Have you asked yourself this yet? – Is your fantasy world different enough from all the others?
This is something that’s always got me a little paranoid – is my world really different enough to warrant a story? It happens particularly when I read other fantasy stories and think oh…that thing I thought was totally original has already been done before.
I’m sure we’ve all had this no matter what genre we’re working in. It can feel a little deflating to think that everything has been done before. However, the important thing is to be aware of common tropes used in your genre so that you can do something about them.
There was a post on Fantasy Faction last year about dragon fatigue in fantasy. I like dragons as much as the next fantasy fan but haven’t we seen enough of them already?
Game of Thrones’ popularity, especially after the TV show, has left me feeling that dragons are a bit overdone in fantasy these days. The same can be said about zombies and vampires over the past 10 years after Twilight, The Walking Dead and other various films and TV shows that came out when these things were really popular. Everyone got tired really quickly.
A lot of older fantasy stories are based on medieval myths and legends – castles, swords, knights and so on. Nowadays I’m keen to read more stories that aren’t so focused on these things, not that it’s bad but because we’ve read it all now.
One of the reasons I love Brandon Sanderson’s work is that he’s so inventive with his magic. To me his stories feel very different. However, even Sanderson’s work isn’t free from clichés. His stories feature kings and knights, heroes and dark forces, as well as the signature orphaned protagonists.
But I love the way he writes magic. While many were writing about magic spells, old books and amulets, he was creating magic from pieces of metal (Mistborn), colours (Warbreaker) and light (Stormlight Archives). I even read one recently where chalk drawings were magical (The Rithmatist).
Making your world weird
Back when I was at uni I was writing a historical fiction novel about Ancient Egypt. One of the things my tutor pointed out was that I hadn’t made it weird enough. I was guilty of spending too much energy trying to get everything historically correct that I had forgot to bring it to life. One of the reasons I was so drawn to Ancient Egypt was because it felt like a completely different world to my own but there I was writing a bad history book instead. There was none of the colour or magic that had made me fall in love with the Egyptians in the first place. There wasn’t enough there to highlight how different this world was from our own and from what’s written in the history books.
Now with fantasy, I’d like to think that I’m not falling into the same trap because it’s based on a new world. Surely it’s different if it’s your world – right? However, no one is free from influence. Everything we write is inspired by something else, whether it’s history, your own experiences, news stories or other novels.
When reading any genre you’ll notice tropes you’ve seen a hundred times before. Unfortunately, you may not even notice them in your own work. We’ve all done it – come to the (late) realisation that we’ve maybe-stolen-that-without-meaning-to. It’s easy to fall into habits or predictable story lines, particularly if it was something we loved reading from another story.
While there’s nothing wrong with stealing inspiration from other stories, it can go too far if you let it. You don’t want to end up with a copy of someone else’s story.
Focusing on the little details
While magic and big features like dragons and such are the focus of many authors’ attentions, a lot can be done on a smaller level to bring colour to your world.
If you want your world to stand out, then focus on what is normal for the people and creatures of your world. It doesn’t always have to be something big. I’ll continue using Sanderson as an example as I’m still making my way through all his books.
You can see small things in The Stormlight Archives that make the world feel different. He gives his characters what we would deem strange behaviours. For example, there are male and female foods. The women only eat sweet things, the men eat savoury and spicy things. Women also cover one of their hands as an act of modesty. He expands on this by saying that high class women will cover it with a special sleeve and the lower class women will do so with a glove because they need to use their hands more.
Do these details have any major relevance to the plot lines of the characters? Not really. But these little things add up and create a world that’s believable.
Often it’s the smaller details that really give colour to a world. I feel this is where a lot of world builders struggle (I know I do). They’re so focused on getting the big stuff right that the rest of the world feels somewhat under developed.
The beauty of editing
Have you become invested in your fantasy world but realised you’ve thrown a whopping cliché in there? It’s not too late, you can still salvage your story but you may need to become a brutal editor.
My approach to writing has been to just get everything down and not look back. The downside to this is that editing is going to be a mammoth task. I know that I’ve done stuff wrong along the way, stuff that doesn’t make sense and used clichés. Editing will involve a huge restructure and a lot of rewriting but that’s okay. If you look at your story and think it barely requires editing…it does, it just does.
Cutting out or cutting down on overused clichés isn’t just to avoid being called out on a plagiarism accusation (although that’s important too). If you’re copying off someone else too much, all you’re doing is hiding your true voice and doing yourself a disservice. Let the readers see you, not someone else everyone copies off.
So on to you, what is it about your world which you think stands out? Or are you worried you’re slipping into a slight retelling of something else? If you’ve got any tips on how to stay on your original track, please share below!