Fantasy Genre Tropes We Love and Hate

Fantasy tropes we love and hateI’ve been challenged to write an epic fantasy genre story, so I’m reading a lot of current fantasy fiction. It varies from ‘meh’ to ‘aarrrgghh!’ not only for the quality of the writing, but the vast number of fantasy genre tropes we love and hate.

A trope is any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times. All genres have them, but the fantasy genre is piled higher than Khazad Dum (too geeky already?).

The full list of fantasy genre tropes could fill several volumes in itself, so here’s a short list of the worst offenders this week.

The map in the front of the book
Tolkien put a map at the start of LOTR, setting a precedent fantasy authors ignore at their peril. On the one hand, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but if you need to draw me a map, you’re either a lazy writer, you failed to describe your world properly in the text, or both.

The Protagonist is ‘The (Chosen) One’
Even better if there’s a Prophecy involved.

“They’ve a legend here, a prophecy, that a leader will come to them, child of a Bene Gesserit, to lead them to true freedom. It follows the familiar messiah pattern” (Thufir Hawat, Dune by Frank Herbert)

Better still if the protagonist is a lowly orphan/street urchin/farm boy. Or combinations.

The Antagonist is a Dark Wizard, Necromancer, Demon, Demi God or speaks with a British-English vocabulary

Need we say more?

Complex magic systems that don’t make sense (or are downright silly)

Okay, almost all of the ‘hard magic’ systems get silly somewhere down the line.

Bryce O’Connor summed up Potter-verse magic as “aggressively wave a hollow stick filled with dead animal parts through the air while yelling bastardized latin and hoping the damn thing doesn’t blow up in your face.”

First prize goes to Brandon Sanderson whose sorcerers swallow heavy metals burned internally to create electro-magnetic fields. That’s some acid reflux. Gaviscon, anyone?

Collections of daft names with too many syllables and/or apostrophes

Tolkein set the bar for fantastical-sounding names, not with apostrophes but Old Englsh and Old Norse diacritics (accents). Unfortunately this declared open season for fantasy authors to invent all manner of weird and not-so wonderful character names.

Anne MacCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern have an interesting naming convention with F’ followed by random letters: F’lan,F’nor, F’lessen, and F’lon. And F’Nar-F’Nar. I may have made that one up. I’m still waiting for Etholas F’Artbendar.

Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time) gets the gold medal for working this lot on multiple fantasy levels: Tel’aran’rhiod and Trolloc band names – Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’gheal, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon.

That said, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive contains an absolute doozy: Numuhukumakiaki’aialunamor, or as he’s known for most of the books: Rock.

The Flat-pack Hero’s Journey

This may be the biggest sin in the fantasy genre. You probably know there’s an underlying formula to story telling. Once you know what it is, you can’t read any fiction or any watch TV and movies without mentally ticking the boxes on the check-list. It can be found in everything from Pride and Prejudice to Silence of the Lambs and individual episodes of Desperate Housewives.

It is discussed at length in Robert McKee’s Story; Derek Murphy defines an eight-step 24-chapter structure for fiction; Joe Nasisse  distills generic plottig to a seven-point structure to fit anything.

  • Preparation phase – hero, setting, story problem
  • Game changer 1 – inciting incident, no going back
  • Reactive phase – emotional response to incident; no response
  • Game changer 2 – focus on story problem – encountering opposition
  • Proactive Phase – seeking the solution. Cycle of climb, plateau and falling back; rising stakes
  • Game changer 3 – protagonist’s lowest point / ‘dark night of the soul’ / final piece of puzzle
  • Conclusion Phase – the final battle

Dealing with heroes as it does, the fantasy genre is utterly wedded to the Hero’s Journey. Fantasy often hammers the allen-bolts into the flat-pack plot-cabinet with a large mallet. I find Eragon particularly Egregious and about as subtle as a dragon crash-landing in the sheep-pen.

This is just skimming the surface. Fantasy Book Fanatic goes to town with a seventeen-point list of fantasy cliches including Monotonous World Building, Enrollment in an Academic Magic Institution and the Old, Decrepit Mentor. RC

Image credit: Ljubljana dragon by Bex Walton