For me, part of the attraction of writing fantasy and science fiction is the fact that I can do whatever I want with my worlds (as long as I remain internally consistent). But that isn’t always the best strategy. Well, it’s fine if you’re writing only for yourself, but if you’re writing for other people, you have to keep what they want in mind. It might be fun to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the reader. However, that’s not likely to get you many fans.
The same goes for being different for the sake of being different. Sure, it can work. You see writers like China Mieville pull of utterly bizarre worlds. But it should also be noted that Mieville’s stories don’t work for every fantasy reader.
At the opposite end, you have writers from the D&D craze of the 70s and 80s. A lot of their ideas were inspired by Tolkien. This gave readers a very familiar world to fall into. Some would argue that it was too familiar, that these writers didn’t do enough to bring that sense of wonder and discovery into their books.
Personally, I find it best to strike a balance between these two extremes. You might call it the “Brandon Sanderson approach.” Sanderson is known for taking many of the common tropes of fantasy and putting a new spin on them. In doing this, he gives us a story that’s both familiar and new.
For example, look at the premise for Mistborn. It’s a world where the dark lord has won, where the prophesied hero failed. The story is about defeating this dark lord, but it’s not the quest story so many authors do. Instead, it’s a heist story. That brings in an element we haven’t seen done to death and makes the story feel fresh and original. Then, of course, there’s the fascinating, mist-shrouded world. Sanderson took many of these elements we’ve seen before and put them in a story that feels like something new despite so many familiar elements.
That’s what you have to do as a fantasy writer. You have to write a story that balances the familiar and the unfamiliar. The best fantasy worlds, in my experience, are not the ones that are incredibly bizarre. They’re the ones that feel both familiar and bizarre. Sure, you can have all kinds of weird things in your world, but they should be balanced with a story and characters that feel recognizably human. Some of us have the talent of a Mieville and can pull off utterly bizarre. Most of us are better putting new twists on old ideas.
After all, those old ideas have become so ingrained because readers like them. Even fantasy and science fiction readers like to see something they recognize. But you don’t want to give them the same thing they’ve seen so many times before.
It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’ll pay off in the end.