Romance stories have to have two characters fall in love, and almost always end up happy together. Science Fiction has to obey the laws of physics to an extent, and go off of what we already know about science. Mysteries have some crime, usually a murder, that has to be solved. Fantasy can transport people to new worlds, or change the rules in this one at a whim. Of all these genres, fantasy has the most potential to be creative and break any conventions.
So why is it that so often, it doesn’t?
Don’t get me wrong; fantasy is my favorite genre, because when someone gets it right, they get it right. But in much of mainstream fiction, the genre has become so overloaded with tropes and cliches that it has become formulaic, so much so that it invites parody. Fantasy has become, for the most part, too set in to its own ruts to escape them.
Why? Because it’s easier.
It’s easier to take ideas from the past and modify them a bit than come up with something completely original. Hence the Tolkien clones that followed his work, especially in the seventies and eighties. The Twilight clones that still plague us today. The Dungeons and Dragons based books where characters take on definite classes and become stereotypes.
It’s easier to take some vague idea of Europe in the middle ages and transplant your elves, dwarves, orcs, and fairies there. Or take the modern world and transplant vampires and werewolves here. Easier than creating a world all of its own, with its own rules, own environments, own gravity and other million differences it would exhibit from our earth.
Sometimes, though, creativity can flourish even within these overused ideas. As a graphic designer, I’ve learned that working within a set of defined parameters is better than working with no guidelines whatsoever: in the case of the latter, you spend most of your time just trying to decide on a direction to go with. So some storytellers, not wanting to reinvent the genre, but feeling they have some story to tell, to add to the genre, might use stock creatures, like elves and orcs, or stock environments, like King Arthur’s England, or stock plot devices, like powerful artifacts that can change the destiny of the land. That’s fine, within limits, as long as something new to the genre of fantasy is contributed: a new, memorable character, an interesting storyline, a dynamic relationship between characters. The problem happens when it draws so much on what has been done before that it becomes unoriginal, or incomprehensible to an outsider who hasn’t had the same background as the creator.
So I’m not saying fantasy has to be unique every single time in every single aspect. There is some draw to stories with familiar elements. Take Harry Potter for example. Magic wands, dark lords, dragons and elves. But J. K. Rowling put them together as background to a story that was even more important to her: going to school and growing up. Whether you’re a fan or not, it did create a story that drew many people in.
So how can we inject more creativity into the genre?
Some suggest moving away from the loaded tropes that plague fantasy. Instead of elves, create your own species that doesn’t look like humans with pointy ears. Instead of reciting spells, magic comes from knowing the secrets of the wind. Instead of some farm boy fighting a dark lord, two armies, both with good intentions, go to war over knowledge of power that could destroy them both.
But you can go too far with this, as well. I once read a book about twins, and one of them died, going to the afterlife, where he, as a spirit, moved around through pure will, and everything there depended on how strong your will was. Points for tackling a difficult and original idea, but I had no frame of reference and it eventually became meaningless and lost any credibility. Humans almost always exist in fantasy and science fiction because we relate better to them than to other creatures like dragons or rabbits. So going totally out there to something we can’t consistently imagine will turn most people off, even if it is completely creative.
Other people want to inject creativity into fantasy by borrowing from the existing, but change it up and do it in a new way. Again, there are advantages and pitfalls to this method. The issue is finding a balance.
As I’ve researched ancient beliefs, myths, and stories, I have found that even back then, people weren’t as creative as I once thought. The Greeks, with their rich myths, didn’t really create great monsters. They just combined two or more animals, or an animal and a human, and had their monster. Centaurs, satyrs, griffins, chimeras. In fact, many monsters are just combinations of what have been seen in real life. Giant spiders, men that turn into wolves or bats. Another common theme was having spirits of nature that had a human form, but could transform into water, or a fox, or a tree. Over and over again, they’re just slight variations of the same thing. But like I’ve said, coming up with something new is pretty hard.
The worst offenders are probably elves and dwarves. In many stories, they’re the same as humans, except dwarves are smaller and tougher, while elves have pointy ears and live a long time. They are shallow creations. Yet I believe that one can have success with them, if taking them on with a fresh approach, putting a lot of thought into how they function as a society, function physiologically, how they think, what they value, and so on. If you’re not going to add anything new to them, you might as well just throw them out and focus on humans. And putting them in, but under different names, still doesn’t count.
If elves and dwarves are the worst offenders, vampires and werewolves come in a close second, thanks to Twilight. Stephanie Meyer did try to make her vampires different, like giving them shiny skin, not turning them into bats, making them sexy, and things like that, and had her success, whether it was truly creative or not. The problem came with so many other vampire stories afterwards.
Science fiction falls into the same lack of creativity oftimes. Star Trek is the classic example of a galaxy full of intelligent beings who all look like humans, except for some minor differences in their faces. If my mission was to boldly explore new worlds, I would be pretty disappointed to find everyone looking like me.
Fantasy video games sometimes create creatures that only exist to torment the player, that could have no existence outside of battling the hero, and whose names are cliched phrases.
In essence, this a call for authors, programmers, and dreamers to revive the genre of fantasy with creativity. Those of you who are creative, contribute, despite the market being full of tired reused ideas. Even if publishers are too afraid of something radical, self publishing is now a viable method of getting your ideas out there, despite some extra work it might take to make your work known. Tolkien never meant for his work to be copied so extensively. He just created the world of middle earth to tell his stories. So let’s not let baggage from other fantasy storytellers get in the way of telling ours.