Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

We’re all familiar with that classic paradigm of suspenseful introductions: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this is not intrinsically poor writing, it has been parroted and ridiculed for so long as a lightweight cliché, that the author’s name has become a byword for writing “purple prose.”

In the same way, there are certain plotlines or story devices that are overused, particularly in genre literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s genius in creating Middle Earth cannot be exaggerated. Yet, since his epic, dwarves, elves and orcs innumerable have been written about in chronicles ad nauseum by lesser poets. Many of Tolkien’s inventions seem rather tired when repeated by contemporary writers for the hundredth time. (Hundred thousandth time, if you count fan fiction.)

This literary dilemma has led to the creation of “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” designed to be taken by aspiring authors before submitting their manuscripts for publication. (The link for the exam will be found below.)

The purpose of the test is to determine how derivative your storytelling is. If you use too many of the listed elements, you are in danger of composing a parody rather than a masterpiece. Some of the questions posed in the exam are astute, many are glib, and most are humorous. Here’s a sampling, with my responses (speculative, of course, since I haven’t written any fantasy proper).

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

How about an anonymous member of minor nobility?

Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawl?

I never visit bars, but isn’t hosting altercations a primary purpose of all drinking establishments?

Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .

Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

You mean they have another role they can perform? (Wait, I’m just joking!)

Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!

Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I’m not that stupid.

Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?


As you see, the questions are fun to read, but there’s one that bothered me a bit. Well, not the question itself. It’s innocent enough. But it alludes to a particular scene in The Lord of the Rings films which I find stunning—in the original sense of the word. It strikes me viscerally, almost leaving me breathless.

Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

Generally, no . . . but if that hero is Boromir, most certainly!

The Death of Boromir

One of the most moving scenes in The Lord of the Rings involves the death of Boromir as he sacrifices his life in a futile battle to allow the hobbits time to escape the Uruk-hai. It’s impact is magnified by the fact that it immediately follows Boromir’s near-betrayal, under the corrupting influence of the Ring.

The irony is that this spectacular scene is not described in detail in Tolkien’s book. It is a tribute to director Peter Jackson’s cinematic brilliance. This is the original telling:

Even as [Aragorn] gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.

“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill’s foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. “Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” Boromir smiled.

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

He knelt for a while, bent with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand. So it was that Legolas and Gimli found him. (Lord of the Rings, Book III Chapter 1).

So, we understand that while a single arrow might slay a common warrior, it could well take a quiver full to lay low a champion such as this.


If you would like to review “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” simply follow this link.

41 thoughts on “Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

  1. One of the Conan the Barbarian stories begins with Conan crucified on a lonely plain and attacked by vultures. He fights them off with his teeth. (At least THAT never became a cliche’.)

  2. I do love that moment. I suppose speaking as one dies is a kind of cliche too.
    I’m writing fantasy right now, so this post shaved a little close to the skin. None of them are direct “yes” but still, it is close. And I’m writing a fairy tale, and all along I’ve avoided choosing the nature of the fairies (elves), though I’m leaning to Holly Black’s style of rewriting Spenser over Tolkien’s wood folk or MacDonald’s Victorian sprites.

    1. I say “go for it.” That list is really just meant to be entertaining. I can tell by your writing you’re very sensitive to these things and would utilize them tastefully. If a person were to avoid everything that’s ever been done before, they wouldn’t have much (any?) new ground to tread.

  3. “Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

    Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .”

    Honestly, who does? I’m not sure the various feudal societies knew. ;)

    “Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

    My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!”

    Same here. For shame!

    To be fair, on the Boromir question… it’s the fact that he is mortally wounded and keeps fighting despite it that makes the scene so sharp to me. :)

    I took this exam both for the first serious story I ever started writing and my current WIP. The results are interesting. I use the website TV Tropes in order to keep aware of the tropes I use and their usual patterns. It’s interesting stuff, but can get horribly addictive…

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  6. Sure then, I remember the excitement and place as my precious wife of 37 years today as our anniversary, we entered theatre to be overwhelmed by this film. To this moment, that scene is one of my favorites. How then can one write without being affected by all you have seen or heard. As writer i observe and write, observe and write, as continuous edition, for I find great resource in events and people around me. Do not others? If perhaps, a cliches or two meander upon my page, is that a wretched thing? For I write of the everlasting battles of good and evil, of His Light vs. the throngs of darkness. Many such stories have gone before and I hope, before the Lord, to add that given to me. Terry

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  8. I love this list. I think all budding fantasy writers should read it. Also, I loved your commentary. My favorite part of that scene in the book (although there’s nothing wrong with the film version) is the fact that we don’t see it, we merely hear it. Sound is powerful.

    1. Sound truly is a powerful sense. It’s intriguing how different senses function in different individuals. I happen to be a visual learner. If I see the map, or the diagram, etc., things are much easier for me to grasp. However, I have tremendous difficulty in attempting to think or imagine things visually. For example, when I close my eyes, can’t summon a picture at will . . . even of my dear wife of 36 years or our precious little grandchildren.

  9. I enjoyed this post and appreciate your humorous responses to the test. It seems that you qualify to write a fantasy and therefore MUST – great! I hope you do, I would read it even if it contained some of these no-no’s. (I suspect you have a different calling upon your life. However…)

    It was instructive to reread the passage that relates the death of Boromir. Tolkien’s writing is much gentler and funnier than Jackson’s filmmaking. However, Jackson did a spectacular job showing what Tolkien didn’t show. What struck me watching the scene was that the Uruk-hai shot at close range. I just never considered that this might be done in warfare. My ignorance… The scene where Aaragorn fought and killed this Uruk-hai was masterfully choreographed and totally horrific. Way beyond Tolkien? Perhaps because Tolkien had been to war.
    Thank you for a great read!

    1. Generally, archers didn’t shoot at close range, nor did they stab armored soldiers with arrows, like Legolas did. Peter Jackson’s film was epic, but not terribly realistic. And that’s fine with me

      Now, leaving off the last conflict of the trilogy, the Hobbits’ return to, and cleansing of, Bag End? That’s what I didn’t like. Seriously, 20 minutes of CGI awards ceremonies, and no time for that? Really? :)

      1. The thing that gets me when people are stabbing others with arrows is how the shaft appears to be as strong as a metal bar. Yes, Lord of the Rings treated many of their battle scenes a bit cavalierly for my tastes–but oh what an epic Jackson fashioned!

      2. I can remember–was he stabbed in the eye? I can see that working.
        In all the battles I’ve fought in, I’ve been a swordsman, so I can’t speak for archers. I’d grab anything I could if needs be. Legolas is super cool, though has an apparently neverending quiver.
        A thing about history: the standard of “typical” is never, to me, a good criterion. Usually what is recorded is precisely not typical.

      3. Yes, it’s certainly frustrating. I just try to focus on the positive. As you say, even for an elf, gifted with great speed and agility, using an arrow as a stabbing sword immediately before letting it fly to impale a trio of charging orcs is a tad much.

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  12. As far as requiring more than one arrow to kill a man, I’ll refer the reader to President Teddy Roosevelt, who was shot in the chest while giving a speech *and finished the speech* before seeking medical attention.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” -T. Roosevelt

    1. That’s right, he did finish the speech, didn’t he? Depends on the caliber and the location of the shot are the determining factors. But from the size of the arrows they used on poor Boromir (with shafts nearly an inch in diameter) the wounds were equal to a 357 magnum!

      1. Indeed. I don’t really want to hijack this post with a long nerd-screed on “stopping power,” but the tl;dr version is that it’s amazing how much *more* damage it takes to stop someone instantly (or even quickly enough to count in a skirmish) as opposed to what it takes to kill them over a longer period (several minutes or hours).

        This is why standard (American, at least) police training says that if the officer has to shoot, the officer should keep shooting until the assailant stops moving, even if that means 5 or 10 (or more) bullets.

        Basically, if the person is determined or drugged enough to not be brought down by pain and shock, he (or she) can keep fighting through horrible wounds. In that case, it requires a serious central nervous system hit to drop the person instantly. Otherwise, Boromir (for example) can keep going until he loses enough blood that he goes unconscious.

        And the crazy thing is, any one of the wounds could easily have been fatal, given enough time.

  13. I think it misses the point that Fantasy is hyper-reality. It should still be grounded, and not go too far. However, as in the case of Boromir’s death, when the character is a tough, epic warrior, it would be too sad and disappointing to have them killed by a single arrow.
    I think the list is good for challenging cliches, but we also need to remember cliches are there because they are fun, they are part of the genre. If we work too hard to avoid cliches instead of trying to find nuances within them, we’re just going to make the sandbox we play in smaller.

    1. You’re right of course. However, we don’t want our work to become so cliche-ridden that they create an award in our honor… “It was a dark and stormy night…”

  14. “I am sorry. I have paid.”

    Boromir’s confession and repentance are powerful elements of this scene, the more so because Tolkien offers it “without additional comment,” as it were.

  15. jlthomp2013

    Nothing is new under the Sun, except fresh voice and style. If you can’t do something old, better, don’t do it at all. Therein lies the intimidation factor; the classics were so well written that who am I to try and better them? Many have tried, and failed(Recognize the cliched phrase?).

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  17. This was an excellent post. Yes, we’ve heard it’s literary suicide to start any story with an opening line about the weather. Of course, we’ve always tried to look at it like bar pick-up lines. “Have we met somewhere before?” The woman’s eyes roll as she thinks to herself. Really? That’s the best you could come up with? We writers try to write lines that will hook readers & get them interested in our story & willing to give it a shot. When using lame lines that have been used hundreds of times before we come across as just that. Lame. However, every once in a while a story will open with a killer hook but not deliver in the story. As for us, we’d like to find some kind of a balance. A great hook, fantastic follow-up & phenomenal ending. But I guess those are like “Mr. Rights.” Very rare, & you have to go thru oodles of regular Joe’s until you find that sparkling gem!! Another thing, we’d like to think that warriors die much differently than regular folk. And sometimes you can judge the strength & courage of a man by the type of death they had. A fierce warrior might take more arrows than say someone whose not built for war. Loved your post & we agree with Marie Rose. Someone so knowledgeable about Fiction would make one hell of a Fiction writer!! Let us know if you do intend on writing a book as we will be the first in line to pick up our copy!! :D

    1. Great insights and comments. It certainly is interesting how someone can write a first class beginning only to have the story quickly fizzle and disappoint. Fortunately, that’s the exception. But it does happen. I know how rare Mr Rights are too… since I prayed her entire life that my daughter would find one (she did!) and I’m offering the same prayer on behalf of my five granddaughters!

      Oh, and thank you for the compliment. Right now I’m working on major papers for my doctoral coursework, so don’t anticipate that book very soon.

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