You know what I’m talking about, fellow writers! “Tolkien-esque” or the “next C.S. Lewis” or some strange combination thereof. These days, there might be a few new names thrown in for good measure. “An epic romance reminiscent of Twilight.” Have you written one of those? Or how about “fun and magic on a par with Harry Potter”?
The fact is, as great a marketing ploy as these comparisons might be, they are often nothing short of embarrassing. I know I’ve cringed when I’ve seen my work declared “Tolkien-like.” Huh? How are my allegorical fairy tales for teens anything like that VAST adult fantasy epic?
Or, because it contains allegorical threads, my work must be “similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.” What? Allegory aside, how are my romantic/comedic full-length YA novels even remotely comparable to those short classics written for children?
Worst of all was a big banner in a magazine calling my work: “A Tolkien-esque fantasy for the Twilight audience.”
(Insert tears here.)
“All that work!” I cry. “All those years of English major drudgery! All those carefully constructed literary themes! Shall I then be dismissed as a wanna-be copycat jumping on a popular bandwagon?”
So I take myself away to sulk about it for a while. When the sulking ends, however, I have to start thinking . . .
Great fiction is made up of themes: Love and longing, coming of age, voyage and return, fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, overcoming the monster, death, birth, and more. These are universals, themes that can be, on one level or another, understood by any man or woman. The fantasy genre is a place of extremes, thus these themes become even more dominant. The monsters to overcome are literal dragons or warlords. A maiden’s love or a hero’s longing means the binding of great alliances, the rise and fall of nations. Fathers are kings, sons are thieves, daughters are warrior maidens, and mothers are enchantresses. All these universals take on a proportion so much bolder than life that they become truly fantastic and unreal.
They can also start looking repetitive.
Because they drew us to fantasy in the first place, these extreme universals and archetypal characters are what we want both to write and to read. But in a sea of handsome Chosen Ones, feisty heroines, dark lords, and made-up names, how can our stories hope to stand out?
We must learn how to bring the personal to the universal.
My most brilliant plot-device, character arc, or surprise twist is never going to be original. Not on its own. All those universal themes have been done before and by better writers. But the one thing those authors (I’m talking to you Messrs Tolkien and Lewis!) can never bring to their work is . . . me.
Only I can do that.
The temptation, especially for young writers, is to ignore this. “After all,” we tend to say, “what have I got that’s interesting enough to live in the pages of epics? I’m too young. I’m too old. I’m too inexperienced. I’m too boring. That’s why I write fantasy, to liven up my ordinary life!”
So we fall into clichés. We fall into cheesiness, writing about epic themes without the personal touch. We take ourselves very seriously and therefore lose credibility.
But I’m here today to argue that cheesiness and clichés need not be our fate! We can work with the brilliant, the epic, the universal themes so wonderful in the genre, but we can use our own experiences. For instance . . .
Did you ever have a first crush? For young and old, this is a pretty universal experience. But your personal experience of those first-time feelings–the sudden sense that maybe childhood perspectives on boys and girls are insufficient, that there might be more, that you might be more–is unique. Have you ever stopped to analyze that singular coming-of-age moment in your life?
Or how about this: Have you ever been assigned a task for which you felt inadequate? Babysitting three toddlers at once? Giving birth? Passing an algebra exam? Organizing a team that simply refuses to be organized? Ordinary experiences, to be sure, hardly the stuff of epics. And yet, the very real and very stressful feelings of your personal experience are universals that carry over to the world of danger, dragons, and dire deeds that is the fantasy genre.
These are basic examples. Yet they translate beautifully into themes everyone understands! And when I began recognizing this notion of the personal/universal, I first saw my own work take on life.
Like the heroine in Heartless, I have foolishly built dream-castles on a young man who didn’t keep his promises. Like the hero in Veiled Rose, I’ve struggled to redefine my identity and lost myself in the process. Like the hero in Moonblood, I have thought I could earn my own redemption. Like the heroine in upcoming Starflower, I have experienced having no “voice” simply because I am a woman. Like the hero in my recent work-in-progress, I have experienced my human limitations–lack of beauty, lack of brains, lack of respect–and despaired in inadequacy.
Like my characters, I have sinned, I have stumbled, I have made a hash of my life. And I have been the recipient of undeserved grace!
My life experiences have been simple enough. A sheltered child, an ambitious student, a hard worker at various jobs, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a wife, an animal-fanatic . . . Nothing worthy of epics. I am not a brilliant Oxford don with war-time experience and decades of classical and theological education under my belt.
But I have faced my own dragons. I have seen my own kingdoms rise and fall.
So let this be my encouragement to you: Use these universal themes of love and longing, death and life, monsters and kings and Chosen Ones. Use them with excitement, knowing they will touch the hearts of your readers. But remember that your personal experience of these universals will bring the originality, the freshness your work needs. Don’t make your heroes Aragorns or Harry Potters . . . make them you. Don’t make your heroines Bella Swans or Lucy Pevensies . . . make them you.
For there has never been a “you” before now. Bring your personal to those classic universals, and you’ll find you have something new. Yes, by pure virtue of being fantasy, it will be compared to Tolkien. But you will never be Tolkien. You will only be you.
And that, my friends, is true originality!
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Anne Elisabeth Stengl is the author of the Tales of Goldstone Wood, a series of fantasy adventure novels told in the classic Fairy Tale style. She is married to the handsome man she met at fencing class and lives with him and a gaggle of cats in NC. You can follow her on Facebook or contact her via her blog.