Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to Add Instant Originality to Your Fantasy

One of the reasons speculative readers love fantasy is the originality. When reality doesn’t apply, the possibilities for unique characters, worlds, powers, politics (you name it) are endless. But one of the chief complaints of many inveterate fantasy readers is that few stories provide that sense of originality. Raise your hand of you’ve ever read a Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time knock-off (Eragon, I’m looking at you). So, as a fantasy author, how do you add originality to your story?

Aside from having a knock-out premise or a generally offbeat sense of creativity, one of the easiest ways you can add originality to a fantasy story is simply by looking outside the box. Since most fantasy stories are grounded in specific eras of our own history and mythology, all you have to do to leave the beaten track is to start hunting out little-used time periods.

Image by Farazsiyal
For example, “high fantasy” has long utilized familiar medieval European history and Norse mythology for its foundation. So what if you wrote a story that took the basis of its setting and worldview from the ancient Mayans? Or the Maori? What about Native Americans? Or how about keeping the European setting but changing the timeline to something less medieval and more Renaissance or Roman? When reading Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, I was excited at his early hints of an unusual Orient-based setting and disappointed when it didn’t play out and the author returned to the familiar medieval archetypes.

This trick, of course, won’t guarantee you a unique story—or reader satisfaction. The worth and originality of your story is based upon many factors. But you can take your first peek outside of the box and into a realm of exciting new possibilities simply by switching out a few of the “normal” fantasy stereotypes.
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share

21 comments:

  1. I think Enchantment by Orson Scott Card does this extremely successfully. It's set in ancient Russia and uses Russian folklore which makes it stand out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes! I got disappointed in The Way of Shadows for the exact same reason! He started out hiding under a bamboo floor with a poisonous spider creeping up his leg and then the final showdown of the book took place in a castle...

    This is a great tip though, the possibilities are endless really!

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Jessica: Enchantment is a great example. Card absolutely plumbed the original fairy tale for all it was worth and emerged with a great and very original tale of his own.

    @Bethan: The wishy-washy setting was about my only complaint with Way of Shadows. Other than that I loved it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I don't even write fantasy, but I think the general idea here can definitely be applied to all writing. We just need to tell honest stories the way we see them, and I think originality will follow. Because if we really dig down, every one of us is already outside the box.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent way to to put it. We all bring our own originality to the table. The trick is just clearing out all the clutter from trying to mimic others.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Something I've never thought about.. most of the tries I've made at fantasy writing have been LOTR or CON cliches...
    Creating your own "setting" would certainly allow one to break out of the "box".
    Thnx for a great article, KM.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's such a simple trick, but it's one that's not necessarily obvious, especially since we've been steeped in a lifetime of medieval settings. Not that I dislike the medieval settings (quite the contrary), but a fresh take is always welcome.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great thoughts, K.M. And I think Sarah Allen is right too - it can be applied to any genre. Now I'll check out the story I'm writing atm, and make sure I'm not making the same mistake. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. There's nothing new under the sun - and that definitely applies to stories. But it's amazing how we can give them a new look just by tweaking a few little details.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The Way of Shadows, I thought, had too much of a little bit of everything to pull any cohesive environment system off. But some others I've found that are more original:

    Jim Butcher's Codex Alera follows a very Roman society, and Peter V. Brett's Warded Man series has a post-apocalyptic, almost Persian feel. Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion series feels like medieval Spain, Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders is something like Elizabethan exploration era/ancient Rome, and L.E. Modesit's Imager series (though lacking in overall umph) has a pretty cool Romanesque/French revolutionary society.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Mmm, they all sound great, but I'm particularly drawn to the Persian setting. Been wanting to do something along that line myself.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The Maori language, Te Reo ('the language') was used as a base for some of the phrasing in Avatar. It's a robust language and culture. I've written extensively on them, from a non-fiction perspective. Could this be used as inspiration for fantasy? Sure, and it would make a great change from the more overtly medieval-European influences thast usually shape fantasy (including Lord of the Rings). But caution and familiarity with the meanings of various customary practises needed, I think. And with the language, which is expressive, efficient, and where words inevitably have multiple meanings, some of them - shall we say, highly robust expressions of the full human condition.

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    www.matthewwright.net

    ReplyDelete
  13. I think I remember reading that about Avatar. Very cool. In writing about any society from a fantasy perspective, I would generally caution against using real-world languages too extensively, unless we're literally referring to the Maori or Mayan or Norse cultures, rather than just using them as a basis for new and original societies.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Oh I am writing fantastic right now and I'm more worried it will read like Wheel of Time! But I'm in the first draft right now and my goal is just to finish it. To be honest, I never thought of researching periods of time, but when on done I will!

    I'm hoping my idea will stand out because the female main character is meant to save the world but she needs her evil counterpart to help her (yet, that's who she needs to overcome at the same time.) so, who knows? Maybe it's been done before but fingers crossed, my revision stage will help it become unique!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Sounds like a great premise. I love complicated stories, in which the protagonist pulled between two impossible choices.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Good article. This is one of the reasons why I like to write short stories from time to time. Because of their length, I can try out off-the-wall ideas or unusual settings without a lot of time investment.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Interestingly, that's one of the reasons I *don't* write short stories. If I have an interesting world idea, I want the space to really be able to play with it. Different spokes for different folks!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Some good food for thought here. The space fantasy that I am currently outlining uses Hebrew history and culture as a basis. I have good story-related reasons for this choice.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Interesting! Aside from allegories, I don't think I've seen the Hebrew culture used in speculative fiction. Sounds like it could have some very unique possibilities.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I liked your comment about most Fantasy books being knock-offs from LoTR and WoT - but in all honesty, the lad who wrote Eragon WAS only 15 at the time. Let's give him a break, shall we? I would agree completely if the author was an adult.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I definitely take that into consideration and I commend the author for his success - even though I won't be reading the sequels.

    ReplyDelete