Why It’s Okay to Have Clichés in Your Fantasy Novel

By Gabrielle Massman

“Your story is a bit cliché, don’t you think?”

For a long time, I dreaded I would hear those words. They seemed like the ultimate insult, meaning that anyone could have written my story.

I was obsessed with avoiding clichés. I Googled “fantasy clichés,” and I even posted a list of ten common ones on my blog. I gave the characters in my fantasy world Hebrew-based names—no Norse or Celtic for me. My fantasy nation would not have a monarchy! And heaven help me if I even read a book with a damsel in distress, an evil dragon, and a brave prince.Why_It_s_Okay_to_Have_Cliches_in_Your_Fantasy_Novel

However, I’ve recently come to a new conclusion about clichés. I think we need them, and uniqueness is grossly overrated. Isn’t the Bible and the entire history of God and humans one big cliché? Kill the dragon; get the girl (Revelation 12:9 and Isaiah 62:4–5).

Tolkien on Clichés

Today, uniqueness and individuality are emphasized heavily. Although sometimes we do need to remember we were specially created and chosen by God, the pressure to be unique is immense and oppressive, especially as authors. Tolkien expresses a similar sentiment in his essay, “On Fairy Stories”:

“It is easy for the student [of writing stories] to feel that with all his labour he is collecting only a few leaves, many of them now torn or decaying, from the countless foliage of the Tree of Tales, with which the Forest of Days is carpeted. It seems vain to add to the litter. Who can design a new leaf? The patterns from bud to unfolding, and the colours from spring to autumn were all discovered by men long ago.”

It is easy to recognize that the stories we’ve written have been told many times before; even if we strive to be original, we still find that our stories are not. Tolkien, however, worried that writers bent on originality would scorn the truth and beauty in old stories and concoct tales that were “clever and heartless.” This is a valid concern nowadays. Anyone can be published on Amazon, and more stories are circulating than ever. Literary agents want high-concept pitches that completely overturn clichés in a single sentence, and as a young writer, finding identity in anomaly is a huge temptation.

Tolkien does not suggest shunning clichés to prevent literary jadedness. Rather, he urges us to refocus on what is real and true:

“We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red… Recovery … is a regaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves.”

How Do Truth and Reality Relate to Clichés?

Clichés are merely stories that have been reduced to a familiar formula that has been passed down for hundreds of years, from man to man and storyteller to storyteller. Clichés linger and last because they are likely to be true, in some form or another.

Why do main characters, particularly in fantasy, tend to be orphans? Perhaps because sinful humans are estranged from God the Father, and we all experience loneliness to some degree. Why are dragons crafty, greedy, and profoundly evil? Perhaps because our enemy is the same. Why are traditional witches beautiful? Why is there always a king? Why a chosen one or lost heir? All of these questions have answers.

Traditional fantasy, the faerie story, reflects a certain essence of the world we live in (if you are like me and detest vague, hippy terms like “essence,” you can substitute “immaterial attributes” instead). The faerie world is where the material reflects the spirit.

A modern fantasy author, Anne Elisabeth Stengl, touches on this idea in her book, Dragonwitch.

“Do you understand, mortal? …We Faerie know it’s the spirit that counts, and all else is malleable. Beauty or ugliness; brawn or frailty; height or lack thereof—these appearances can be exchanged with scarcely a thought! But the truth … now, that’s another issue. The truth of the thing, the person behind what you perceive with any of your paltry five senses… Creature of dust, it’s the truth that counts! And you’ll rarely find more truth than in Faerie tales.”

Dryads are real—not because talking tree people physically exist, but because in a forest we glimpse the dancing of the sunlit leaves, hear the ethereal music in the cool air, and feel the earthly peace.

The concept of immaterial attributes isn’t limited to philosophers and fantasy authors. Examine these verses from the Bible: Psalm 19:1–6, Job 38:7–12, and Job 39:13–18. Then observe a tree and try to deny that there is more to it than science reveals.

Be extremely careful when breaking a fantasy cliché—whether it is making the chosen one not chosen or making your dragons friendly and cute—because you may inadvertently spurn the truth and write a lie. Don’t be afraid to let your writing be a tad cliché. Learn from the stories told to you.

Instead of wondering how you can avoid or break clichés, consider these questions:

  1. Why does this cliché exist?
  2. What part of reality is reflected in this cliché?
  3. Why does this cliché seem trite? What is it missing?

The truths that clichés symbolize have become familiar and lifeless, because we think we have power over clichés and that we fully comprehend them. This is dangerous, because in reality we have little understanding or control over the world around us.

Fantasy is an opportunity to present the truth behind clichés in a new light. As Tolkien says, truly creative fantasy may “open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained [by your knowledge and categories], free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”

Don’t worry about being unique or twisting clichés. Instead, seek the truth and portray it in fresh ways.

What is your favorite fantasy cliché? Why are you fond of it? And how would you like to see it treated differently?


GabrielleMassmanProfilePictureGabrielle Massman is an INTJ teen who loves exploring truth with dragons (AKA a fantasy writer.) She was homeschooled through high school, and now she is studying English Literature at a small Christian college. When she is not working on school, Gabrielle blogs at Write for the King and works toward publishing her fantasy novels. In her spare time, she enjoys studying ancient Hebrew, hunting, competitive swimming, playing with her cat, and role playing.

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Comments

  1. Brilliant article, Gabrielle! I found it very insightful.

  2. This beautifully sums up my internal musings on the conflict between the importance of original writing and novelty just for the sake of it. Excellent work!

    • Thank you! I am glad you are thinking about this as well. I have been taking a class on the idea of Beauty, and so I have been wrestling with what role originality plays in the creative arts. It is interesting to think about, isn’t it?

  3. I needed this. Thank you, Gabrielle! Beautiful work.

  4. A very brave article, Gabrielle! Thank you for submitting it. 🙂 I tend to be fond of the clichéd elements (whether characters, settings, or themes) that often appear in fantasy, so I’m glad to see someone defending them. *Raises shield to block arrows from cliché haters* I especially favor the cliché involving the damsel in distress, villain, and courageous knight, because it isn’t as common as it used to be and has mostly been replaced by the strong female character, who rarely needs help from anyone and sometimes ends up rescuing the male protagonist (all of which I find annoying). 😛

    • You’re welcome! I have to admit that I am still not a huge fan of the damsel in distress, but I definitely understand better why we need her 🙂 I find it much more interesting to think about why we have these cliches and what they are saying about reality than to think of “clever and heartless” way to break them. The strong female character type can be extremely annoying, and to top it off, most of the time, they have extremely flat, boring personalities.

  5. This article was fantastic and just what I needed to hear. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing!

  6. Thank you for this post!! It is encouraging to hear that I don’t have to invent something completely new when I’m writing (I haven’t tried fantasy, though). Anyway, as Solomon said, “there is nothing new under the sun”, so I’m not actually sure if anyone can write a completely new plot! 😉

    • It is, isn’t it? The pressure to write something completely new can be really oppressive and discouraging. What genre do you like to write? I use fantasy as my primary example in this post just because it was what I am most familiar with (and all the quotes were in specific reference to fantasy), though there are cliches in every genre.
      Yes! Ecclesiastes! That is one interesting book.

  7. *concurs with everything* This was super Gabrielle! Great job, and keep writing those cliches. 😛

  8. I love this article. Especially the part about dragons /not/ being friendly and cute. That trope aggravates me so much, my senior thesis I wrote in high school was entirely devoted to arguing against that trope. 😛 #justwriterthings

    • I don’t care for friendly dragons either, although not quite to that degree of loathing. XD

    • Thank you, Josiah! The cute dragon trend has just recently started bothering me (I think Donita K. Paul started my irritation with it). That is fantastic that you wrote your senior thesis on defending traditional dragons! I would definitely read that 😛 I am thinking about going back through my fantasy novel during my edits and changing my dragons at bit. Mine were not friendly per say, but they were just dumb, pack animal and served the purpose of flying horses. It is just as bad as cute dragons or possibly worse. So many edits to do. Sigh.

  9. I have found my new favorite article. Thank you so much for putting all this into words, Gabrielle. You did a beautiful job.
    *aggressively defends small friendly dragons from Josiah and Brianna*

  10. Great article, Gabrielle! I would agree that one shouldn’t be obsessed with being completely original and cliché-free in their stories, but I also think it’s good to think of new things to keep from writing exactly the same story as someone else but with different names for the characters and places. Damsels in distress can be annoying, especially if they’re completely helpless, while at the same time I don’t like ultra-feminist protagonists who think they’re better than men. I don’t see anything wrong with cute friendly dragons. The dragons in my world aren’t necessarily cute – unless they’re babies – but they aren’t evil. They’re highly intelligent creatures who can choose whether to join the light side or the dark side. I’m not sure what my favorite cliché is.

    • Very true, Jessi, but in general, I think this culture emphasizes writing something new too much. Of course, the cliches should be done in the right and real ways– sometime, especially with Damsels in distress, they can be overly simplified. I would debate with you about the dragons, though 😉 I would argue that what you have are not actually dragons but something else, and to give them the same physical form as dragons is a bit naive. (That came out a bit more accusatory that I meant; I don’t have that much of a problem is good dragons, it is more of a pet peeve– and a new one at that.)

      • I would welcome a debate about dragons; I love debating! XD I’m pretty sure my dragons are real dragons. I don’t know what else they’d be. And don’t worry, I didn’t take your comment as anything rude. 🙂 I don’t believe in making creatures fully good or fully evil, same as I wouldn’t make human-like races fully good or fully evil. Also, I’m still developing my dragons, trying to make them unique.

  11. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one who’s read (and loved) Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”! It’s such a great piece. Entertaining and /very/ insightful…. kind of like this post. There are multiple reasons to use cliche’s in fantasy, but what you said here is (by far) the most important. Any genre is susceptible to denying the truth, but fantasy more than any of them, because it hits so close to home and distracts its readers with beautiful descriptions of wonderful story worlds. As a writer of fantasy, this article was a much needed reminder of the importance of thinking my stories through. Thank you for sharing!

    • “On Fairy Stories” is a such wonderful essay! I read it in January, and I probably need to read it again. Thank you. The fantasy genre does have a special potential for either showing truth most powerfully or being the most deceptive. You’re welcome, and good luck with your fantasy writing!

  12. Hi GabrielleMassman! I enjoyed your article–but I got really excited when I saw your bio! It’s nice to *finally* meet a fellow INTJ fantasy author. 😉 *waves excitedly with a shy smile*
    As for my favorite cliche…I’m going to have to go with the Chosen One. There is just SO MUCH TRUTH in that cliche. From the Messiah who was chosen hundreds of years before His birth, to men like Winston Churchill who beleived they had a special destiny and because of that beleif acheived the impossible. I don’t think it is necessary for EVERY story to have a Chosen One but when it is done well, it can be so beautrful!

    • PS I love dragons of all kinds EXCEPT for the annoying “the dragon is actually good and the knight is bad.” That combo is one of my LEAST favorite in all of literature.

      • Hi, Naomi! *Gives the awkward INTJ half smile and nod* I think the Chosen One cliche is probably my favorite as well, but it can be very difficult for a Christian writer to pull off. There are so many complicated aspects to deal with if we are searching for the truth in that cliche. But you are right– it is beautiful when it is done right.
        Interesting. I guess I don’t mind the flipping the dragon and the knight /as much/ as the cute and cuddly dragons. At least the first acknowledges that dragons are normally evil while the other seems to ignore that all together, but I could definitely see where you are coming from.

        • I don’t mind whether dragons are good or evil so long as they are dangerous. No tame or safe dragons for me. 🙂

  13. Hi Gabrielle,
    Great post, as usual. 🙂
    There’s always some great “food for thought” in your blogs.
    I have also struggled with being unique in my writing. This quote by C.S. Lewis (my favorite author) often encourages me when I feel like my work isn’t original enough.
    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” ~ C. S. Lewis
    I hope you find it as helpful as I have. 🙂
    God Bless,
    Lindsi

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