ‘A tavern...’, ‘A common tongue...’

Then someone said to me—who gives a monkeys... is it a good book? Well, I think so, I said. I’m proud of what I’ve written, although the clichés...

Enough about the clichés, they said. Has it got good characters, good dialogue, drama, tension? Well, I replied modestly, it’s not bad, but the clichés...

Are they there for a reason? You see writing anything within a genre will involve some cliché. They are there by virtue of previous popular work. They are there because that was what people want to read. And agreeably some have been done again and again, but if we take those and try twist them a bit, make them (and I’m aware this is oxymoronic) re-freshed cliché, then we can still have work that feels vital and original.

So my hero is actually a heroine. She’s not a slave—she’s ‘trapped’ in servitude. Her abilities aren’t so wonderful. The magic she uses makes her mentally ill. Her mentors are an obsessive-compulsive mage from a nation that throws sorcerers on the fire to brown their toast with, and a thief who learned to fight from a wandering ronin. The undead sorcerer is actually quite charmingly evil and we almost empathise with his grand scheme, which will ultimately make all folk in the world equal. There are ancient artifacts, but they are not quite what we expect. There are vampyrs—but they ain’t twinkly. The common tongue has a very good reason for being there.

As writers we can’t avoid some clichés. Work saturated with them will be dull, re-cycled, derivative—but even in cliché ridden genres we can put our own spin on them, use them to our advantage. They will draw in fans of the genre and even make the genre more appealing to ‘outsiders.’ I say embrace them, but mess ‘em up a bit.

I think of my favourite fantasy book of the last ten years—the Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch—and even that’s not immune to them. It’s an incredible book that at its core has a likable thief with a hard-as-nails sidekick. So not far off Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser or Robin Hood and Little John. Yet Lynch takes the well worn premise and injects such style into it that I was left shell-shocked by the book.

That’s what I aspire to as a writer- clichés and all.

Darkness Rising is available as an e-book on Amazon at or

It is soon to be released as a print edition via Fantasy Island Book Publishing.

My blogs are and

Thanks again for this opportunity




  1. Wonderful and engaging read. If your books are like your blog posts, I'm hooked. May I be so bold as to point out a cliche on your cover? Your warrior princess has perfectly sculpted nails. ;) I'm off to find this on Amazon.

    1. Thanks, Kayelle. Your comments are really appreciated. You should have seen the girl's medieval teeth and leprous skin before we air-brushed those!!

  2. Thank the pointy-hat, white clad wizard god I read this post! You have lessened my stress on whether or not an idea is fresh enough. And perhaps, when the wizard's curtain is pulled back and the truth is revealed, a cliche-cracked manuscript may have been an epic mythological adventure filled with symbolic archetypes and a true hero's journey in disguise!

  3. Absolutely Sarah. A good case in point is Terry Brooks: I adored the first few Shannara books but they are shameless cliche saturated Tolkein romps. It's so hard not to write in a genre without some cliche- that's almost what makes it a genre. I say embrace them, enjoy writing what you want and try put a little twist on anything that seems too stereotypical!
    Thanks for the comments :-)

  4. You got it pretty right. The cliches are part of the genre. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you venture too far from the expectations of readers (in your depiction of orcs, let's say) you have to take care not to offend and alienate your audience. It's all in the delivery. 'The Sword of Shannara'is the same plot as LOTR and yet it became a best-seller. (Don't ask me why - but that's my opinion). So thanks for a witty and engaging blog post.

  5. An incredible post from an amazing writer. Darkness Rising is on my TBR list, but I keep sneaking peeks because it's so good...

  6. Sounds like you really turned things on end and came up with something altogether new! I always wince when I see stock characters, and I think being aware is half the battle in having something new and surprising.

  7. I love this blog and I think it will reach a lot of readers and of course writers.

  8. Good write. I love cliches. Learned them from my kids, then my grand kids! :)

    Rick Murcer

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