Patrick Rothfuss was 20 when he started writing his first book, “The Name of the Wind.” It took him seven years to finish the fantasy tale and then an extra four to persuade a publisher it would sell. And he was right; in 2007 the book hit the New York Times and USA Today’s bestsellers lists and was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com. Reviewers soon compared the first-time author to George R.R. Martin, who wouldn’t mind a bit, “He’s bloody good, this Rothfuss guy.” Rothfuss, now 38 and living in Stevens Point, Wis., just released his second novel, “Wise Man’s Fear,” in paperback and he’s working on his third novel. We sought him out for insights into the traps and teases that vex new writers.
HC: What types of books did you grow up reading?
PR: While I’ve grown up as a big reader, I really didn’t want to give up picture books as a kid. I would go to the library and check out whatever the maximum number of picture books was. Then I’d take them home, read them all, and want to go back to the library the next day. Drove my mom a little nuts.
PR: Well, we love best what we love first. So C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey do hold a special place in my heart. But honestly, I read pretty much any sci-fi or fantasy I could get my hands on. I wasn’t discriminating. I read about a novel a day between the ages of 10 and 18, and I liked it all. It wasn’t until I’d been in college for a couple years that I started to get a little dissatisfied. When you’re 14, anything with a sword and a dragon is pretty cool. But when you’re 21 and you’ve read 2,000 fantasy novels, you start to realize that some of those books, well, they weren’t really good. OK, let’s be honest. A lot of them were crap.
HC: What really irked you? Pet peeves?
PR: Part of it was just the quality of the writing. After I’d been in college for a couple years I’d read Shakespeare and Frost and Chaucer and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. I’d come to appreciate how gorgeous the English language could be. But most fantasy novels didn’t seem to make the effort. There are authors who make the effort. Roger Zelazny, Peter Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Neil Gaiman have lovely language, for example. But they’re the exception, rather than the rule. An even bigger problem was the clichés I kept running into. It felt like I was reading the same story over and over again with minor changes. Like all these books had been put together using the same kit. They all had dwarves with axes, elves with bows, and some evil wizard trying to destroy the world.
HC: : What do you have against dwarves with axes and elves with bows and evil wizards bent on destroying the world?
PR: Don’t get me wrong. I grew up with Tolkien. I read “The Lord of the Rings” once a year for most of my childhood. I loved those books. The problem is, so did everyone else. So people followed in Tolkien’s footsteps. Then other writers followed in those writer’s footsteps. Pretty soon all those shuffling feet wore a deep groove in the ground, and people started to think that dwarves and elves and magic rings were fantasy. But they’re not. Those things are props. And putting those things in your book doesn’t make you Tolkien. No more than putting an emo prince, a ghost and a sword fight in your book makes you Shakespeare.
HC: How bad does it get?
PR: I read one book where an evil wizard king guy had plans to do some big magical hoo-ha ritual. The result would be one of three things: 1. He becomes all-powerful. 2. He dies. 3. The world is destroyed. Of course, the plucky young hero sets out to stop him. And that’s fine. That’s good motivation for a hero. You don’t want the world destroyed, because, you know, that’s where your shoes are. Plus, if this wizard guy gets to become all-powerful, that’s going to suck. My problem is with the wizard-king. This guy is supposed to be this big magical genius, but he’s going to do a ritual that has a 66% percent chance of destroying him? Who decides that one-in-three is good odds? That’s just dumb. I hate reading a good book, then getting confronted with something stupid. It’s like getting poked in the eye.
HC: How do you feel about dragons?
PR: Now you’re just baiting me. But fine, I’ll rise to it. The problem with dragons is that everyone uses them. All the time. When that happens, they become commonplace. A lot of people think you can just throw them into a story and suddenly whatever you’re writing is 28% cooler. But that doesn’t work. All that does is make dragons into some boring cliché.
HC: If they are so trite, why do we see them over and over again in virtually every fantasy novel that comes our way?
PR: Here’s the thing. Dragons are cool. Anyone who isn’t totally uptight has to admit that. They’re iconic. They’re archetypal. Plus, a huge fire-breathing lizard is pretty neat, you can’t argue that. Dragons aren’t trite. But a lot of people make them trite with bad storytelling. I was playing a video game a while back. In the game, you fight a dragon. And you know what? It was great. I was running around, getting burned by fire, worried I was going to die. It was exciting, dramatic. Then, a little while later, you fight another dragon. Then another. And another. And eventually, I’m just irritated by them. It was boring. You should never be bored fighting a dragon. When that happens, someone has really dropped the ball in terms of storytelling.
HC: So if you were to make a list, what would be the top five fantasy clichés that people should avoid?
PR: Boy, it’s hard to limit it to just five…
1. Prophecy. I don’t ever want to read another novel about “the chosen one.”
2. The helpless damsel. I’ve known a fair number of damsels in my day. The vast majority of them don’t need saving.
3. Elves with bows who live in trees. Dwarves with axes who live in caves. It was fine when Tolkien did it, but that was 60 years ago. It’s time for us to move on.
4. Brooding vampires. Any sort of vampire should probably be avoided at this point. The genre is kinda overrun.
5. Dragons. As above.
— Alex Pham
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