Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cool Fantasy Tropes

Okay, last time I covered some things that many of us think are overdone, or often done badly in fantasy. So this got me to thinking about what kinds of tropes and themes attract me to fantasy stories in particular (assuming they're handled well). I'm sure some will not agree with my list, but I'll bet most fans of the genre have one of their own.

Eleven things I can't get enough of in fantasy novels:

1. Worlds where the gender dynamics didn't play out exactly the way they did in our history. I like stories where female characters can be pirate captains or, priests, or wizards, or swordswomen, or hey, even just walk down the street and go into a tavern without everyone automatically assuming she's a harlot.

2. Same for characters from other groups that were marginalized in so-called "real" history.

3. Settings that are preindustrial but depart from the traditional European Middle Ages. Don't get me wrong: I love castles and knights, but the Middle Ages of Europe is only one time and place in history, and there's no reason why they should have a monopoly on magical adventures.

4. Magical creatures. Not everyone does these days, and a lot of fantasy novels have minimized things like dragons, gryphons, unicorns or whatever. But like other fantasy tropes, there are still interesting ways to present them. If a dragon's on the cover, I'll likely pick the book up and at least scan its back copy.

5. Characters with cool pets. Yes, I know that's a cliché, and some readers put this on the list of things they've seen enough of. Still, I have a soft spot for characters with cats, dogs, horses, or even more exotic creatures. The bond doesn't have to be magical or telepathic, but it can be if it's done well. But I will include a caveat: I like the animal in question not just be a human in a fur or feather suit. A dog/wolf/cat or whatever would have very different perspectives, even if it's sentient.

6.Magic that interacts with the real world in a physical and definable way. I don't mean the author needs to (or should) give a blow by blow of the intricacies of their magic system, but I do like seeing magic that obeys the laws of thermodynamics at some level, follows rules, and imposes consequences or costs.

7. Characters who are misfits or outcasts. Maybe it's because I'm not and never have been a "cool kid," but I like stories about outsiders and underdogs who prevail against the odds, connect with some kindred souls, and make peace with their own quirks.

8. Worlds that are complex, messy and that contain an array of cultures, perspectives and peoples, all of which have pros and cons and plusses and minuses. I'm fine with a novel being more sympathetic to some than to others, but presenting enemies as a monolithic, faceless "other" smacks of wartime propaganda more than good storytelling in many places.

9. Nasty but complex antagonists. The bad guys are more interesting if they have some kind of reason for doing what they're doing. Very, very few people think of themselves as "evil," and if they do, they're usually too crazy or sociopathic to glean many followers.

10. A romantic subplot. While I don't tend to read novels that are first and foremost romances, I do enjoy stories where two characters fall in love (and no, they don't have to be opposite sex). Not only does this raise the stakes, but the tension and connection can contribute to character growth in profound and fascinating ways.

11. To balance out the sweetness and light, I enjoy a touch of pathos as well. Completely happy, well adjusted characters are, well, boring. ;) But I will add the caveat that I tend to prefer protagonists who are basically empathic, ethical people dealing with awful stuff in the best way they can.


  1. I like most of the elements you describe. One that is very difficult to get right is the gender bending one. In real history of almost any epoque women didn't do much of the stuff that fantasy writing requires its heroes to do. Thus in LotR the female characters run true to type ie they don't do much.
    If you want women to play a bigger role, and it certainly makes a more balanced story for modern tastes, it has to be well reasoned. It doesn't make sense to have an archaic society with male primo geniture rules of inheritance, where the main activity seems to be waging war with the neighbouring kingdoms, and to have women participating in traditionally male activities. By all means do it if the custom of the country is for women to have an equal place with men, where a girl first born would be a ruler, and even, dare I say it, in a democracy where a woman could be an elected leader. But in a warlike, male dominated society, women don't have a say in government, they don't make policy, they don't contribute except to provide more little soldiers.
    It's one of my bugbears, I'm afraid, the female warrior in a war-geared, male-led society. It just wouldn't happen. Not in our world, and not in any other.

  2. But of course a fantasy society doesn't have to mirror real world history. Things like the presence of magic or religions/gods that are more woman friendly can certainly shift things. Imagine, for instance, if reliable contraception had been widely available far earlier than it was, or if infant and maternal mortality had been lower throughout history. This would have freed women to assume more diverse roles much earlier than they did in most "real world" cultures.

    And there have always been exceptions to the rules (and exceptions to rules are often the focuses of stories), though, even in warlike and male-dominated societies. Although it's an overused trope in historic fiction, there really were women who disguised themselves as men (and records of people who may have been transgender go back to caveman days), and even some hunter-gatherer cultures acknowledged the occasional "man-hearted woman." There were also women who rose to the occasion and somehow convinced men to follow them. Boadeccea and Joan of Arc come to mind, but there are others as well.

    Really, it depends on the feel you're going for with world building. Some authors have created gloriously improbable worlds, but have done so in a way that is entirely entertaining (in the way comic books can be) that creates the potential for readers of all persuasions to imagine themselves as heroes and important figures who could make a difference in said world. I applaud that, and sometimes that kind of escapism is fine. And I do question authors who toss in all sorts of classical fantasy elements into the mix (interactive gods, magic, improbable creatures that defy the laws of physics and evolution, larger than life heroes and enlightened rulers) and yet say women can't "play" because it's not realistic :)

    Mine is a dynamic and diverse world with a variety of cultures, religions, governments and so forth, and the magic system allows for some tweaking of history's status quo. I'm sort of going for something in between the "gritty realistic" attempt to recreate historic pre-industrial cultures with all its horrors and injustices and a more idealized fantasy world. So women fill more roles in my world than they did in history, though it's not 21st century America by any means (actually, there are some really sexist people here still, but that's another story).

    Whether an individual reader thinks it's realistic is hard to say, but it's certainly not out of line with a lot of what's out there in fantasy, and I really don't want a world like Tolkien's (much as I love the hobbit and LoTR)where women are nearly invisible (even though hobiits, who are smaller and weaker than human females, I'd guess) can go out and have adventures and distinguish themselves in war.

    Thanks for your points :)

  3. You're quite right about the existence of societies where women played important roles, especially where magic and agriculture were concerned. Boudicca is a good example of a Celtic leader who happened to be a woman. The Celts in general had a high opinion of women's capabilities, as did the Etruscans, the Vikings (to an extent) and some of the other Germanic tribes. They tend to be the pre Graeco-Roman societies though, and certainly pre Christian. The Greek ethos and the Christian God didn't hold with women doing much except bearing children.
    As you say, there is no natural law that dictates women's place in society, except that things started to go wrong for women when men began to doubt how much female magic was involved in the production of children, crops and medecines. Throw greater physical strength into the equation, an inordinate emphasis on fighting battles, and society changed course completely.
    I'm with you in wanting to create worlds where all that gung ho stuff isn't important. It would be so much more interesting and peaceful! Where I take issue with many fantasy worlds is when the writer wallows in the war-based society, as if nothing interesting happens off the battlefield, and then wants scantily clad females as war leaders. If women are placed on an equal footing with men in society, there are fewer wars, skirmishes certainly, but fewer full scale wars, more emphasis on living than killing. To my mind mind that makes for a more interesting world. Your world sounds good to me, idealistic, utopian even. Much more interesting and more realistic than a load of butch men and pouting battle queens beating one another up.

  4. Well, there is conflict between a society that is more "patriarchal," at least in terms of its religion and one that is more at an early enlightenment level of social development and which has a more "balanced" religion. I wouldn't say either is utopian, though. I have a non-human race that is matriarchal (based their social system somewhat off spotted hyenas). Males in their society struggle with some of the things women do in many human cultures--being respected and promoted according to their abilities.

  5. I've just found your reply. So you're a fan of the spotted hyaena too? I've been one since I read about them when I was a kid. Admirable animals, we could learn a lot from them.