I’ve just finished reading the amazing A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, which got me thinking about the wondrous toolbox of fantasy fiction clichés authors have at their fingertips.
I have no doubt the world would be a far poorer place without the noble lion-hearted hero travelling many ‘leagues’ across culturally-appropriate terrain to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of the dragon-crested baddie. If we couldn’t sum up an entire race or culture with one particular personality trait, where would we be? Adrift in an ocean of nuance and complexity, that’s where. Fuck that. I like my fantasy books like my fantasy heroines: with as little dressing as possible and easy to get into.
In honour of those literary shortcuts, I’ve cobbled together this short passage containing (at least) fifty of my favourite clichés. Your challenge is to identify as many as you can. Click continue reading or scroll down to the bottom of the page for the answers.
Note: some appear more than once. If you spot one I’ve missed leave a comment.
Ready? Then let’s begin…
The crowd bowed reverentially as their lord proudly made his way to the executioner’s dais. Alix only stared longingly at the father he hadn’t seen for nigh on fourteen seasons. Where the town-peasants and plains-folk saw the victorious hero of Ayr’s Gash, towering above them in glory with thick auburn beard and skin as white as marble, Alix saw only a stranger’s face, tired and haggard. His father had developed a slight stoop, Alix mused, and held his shield arm with a stiffness he had not possessed when he first left for battle those many moons ago. Even a Farsford ranger with Faelfleyn eyes would have struggled to notice such flaws, but Alix had cherished in his mind a crystal-keen image of his father. War had changed him.
As the lord of the Nordermark lofted the ragged banner of House Fallen high into the air, the muted tricolore of the bear, wolf and lion waved defiantly in the chill breeze and ebullient cries of emotion from the crowd threatened to drown even Alix’s dark feelings. It was not just longing for his father that inspired such melancholy. Today was the eve of the Blood Harvest, when the spirits of ancestors past return to this world to leech wasted life off the living. In a waking dream many nights ago, Alix had seen the celebrations, kick-dances and rowdy group-songs of the festival. He saw his father’s triumphant homecoming and the faith he inspired. And he saw darkness spreading from the north, turning faith into despair and tears of joy into fountains of blood. His dread vision revealed a future of death, hate, betrayal…
And the return of The King.
Attempting to dispel the shadow of his thoughts, Alix returned his attention to the stage where his father was now making a speech. It was tradition on Blood Harvest’s Eve to welcome the honoured dead by spilling blood in their name. By the lord’s own hand, the foulest of criminals were put to death in public execution.
To a chorus of cries, wails and hisses, Alix’s father announced the name of Zuh Luh-turgal, the butcher of Gladestown. A raucous clamor erupted from the audience as the condemned was escorted to the stage by the imposing figure of Nordermark’s most trusted servant: Cr Treacher, knight of the old order, wolf-kin, augur of Misdon-Keep. Garbed in azure drilkiln-pelt and carrying a dull-grey warhammer, the venerable soldier and Alix’s mentor-at-arms deposited the prisoner at the foot of his master with obvious disgust. Alix was tall for his young age, but still had to stand on his toes to see the wretched beast groveling on the executioner’s stage.
His dark face was adorned with crude tattoos and ugly piercings. Revealing yellow teeth, he growled like a caged animal; though a hard kick from Treacher soon saw him tamed. At length, the king read out the butcher’s list of crimes. The murder of three children in Staine’s End, the razing of Grunswyrd, the rape of thirteen Pantheon brides… and so the list continued. On occasion, those violated by his foul deeds would step forward, spitting and cursing.
At one point, a woman of the Dhans-kin clambered onto the stage, tore off her tunic and raked long nails down her bare flesh, from breast to belly and below. Alix understood. This woman had been raped by the butcher. Her performance was an act of defiance, as dictated by the custom of her people. Treacher gathered up her clothes and, not unkindly, moved her off of the stage.
His crimes now aired for the gods to judge, Zuh Luh-turgal’s neck was eased onto the block while his father unsheathed The Sword. Standing almost as high as a knight, the black blade, which Alix knew would one day be his to bear, shimmered under the weak glow of the Palling Sun. On cue, the Grand Pantheon’s earthly representative rose to perform his part of the occasion. Moving surprisingly gracefully for such a grotesquely fat man, the pox-faced High Priest mounted the stage and started his ceremonial declaration. From behind, Alix could hear the Master of Books translate the oration, performed in the high speech, lingua deus, into the common tongue. Alix did not need such a translation. He had quickly mastered languages as he did all other subjects.
Bored by the pomp of the old religion, Alix took the time to look for familiar faces in the audience. Although he could not see him, Alix knew his arch-rival, Cethil Cur-Medgar, heir to the House Be’traille, would be watching him. They had hated each other from birth, but whereas Alix attempted to maintain his distance with characteristic Fallen stoicism, the other boy, with his gaunt, deathly-white face, small, pink-rimmed eyes and bitter tongue, would bait and snipe with a coward’s spite. Whenever Alix rose in challenge to the petty insults, Cethil would run, scared and spitting lies to his mother. Alix could see her, standing in the crowd, radiating distaste like a sour moon. Swlthin Nur-Medgar, the Baroness of House Be’traille, clung to her minkin fur as if to protect her noble self from the swarming peasants. Tradition of Alix’s House said all castes stand equal at such occasions. For such proud customs the Baroness and her kin considered Alix’s bloodline primitive.
For what it was worth, Alix found Swlthin’s own ways more vile. She was the mistress of manipulation and whoredom, whose only passions were power and politics. Wife of the lecherous Baron-Knight Medgar, her spread legs had sired him two children and won her the right to title and land. Cethil, the eldest, was all the spawn of his bitch mother, while the infant Celi, standing next to the Baroness, was as bright and generous as any child Alix had met. Ignorant of the spectacle on the stage, her sparkling eyes were fixated on a troupe of Fallen knights standing nearby. A flicker of a smile crossed Alix’s countenance. The noble girl who dreamt, in vain, to be a warrior. At that moment, the Baroness noticed her daughter’s straying attention as she harshly yanked the child to her side and hissed cruel words under her breath. Alix felt a pang of pity for the innocent youngling. She was born into the wrong family in the wrong age. Shaking off these thoughts, Alix heard the priest reach the climax of his speech and so returned his attention to the stage.
With a polite nod from the priest, Alix’s father wrapped his strong, steely fingers around the well-worn hilt of his mighty blade. Alix remembered being held warmly by those hands once when they were soft as leather. Now, after years of fighting the warring tribes beyond The Pit, they were as coarse as the tongue of a grizzled Sabre-Cat.
Bloodshed mere moments away, the crowd roared. Alix almost didn’t notice Salia Laella stepping smartly from the throng, standing so close he could smell the sweet scent of rose-water on her skin. Alix forced himself not to turn his eyes from the stage, but from the edge of his vision he could see the soft outline of her proud features, the gentle curve of her chin and the slight swell of her breasts poking out beneath her traditional virginal tunic. She was his Solistani, his chosen one, and one day, Alix knew, she would bear his seed. A delicate hand lightly clasped his own.
“I can read your worries, cousin,” she whispered. “Quell your fears. Victory belongs to House Fallen. The Outerlands acquiesce to your family’s might.”
Alix did not reply, but the slight tensing of his fingers around hers was enough to betray his resolve. Though his eyes may have been set on his father’s gruesome duty, Alix’s mind looked far past to the land beyond Argyll’s Shame where, in his waking-dream, he saw the unliving hordes of The Shadow gathering ‘neath the black banner of The Unforgiving Eye.
With a face as cold and grim as the land he ruled, Alix’s father swung the blood-iron blade smooth and strong. The scarred head of the black butcher bounced across the Barrow-wood planks. The crowd cheered for their master, the bringer of justice and peace. For a fleeting second, as he scanned the masses with a hunter’s care, the lord locked eyes with his son. It was only a passing glance, but Alix understood. There was a price to pay for justice and peace, his father’s look told him. And that price was weighed in blood.
[Click continue reading for the answers]
How did you get on? Answers are below…
50 Fantasy Fiction Cliches
- The inexplicable adoration downtrodden peasants show their totalitarian rulers
- Common names spelt wrong
- Vague units of time
- Sticking ‘folk’ after words
- General rule: the paler you are, you more good you are (see 35)
- Unusually perspicacious teenagers
- References to unknown cultures, locations, or historical events that supposedly have meaning
- References to a people’s ‘eyes’
- Sticking ‘mark’ at the end of words (usually place names)
- Bear, wolf and lion: pretty much the only animals worth giving a shit about
- Grotesquely dark festivals
- Capitalising words for The Emphasis
- Young hero watching an execution
- Bad guys with guttural names beginning with Z, Y or X
- A spattering of made-up titles. Not enough to require effort, but enough to make everything suitably otherworldly
- Introducing characters with a long, tedious, meaningless list of titles / honoraries
- The darker your skin, the badder you are
- Saying things “at length”
- Lots of rape
- Sticking ‘kin’ at the end of words
- Inappropriate nudity
- People doing ridiculous things in the name of ‘custom’
- People doing things “not unkindly”
- All cultures are polytheist
- Massive phallic symbols
- Fat people moving ‘surprisingly gracefully’
- Priests are ugly and fat
- Hijacking latin
- Everyone in the world can speak the ‘common tongue’
- The hero is amazing at EVERYTHING
- Religion is mostly for stupid or cowardly people
- “Knowing” things although you can’t see them
- The evil house
- If you’re too white you’re evil, but in a treacherous way
- Unpronounceable names
- Weird names for small creatures (which, strangely, are never used for banners or heraldry)
- Good guys have strangely modern, liberal values
- Women are manipulative bitches or whores (or.. see 41)
- Flickering emotions
- Women who want to be men
- Mangling words to create animals / objects
- An obsession with the breasts of underage girls
- Only certain words use a made-up language (another example of effort vs. minimum level of otherworldliness)
- “Bearing seed.” Urgh.
- People who don’t speak like people
- “Betraying” emotions
- The Shadow / The Darkness = the big bad guy
- Everybody channelling Tolkien