Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fantasy Clichés

I've loved fantasy since I first heard the songs Puff theMagic Dragon and The Unicorn on the radio when I was a little tyke. I loved animals already, and the ideas of magical animals enraptured me. My mom later read me The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, which launched me on a lifetime love of fantasy, and later science fiction as well (my parents' bookshelves were well stocked with both kinds of books).

All stories contain an element of "what if," but fantasy (and SF) dial that up a notch. They allow us to visit worlds that never were (but that surely must exist ... somewhere), do things that no one has been able to do, experience political systems that are both similar and different from the ones in our world, and to meet people (human and non human alike) who have been shaped by these realities and yet remain relatable and believable to us. Nyki Blatchley puts it very well when he said in his own blog that all stories take place in made-up worlds, but speculative fiction is more honest about it.

As much as I love fantasy, though, a recent discussion on a writer's site made me think about some of the cliches and overused tropes that exist in fantasy novels. Everyone has their own list of things that sometimes make them roll their eyes, so I decided to toss a few out there.

1. Novels that spend an inordinate amount of time on world building. You read for hours and learn about the history, religion, biogeography and cultures of the world, but one hundred and fifty pages in, you still have no idea who the story is actually about, let alone what his or her goals and problems are going to be.

2. Worlds with fantasy races (elves, dwarves etc) who are homogeneous. Humans have (or maybe they don't--see #10) different religions, cultures, ethnicities etc., but all the elves live in trees in the forest and worship the goddess of the moon. Orcs, trolls and other "evil" races fare even worse. They are unilaterally brutish, nasty, and in the thrall of some dark lord. Don't these species get free will at all?

3. Prologues with throwaway characters you never see again and that seem to have little connection to the main plot of the story. These often exist for world building purposes, or maybe to show some prophecy or catastrophe occurring or to show the birth of some chosen one.

4. And speaking of prophecies and chosen ones, fantasy is full of these too. They can be really cool, but now and again, it's even cooler to see a chosen one fail or to see a prophecy be wrong (or at least, oh gods, let us occasionally see a girl chosen one instead of a boy).

5. Some really cool, powerful magic that somehow doesn't seem to affect any aspect of life in said fantasy world outside of warfare. If you can use magic to burn down a city, can't you also use it to heat water so you can take a hot bath?

6. Fantasy worlds with histories that extend for thousands of years and where nothing at all has changed during that time. All the countries have the same approximate borders , religions and identities and they've been living under some kind of feudal system for aeons with no changes at all and no real explanation.

7. Magic being something people either have or don't have (aka, you are mageborn), as if it were conferred by a single gene allele you either inherit or don't, and experience or hard work doesn't matter. How many human talents actually work this way in real life?

8. This sort of segues into the stereotype of the whiz kid (Mary Sue-ish) protag who is just naturally awesome sauce at magic or something else that's important to the plot and that older, harder working and more experienced people are actually his or her biggest obstacle--because they won't acknowledge his or her awesomeness and insist that he or she waste time on learning the rules and learning the theories behind his or her talent.

9. Taking something from our world (or something so like as to be indistinguishable) and then giving them a cute new name. So I'll be halfway through the book before I discover an "oophy" is just a pig (and yes, I'm looking at McCaffrey's runnerbeasts). I wasn't sure whether they were just horses until I read the Dragonsdawn books. These books did show me, however, that "klah" was not actually just another name for coffee.

10. A world where there don't seem to be any people who are brown, or black or golden. Or if they exist, they're always bad guys or noble savages of some kind.

11. E to the infinity length books. Now I love me a good wrist sprainer. Very few of the high fantasy novels on my shelves are under around 130,000 words, and some are much longer, so my lip trembled when I learned I had to trim my beloved novel down to below 120,000 words (some say closer to 100,000) if I want to have an agent even bother to read the query letter. But sometimes fantasy novels really are too long, and sometimes it is possible to trim some stuff--like that prologue with the throaway characters and the 150 pages of plotless history and world building at the beginning, for starters. One of my students brought the "last" Wheel of Time book to class the other day. I'm sure it's very good, but I've seen unabridged dictionaries that were thinner.

I'm sure that everyone has their own list of tropes and conventions that have become clichés, and fantasy is not the only genre of fiction that has them. Some would argue that even so-called literary fiction has clichés. I do want to include the caveat here that I have enjoyed books with every one of the above-mentioned tropes, and I'll likely enjoy more, if there's a reason for them and they're presented in a fresh and vibrant way.


  1. Great list of tropes. The prophecy is one of the ones you see very often in blurbs, and I always think this is aimed at a readership that takes God as a given, solid, unalterable truth. So when someone 'in authority' says, I tell you this load of bollocks will happen, there is absolutely no way the reader is allowed to ask, who says?
    I'm glad you mentioned the good old feudal system that seems to last for thousands of years in some fantasy novels with nobody daring to offer an alternative.
    I'm afraid I could never take The Wheel of Time seriously. Jordan's women seemed to me to act like men in drag.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Good point, I think. In the world I'm writing novels in right now, the gods are a lot more nebulous. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're make believe, but they're mostly absentee landlords, and humans get to interpret, use and abuse their "mysteries" as they see fit. :) Of course there are other approaches to take in speculative fiction (I loved the Curse of Chalion).

  3. Yup those are some serious fantasy tropes. I tried to deconstruct them in my fantasy--things like prophecies, destinies, thousands of years locked in feudal systems, etc. Many of these tropes always made me ask questions when I read them: How is it that all these intelligent races coexist for more than a few generations without one wiping away all the others? Who is making up all these prophecies in the first place? Show me the paper on which my destiny is "written"!

    When I finally started answering some of these questions for myself, I started writing my own fantasy, with the goal of sharing my answers through the book.