Fantasy Fiction Clichés to Avoid - What Beginners Do in Fantasy Fiction
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Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, 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!
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.
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.
Characters – Ethnicity
Characters, Mary Sue.
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.
Dialogue, too Modern.
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."  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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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. 
Heroine, Too Pissed-Off
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
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 …"
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
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.
Telling Instead of Showing
Viewpoints, Too Many
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.
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.