Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Five Fantasy Tropes That Should Be Consigned to History by Marc. J. Turner

As an author, you need to be careful when talking about fantasy tropes. If I were to make an exhaustive list of tropes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single book in the genre that didn’t contain at least one of them. Most would contain several – but not my own, of course.


Obviously, not all tropes are “bad”. If we define a trope as being a significant or recurrent theme in the genre, then you’d have to include dragons in that, wouldn’t you? And I, for one, will never tire of dragons. You might even find one or two lurking in my new book Dragon Hunters.

Also, a good writer can do something new with a trope and keep it interesting. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of wizard schools I’ve seen. There were three alone on my walk into town this morning. Yet I enjoyed reading about the University in Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Any trope can be made to work if the execution is good.

Having said that, here are five tropes that I’d be happy never to see again. (Please note, I’m not suggesting that any book that contains these tropes is “bad” or “unimaginative”; I’m simply saying that I would be less inclined to read it.)

1. Prophecies

When I was a teen, it seemed every other fantasy book I read featured a prophecy. You know the sort of thing: “The Chosen One will claim the Sword of Light and defeat the Dark Lord”, or “Upon the death of three kings, the world will be plunged into Chaos”. Now maybe it’s just me, but if I foresaw the precise set of circumstances that would bring about the end of all things, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to share it with the world. You can guarantee that somewhere a Dark Lord is listening in and saying, “Well, that is interesting.”

And why is it that whoever makes these prophecies never sees clearly enough to be able to provide a complete picture? It’s never an entirely useful prophecy. There’s always room for misinterpretation so the author can throw in a twist at the end.

Plus, there’s so much scope for abuse, it’s a wonder the bad guys don’t have fun with prophecies more often. “Ah, yes, paradise on earth is just one step away. All you have to do is destroy that kingdom over there. What’s that you say? If you attack, you’ll leave your border with my Evil Empire undefended? Purely a coincidence, I assure you.” *Whistles innocently*

2. The Chosen One

In fantasy books the protagonist often begins life as Mr A.N.Other, minding his own business in some nowhere village doing nothing in particular. Then we discover that he is the son of a king or a powerful wizard or warrior, and suddenly he is able to take on the world, no training required. Or if there is training, the author presses the fast forward button on the process, and our protagonist learns in a year what it would take others a lifetime to master.

And the transformation in our hero doesn’t end there. He has spent his formative years as a farm boy or a swineherd, yet for some reason that has prepared him perfectly for the demands of running a kingdom. When he rises to the throne, everyone lives happily ever after. There seems to be a sub-text in these books that in order to stop the world slipping into chaos, all you have to do is put the “right” person in charge. It’s as if the natural order is somehow disturbed if there isn’t a man or a woman ruling everything. Whereas in reality we don’t have to look too far in our own world for examples of where putting all the power in the hands of one person isn’t necessarily a good idea.

3. The Older Mentor

Obviously there’s nothing wrong in itself with having an older mentor helping a young hero. It can, though, give rise to some amusing results. Sometimes the “older” mentor isn’t much older than the protagonist, and you end up with the strange position where the mentor spends an age training someone else to do a job she could have done herself in half the time.

Also, the mentor only ever shares her wisdom when she is ready to do so. Occasionally the protagonist is told “you are not ready for this information” – which is really the author’s way of saying “I’m not ready to give you this information”. Or we are told there is no time to pass on the information, before the protagonist embarks on a multi-book quest that spans years and continents. Opportunity in all that, surely, for a quick heads-up that Darth Vader is your father.

As for the chances of the older mentor dying before the end of the story . . . Well, let’s just say the bookmakers have stopped taking bets on that already.

4. One size fits all

Earth has about two hundred states, and thousands of different ethnicities. You’d have to go a long way to find two people who are alike in every respect, and who agree on everything. In fantasy, though, you can sometimes find whole nations – or even whole worlds – of people who are exactly the same. Everyone is wise and graceful, or everyone is a fierce and bloodthirsty warrior.

This sweeping generalization fits in well with the black and white nature of some fantasy worlds. The protagonist and her friends are good, the antagonist and his minions are bad, and there is nothing in between. Consider orcs. In a sense these are “easy” enemies, because they are so obviously evil. There is no reasoning with them, which means our noble heroine never has to think twice before she lays into them with her sword. I prefer to see shades of grey, both in the characters and in the worldbuilding.

5. Names

There was a time when it seemed every fantasy map featured a host of unpronounceable names that began with X or Z, and contained precisely zero vowels. And if you could slip in a few apostrophes too, then all the be’tt’er better. I have to admit, I have sympathy with the makers of those maps. Finding names that no one objects to can be tricky. For example, some people don’t like names containing the word “of” (River of Blood, Sea of Storms).

Anyone complaining about the names on a fantasy map, though, should take a moment to glance through their real-world atlas. The Black Sea, the Red Sea, the Yellow Sea. No prizes for originality there. It’s the same with countries. You can imagine the explorers sailing in to a new island they’ve just discovered and saying, “So, I guess we should give this place a name. Any ideas?” “Um. Well, I can see some ice over there, so Ice … land?”

Job done. Handshakes all round


  1. I'm glad to see that your efforts have already eliminated the fifth overused trope, though effacing it from our common memory might make it harder to guard against in the future.

  2. Now I'm happy that I said something, because #5's a good one.

    I'm quite fond of the map (rendered by Michael Frith, I think) of The Stye, from Beard & Kenney's Bored of the Rings, including Lümbar, The Bay of Milhous, the Isles of Langerhans, the Flat Mountains, and The X-Shaped Forest. Now, that's fantasy!

  3. I've heard tell that iceland and Greenland were actually so named so as to deceive other explorers as to which one was worth visiting and living on. (Not sure how true it is, but it also fits the Norse attitude wherein Olaf the Mighty is probably one of the skinnier dudes.) Not imaginative names, but still not quite as simple as "Hey, look, ice!"

  4. I believe the guy who named "Greenland" was trying to get people to follow him into settling the place.