As a twelve year old boy I resolved to write my first fantasy epic. Through months of toil I hammered out a draft and set it aside. When I returned to it, I was surprised to discover just how unoriginal it was. The plot borrowed heavily from The Lord of the Rings, with strong shades of Star Wars. The dialogue and description sounded too much like C.S. Lewis. And worst of all, virtually every fantasy cliché surfaced at some point in the tale.
In other words, it stunk. But in retrospect, this was a necessary stage in my development as a writer. Without consciously realizing it, I was imitating the masters – albeit poorly. But by imitating them I was learning how to write. Then, and only then, was I able to move forward and find my own voice.
Imitation in Fantasy Fiction
For most of us, imitation is a necessary part of the learning process. This is the case when taking up any new endeavor. The problem is when we get stuck in the imitation stage, and don’t progress beyond it.
We recently published an article entitled Who’s Killing Fantasy? You Are! which highlights the negative impact of clichés on fantasy fiction. The discussion which it sparked has been fascinating. Some commentators agree that too much imitation is harming the genre. Others argue, however, that a certain degree of imitation is necessary for the genre to maintain it’s essence. This position was best articulated by author Aiden Sawyer:
The essence of fantasy is not in the creation of new creatures or worlds but in the foundation of fairy tales, mythology, and magic. It’s strengths are in its cliches, nobility, honor, valor set against darkness and evil.
The genre is built upon archetypes and mythology, which is one of the reasons that I love it. It is a reflection of countless centuries of human longings and fears. There is something familiar and comforting about that. Perhaps too much originality, if such a thing is possible, can subvert the soul of the genre?
The Beginning Stage
Yet there are alleged cases of imitation gone too far. Some critics claim that Eragon, to name one example, is a blatant ripoff of Star Wars. Others have argued that The Sword of Shannara borrows too heavily from Tolkien. Having read neither book, I can’t judge the accuracy of such accusations. But in any case, no one can deny that fantasy fiction is rife with tired clichés. And that is a problem.
Imitation is supposed to be the beginning stage of our journey as writers, where we learn the basic elements of storytelling. After gaining experience we are meant to move from imitation to innovation. Once we understand what works, and why it works, we develop the confidence to try new, daring things. That’s where the clichés end and greatness begins.
But is it possible to go too far in the pursuit of innovation, and lose the essence of fantasy in the process?