Fantasy writing gets mocked a lot for sticking to certain tropes of the genre. You know: Dark Overlords, goat-herding boys who end up being the hero and so forth. There are lots of fun sites about it; see here and here for a start. I even read two books back to back with exactly the same beginning - a boy goes out into the woods to do something or other, comes home to find his whole village/family wiped out by the villains of the piece. And they weren't the first books I had read chronicling that identical event, either - or the last.
A beginning writer, on reading URLs like those above (apart from laughing like mad), is likely to despair. How do your write a fantasy that doesn't tread old, much-travelled ground? Well, the answer is that you don't let it bother you.
And here's one reason why not:
A long time ago, when I was thinking about writing a new novel - the one that was to become The Aware - I was chatting to someone who began to mock fantasy. Yeah, he said, castles and forests and wolves and riding off on quests. They are all the same. I was so mad at his dismissive, scornful attitude, that I thought to myself, Right - no castles, no forests, no wolves, no horses... Damn it, there won't even be a tree in this one!
I suppose it would have been easy enough to set the book in a desert, but I thought that was the easy way out. Besides, it had been done before. No, I wanted something that had never been tried, and so I created Gorthan Spit. No trees, no castles or wolves or brooding forests - but a fascinating place nonetheless.
But then...where did I go from there? Well, my first scene in the book was set in an inn.
And guess what: a book opening in an inn is such a fantasy cliché. It's a great place to start, you see. You can gather some of your main characters together - have them meet one another for the first time. You can introduce so much of the background, politics, the world, in the conversation of the people sitting around having a drink. And you can write the first bit of the nastiness that is going to overtake your protagonist - the monster/villain who comes to the inn door in the middle of the night, or the soldiers riding up, or whatever piece of villainy that is going to confront your hero or heroine.
My point is this: using fantasy tropes is not altogether a bad thing. They have become tropes because they make a good story. It's how you use them that counts. Think about mainstream literature - how many coming of age books have you read that all follow similar paths? Does it matter? No, because in the long run what counts is the story. And how well you tell it. Each coming of age story is different. Each writer's way of dealing with the same issues is a different take on the same theme.
More about good storytelling tomorrow...