No, that ‘to/too’ isn’t a heading typo in my paraphrase of Hamlet. In this article, I wanted to address a common criticism levelled at authors in many genres; especially fantasy. Do we embrace tropes done so many times they’ve become cliché? If so, at what point (if any) does cliché become too cliché?
Those closest to me are aware I’ve written many novels under various names in different genres. One of my most prolific is British Horror Fiction. Now, I’d like to say from the outset that I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of readers/reviewers who have to wade through the same warmed-over settings, plot devices, character types and elements time and again. I get it: your eyes glaze after a while. In horror, I tended to seek out interesting legends, settings, and aspects of human nature and beliefs to weave my tales around. Even when writing one of those ubiquitous haunted house novels, I adopted a particular spin to offer something new. However, the market for classic haunted house tales with all the expected hallmarks is as hungry as ever. Like successful billionaires featured in certain romance novels, they’re part of the furniture. Why? People enjoy ‘em, and there’s nowt as queer as folk! I’d suggest an element of comfort/pleasure with something they’ve enjoyed before is also a factor. A subconscious mental association.
Books like that sell, even though they’ve arguably been done to death. The first law of free market economics is to give people what they want. So is it bad or are you a sell-out for writing to market in such a fashion? How about if it’s what you also enjoy? I imagine you’d get a different response from whomever you asked, with no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ It’s that false assertion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ I wanted to respond to, in hopes of encouraging budding novelists (especially fantasy novelists) who may cast aside beloved touchstones because they’ve been told to, rather than because they’re convinced they should.
One hugely successful fantasy novelist whose work I enjoy has been in the game since the late 1970s. If you’ve read any of his books, you’ll know he basically writes the same story every time with minor changes and different characters. Yet it works. Go figure.
My take on it? Write what you love. If that love finds its way into the pages, pruned and polished by a continually refined craft and thoughtful editing, you’ll discover your audience sooner or later.
What prompted this article was a couple of posts I read that ran something along the lines of ‘10/15/20 (insert number here) mistakes to avoid when writing your fantasy novel.’ If you’ve studied the craft of writing for any period, you’ll be aware most ‘rules’ are pseudo-rules at best. That doesn’t mean they’re without merit or unworthy of consideration. However, there are a lot of opinions out there that are just that. Or as my old college roommate used to say: “Opinions are like buttholes: everybody’s got one.” No, really, they have. I’m expressing mine right here (my opinion, not my butthole), and it’s no more or less valid than that of another. Take it or leave it.
After reading a couple of those articles, it soon became apparent their click-bait titles should more accurately have read:
‘10/15/20 (insert number here) favourite fantasy tropes that personally irk me, and I think I’m the big cheese with something to teach.’
Once you hit their list of ‘mistakes’ (I didn’t actually find any noteworthy writing mistakes detailed), things became hilarious. Yep, it was pretty much everything that makes classic fantasy, classic fantasy. I see. So, you love fantasy novels as long as they don’t feature dragons, elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, magical items, epic quests, a European-style medieval setting, rustic inns, poems or songs? O-k-a-y… You’re about as believable as a nudist complaining over the product line in their local clothing store. What a crock! Time to read a different genre, perhaps? How about cookery books? Oh, wait; nope, the formulaic recipes would irk you too.
Now, I’m coming down a little hard on some of those articles. A few featured reasoned advice on avoiding info-dumps, copious flowery language, etc. Common recommendations across fiction writing. However, there’ll be young talent out there who will read stuff like that and believe they’re making ‘mistakes’ if they deviate from the self-aggrandising ‘wisdom’ on offer. If that’s you, MY opinion (and it is only that) would be: don’t believe a word of it.
I love originality in fiction. But, I also love familiarity. Several times I’ve read books where the author was clearly going out of their way to avoid all the classic things I desire/look for in a fantasy novel. The result: delight for some, I’m sure. The writing was excellent. But for me, it was like going to a favourite restaurant under new ownership, only to find everything I loved about the old place had been stripped away and replaced with less appetising offerings.
Another common criticism from the moaners is that levelled against characters with good morals. Don’t get me started on how much I despise books/films people have recommended to me because they were ‘dark,’ ‘edgy’ or ‘gritty.’ I’ve another word for them, and it rhymes with ‘trap.’ We all love interesting characters with a nuanced blend of dark and light comprising their thoughts, choices and motivations. However, one oft-forgotten role of fiction – and especially fantasy fiction – is its ability to transcend the negativity of our present world and offer ideals worthy of aspiration in a blessed escape from doom and gloom. Does that mean every hero has to be a saint? Of course not. But I don’t buy the trend of making everything as dark as possible that has crept into the entertainment industry over the last twenty-plus years. If you love it, that’s great. It’s not my cup of tea.
I’ve been a fantasy nut since I was a kid. Yet, it’s only recently I decided to branch out into producing books within the genre. Why? Partly to hone my craft in other areas before I approached a subject I hold in such high regard, despite my adoption of certain clichés. But also because I found a story I wanted to tell that felt original, yet arose from common themes woven throughout civilizational rise and fall in our own world. ‘The Arisendia Chronicles’ gave me the ability to explore those themes in a neutral environment, and take them wherever I wished.
No doubt were any of the article authors I’ve mentioned to review my fantasy books, they’d rip them up for arse paper. That’s okay. I’m a big boy, and I’ve been in the writing game long enough for it not to faze me. There will be many who’ll share their viewpoints. Their negative feedback on my work may help other such souls avoid something unsuited to their tastes. At the end of the day, that’s the point of an honest review.
Others will find favourite fantasy elements worthy of merit, encasing an emotive narrative with obvious parallels to the western world as I write this. Still more won’t like that similarity, because they can’t stand it when anything gets close to a suicidal truth they wish to obfuscate. A truth that may ultimately cost them everything precious, as it did the masses brainwashed by the Falinorian regime in my books. One which has ended legendary cultures and empires throughout our own history. It makes great inspirational fuel for imaginative storytelling.
So, budding fantasy writers, I encourage you to be bold and balance your own inner guidance with considered input from external voices. Ultimately, make sure you know whose ‘voice’ is controlling/speaking through your work, and you won’t go far wrong; not even if your favourite literary dwarf puts his feet up at a wayside inn, pats his magical axe, and breaks into a rousing song. Who cares if anyone rolls their eyes? Do you love it? Then write on…
In other news, ‘This Unquenchable Flame,’ the second of ‘The Arisendia Chronicles’ is now available for Kindle pre-order on Amazon, with the third due for a similar treatment within the next month.
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