|Ears? Check. Strange instruments? Check. Perfect hair? Big check on that.|
This is a problem that a lot of fantasy writers run into. They want their world and setting to feel different and unique, but they don't want to stretch too far outside of the tropes established by Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, and other fantasy mainstays. Because yes these short, burly, bearded master craftsmen who live in the depths of the earth and tend to be warriors are still a thing... but we're calling them the Sha'an instead of dwarves. And these big brutes who like to fight, are hard to hurt, and have a lovely combination of green skin and tusks totally aren't orcs... they're, uh, the Miskai.
If you've ever found yourself doing this, I want you to slap yourself in the face. Hard. Now stop doing this, because you're not doing yourself or your work any favors.
The Name Isn't What Makes You Unique
Too often writers confuse changing the traditional name of something with actual innovation (note that this also applies to minor cosmetic changes, like giving your elves silvery hair, or making your dwarves gray-skinned). If you haven't actually gotten down under the skin of a story element and altered the way it works and functions, then you haven't actually made something new or unique. You've just stolen a car, spray-painted it a different color, and are now trying to tell us it's a different car.
What's worse is that nine times out of ten you're just going to piss off readers because you're essentially expecting them to treat these minor alterations as if they somehow get you away from the accepted mythology surrounding these creatures.
|Make your orcs rum-running, dirtbike-riding anarchists, and NOW you've got our attention.|
Interestingly, though, if you leave the names the same but change everything else, you'll find that you both have a whole new monster on your hands, and that your readers will be excited about it.
As an example, take vampires. There have been a lot of different versions of them over the years, and we've seen them re-invented time and time again. We've seen them portrayed as the undead, the strigoi, as shambling, zombie-like creatures, as carriers of a plague, as immortal beauties, and we've seen them as split-faced, whip-tongued monstrosities.
Any time there was a huge change in these creatures, they were still called vampires. Whether it was moving from a mystical to a biological explanation, taking them from monsters to sex symbols, or making them from beautiful creatures into hideous freaks, there were huge shifts in the mythology, weaknesses, strengths, powers, and even appearance of these creatures. But they were always called vampires as a way to deliberately play on audience expectations, which would then be subverted.
By changing superficial things, though, you're doing the opposite of that. You're promising your audience that your creatures, magic system, wizards, what have you, are totally different, but then giving them the same old same that they're used to.
Don't Be Afraid To Stay The Same (Or To Change)
Too often genre writers are overly concerned with uniqueness and originality in terms of the tropes they're using. While you should definitely think about those things, what's more important is the story you're telling, and the characters whose journey we're following. As I said back in Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, and Professor Awesome's University Explains Why, everything about your setting is the backdrop against which your story is actually happening. So while unique cities, bizarre magic systems, or a ground-up re-imagining of fantasy race mainstays will be unique, they won't be the things that keep your readers reading.
They'll read for your story, and your story is (or at least should be) about characters.
So if you get too bogged-down in worrying that your elves are too Tolkien, or your demons are too Moorcock, and your rebellious princess just feels like punk rock Disney, take a moment, and ask the important question; are your characters compelling? And if you feel the answer is yes, ask if leaning on these other tropes weakens your story.
If it doesn't, don't give yourself an ulcer over trying to re-invent the wheel.
Because sure, if your orcs look just like the Uruk-hai, and your elves are master archers, some people are probably going to roll their eyes a bit. But if your characters are good, and your story is solid, people are more than happy to walk down a road that has a few familiar sign posts on it.
And if you really want to give them a different experience, don't just throw on a different coat of paint. Dig deep, and go nuts with it!
That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you have examples where a creator tried to seem new and different by just slapping some new labels onto existing tropes, and it really didn't work, leave them in the comments below! For more of my work, go check out my Vocal archive where I write about gaming, sexuality, geeky things, horror, and a ton of other stuff, too. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider either Buying Me A Ko-Fi to leave a one-time tip, or consider joining The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, which is my bread-and-butter for making content just like this. Either way, there's a free book and my gratitude in it for you.