Updated: Nov 18
Years ago, I started noticing an alarming trend in fantasy. As one of my English professors commented when we were discussing it:
"It's been SO hard for fantasy to escape the shadow of Tolkien."
My experience bears this out. I've seen so many of the same tropes used in near-identical ways that I almost can't stand to read fantasy anymore. It all sounds the same. Argh!
Fortunately, there's a solution to this problem. Part of it is these eight things that fantasy writers need to quit doing. Right now.
A protagonist who is the "Chosen One," especially one foretold by prophecy. Not only is this overused, but it often forces the protagonist into events instead of allowing the protagonist to choose whether to get involved. While it can be interesting to see a character figure out and embrace an assigned, even mythical role, a protagonist is much more compelling when they believe in something enough to willingly take risks for it, even when they're not obligated to.
A protagonist who sets off on an adventure because the bad guys destroy his/her hometown and/or family. Again, terribly, terribly overused. There are plenty of ways to get a protagonist on the (literal or figurative) path of adventure without burning towns or killing off relatives. Besides, such a catalyst is going to leave the protagonist with serious emotional trauma. Real people don't just forget about or magically recover from traumatic experiences, and neither should our characters. Grief also does a number on the physical and emotional stamina needed for adventuring, so realistically, a protagonist who's lost everything would struggle for a while just to find their footing again, let alone drive the story.
An evil-sorcerer antagonist. From Emperor Palpatine to Saruman to Voldemort, this one is really getting old. (Oops—despite the ages of most of these characters, no pun intended.) We need fantasy antagonists who are a threat for reasons other than terrifying supernatural abilities, especially if the hero of the story is . . .
A teenage/young-adult protagonist who has to learn to use magic (or whatever the equivalent is in your story world). Why is magic always the answer? And of all the people who do not need to wield powers that could literally destroy worlds, I think impulsive, moody, almost-adult-in-stature-but-definitely-not-in-wisdom young humans (or whatever species) are near the top of that list. Of course, there are exceptions, but there's a reason insurance rates are so high for teenage drivers in our world.
Elves, dwarfs, and other stereotypical fantasy creatures/races. There's nothing wrong per se with using these tropes. The problem is that everyone seems to write the resulting characters in the exact same way. Dwarfs are grumpy miners and craftsmen; elves are wise but aloof philosophers; humans are reckless and emotional compared to everyone else. Instead of following these well-worn literary paths, try bringing in more-obscure mythological creatures, such as selkies or tengu, or giving a standard race/creature an unusual quirk. Maybe elves are not only philosophical but also high-strung and therefore not much use in battle. Maybe dragons are the raccoons/pack rats/magpies of the story world: annoying but not terribly dangerous unless they're sick or you surprise them in the middle of their mischief.
Named and/or magic swords. If I see one more of these things . . . 😣 Sometimes a weapon is just a weapon. It doesn't need a name or special properties to do what it's made to do. Also, why always swords? Something like a halberd, crossbow, or other longer-range weapon would make a nice change of pace—and would be more practical in many contexts. But if you can't bear leaving a weapon anonymous, shake things up by giving it a completely ordinary name, the way people IRL sometimes affectionately name inanimate objects. E.g., my fifth-grade science teacher had a model skeleton named Bob, and every car my dad drives is dubbed Nelly. This twist could make a good character moment for a snarky protagonist who thinks it's ridiculous to name a sword but has companions who insist on it.
Unnecessary diacritics. Names don't need a mark over every other vowel to sound foreign or unique! We're writing in English, after all—we of all people should know that spelling isn't necessarily a good guide to pronunciation. And at the end of the day, most readers do their reading silently, so does it really matter if they know the precise pronunciation of your characters' names?
Medieval-Europe-esque settings. I suspect this is a big contributing factor to problems like #5 and #6. These settings can work wonderfully if executed well, as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, fantasy authors rarely even attempt to use any other setting! But series like Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and Percy Jackson prove that fantasy can work just as well when set in other times and places.
Okay. All these tropes are pretty engrained in fantasy, so if we don't use them, what should we use instead? Stay tuned for more ideas later this week!
P.S. This isn't to say that you should never do any of these things in a fantasy story. However, they've been so overused that I strongly encourage you to avoid them. We writers are always up for a challenge, aren't we?