One of the things I’m highly aware of in my fantasy work, The Redemption of Erâth, is that there are quite a few parallels and similarities to many other fantasy novels out there. From character names to events and creatures, I’ve borrowed heavily from the great fantasy masters that came before me to craft a world that, whilst unique, might feel suspiciously familiar to those who already know well Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Westeros.
That isn’t to say that those same early fantasy writers didn’t borrow themselves; even Tolkien relied heavily on Anglo-Saxon mythology for his invented creatures and languages (though their invention is still masterfully his).
Everything in storytelling is rehashed, recycled and reused eventually, and this is of course where tropes are born. Elves, goblins, fantasy languages and healing herbs find their way into so many fantastical tales that it becomes difficult at times to know which story inspired which. Where did the concept of speaking dragons first come about? Was it Christopher Paolini who popularized them? Was it Tolkien? Was it in Beowulf?
Tropes have become so frequent in the canon of popular fantasy that even using them has, in some circles, become a trope of its own. Articles such as this one from The Toast point out so many of those frequent fantasy themes that one bows one’s head in shame to find them in one’s own work. (There may or may not be quite a few in my own.)
So when is it acceptable to use a trope?
But here’s the thing: tropes have their uses. They help to define genres, for a start; after all, what defines a fantasy novel? Typically the concepts of an alternate world or history, yet one bound strictly to a single place or planet (as opposed to sci-fi), languages that don’t really exist, and mythical tales, quests and demons, all play a part in helping the reader to establish the type of novel to expect. If one were to open to a page that contained sentences such as, “She caressed his chest, as smooth and hard as the Glock 9mm she kept in her purse,” we’d probably have a very different concept of what sort of book we were reading.
So when is it acceptable to use a trope, and when does it cross the line? Is there a difference between a loving homage and outright plagiarism? And what is the tolerance of a reader to coming across the same concepts over and over again?
In my own fantasy novels, I’ve tried hard to navigate the line between these two realms. I do not have elves, or orcs – though I do have races other than ‘men’. I do not have any ‘magic’, or at least anything along the lines of the Harry Potter universe (or even words of ‘power’, such as in The Lord of the Rings) – but I do have unexplainable phenomena. I do have a mythical weapon of legend to be found. I do have numerous languages and civilizations. Perhaps most importantly, I do have a young orphan who is taken in by his grandfather when his parents die in a fire.
I can’t argue that the world of Erâth is utterly unique or inventive, but I do find that these tropes help forward the story itself. You see, what I’m trying to achieve is really a sense of grandeur, of nostalgia, and of lost hope. By the projected end of the series (seven novels in total), the hero will have gained and lost everything – and may not make it out alive (I have yet to decide). In fact, the hero may not even end up being the true ‘hero’. I think that if I focused too hard on making the world and its inhabitants completely ‘original’, it would detract from the actual story I’m trying to tell.
And that’s where I think the balance lies: using tropes to our advantage, whilst not over-relying on them to support the plot. Is it important that a character be able to heal from a wound or illness? Then why not use some healing herbs – a staple of fantasy since time immemorial – so that you can get on with what really matters: the emotional journey of the characters.
At the end of the day, I think there are some authors who spend so much time making their world original that they forget what the story was meant to be about in the first place. I don’t need worlds I’ve never conceived of before, so long as I’m reading about characters I’ve never conceived of before. I don’t need to dream of new and fascinating creatures, so long as the emotional and spiritual journey of the people in the story rings true.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t be original; it just means that to focus too narrowly on the details risks overlooking the bigger picture: the fact that every story is unique in its telling by the nature of the person telling it. So don’t worry about making your story stand out with details no one cares about; make it stand out with a compelling character arc and an exciting, fresh journey.
In other words, don’t fear the trope.