When you think of fantasy, what surroundings come to mind?
If you’re like me, you probably imagine a dense forest with a spired castle or leering dragon in the background. A knight in full armor gallops through the mist to meet an unknown enemy (perhaps the dragon), and a maiden in a flowing gown stares wistfully after him. These elements have become staples of the fantasy genre.
What if you think of a Western?
You’ll picture cowboys who frequent saloons, drive cattle along the trail, and have shootouts with outlaws. Everything, from the characters’ chaps and boots to the clapboard buildings lining the streets, is creaky and dusty. And a Western wouldn’t be complete without tumbleweed blowing past, right?
When we hunt for clichés to remove from our manuscripts, we pay attention to characters, plot lines, and even phrases, but we have a habit of overlooking settings. Genres, however, tend to recycle details to the point that readers can predict the culture they’re going to encounter before opening a book. They might still enjoy the story if it’s crafted well, but they won’t experience the wonder of exploring unfamiliar territory.
As writers, we should be striving for greatness, but we can’t achieve this goal if we rely on copy-and-pasted settings. Every aspect of a story calls for creativity and originality. To raise old settings to new levels, we first need to identify common clichés and then discuss how we can refresh those ideas.
The Settings Everyone Has Seen Dozens of Times Before
As I mentioned above, many fantasy stories take place in medieval Europe, and many Westerns meander through rugged terrain. But these two genres are not the only ones with clichéd settings—most, if not all, genres have them. Let’s look at a few more tropes.
These are abundant in science fiction, thrillers, steampunk, and dystopian. Eerie lighting illuminates rows of test tubes, instruments, and metal tables in a room that reeks of chemicals. Scientists perform dangerous experiments there—sometimes on a character who’s gone missing—and a government conspiracy is usually the motive.
Mysteries, thrillers, and horror often focus on unsuspecting townsfolk as bizarre phenomenon or recurring crime begins terrorizing their neighborhood. Everyone becomes a suspect, and the evil may be traced to a basement, sewer, or abandoned house. However, if the protagonist has just returned to her hometown after a major life change, the story is probably a romance.
Coming-of-age stories love big cities. After graduation, the protagonist goes on a road trip with friends to New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. They tour famous landmarks, and when night falls, they climb onto a rooftop. As they gaze at the lights below, they exchange dreams about the future.
A metropolis is the epicenter of almost every dystopian novel as well. From there, the ruling powers control thousands of people. Propaganda is broadcast through every form of communication. But in the shadowy slums of the city, an underground organization knows that the government is corrupt and hatches plans to fight back.
The Roaring 20s
Each historical time period carries its own clichés, but the 1920s are particularly notable. Many interesting events happened throughout that decade, but in fiction, the spotlight falls on prohibition and the mafia. The genre could be romance, mystery, or anything in between. Regardless of the plot, Gatsby-style parties are a given, and characters typically visit a speakeasy or run into a mobster.
By now, I’m sure you recognize several of the settings I’ve described. Other readers are as tired of the repetition as you are! So how can you use your awareness of clichéd settings to build unique ones instead? By applying one of three tactics.
1. Change a Core Trait of the Stereotyped Setting
Fans of a certain genre have likely seen countless variations of the same setting. Many books toss in a couple small differences as an attempt at originality. But instead of keeping the main framework intact, try overturning one part that readers take for granted.
For instance, you could set fantasy in modern day, a Western in the Australian outback, or a dystopian in ancient history. These unexpected combinations will pique readers’ curiosity, in addition to opening up opportunities to further deviate from the clichés of your genre.
While preparing this article, I searched for examples of contemporary fantasy. Unsurprisingly, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was one of the first I found. However, even though the characters live in the modern world, they’re isolated from it and rarely interact with it. Because of this, Harry Potter and similar stories are not true representatives of the technique I’m recommending.
In contrast, although Bram Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t qualify as modern anymore, it was when it was published. Unlike most contemporary fantasy, Stoker’s characters don’t abandon modern conveniences to defeat Dracula; they use the latest technology (telegraphs and phonographs) to their advantage. Today’s characters have cell phones and social media at their disposal, and allowing them access to those tools lends a new dynamic to fantasy.
No matter your genre, switching up the setting is always an effective option. You’ll make your story more memorable and help it reach its full potential.
2. Insert a Stereotyped Setting from Another Genre
The unsuspecting small town constantly appears in mysteries and thrillers, but it’s less prevalent in science fiction. When you transplant a clichéd setting, you have a chance to portray it from a new angle. You might even invent a sub-genre or start a fandom!
Steampunk and cyberpunk were born when authors blended science fiction with historical or dystopian settings. And when George Lucas moved a Western-style story line into outer space, he laid the groundwork for one of the highest-grossing media franchises. The myriad of compelling settings in the Star Wars universe has captured the imaginations of audiences since the release of the first film in 1977.
To supply another example, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, as well as its three sequels, would be classified as futuristic dystopian. However, the story unfolds in small towns rather than large cities, and some of the communities resemble periods in history. These intriguing quirks cause the setting to stand out.
3. Describe the Stereotyped Setting from a New Perspective
Settings become clichéd partly because they’re cast in the same light over and over again. Remember the road trip to the big city from the coming-of-age story? The characters usually treat it as a grand adventure. But what if their reactions were negative instead?
If you show the group of friends complaining about traffic, the unimpressive tourist traps, and the long lines everywhere, you’ll counter the clichéd romanticism with a dose of humorous realism. The setting may be common, but your depiction of it will be unusual enough that readers won’t feel like they’re walking on worn-out paths.
One of my favorite examples of this comes from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Cat in the Rain.” It’s about an American couple in Paris (a city that’s glorified in romance novels). Rather than beautiful architecture and rivers glistening in the sun, the weather is dreary, and the relationship between the couple is equally cold and disappointing.
The Secret to Originality
All of us realize that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Fiction largely involves mining inspiration from the same sources as any other artist and telling stories that have been shared before. But that doesn’t mean ingenuity is impossible.
The most creative stories don’t concoct an entirely new plot, setting, and cast of characters. Instead, they subtly transform the familiar and break expectations. So don’t settle for clichés, but don’t feel pressured to overhaul your setting either. Small tweaks can add up to a massive impact. With simple adjustments to your approach, you can turn a stereotype into an engaging setting that will linger in readers’ memories.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.