Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Weakness of Fantasy by Zachary D. Totah | Guest Post


Despite the many wonders it offers, fantasy suffers from a glaring problem.

And it’s about as obvious as Sauron’s Eye, perched loftily above the genre’s landscape and leaving no corner untouched with its gaze.

The problem? Clichés.

Wizards and Elves and The Chosen One, Oh My! (aka the Problem)

Tongue-in-cheek snark aside, this cliché addiction haunts the pages of fantasy novels hither and yon as dutifully as the Army of the Dead haunted the Paths of the Dead. (Thus the need for snark.)

Fantasy shouldn’t endure such a cruel fate as the abundance of clichés placed upon its noble shoulders. Of all the genres and subgenres in existence, fantasy should shine with the most compelling creativity and uniqueness. After all, isn’t that what makes it so incredible?


The diversity and variety possible means that authors are free to explore any matter, experiment with untold worldbuilding details, and virtually create as much of the world as they please.

Why then does fantasy continue to dwell in the land of the hackneyed, a land where Chosen One characters churn off the assembly line like Saruman’s Urak-hai and stereotypes rule with an iron fist?

That’s safe storytelling. Safe, perhaps, but missing the spark and energy that makes a fantasy tale truly leap to life in the reader’s mind and heart.

I’ve come from the perspective of a Tolkien (or insert any other famous fantasy author) wannabe. This desire to imitate the best makes sense. After all, if their stories featuring x, y, and z elements enjoyed such massive success, why not do the same with mine?

Except no. Sorry ignorant young writer (talking to myself here), that’s not how it works.


Wonder and Imagination and Creativity, Oh My! (aka the Solution)

How do authors combat this problem of repeating the same themes, worlds, characters, plots?

By daring to be different.

What gave Tolkien’s work an enduring legacy? Why is Brandon Sanderson among the top fantasy writers today?

They weren’t traveling a trail well-trodden. Rather, like the Fellowship of the Ring, they blazed new paths where others had not yet gone.

Therein lies the beauty of fantasy. By nature, it’s filled with endless potential, any number of paths that each writer can make their own instead of following in the footsteps of the greats. Doing that, you’ll end up boring people because they’ve been there, done that.

A better choice is to follow their example, not retrace their exact path.

As fantasy authors, we have such storytelling freedom it’s a shame to let those unmined gems lay buried in the dirt of disuse, while we scrape about for the equivalent of stones and pebbles.

The only limit is our own hesitance to let our imaginations loose.

Want to create a world where every adult walks around on the ground while children are resigned to walking on the walls? Go for it!

How about a character that can only remember things that happen on one day of the week?

Or a magic system that makes use exclusively of green leaves?

The point is, nothing is out of bounds. If you can imagine it, you can write it. This is a lesson I learned while writing an epic fantasy series, and continues to be one I absorb more and more.

To clarify, this doesn’t mean you completely ignore the expected tropes of fantasy. There’s a reason they become clichés—people like them. Am I contradicting myself? Yes…and no.

The tricky part is striking a balance between the tried and true—aka what readers love—and the new and imaginative. If you can do that, you’ve hit the sweet spot.

*insert a semi-rave about how well Brandon Sanderson does this in all his fantasy books* Okay, I’ll stop now, otherwise I’d be praising his brilliance all day.

Let’s make fantasy as breathtaking and awe-inspiring as it deserves. A place where familiarity and originality meet in a stunning display of storytelling. To paraphrase Sam Gamgee, “Those will be the tales worth remembering.”

As a writer (and reader), what do you think is the balance between being original while including familiar elements fans enjoy?

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I wear many creative hats, one of which is to write speculative fiction stories. This allows me to roam through my imagination, where I have illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When I’m not busy with a thousand and one responsibilities,  I enjoy spending time with family and friends, digging into a good book, and watching movies.

I live in Colorado and don’t drink coffee. The two aren’t related.

I love connecting with other readers and writers, so don’t be shy. I keep my superpowers in check. Promise.

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