Tough Guide to Fantasy Clichés: The Fuzzies

Here is one of my posts from my Tough Guide to Clichés series!  Because we can never have enough fuzzies…


I’ve really been enjoying my month in Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland and all of the marvelous clichés that she has brought to my attention.  What I think I have learned while writing these (and perhaps, you have, by reading them) is that while there are always cliché ways to present your world and characters, there also just as many ways to avoid or even to utilize those clichés to make our fantasylands better.  An awareness of the stereotypes gives us greater power over our worlds.

And what megalomaniacal, world-building author does not want greater power?

So we’ve covered names, colour-coding, and villains thus far.  I want to touch on something a little smaller, a detail that might not even come into consideration when we are writing.  But when you think about it, it is a little strange.

pangur ban cat rabbit friends
Pangur Ban is a magic cat and Bella is a soulless, power-hungry, would-be villain. I think they both merit a story or two.

The question that Jones presents in one of her entries is this: Where are all the fuzzies?

Specifically, how do animals figure into your storytelling?

First, let’s see what Diana Wynne Jones has to say:

Animals. See Enemy Spies, Food, and Transport.  Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purpose, there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland.  Any other animals you meet will be the result either of Wizard’s Breeding Programme or of Shapeshifting.  You may on the other hand hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Management when it feels the need for a little local colour.

Domestic Animals are as rare as wild Animals.  In most cases their existence can be proved only by deduction.  Thus, sheep must exist, because people wear wool, and so must cattle, as there is usually cheese to eat.  Cats are seen in company with Witches and Crones, often in large numbers, but seldom elsewhere, and there have been sightings also of solitary pigs; possibly in Fantasyland cats are herd animals whereas pigs are not.  Goats are seen oftener (and may even provide the cheese) and dogs are frequent but often rather feral – the arrival of a Tour party at a Village is usually greeted by barking dogs.  Dogs are also kept in numbers by Kings and nobles, where their job is to be scavengers: you throw bones on the floor and the dogs fight for them.  These hounds cannot be kept for hunting (except perhaps for hunting men and Mutant Nasties), as there are no Animals to hunt.

The thoughtful Tourist might like to pause here and consider, since Animals are so rare, what exactly the meat is that the Management puts in its Stew.

Another use for animals: as desks.
My brother demonstrates another use for animals: as desks.

Now, then, let’s talk about the animals.  When I read this, I remember feeling a very twingy sense of concern because my fantasy serial The Holder Wars has fallen prey to exactly this description of animals.  There are horses for “Transportation” and then there are plenty of shapeshifters.  But my land has been peculiarly lacking in pretty much anything else.


But here’s the conundrum: We want to create a world that is realistic and immersive and natural.  On the other hand, we want to tell a story and relate action and dialogue and characterization.  This means we do have to make some choices about what is important to describe and what isn’t.  If I were to write a chase scene through the woods, I wouldn’t stop the narrative for a moment to point out some bluebirds nesting in one of the trees my characters is frantically riding past.  I don’t need to tell the reader everything on Old MacDonald’s farm when my character passes by or stops in, do I?  We do need to have boundaries, and in many ways, it does make sense to only bring up things like animals when they are actually integral in some way to the plot.  Otherwise, the book becomes a ponderous tome of details.

chicken food
Dogs are desks… and chickens are cuddly snacks. This child lives in an interesting world.

And fuzzies just aren’t worth it.

So what do we do with animals?  Of course, we continue to use them in our stories in various ways, whether it is the usual horse transportation or as game to be shot or as magical changelings.  Otherwise, I think we would do well to be aware of any significant gap in our description, such as of a forest or farmland, and where we might add some animals.

It might do us some good to read what Jones has to say about horses as well:

Horses are a breed unique to Fantasyland.  They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest.  Sometimes they do not require food or water.  They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the Dark Lord are only half an hour behind.  They never otherwise stumble … But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them.  If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a Valley while you talk.  Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horses can be used just like bicycles, and usually are.  Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no Stallion ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings.  It therefore seems probably that they breed by pollination.  This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals.

The same issues apply with horses,  I think, when it comes to description in stories.  If we were to be completely and utterly realistic, we would also be completely and utterly boring.  However, I do like Jones’ point about horses needing rest and the issue of stallions, mares, and geldings.  These are small practicalities that might be worth bringing into consideration.

Unless, of course, your horses do in fact breed by means of pollination, which is another matter entirely.  And I would like to read that story.

belted gallowy
Cow is sad because she is not in a story.

So, what are your thoughts on fuzzies in fantasyland?  Do you think that novels tend to dismiss them too easily or do you think that it is generally a matter of space and practicality?  Do fuzzies matter to you?

StoryBuilder 1.0: Outline the Perfect Plot!

Now that you have your fabulous main character (and whatever secondary characters you may have scrounged up to accompany the hero in his/her path to glory), and you have a fabulous and fantastical world in which to drop your character, you need a story to tell.  Obviously.

fantasy landscape quest storyYes, plots are necessary, as little as some of us may enjoy writing them.  So in the interest of helping you all in your path to storybuilding glory, here is a plot creator in the method of the previous two posts.  Pick your story-telling options and then find out what adventure your character gets to have!

(Word of Warning: I don’t do plots.)


1. How It Begins

A. With Drama
B. With Danger
C. With Plotting
D. With Something Else Entirely

2. How it Goes

A. An Epic Quest
B. A Political Intrigue
C. War is Brewing
D. Interesting…

3. A Twist Along The Way

A. Betrayal
B. Death
C. Love
D. An Interesting Development

4. How it Ends

A. Triumph
B. Tragedy
C. Romance
D. Well, That Was Odd


Alright, now for the fun part.  Your story is all but plotted and planned!  Wasn’t that easy?  Let’s see what you’ve got:

1. How It Begins

A. With Drama: Your character is minding his/her own business when, in from the darkness, comes a tall figure of notable looks carrying some object of mysterious origin and meaning.  This figure informs your character that s/he is meant for Great Things.  This sounds all well and good until the Great Things turn into a very long and uncomfortable enterprise.  But it will be a growing experience.

B. With Danger: Your character is minding his/her own business when, in from the darkness, comes an assassin who tries to kill your character for reasons unexplained.  Obviously, your character really needs to figure out why his/her life is worth threatening.  As luck would have it, someone else will come along very soon who has at least some of the answers and will join your character on this mission.  Is this new character friend or foe?  Hmmm….

C. With Plotting: Your character is minding his/her own business, taking a nice walk on a late evening. S/he stops in at the local drinking establishment for refreshment and overhears a plot of some sort to overthrow or otherwise upset the local or national government.  Naturally, your character will end up involved.  False accusations of treason are fast coming his/her way, and naturally those will have to be responded to with an outright rebellion.  And it had started as such a lovely walk…

D. With Something Else Entirely: Other children received dolls or toy soldiers on their birthdays.  Your character has, for whatever reason, been gifted by a magical gift-giving fairy with the gift of Importance.  Now everyone and his mother wants you on their side of the latest uprising or intrigue and it is up to your character to find a cause and stick with it or else end up on a quest to retrieve the local chicken farmer’s Magical Missing Egg.  Actually, that doesn’t sound like a half bad quest to start with…

2. How it Goes

A. An Epic Quest: However the story began, it inevitably resulted in a quest.  You, a cranky warrior, a mysterious scholar, someone who may or may not be able to use magic, someone’s whose musical skills are barely tolerable, and someone whose skills and worth are yet undetermined have all found each other through one incident or another and are now slogging through marshes and climbing unconscionably tall mountains in order to achieve the object of your quest.  Not that it is necessarily a literal object.  Maybe your quest is to escape the other members of your questing party because they are very annoying and don’t get along at all.

B. A Political Intrigue: There are about ten different sides to this political debacle, and your character is wading through the morass trying to find out whose side is the right side, or at least the side who is killing the fewest peasants and kicking the fewest puppies.  Your characters makes several friends and allies, only to discover that they are all on opposing sides, but all have their own virtues.  One of them is probably going to end up betraying your character while another will be a love interest.  The question is – which is which?

C. War is Brewing: Rather similar to the Political Intrigue, but with a lot more people on each side and a lot more upfront hacking and slashing.  Your character is, as usual, trying to figure out which is the Side of Right and Truth and Justice, but his/her chosen side will often do morally troubling things which will cause moments of existential crisis.  Everything is leading toward an epic battle, which will decide the Fates of Many.  Your character will hold the key to success… for whichever side s/he chooses.

D. Interesting…: Your character’s singular goal in this story is to become the greatest chef this world has ever seen.  Through war and intrigue and famine and plot, your character strives to hunt down the masters of culinary arts and ply them for their tricks of the trade.  Alas, your character’s nemesis, a pastry chef of no small skill, is lurking in the shadows, sabotaging your character at every turn.  Will your character ever achieve true mastery of the art of the kitchen?  Will s/he ever cook for kings?  And is that charming baker who s/he met along the way trustworthy?  And will your character ever be worthy of attaining the Magic Ladle?

3. A Twist Along The Way

A. Betrayal: In a totally unexpected turn of events, somewhere along the way, that really attractive character who seemed so very trustworthy turns out to not be trustworthy.  Your character spends one, possibly two, chapters reeling from this betrayal and several things go horribly wrong as a result.

B. Death: So, there was this cliff.  And there was rain.  And this one person saw a pretty bird and, well…  Your character and any other companions mourn the loss.  Unless it was someone highly suspected of being a traitor.  Then they stand a ponder the mysterious Ways of Justice before carrying on.

C. Love: Your character was so sure that s/he loved the very attractive, rich, cultured, capable person that s/he met along the course of the story, but now it seems that s/he has fallen hopelessly in love with the annoying, less attractive but not horrible to look at, sarcastic, most often unpleasant other person s/he met along the course of the story.  But who can explain the workings of the heart, anyway?  Odds are, Love Interest #2 will turn out to be long-lost royalty, anyway.  

D. An Interesting Development: Your character randomly gains the ability to see the future, but backwards, whenever s/he sneezes.  It’s all very confusing and mostly useless.

4. How it Ends

A. Triumph: Your character overcomes every single obstacle placed in his/her path, even the ones that are statistically and rationally impossible to overcome (because s/he is that amazing) and the story closes in a sweepingly grand picture of resolution.  Everything is in its proper place.  A golden age is most definitely unfolding before the eyes of your character and his/her comrades, and everything will most definitely be fine.  Unless there’s a sequel.  Then everything will be rubbish again in no time at all.

B. Tragedy: Unfortunately, everyone your character ever loved along the way has perished.  Most of them have perished nobly.  A few seemed to perish for no reason at all except to make your character question all of his/her preconceived notions about heroism.  Now, here at the end, your character stands alone, figuratively or literally gazing upon the graves of so many who have been lost… but it was worth it for the Greater Good.  It was…. Really…. Please let there be a sequel with a happier ending.

C. Romance: On a high, grassy hill overlooking a significant city wherein most of the significant story events took place, your character and your character’s One True Love are locked in a tender embrace as they reminisce on all of the unlikely events which brought them to this place.  Every outlook is rosy now.  All previous misunderstandings and hostility erased by mutual life-saving acts which have sealed their bond forever.  If there is an epilogue, it will probably involve two and a half children, just so the readers are sure that these characters meant it.  If there’s a sequel, well, your character would really appreciate it if there wasn’t one.  Things are great.  Let it be!

D. Well, That Was Odd: Your character is sitting in a small, dark room in the predawn light, blinking fuzzily and rubbing sleep from his/her eyes.  It was all a dream?  That whole story that took up four hundred pages was all a dream?  Your character lies back down and decides that maybe s/he isn’t getting up today.  It’s just not worth it.


And there you have it, the perfect outline just waiting to be filled in with your creativity.  Let me know what sort of story you ended up with!  I’m quite curious what sort of havoc I have wrought.

Wordy Wisdom: I Literally Died!

Congratulations to all of you!  If you are reading this, it means you survived not only the Ides of March, but the Day of the Leprechaun.  That is no small feat.

Our exploration of wordiness continues.  This week, we are going to focus on a wordy sin that is not mine, but is one that I notice in others.  I notice it constantly and I judge.  So, here it is:

I literally hate the word “literally.”

First of all, let’s ponder the above sentence.  If I hate the word, what is the point of emphasizing that my hatred is literal?  What other kind of hatred is there?  Let’s also note that “literally” is an adverb, and as we all know, adverbs are not to be trusted unless they prove themselves useful.

I will give you a hint about this one: Literally is almost never useful.

WhenLiterallyReallyMeansLITERALLY-73138We should first talk about what “literally” means, because that seems to be an issue.  When we define something as being said or done “literally”, we are telling our readers or listeners that something is real, actual, or true.  If something is literal, it is not figurative or imagined.

The word “literally” is meant to be used as an understood contrast.  We are making a distinction so that the reader/listener knows that something we might normally think is not real, is in this case real.  This meaning has been lost, sadly, in favor of another.  Instead of meaning that something is actual as opposed to figurative, “literally” now means “oh my gosh, like, seriously!”  And it literally makes me want to scream (but I restrain myself).

For example:

  • “You have to watch this video I saw on YouTube!  I literally died!”
  • “I literally want to kill people who can’t park.  It’s so annoying!”
  • “I was literally lost for an hour before I found my classroom!”

Our first sentence is something one of my students said to me a few weeks ago.  I’m not sure whether I was more concerned that a dead student was sitting in my classroom or that she was callously suggesting that I watch the same video which had done her in.  Ironically, what she means by “literally” here is “figuratively.”  So, it seems that “literally” now means the opposite of “literally.”

In our second statement, we have a psychopath who has violent tendencies toward untalented drivers.  Most of us have probably experienced some degree of road rage, but we can only hope that our desire to kill is not literal.  Or, if it is, that we are not given the chance to carry it out.  The number of people who have the literal urge to kill worries me.

Our final sentence is a profound example of worthless wordiness because the word “literal” means nothing at all.  If our speaker was indeed lost for an hour, then the word need not be there at all.  If the person was not lost for an hour, then s/he is a liar and the word serves no purpose except to mislead the listener.  There is no point whatsoever to using the word in this sentence.

For some reason, “literally” has become a means of expressing the serious or extreme or dramatic nature of something.  We feel the need to add weight to our statements; thus, it happened literally.  The word has become a way of adding emphasis rather than adding meaning, but it is becoming so overused and so misused, that it adds neither.

This literally makes me want to cry.

Actually, I don’t want to cry.  I’m too annoyed.

How should literally be used, then, you ask?  When would it be appropriate?  One use for this word is when something that is normally figurative or hypothetical is actually happening or being discussed.

For example:

  • “The first pancake I flipped when I tried to make breakfast for the campers literally flew out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
  • “That’s not my cup of tea.” “Oh, you don’t like Earl Grey?” “No, that’s literally not my cup of tea.  Who stole my tea?”
  • “That kid is literally between a rock and a hard place, isn’t he?” “Should we help him get out?” “Nah, he’ll be fine.”

All of these statements are based on phrases that we know quite well, but in these cases, they are actually happening in one way or another.  The figurative has become literal.  As a result, the use of “literally” allows the audience to appreciate the irony and to recognize the figurative versus the literal.

I will climb off my soapbox about this particular issue, now (not literally – I’m sitting down).  Hopefully, you have learned something.  If I have instilled even a little paranoia these last few weeks about adverbs, I will feel good about myself.  And now you understand the perils of the literal versus the figurative.

Let’s choose our words wisely and use them well.

Instant Plot! Just Add: Kidnapping!

This month, I’ve given you a few really good tips on how to get your limping story up to at least a hop-skip-run.  Now, I feel like I should emphasize that these posts are (surprise, surprise!) very tongue-in-cheek and not meant to be taken as entirely serious suggestions.  Just somewhat serious suggestions.

That I will probably make fun of you for later.

The fact is, there’s no such thing as an “instant plot”, but what we can do is look at books we admire and see what they did to move their stories along.  Sometimes even a cliché can be useful (le gasp!) if it is used in its proper context.  That is, you either have to do something pretty incredibly original with it, or you have to make sure your readers know that you know it’s a cliché and you’re going with it anyway.  Deal.

robert louis stevenson kidnapped novel cover
Or… you could just make this Instant Plot the ONLY plot and name your book after it. But that’s been done. So probably not.

And so I am going to leave you this month with one more Instant Plot suggestion, and this is one that I’ve used.  If you want to add drama and excitement to your plot, all you have to do is get one of your main characters (or one of their babies!) kidnapped.

Bam.  Suddenly, there is motivation and urgency and something for your characters to do.  It’s that simple!

Except, as I said, Instant Plot ideas should never be simple.  They should be integrated into your plot, should have a purpose outside of just making your reader freak out, and should be as realistic as possible within the confines of the world you have created.

In the novel that I am currently working on (and have been working on for… years…), I have a character who gets kidnapped.  Twice.  He gets kidnapped from the original kidnappers.  I was all over this Instant Plot idea.

However, I like to think that I made it work as a plot mover in more ways than one.  It is the initial cause of a long series of events that bring the story to its conclusion, and it is integrated into the world-building.  My character didn’t just get (double)kidnapped.  His kidnapping was a huge part of how my main character learns just what in her world is going on.

So what are the different common kidnapping scenarios that you might consider (but maybe not because they are common and your book is oozing with originality!!!).  Oh, and if you want it to sound way more serious, you can always replace the word “kidnapped” with “captured.”  That’s how your reader knows that this is really bad:

  1. Hero gets kidnapped.  This is a good one if you want to stick with one character’s journey to greatness.  The villain or a band of random miscreants snatches your hero away in the night and suddenly, your hero has an immediate problem to solve.  This will probably also be dreadfully inconvenient because your hero had a plan and a mission and a quest and a kidnapping is definitely an unwelcome detour.  Instant angst.  But this is an excellent chance for your hero to prove his/her worth by winning his/her captors over to his/her cause.  This is also a chance for your hero’s One True Love to prove him/herself by rescuing the hero.  Good relationship test.
  2. Hero’s One True Love gets kidnapped.  This is a marvelous chance to let your character sink into some pretty dark depths of despair and misery from which he/she must rise and overcome.  Character building is important, you know.  And, of course, you must make it very clear to your reader that the One True Love’s life does actually hang in the balance.  If you’re really mean, you’ll kill the OTL.  Talk about Instant Plot.
  3. Hero’s baby gets kidnapped.  I think we covered this already.  A kidnapped kid is ridiculously stressful – for your character, that is.  Your readers will be pretty confident that you wouldn’t actually kill a child.  Even a fictional one.  Would you?
  4. Hero kidnaps villain.  In a strange turn of events, there is suddenly a villain in custody.  Of course, if you were film-writing, you would immediately contain said villain in a big clear box with two-way communication so that the villain could eye the hero creepily and say disconcerting things and generally cause trouble.  Because locking him/her in a dark room and gagging him/her is such a silly idea.  
    villain in glass prison                Be aware that if the villain is kidnapped, you really won’t have much choice except to let the villain escape later.  Otherwise, your Instant Plot will sputter a bit.

As I said before, Instant Plot ideas are not really meant to be taken in complete seriousness as a way to solve your plotting problems.  But by considering common plot twists, we as authors can decide what we want to use and how we want to use it. Being aware of the clichés and thereby either avoiding them or wielding them wisely can make your Instant Plot an interesting and likable one.

However, if you’re just desperate, you could simply write a novel in which a secret baby is kidnapped.  Instant Success! I just solved all of your problems.

Let me know what other Instant Plot ideas you think could be added to the list of “usually cliché but potentially awesome.”  What did I miss?

Instant Plot! Just Add: Babies!

So two weeks back, I opened your eyes to the fact that all stories have a secret or two… or ten.  It’s something built into our storytelling that builds the drama, conflict, stress, and excitement of a story.  But now that you’ve inflicted your big, scary secret on an unsuspecting group of characters, you’re thinking… What else can I do to make this story awesome?  My plot needs another boost! Help!

No worries.  I’ve got it covered.  Just add a baby.

Babies are instant drama, and the best thing is, unlike real babies, you can basically decide exactly how long it takes them to grow up and how much time you want to spend with them.  They don’t have to be needy and their developmental stages can be pretty much whatever you want. Plot babies are very different from real babies in that way.

When you think about some of the dramatic plots out there, a lot of them include a baby at some point.  A character getting pregnant (always a surprise) can put a real twist on the whole “running for our lives” issue or whatever your characters are facing.  As soon as there is a baby, suddenly Evil Villain has someone to focus his/her threats on.

“Oh, save the world from my wicked reign, will you?  What if I…. threaten your baby?

Things just got real for your characters, I promise.

little boy light saber
Well, at least this one seems to be off to a good start…

But particularly in a fantasy story, a baby is never just a baby.  Think about it.  This baby is:

  1. the Promised One who will save all of humanity (or whatever race you are working with – babies aren’t picky)
  2. going to somehow be cursed, thereby forcing your characters to race against a clock to find the cure
  3. going to have special powers (way more fun than being cursed) which are going to alternately impress and freak the parents out
  4. or… wait for it… going to be the perfect segue into that awesome sequel you want to write featuring your world twenty years later.  Instant new hero(ine)! Just add baby!

In all honesty, we do have to be careful when we just go and get our poor characters pregnant, or introduce an infant at some opportune moment.  Perhaps a mysterious child is thrust upon a character, who now has to take care of the little bundle of joy for the rest of the adventure.  There are a couple major downsides to adding a baby to your mix.

First of all, you often have to stretch realism in ways you didn’t consider because babies can’t really be taken on the run without a whole lot of care and caution.  They have needs.  They need diaper changes every two minutes.  They cry.  They have very delicate little bodies and can get sick easily.  The same goes for very young children, so don’t think that you can just age them a couple of years and still get the same “Oooh, cute little mystery child” effect.

On the other hand, if you are bravely taking on all of these challenges and make sure your character is seeing to the baby’s every single need, you run the risk of your audience getting supremely tired of the baby.  I mean, babies are cute and all, but there’s a war against evil going on that is on every one else’s mind while your character is diligently changing diapers.  Okay… that could actually make for a pretty funny storyline if handled well.

If handled well.

crazy little boy
… but maybe I spoke too soon.

So if your story is flagging… add a baby!  Just make sure you’re ready for the consequences.  Babies are a commitment, people.

So tell me: what are some famous story babies?  Where have they shown up to make a plot more interesting?  And what were their special traits?  Because all babies are special, right?

(P.S. – notice that this is another plot device used with alarming frequency in soap operas? Those soap operas are either really good at plot development… or adding babies can easily become a cheap trick to get reader reaction. Tread carefully, friends…)