Fixing Tropes in Fantasy Fiction

The Google dictionary defines the fantasy genre as “a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.” With fantasy, you have freedom. You can make whatever you want possible. You can create your own worlds, your own species, your own rules and laws. And yet, fantasy does have its stereotypes. And that’s okay. I find a lot of similarities between my writing and many other fantasy books I’ve read. Tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re relying on them in an attempt to box your story into a particular genre. If you’re a fantasy writer who’s struggling with eliminating stereotypes, or if you’re any kind of author who wants a fun and slightly sarcastic post to read, you may benefit from the following tropes and the possible alternatives for each.

Fixing Tropes in Fantasy Fiction - Tea with Tumnus

NOTE: proper uses of these tropes can make for a well done, unique story. Ironically.

  • I have my main character who’s burdened with glorious purpose, so let’s throw him and his friends on an epic quest to lengthen the goal achievement. If you’ve read a fantasy novel that doesn’t involve endless journeys, please comment below with the title so I can eventually read it. I feel like the epic quest and week-long treks characteristic in many fantasy books is a great way to put the adventure aspect in the story (particularly with high fantasy). It’s also another way to explore the worldbuilding the writer (hopefully) spent so much time on.
    • What if your fantasy story takes place in one unchanging setting? This setting can be totally different from the real world. Take Hogwarts, for instance. In nearly every Harry Potter book (except for the first and last one), there really were no epic journeys or quests out into the great unknown; everything happened in a castle. But not just any old castle: a school for wizards and witches, with unique worldbuilding and character/plot development.
  • Since we now have the quest going with the dwarf in tow, let’s have them take a windy path through the forest. Because there’s no such thing as rivers, lakes, mountains, or deserts in this world I’ve so creatively created. I think Tolkien set many of the tropes we have now in fantasy fiction, traveling through forests being one of them. Forests are fun, I guess. I mean, who doesn’t like trees? … And squirrels? How about 100 times larger than life sized spiders that weave you into cocoon webs while you’re sleeping? Yeah. Not that forest.
    • But what about Gandalf’s eagles? Harry’s hippogriff? Eragon’s dragon? Perhaps your characters can take the sky route by way of a large flying fancifcul animal. And, needless to say, if you do a good job with worldbuilding, you should have other landmarkes besides forests. Use rivers and lakes, either by raft or by boat. Have them hike through mountains or deserts. Maybe even by sea, if your characters are able to or have a device that allows them to breathe underwater. The Fellowship did journey through age-old mines, or did you forget about that one? Dunno why that didn’t end up in the travel stereotypes. *shrug* Moving on.
  • What does your heroine smell like? 98% guarantee it’s a particular spice and/or some sort of flower. Usually it’s cinnamon or nutmeg and daisies or buttercups. Either should do. No, really. You have to come up with a reason for why your story girls smell good in this particular way. I’m not sold when someone introduces a new girl character and randomly starts describing what she smells like the next second. That doesn’t help me understand her character except for the fact that she probably spends half of her life in the flower fields and the other half with spices in the kitchen.
    • What does your heroine do? Have her smell like whatever she’s around most of the time. It’s not a bad thing to smell like horses, if she works at the stables. Or salt water, if she surfs. And then there’s always perfume, if you’re lacking in creativity at the moment and don’t mind making your girl character one of those girls.
  • They’re fantasy characters, their lives must revolve around one magical object. The One Ring. The horcrux. The tesseract. If your characters don’t destroy, decode, or retrieve it, they will die and the whole epic quest idea from the very beginning will be all for naught.
    • What if there are no magical objects involved? Yes, supernatural items are creative and intriguing and most definitely cool, no doubt about it. But try having your story hinge on relationships; this will add more tension and help your readers relate with your story people. And then there’s the age old idea of saving the world from an evil person—don’t look at me like I just suggested the biggest trope of all tropes (okay, okay, I did).
  • He looks way more mysterious and cool when he wears a hood that coincidentally covers his whole face and yet he still manages to see everything. Yes, I’m targeting your epic rangers here. Pretty much any stealthy fantasy warriors most likely suffer from the same problem. Despite popular belief derived of meaning, wearing hoods actually doesn’t promote peripheral vision. If you’ve worn a hood before, you should have been able to notice this right away. But when your fantasy rangers wear hoods and yet somehow manage to see everything and win even when it’s a 1 to 10 ratio, I start to seriously question the realistic aspects.
    • If you have your character wear a hood that covers his face all the time, it’s good to be practical and ask these questions: how does this character see with the hood over his eyes? What does the consistent use of the hood say about his or her character? Does he or she feel safer under the hood and why? How do hoods actually help them stay hidden, and how would it serve as a hindrance when it combat Is it really so necessary to wear hoods, unless you’re trying to hide? I understand they help the character to appear intimidating and mysterious, but how about you try relating these characteristics using dialog, actions, or past and background?
  • He’s the ultimate bad guy villain. He MUST have a German accent and Nazi motives. I wouldn’t be surprised if he even has strangely arched eyebrows.schmidt gif
  • I couldn’t come up with any unique names, so I just typed random letters and inserted an apostrophe somewhere in there. I think J. R. R. Tolkien should be the only one allowed to do this, since he did it expertly and he is the first father of fantasy. Sorry, but it’s obvious when other fantasy writers attempt to imitate Lord of the Rings. Plus, to me, names with apostrophes, particularly if there are too many of them, tells me that the writer didn’t even want to think about getting creative with names.
    • Use apostrophes correctly and sparingly. Too much is simply too much. Your characters’s names may include apostrophes and hyphens, but please don’t make it part of their language. Reading a stuttered dialog is a brutal and painstaking task and writing such a dialect should be avoided.
  • I know they’re totally different species, but they still understand each other’s language perfectly. Me: “Dude, you never told me all of your characters happen to be multilingual! This is incredible! What a coincidence!” How many times, people? Too many times. This stereotype is my least favorite. It tells me that the writer was lazy and didn’t want to bother with inevitable problem of dealing with several different languages.
    • How? HOW? There needs to be an actual explanation. Douglas Adams thought this through with the Babel Fish. And the TARDIS has a translation circuit. So, unless your fantasy characters happen to be multilingual when they encounter different races, either they should bring an interpreter along with them, be native to that particular race, or simply misunderstand everything they’re saying.watson sign language.gif
  • There are no restrooms. That’s because no one has ever needed to use the restroom. Ho, no. We don’t want to ruin the moment for someone to randomly use the restroom. That would reveal how terribly mundane and mortal our fantasy characters really are. So, we solve the problem by hoping our readers assume that our characters simply don’t use the bathroom.
    • Alternative: No, there’s no alternative for this one. There’s no need to mention your character had to use the bathroom, unless your funny sidekick decides to announce it during the worst time.

And there you have it. Tropes and how to fix them. At first I decided this post would be constituted of serious writing tips, but it looks like I ended up going with my mood which, at the time, was a bit snarky. Have you read any books that handles these tropes elegantly and does a good job of using such stereotypes? Let me know! If you disagree with any of these, I challenge you to leave a sarcastic comment below. Combat me! (Cheers!)

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12 thoughts on “Fixing Tropes in Fantasy Fiction

  1. This makes me want to cry, weep and want to know why I even wrote something. 😦
    Just kidding! But in confessing, I did write a lot of the tropes when I first started due to not knowing the shifting change in time. Yes, my characters do go on epic adventures/journeys set in forests, etc. Yes, there’s an object involved (it’s in the title here https://deborahkeltywriter.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/the-guardians-of-aeron-book-1-5-facts.html). And yes, bad guy who wants to take over. With prophecies. But cheer up, I did some things slightly differently and added changes as much as I could. So I am trying. Maybe the tropes that remain might actually work out in the end. We’ll see. 😀

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    • Haha! I’m glad you weren’t serious with that first sentence. XD I don’t think most fantasy writers purposely put stereotypes in their stories, but it’s a good thing to be aware of. Don’t worry, my fantasy novel has an epic quest, a chosen one, a bad guy who wants to rule everything, and lots of forests, and that’s ok because I think I have my own unique twist on those. XD You’re certainly not alone!

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  2. i love fantasy. reading writing, listening or just thinking about it. it’s exactly what i want it to be, and i don’t mind stereotypes at all.. i believe every fantasy is unique (in a way, even if it was a version of a previous story. (no spiders for me, giant or otherwise – they give me the bibbies).

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  3. The one I’m most guilty of is the forest thing, but that’s just because I grew up running around the forest in my backyard, so that’s where all of my stories took pace. XD But alas, now that I am writing to publish, I must fix that. No lazy world building anymore!

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    • I think it’s really cool that your childhood experiences inspired you in your stories! Forest settings aren’t necessarily a bad or lazy thing, it’s just used a lot. 😀 Heck, they’re all over the place in my fantasy novel! Thanks for reading. 😀

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  4. A fantasy podcast called The Once and Future Nerd did manage to bring a toilet problem into the story really well in an early episode, same with periods and they made it funny in a non cringing way.

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  5. Great post! It’s easy to pick holes in other people’s work and say things have been done before a lot, but it’s harder to think of ways to either make the tropes interesting or get around them instead.

    You’ve done a really good job with this here, and I’ve definitely made notes for my writing to question some of my ideas and choices!

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