Originality in Fantasy - Taking The Road Less Travelled
By A.R. George
Think of all the fantasy authors you really like. The usual number is between 5 and 10 (though there's no accounting for 'usual', is there? ;). Now think of all the fantasy authors you've read and not liked, or felt neutral about. Big number, isn't it? Okay - now think of all the authors on all the bookshelves of your local bookstore.
That's right. Hundreds and hundreds. And those are just the authors who've 'broken through' to publishing. Self-evidently it takes something really, really special to make your favourite books stick in your mind, doesn't it? There are probably plenty of fantasy stories you've read which you liked at the time, but now can't really remember - because they were pretty much like all the others. They weren't original.
Originality is a challenge in fantasy writing - making familiar themes fresh and unique in their own way. Total, complete originality does not really exist in writing, and any claim to it is somewhat suspect; Tolkien himself (you know the guy, don't you?) drew heavily on Norse and Celtic mythology, just two examples, when he created his Middle-Earth. But the measure of a good fantasy author's skill is their talent for drawing on old ideas and breathing new life into them, letting the reader see them in a new shape. You can't invent dragons, but you can decide what they look like, how they act - whatever you want.
(The author of this article should note here that she makes no claim to being a good fantasy author; just a person with a large share of 2-cent pieces to give out. ;)
So, without further preamble: 5 (Non-Exhaustive) Points of Originality!
1 - Original Characters
Characters will make or break your story - no ifs or buts about it. If no-one cares about them, no-one will read about them. They are also the most commonly overlooked way to make your story original.
Appearance is superficial, and not a guarantee of originality. Giving your character spectacularly coloured hair or eyes is generally gimmicky rather than original, particularly if you have no reason for the physical difference besides 'it looks cool' or '(s)he was just born that way'. The same goes for birthmarks and unusual weapons. Try giving your character a pointy nose instead, or a toast-rack chest - just a minor point of difference to distinguish them from the masses without being a gimmick.
All that said, an original personality will do ten times as much good for your character as rainbow-coloured eyes. Avoid the tortured hero, the wicked advisor and the gruff dwarf like the proverbial plague. Do not instantly kill off all the hero's immediate family. And do not, repeat, NOT give an elf a harp unless it is completely unavoidable. ;) Your greatest chance of making a character truly memorable is - you've heard it before! - giving them flaws. This does not mean 'a tendency to push people away'; the rugged loner has been done to death in fantasy. Unless you can reinvent him - give him a sense of humour, or something - don't expect that he'll stick in a reader's mind, because the hordes of other rugged loners certainly haven't!
Some of the best flaws include irresponsibility, apathy, cowardice, stubbornness and a temper. Try a few and see what happens!
Lastly, don't overlook one of your most powerful sources of originality: the villain. Villains who are evil 'just because' will not give your hero anything serious to interact with. Villains who cackle maniacally belong in comic books. And villains with castles tend not to be taken so seriously these days (higher rent and power bills aside). Try giving them good points, loyalties, ambiguities - the reader will feel much more involved in your story if they can vaguely understand the enemy's point of view.
2 - Original Plots
A beautiful princess is captured by a dragon. She's imprisoned in a tower. A young knight is sent to the tower to rescue her. What comes next?
That's right - the princess falls in love with the dragon and tells the knight to shove off.
Silly, maybe, but you weren't expecting it, were you? The curse of fantasy is that there are precedents for many plotlines, and many plotlines have become predictable from the beginning. An orphaned boy will always seek revenge. An amnesiac will always be royalty. An unusual alignment of the planets will always bring a chance for the end of the world. An army or fortress facing impossible odds will always triumph. You can either deviate from these completely - try writing a story about a family of heroes one day: Mum, Dad and the kids! - or use them to trick your readers by twisting the formula; who'd ever expect the boy with the special birthmark to die, or a prophecy to be wrong, or the usurper of a throne to be a good man? In the same way, don't feel compelled to have a completely happy ending. Fantasy is intrinsically about good versus evil, but that doesn't mean it has to be an unmixed or total victory ...
Consider writing a story that doesn't have implications for the entire world; a kingdom, a town, or even a modest group of individuals is usually enough. Consider having no royalty involved in your story (fun though royalty are). And always think about the road less travelled - you're bound to strike on an interesting, original plot eventually if you sit and think to yourself, 'What if? What if? ...'
3 - Original Races and Creatures
Humans, elves, dwarves and dragons are the darlings of 'high fantasy'. They're such well-trodden ground that it now takes a lot of skill and effort to make them more than a cliche - the archetypes have set very solidly around them. In writing original fantasy, you really have two choices: give the 'famous four' the boot, or roll up your sleeves and make some serious changes.
If you do choose to banish them from your story, make sure you banish them altogether - don't just make a 'new race' of long-lived, forest-loving creatures called Ix'idrans. ;) When you make a new race, don't feel compelled to make them humanoid; lizard-men and cat-men aren't uncommon fare these days. Try some strange spirit-beings, or weird liquid-creatures. Make a nation of non-hostile, non-mindless undead.
If you DON'T want to lose elves, dwarves and dragons, you don't have to, of course. But you need to do a lot of extra work to make sure that they're not the 'pulp races'. Give the dwarves homes and professions that have nothing to do with mines. Give the dragons society and classes. Make the elves hopeless at magic, and for the love of Something Loveable, get them out of those forests unless they're doing something interesting!
4 - Not Reinventing the Wheel
Originality is a wonderful thing. Don't feel, however, that your story must bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything else ever written. If you go renaming all your professions - 'Mara the Ks'cali played her harp-like ks gently' ... 'Jon the Steel-Bearer smiled at Dor the Iron-Maker' - you have to be very careful that it doesn't get too confusing. No-one is going to scream 'plagiarism!' at you for using the word 'guardsman' or 'smith'. Rather a lot of us do. ;) On the other hand, if you're not throwing too many random, unexplained names into the pot, and if it adds to the exotic feel of your culture, go for it!
Beware, too, of getting too creative with month/day names and demarkations. 'Mara waited two moonturns' isn't TOO bad, since the reader can guess readily enough what that means (though 'month' is probably still better!), but saying 'Mara waited five Castledays' is completely non-descriptive, and guaranteed to force your reader to flip back through the book OR ignore all references to time. Not good if you're trying to make a point that something's happening quickly/slowly.
The basic rule of thumb is that you should always have a clearly defined reason for making something different. Day names, month names, even season names ... these are all superficial changes, like a character's appearance, and don't really contribute to originality in any substantial way on their own.
5 - Original Extras
Romance - Don't feel compelled to pair off all your characters. Maybe some never find 'the one', or permanently nurse a doomed love. Maybe some just aren't romantically inclined!
Death - Don't necessarily give a character time to gasp out their noble last words. Don't kill them off at random, either. The faithful servant doesn't ALWAYS have to die, and the noble prince doesn't ALWAYS have to live.
Gender - Ever considered a female weaponsmith, or a male captive of a dragon?
Age - Ever considered a hero over forty?
World History - 'In the beginning, the gods created ...' is fine, but why not try making a world that was created by accident?
Languages - If you have no envisioned grammatical reason for having apostrophes in your fantasy language, DON'T PUT THEM THERE. ;)
In closing, the author of the article would just like to assure all readers that she has committed most of these so-called 'mistakes' herself at some point in the past, and does not mean to belittle anyone's writing style or stories. This is a personal opinion of originality's golden rule, and that rule is simple: Think outside the square.
If you must give a harp to an elf, make him bad at it. ;)
FARP Article Guestbook
|17 May 2012|| LOTR fan|
|12 Jun 2012|| Anon.|
|7 Jul 2012|| Fantasy Writer|
This was very helpful, mostly the part about the races. My races in my story (in it’s development stages atm) are some of the basics (humans, elves, werewolves), but then I have things not seen often in fantasy style stories (Ape Men, Temus [arcane residue that manifests itself into a ’human’ shape, usually completely clothed in masks, long robes, etc.]). No, my elves don’t play harps. There are also two kinds of elves: High Elves and Spite Elves. Spite Elves are more on the "drow" side (DND race), yet completely redefined. The High Elves do use magic, however, they can be paladins too (similar to Blood Elves in WoW). Excellent job, author!
|11 Aug 2012|| OrtusMerula|
Very helpful. I’m currently in the alpha stage of a story about humans, elves (well, elf really) and dragons. However, the dragons aren’t really dragons but people of high knowledge of magic, and have an inherited ability to transform into the lizard that spouts fire and death we all know and love. The elves are very traditional; long-lifed, in tune with nature, graceful, etc. But they don’t really come into play at all and keep themselves to themselves. They however have no knowledge in magic, but have almost unmatched craftsmanship. The humans are humans, and live in a very fuedal society, although there are loads of different factions.
Anyway, the main story is about a female elf is an infamous and highly enigmatic bounty hunter, whose skills are almost unmatched. She is contracted (rather forcefully) into hunting down a notorious and almost invincible warlord (who is styled upon Genghis Khan) who is a famed ’dragonslayer’ who turns out to be a dragon himself. The elf finally captures the dragon and begins the long journey back to the world capital to face justice. I know that the story will end with the elf delivering the dragon to justice, and the main dudes are just about to hang him when the elf (disguised) severs the rope with an arrow and rides off into the sunset, leaving the dragon to carve out it’s own, er, destiny.
What do you guys think? Double points for long post?
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|11 Dec 2012|| Caitlin |
This is really helpful! I’m writing a novel about a shy girl and a rude boy who get in an accident and fall into comas. They wake up and are rescued by pirates. And all this stuff happens where they help save the kingdom and find their way home (waking up.) to mix things up I have mouse sized dragons who search for heat at night or resort to burning trees and houses down. I also have a prince who was cursed to become a dragon (although they thought the dragon ate him) and is restored to his true self. He dies protecting a girl lost on a battlefield. Elves are two feet tall and serve the antagonists army and are able to turn invisible. They make bombs. I am also using an idea from the Hamelin flautist myth (one of my villages is named Hamelin) and twisting it. I have fairies ( called jessamine fairies) which fly in your mouth and cover your tongue with a slow working but deadly poison. So what do you think?
|9 Jan 2013|| Xpressway2yrskull|
to caitlin: perhaps in the end the two characters wake up where they started but they both remember the entire experience. maybe that’s too Wizard of Oz. ha ha
|10 Apr 2013|| JodiLynneCox|
I’ve been having a hard time with my fantasy novel because it didn’t follow the traditional formula for fantasy. Its been hard getting a agent. Why you may encourage folks to be out there and write what they want, try not to write about the usually things. That doesn’t really work well in the real world, when acquiring a agent and getting your book to the big 6. All modern published fiction follows a formula, if you bust out of that formula they have know clue how to classify your book and marketing it. There for many agents won’t touch a novel that’s too out of the norm. (Then they complain that nothing is ever original.) Now before you start screaming about self publishing and indy authors leading a revolution. Know that most Indy authors are lucky if they sell 100 books. Many have to give a few away just so they can sell. Its sad but its the reality of Indy publishing.
|26 Apr 2013|| Anon.|
Liked your ideas. Lots of very, very good points ... which sadly seemed to have escaped these aspiring writers. How can so many people have so few good ideas? Please people, when Tolkien wrote about Middleearth most of his characters were original. Now all that is passe. Think a little more, obsess a little less.
|26 Apr 2013|| Anon.|
’El’vial looked upon the strange instrument. Surely it was not meant to be used by a civilised person? In all his long years on this land he had never seen the like. He examined it briefly then tossed it aside with a indifferent twist. He drew back abruptly, startled to hear it give out a strangely desolate moan, as do the dying who behold the shadow scythe of the Doomed One. Perhaps this was some ancient relic of the Ny’am, perhaps one of their diabolical torture instruments, those of legend that tore the truth from the poor wretches that offended the cruel ones. If there was time on their journey he would have to ask Far’el more exactly this ’harp’ was.’
Good Lord, it is hard work to write bad fantasy! I think that I managed to hit most of the elf cliches on the way by. But I do think it is funny that an elf doesn’t know what a harp is.
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