In the chapter that introduces dragons to my world, I barely describe what they look like.
The dragon glared at them from behind the burning longhouse, its body hidden but its long armored neck curving around the corner. Its head was huge, all white teeth and spines stabbing out from red scales and the black around its maw. Smoke seethed from the corners of its mouth, trailing up and faintly disappearing.
I think I get away with this because the world has been built using archetypes. The primary nation is very much like the Roman Empire. The period is very much like medieval Europe. Elements of the book bring to mind Middle-Earth, or Westeros, or Tamriel.
Dragons in my world, therefore, look like they do in those worlds. I don’t need to describe them because the reader already knows.
It’s a subtle use of archetype, but I think it’s powerful. And that’s not the only place I use it.
You might think that’s lazy. That perhaps fantasy authors should do their best to create all new worlds to inspire their readers’ imaginations.
Sure, you could. But that’s a harder sell. I argue that it’s more difficult to get a reader to buy in to your crazy fantasy world where nothing is like anything they’ve seen before than it is to tell a story in a world they already vaguely understand because of its similarities to other worlds.
That being said, there is something that I find moderately distasteful when I read fantasy that incorporates everything that Tolkien did, short of hobbits. A world of dwarves, elves, and man, where the dwarves wear big beards and live in subterranean mines and elves are tall and fair forest-dwellers. A single magical item wielded by an unlikely hero who is more clever than strong, more brave than capable. A long-dead evil rising in the East.
You get the drift. Borrow some archetypes to move your story along and make it familiar. Leave the others. Make up some of your own things, just enough to make it spicy. And above all, tell a good story.