Let’s start off with wizards. As a little kid, I never really got into magic. Don’t get me wrong; I loved medieval combat, but it always came down to swords, knights, bows and arrows, castles, and maybe the occasional battering ram. Wizards, witches, and dragons never became very interesting.
Wizards were trite. Witches were super lame. They either wore pointy hats and had long beards or were evil, ugly women who flew around on broomsticks. Seriously, how cool could a villain be if they rode broomsticks? Wizards weren’t much better. The only examples I had to go on were Merlin, a super old dude who didn’t seem to do much magic aside from jamming a sword into a rock, and the Wizard of Oz who distinctly didn’t have any superpowers.
What does that leave for a kid who demanded a degree of seriousness? Nothing. Magic couldn’t work.
Then came J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Even though she wrote children’s books (the first titles in her series anyway), she made magic awesome. She made it epic. Yes, witches still wore pointy hats, but they worked with plants whose screams could kill. Yes, they rode on broomsticks, but she made them awesome.
Whenever I watch a Harry Potter movie now, I always lament how little time they spend on these witches and wizards as they ride their broomsticks. She made it cool. She made broomsticks fast, agile, and epic. Instead of having an old school witch die when someone spills some water on her, we see them throw spells at one another while cutting across the sky. So much cooler.
Wizards aren’t the only traditional piece of fantasy to get redefined.
Consider vampires. A cliché in vampire stories is now for the characters to talk about pop culture and how everyone else got it wrong. Writers are stuck and they do sorta have to make this point. Vampires, probably more than any other creature, have been completely redefined like nothing else.
Originally, vampire stories were folklore. They were probably tales designed to warn travelers against wandering outside or to scare little kids into going to bed on time. Either way, they were vicious, animals, supernatural horrors which the mind could never comprehend.
Then we get Bram Stoker and his Dracula. He was a shape shifter, a monster who lived in a castle with his various demons and horrors. He was also surprisingly weak. As I understand it, he was vulnerable to sunlight, stakes, and couldn’t cross moving water. Many of the traditions and superstitions regarding vampires applied to Stoker’s Dracula.
Later on, we got lots of vampire movies, most of which look really goofy now. I think of Nosferatu. Sure, it looked scary back in the day, but grainy black-and-white just can’t be scary. If it can’t be scary, it can’t be cool.
Anne Rice came along and gave us Interview with a Vampire. This piece had a vampire speak. It made him human. It made him awesome because we got to see an immortal. We watched characters move across time, through the centuries, and wondered what vampirism would actually mean. This was very different from the brutality Stoker created.
A couple more years and we get Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He made vampires a lot less awesome. With a couple exceptions, vampires got slaughtered left and right. They became minions, one-hit kills to make the main character look really cool. Whedon did something else though.
He made vampires something that could be loved. Angel appeared as a romantic figure, a vampire with a soul who falls in love with a human. Another couple years go by and we get Twilight.
Like them or hate them, Stephenie Myer’s vampires are very, very different from what readers once expected. For one, they twinkle. The implication seems to be that vampires’ skin is embedded with diamonds, giving them greater protection. Sure, I’ve met lots of people who hate this idea, yet it does explain their durability. The movies went even farther with this concept. Whenever a vampire is hurt or damaged, his skin cracks as if he were made of stone.
Writers can take a magical or sci-fi archetype and redefine it however they want. A good challenge for any writer working in these genres is to take what’s old and reuse it. Redefine it to make it different, unique, something familiar and yet surprising all at the same time.