Genre Conventions .v. Originality

“But this is how it’s done in epic fantasy,” I whine to my writer’s group. “It’s part of the convention.”

We are a bonded group, anxious to support each other and so I receive sympathetic smiles and diplomatic silence. The silence screams in my ears. I know they are right. If I have to fall back on a sentence like that, I am in trouble. Or am I?

How important is originality?

Utter originality is, of course, out of the question.” – Ezra Pound

Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” – Voltaire

I feel better already.

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville.

Ouch!

Elves are tall, thin, have pointed ears, and excellent hearing. They look good in green, and shoot bow and arrows with exceptional accuracy.  Dwarves are short, rotund, live underground, mine and play around with axes. This is so because J.R.R. Tolkien put the epic in epic fantasy with his Middle Earth series’. Are the rest of us thus condemned to be mere recyclers of his work? Maybe. But I am not convinced how this is different from any other genre: romance has the same images and general plot arc. So does suspense and horror. And don’t get me started on dystopian thrillers.

So why do we so enthusiastically embrace conventions in a genre? It might be because some themes are simply timeless. I’m thinking Beowulf (maybe written in the eighth century) and The Odyssey (sixteen centuries before that!). Tolkien would concede that he was not the first, but when something works, you build your own version of it, and sometimes your version is good enough to capture the imagination of a very loyal readership. But it is not just enjoyment. It is pure escapism to a world we can get excited about, to values we can admire or fear (or both). It is also something familiar, something soothing. 

And yet when we embark on a new epic fantasy series, or try the work of a new author, we are seeking both something familiar and something original. What makes each author since Tolkien distinct is some aspect of his / her work. The relationship between Eragon and Saphira (his dragon), made Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series special. I have just started reading The Weight of Blood by David Dalglish (check out his cool book covers by Peter Ortiz) which is about two brothers (okay) who are not just orcs (hmmm), but half-orcs (ahhh). I was caught on page one. Dalglish has written a variance on the convention. So did R.A. Salvatore when he introduced Drizzt – a dark elf whose race were the opposite from the stereotypical elves. Five novels on, I am still intrigued. Daniel Arenson came up with his own original approach to dragons in the Song of Dragons series. 

Before I end, let me say how much I admire those who come up with something original – Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson – they capture us all and we devour their new approaches. But those who seek to ride their coattails are not so successful and I think this is very telling.

It says that while the fantasy readership will embrace a clever, well-written, new concept, that very concept might not establish itself beyond one brilliant author. Epic fantasy, however, with its elves, dragons and swords, continues to stand the test of time. This is not because our readership is lazy. Instead they demand depth – world building, characters, and a plot that offers a twist on a well-tested theme. They continue to surprise us with the familiar.

It’s a great genre to be a part of.

 Good Writing,

Alon 

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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