Fantasy Clichés to Avoid

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Fantasy Fiction Clichés to Avoid - What Beginners Do in Fantasy Fiction

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Here at, I always have to keep these clichés in mind.  They may sound obvious when pointed out, but they have a way of creeping into one's fantasy fiction.  Here's an alphabetical list.  I'll provides updates as I encounter more clichés!

An historic castle is sometimes really tiny!
Beginners often describe a huge amount of intrigue carried out in the secret passages of castles.  Ladies and lords cheat on each other, conduct weird rituals, and have clandestine councils of war. 

In reality, those castles and keeps were sometimes built small to be easy to defend.  The cold European weather also kept the rooms small and the beds full of family members to keep warm.  No privacy and no way to carry out elaborate intrigue without everyone knowing about it.  For authenticity, you should address this when you have your castle residents sneaking around.

Appearance of character.
Keep it to a minimum.
I'm all for not describing your character at all, and letting your readers fill in their own picture.  You might want to hint at your hero or heroine's size because it can make a huge difference in someone's life if he's a small, delicate man or she's an overweight woman.  Otherwise, who cares about the color of his eyes and hair?  It's more interesting that he has bold eyes or dreamy eyes, or she has frizzy untamable hair. 

I realize that writers of romance or epic fantasy will probably ignore my advice.  That's fine.  Just, please, don't have your character look into a reflective surface like a pond or mirror and start cataloging her features like a mug shot.  Show her looks through action:  her friends tease her about her wide mouth or the dressmaker fits a garment to her tiny waist.  If you make her too gorgeous, she may sound like a Mary-Sue character.

British Culture.
Don't make your British readers laugh their arses off.
We American writers sometimes use British-flavored expressions in fantasy fiction because we're trying hard to sound less mundane (that is, contemporary American) and more exotic.  The amateurs among us sprinkle in a few British phrases (usually the rude expressions) and leave it at that:  Sod off!  Bollocks!  Or we attempt a Cockney accent for characters from the lower classes such as Orcs and peasants.  Don't do it.  To Americans, it's a cliché, and it's not going to impress Australians, British, Canadians, and Irish.

Characters – Ethnicity
Why is everyone a Northern European?
It's because of the combined influence of Celtic folklore, Norse sagas, and revered British writers like Tolkien:  the default character in fantasy fiction is tall and fair.  What a refreshing change to pick up Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books and read about dark-skinned people! 

Characters, Mary Sue.
We don't want a too-perfect version of yourself!
The Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is a character with perfect abilities and beauty whom everyone adores – often a wishful stand-in for the author herself! [1] It is rare that you get all that perfection in the same character.  But Mary-Sue aspects can creep into any main character. 

For example, I have a sergeant.  It begins to sink in on me that I'm giving him all the flashy jobs to accomplish.  It improves things when I rewrite and make one of his corporals the best marksman in the squad.

The most obvious Mary-Sue stuff happens when a writer over-emphasizes her character's beauty:  her slender yet voluptuous figure!   Most beginning writers evolve beyond this.  But Mary-Sue characteristics can creep in on more subtle levels, especially when the other characters relate to the Mary Sue in ways not earned or believable:  everyone adores her, obsesses over her, or envies her for no real reason. 

Give your character some physical and emotional flaws.  Share out the heroic deeds so that she's forced to ask for help.   Above all, don't make her your mouthpiece for your own personal philosophy.

Characters, Names.
Don't create names that sound randomly generated by software! 
Find out more about choosing characters' names.

Dialogue, too Modern.
Yo, baby, no slang.  Okay?
You want your dialogue to crackle with energy and sound real.  But, unless you're writing urban fantasy, you want to avoid slang that sounds jarringly modern.  If you're writing epic fantasy, how can you convey teasing between characters, or more serious insults?

forwhomthebelltolls I obscenity in the milk!

I'm not entirely sure; I'm still figuring this out myself.  Tolkien's Orcs call each other maggots and dung, and it works.  What about profanity – the words to which we all resort under extreme stress?  Conveying intense emotion is important, but such dialogue in fantasy fiction holds enormous potential for inadvertent silliness.

Just for fun, here are some examples from 20th century American literature.  In 1948 when Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead, he couldn't have his soldiers use the F-word, so he made them say, "Fug."  Constantly.  Now it's distracting to read.  

It gets even weirder in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls with its translations of Spanish cursing into English.  For example, according to Wikipedia:  "The Spanish expression of exasperation me cago en la leche repeatedly recurs throughout the novel, translated literally as I obscenity in the milk." [2] Really.  I remember it well, and I still wonder what the heck Hemingway was thinking!

Many readers find modern profanity in epic fantasy to be jarring.  Others accept it if the story is gritty in terms of sex and violence, or semi-modern such as steampunk.  Use modern language with caution.

Dialogue, too Weird.
By the Deity's private parts!
It can be so difficult to invent natural sounding expressions for epic fantasy characters.  Think of all the everyday phrases that go off-limits when you create a non Judeo-Christian based world:  to hell with it, what the hell do you mean, Oh my God, for Chrissake, et cetera. 

In sword-and-sorcery fantasy you get a lot of ridiculous oaths and expressions:  by the anatomy of this or that god or goddess!  Dwarves swear by the beard of their ancestor.  Elves swear by the moon and the stars.  It all gets rather silly and worn out.

Dialogue, too Wordy.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Read your dialogue aloud.  Drop all non-essential words.  Tighten it.  Take the following:

    "Do you want to come with me?" becomes  "Want to come?"

    "I don't recommend doing that particular thing," becomes  "Don't do it!"

Many fantasy writers will object; they want their characters to sound otherworldly and grand.  I understand.  In her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," Ursula Le Guin says fantasy should be so distinctive that you would not be able to change one detail in the setting and keep the dialogue the same and have people mistake it for a contemporary thriller.

Read Tolkien.  His dialogue is plain and simple, and yet it has that grand flavor.  You'll get a feel for it as you study his work. 

While you're at it, consider eliminating dialogue tags from your own work:  phrases like "Back off!" he growled, she shrieked, he moaned, she hissed, or he sputtered.  The more overwrought the verb, the more you should delete it.  Go with he said, and only when you have to.  It's better to show who's speaking through action:

    "Back off!"  The brigand's eyes narrowed in his dirt-smeared face.

Freud thought they were the royal road to the unconscious.
This is the mark of the amateur writer:  a dream sequence unfolds like a movie, conveying information to the reader that the character is afraid to face.  First, dreams don't happen like movies; they're mostly incoherent.  Second, the readers don't care about a dream-scene because it's not real.  Third, do you really need to convey this information?  Probably not. 

If you think you do, you can inform through dialogue and action, which are far more interesting.  A character lies about something and her eyes shift away.  She insists on something, and her fingers shred her napkin in her lap.  These are vivid ways to convey information that a character can't face.

When are dreams appropriate in fantasy fiction?   Almost never.  Mention briefly that your character wakes with nightmares.  Or get detailed if some actual magic is happening in the dream:  characters accessing different dimensions and so forth.  Otherwise, don't bother.

Fight Scenes.
The improbable and the overly detailed.
Assemble your spouse and kids, or your neighbors, and get them to act out a fight scene so that you can choreograph what's physically possible.  That helps you to understand the action.  Then you need to edit ruthlessly!  Cut the scene by three-fourths because its essence is swift movement.  Your character gets swept up in a battle, or he displays his skill in a fist-fight.  Or he gets his ass kicked before he even knows it!  He doesn't have time to think it through.

Here is how you'll choreograph a fight scene after your neighbors have kindly re-enacted it for you:

    The two men faced each other and one threw a punch.  The other man had his fists raised to guard his face, but the first man's fist skimmed over the top of the second man's fists and struck the second man in the chin.  The impact of the blow was strong enough to jolt the second man's head backwards on his neck.

You can tighten it by climbing further into one of the character's viewpoints.  A lot gets implied; the reader's imagination takes over.  Here's the defender's viewpoint:

    Keep your hands up, he told himself.  His opponent blasted a punch through his guard and nailed him on the chin; his head snapped back.

Try not to use them AT ALL!
Dear God, do I hate flashbacks.  They can slow the action to a dead stop.  As with dreams, ask yourself, do I really need to convey this information?  Probably not. 

If you think you do, get it across through the characters' telling each other about it, which can be amusing as they interrupt, ask questions, and pronounce judgments.  Or you can show short thoughts: 

    He remembered his father's head striking the frozen ground as the king's executioner paused to shake the blood from his sword. 

Leave it at that.  If you must attempt a flashback, keep it as short as you can.  Place it after the action in your scene.  Don't think that you can induce your readers to plow through your flashback by dropping it in the middle of action or dialogue; if they are as impatient as I am, they'll skip straight over the interruption.

Please don't start your flashback in bad-movie fashion with your character looking into a reflective surface, everything goes misty, and then a previous scene unfolds.  Here's how to do it.

I like to do a space-break to make the flashback really clear.  You don't have to go that far.  You're probably already writing in simple past tense.  Continue that with a sentence that conveys attention shifted to the past:  "He remembered the last time he saw her three years ago." 

Then switch into a past-perfect-simple verb tense once for your next sentence:  "He and she had walked their horses up the steep trail to the lake."  Then return to simple past-tense verbs as you fill out the brief (I hope) scene:  "He held back the branches from her hair.  She smiled …" et cetera.

So you have the following for your flashback.  Note the pattern of verb tenses: 

    "He remembered the last time he saw her three years ago.  He and she had walked their horses up the steep trail to the lake.  He held back the branches from her hair.  She smiled …"

When you want to end the flashback and return to your ongoing past-tense story, do another space-break.  Or, if you didn't bother with space-breaks, wrap things up with a sentence that orients the reader to the shift back to the present:  "Now he longed to return to that simple afternoon.  He punched the wall in frustration."  Check out reference #3 at the bottom of the page for more on verb tense. [3]

Heroine, Too Pissed-Off
Girls just want to kick ass!
This is an urban-fantasy or paranormal romance cliché:  the sassy, smart-mouthed heroine who has a chip on her shoulder and way too much 'tude.  This type probably started back in 1993 with Anita Blake in Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton.  But Anita has reason to be pissed off:  a tiny woman at five-feet-three-inches tall, she has to fight vampires who exist above humans on the food-chain.  Like Batman, she only has her technology and training to keep her ahead of her supernatural opponents.

Guilty Pleasures has a grim, suspenseful tone.  Today's urban fantasy has drifted towards romantic comedy.  So what exactly do these ladies have to be so pissed off about?  These books often open with the heroine in the workplace.  Someone assigns her a job, or asks for help.  For no real reason, she interrupts, argues, and mocks the other person.  This is because some conflict must be manufactured around the assignment so that the plot can lurch into first-gear.  

If this isn't handled with skill, especially on the first page before we've even come to know her, the heroine can seem obnoxious.  I've struggled to work with this type in many real-life job situations; why should I buy such a book for escapism?

Horses, availability. Something else I remember hearing:  historically, almost no one could afford to own a horse.  The serfs and peasants had to walk everywhere.  The next level up in the class system could maybe have a donkey or mule.  Fantasy characters shouldn't just rush outside and hop on their horse as we might jump in our car. 

Horses, how to guide
Apparently, you don't guide with your thighs.
An Australian friend on LiveJournal pointed out that the "guide with your thighs" cliché shows up all the time in epic fantasy!  Think about it.  Watch a movie with horseback scenes.  The riders' thighs are too spread out over the horse's back to do much.  You've got to guide with your calves or ankles or heels – something further down on your anatomy
. UPDATE as of 4/14/10: An experienced equestrian was kind enough to email me a correction on this as follows: "Speaking as someone who has been riding horses for 16 years and training professionally for 4, a skilled rider does indeed guide with his or her seat and thighs.  Relying on anything below the thigh is a grave flaw looked down on by anyone who has a basic foundation in equestrianism and corrected immediately by any given instructor (pinching with the knees pushes the rider up and out of contact with the horse, 'holding on' with anything below the knee compromises the security of the seat).  The lower leg is to be laid lightly on the horse's side and kept functionally loose; squeezing, "guiding" or clinging with it, in addition to compromising the rider's balance and position (nearly every rider who squeezes with his or her lower leg ends up tipping forward and offsetting her center of gravity and therefore diminishing her ability to ride effectively should the horse, say, halt or change positions unexpectedly... and also putting more weight on the horse's forehand, decreasing its ability to engage the back and hindquarters and thus comfortably counteract the weight of a rider), is easily misconstrued by most horses as a cue to speed up or at the very least presents an extremely irritating source of constant, inescapable pressure.  Lazy horses may need an occasional bump with the heel or lower leg to remind them that "hey, I'm still up here, pay attention to me" but otherwise, aids should be minute shifts in position and muscle tension (again, from the seat and thighs) which are invisible to onlookers.

Actors in movies with horseback scenes generally don't know what the hell they're doing and only receive enough training to allow them to stay on the horse (not fall off and die).  Their riding is, again, generally, neither correct nor functional.  Those horses are selected specifically for their quietness and patience with/tolerance for total idiots who can't do much more than flop around in a saddle.

A decent amount of fantasy writers are also into horses and, in this instance, happen to know what they're talking about.  This might be one cliché which needs to be corrected or taken off of a few lists."

Don't drop all the details on your reader all at once.
It can be so hard to communicate your back-story!  When you're writing your rough draft, just pour it all in your first scene and don't worry about it.  Keep writing to the end of your fantasy novel.  Realize that you will cut most of your first chapter and either discard it, or work the most important bits in through dialogue and action.  But all that cutting and reorganization can come after you finish writing the rough draft.

Your first scene must draw the reader in through action, or at least strong emotion over an intriguing situation.  Take a hard look at the MINIMUM your reader needs to know to understand the first scene.  Do we need to know that we're in the middle of a war?  Yes.  Have the artillery booming in the background (or the archers marching past the town gates).  Must we get burdened with the fact that two separate dynasties are fighting over certain types of religious persecution?  Not quite yet.  You can have the characters bicker over that in a later scene.

One thing you must remember if you're in close third-person viewpoint:  your character already knows his back-story.  He's not going to start formally explaining it to the reader, especially if he's under pressure in an action scene, which is how you should start your novel.  You must think of more natural ways for him to bring up his past.  Have him hold a grudge.  Open with a scene where his brother sticks him with the farm chores, and he thinks to himself, "Always did his brother twist the knife in his back, starting with the time he …"

Languages, Arcane.
Leave it to the readers' imagination.
Beginning writers want to try making up their own languages because Tolkien made it look so magical.  Tolkien was a linguistics professor at Oxford University!  Believe me, the average fantasy writer just can't compete.  Don't make up an incantation:

    The sinister black-robed priests began to chant, "Un tragga durth yr lakka!  Un tragga durth yr lakka!"

It's just going to sound painfully silly.  Instead, describe the sensory details in the scene:  the harsh, hoarse voices, the pungent incense, and the cold flagstones underfoot.  Let the readers imagine the words of the chant for themselves.

Magic, Too Cheesy
Fireballs shoot from one's hands!
Magic is, hands-down, the hardest element with which I struggle when I write fantasy fiction.  I urge you to be careful of what effects your magic-wielders achieve.  Visualize it like a movie.  If it looks too cheesy and reminds you of CGI-laden special effects in the latest blockbuster, tone it down.  It's always better to make the sorcery limited and even weak than all-powerful.  Too many beginning writers get their characters into suspenseful situations like an ambush, only to resolve it with a wave of the magic wand.

Please, God, don't give us an event that happens 50 years before the action.
Epic fantasy is notorious for this.  Do we care that the Dark Lucifer-type Lord escaped his confinement three millennia ago?  Hell, no!  You might think that it connects to the troubles our characters must face in the present – but it doesn't.  Or at least only in the most abstract way.

Prologues annoy the reader because he or she gets involved with the character in the prologue only to reach the end of the scene, and sometimes that character's death.  Then the reader gets jerked into a new time-frame with new characters.  Whose story are you telling here?  Make a decision and stick with that person.

Elves, Dwarves, and especially Orcs can drop the property values in your neighborhood!
Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs have been done to death.  Do you really have anything new to add?  You could tell a story from the viewpoint of the Orcs – a great idea.  However, it's been done at least twice already (Grunts by Mary Gentle, Orcs by Stan Nicholls).  Take the energy that you would need to pour into making these characters fresh, and use it to accomplish something else with your plot.  Really.  These days, just seeing the word Elf or Dwarf on the back-cover can be an instant turn-off to the reader.

Telling Instead of Showing
Let us readers draw our own conclusions.
A beginning writer misses opportunities to make his fiction vivid when he writes, "She looked like she didn't trust him."  What exactly makes one think that?  Did she frown, edge away, lick her lips, and fumble in her purse for her .357 magnum (or reach into her bodice for her poison-covered dagger)?  Show her distrust through her actions.

Viewpoints, Too Many
They all start sounding alike!
The viewpoint corresponds to the character through which we readers experience the action.  If you have a lot of viewpoints, you can play with intrigue and false impressions and show the reader a lot that the individual characters can't know.  You also run the risk of diluting the impact of each character:  one or two characters we care about, but a whole mob of them has a distancing effect.  There is also a phenomenon known as "head-hopping" when you change viewpoints so frequently that you irritate the reader.

My favorite viewpoint is close third-person, and I recommend having no more than two viewpoint characters, and to switch them no more frequently than scene-by-scene.  You could argue that I play it safe as a writer with a boringly simple format.  That's fine.  To each his own.

Villains, Two-Dimensional
Why DO they want to destroy the world?
This cliché always makes me laugh:  the abstract personification of pure evil that wants to suck the world into a black void and destroy everything.  Wouldn't it be much more comfy to keep the luxuries and just enslave everyone so that they can rub your feet and bring you treats?  But then you'd be responsible for all those slaves and you'd have to feed and house them!

Complex, believable villains are essential to fantasy fiction!  Your hero needs a worthy opponent to face off against.  Remember, Hitler and Stalin each thought he was doing the right thing.  Give your villain real motives.  Give him some good traits.  It will enrich your story.

1., retrieved 9/5/08
2., retrieved 9/5/08

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