Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Top Ten Classic Fantasy Tropes

Statement of the obvious: I love fantasy. I'm an escapist at heart, and there's no quicker way to ensure my enternal gratitude than to give me a fantastic new series to read during one of my down moments. You won't see me for days afterward, but you'll know I'm happy as larry.

And I'm not alone - fantasy is a hugely popular genre, from sweeping high epics like Lord of the Rings,  the Song of Ice and Fire Saga and Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, to more urban fantasy like the Shadowhunter books (has anyone else seen that movie trailer for City of Bones yet? Eeeee!)

However, being the huge genre that it is, fantasy books often get a lot of stick for being repetitive and unoriginal. In some cases, I'd say that was fair enough - I nearly spat nails at a librarian once when I found a book that was the most terrible Tolkein rip-off imaginable on the "recommended" shelf.

Sometimes, though, there's a reason a certain event or character archetype has survived to be re-used as much as it has.

These are my personal top ten favourite classic tropes from fantasy.

- Don't Point That Thing At Me!
I know, I know, most every hero of fantasy under the sun is running around with a magic sword, staff or talking stick, but they're just so exciting! There's so much room for variation, and sometimes the weapon is so fascinating you'd want to bite your arm off for one of your own. I might mention Eragon's sword Brisingr as an example. Say what you like about the series - I want a sword that spits fire, dangit!

- Two's Company . . .
If Frodo Baggins is everyone's favourite character in Lord of the Rings, then I'm a cream cracker. Fellowships, as well as being practical and realistic setups for long-distance quest stories, are fantastic ways of introducing a wide variety of characters to your readers. Their interactions, relationships and development with regard to one another is fascinating to watch, as well as providing a good basis for plot points that give everyone a bit of attention, rather than having the whole story monopolised by one particular character. 

- Here Be Dragons
I don't care if they're over used. It's dragons. Whether they're friendly companions or terrifying enemies, you just can't beat a well-done dragon to add that little spice of the epic to a story.

- Forests
I may spend a good majority of my time shrieking at the characters not to go into the suspiciously dark and scary woodland, but that doesn't mean I don't love the places. Forests are highly atmospheric environments, and depending on your presentation they can be havnens, hells, or simply horrible messes for the idiot character who let their horse eat the map. Scary music optional.

- Mythic Races
Elves and dwarves probably spring to mind first in this category, but there are endless lists of possible mythic races that can populate fantasy. Humanoids are popular, especially, as their intelligence level heightens their effectiveness as both foe, friend, and confused bystander. They don't even have to play a major role in the story to make it interesting - simply having another culture in a world adds new dynamics of realism, especially if your story takes place on a fairly large scale. Worldbuilders like me will also have a great time developing their historical and cultural background, as well as customising their appearances.

- Magic And Mayhem
Fantasy and magic have gone hand-in-glove since the very earliest examples. We've seen spins on it that range from Harry Potter to The Name of the Wind and back again. So much flexibility. So much use as a plot point or character feature. So much potential for carnage.

- The Big Bad
Grey-area villains are my personal preference, but even I'm willing to admit that a Big Bad Nasty is sometimes one of my favourite parts of a classic fantasy. C. S. Lewis used his White Witch to create a powerful analogy of goodness vs evil in the religious sense, but even secular writers can utilise the power and potential of a character completely devoid of humanity to their fullest effect. Being able to shoot lightning from a long distance is one thing. Being able to do it without feeling anything is quite another.

- Looking The Part
What I wouldn't give for my very own set of armour. Especially if it's of the incredibly detailed and fantastical ilk so popular in fantasy. Aesthetics can vary in degrees of importance from story to story, but there's no better way to get your character to look the part than putting them in the right clothes. If you're going to go and fight a war, you may as well look epic while you do it.

- Cut To The Chase!
It's not terribly realistic, but if I wanted to read a book that documented the characters' morning routines and other neccessary functions, I wouldn't be in the fantasy section. Skimming over mundanities that can sometimes bog down the finer points of other genres, fantasy has a wonderful way of keeping to a minimum on things that don't really further the story, such as the need to scoot off behind a bush every now and again. Who needs berry-picking when there's pixies trying to make off with your boots!

- Forsooth! Alas! Sey Wot?
I may be alone on this, but to me, characters in fantasy often use a greater variety of language than characters from genres more grounded in reality. From swearing by different gods through to occasional use of archaics, language freaks like me can happily lose themselves in some pretty glorious dialogue. Tolkein, I feel, was a master of this (which, I won't lie, is probably one of the few reasons I dragged myself through the Tom Bombadil scenes in The Fellowship Of the Ring).

Of course, I'm not saying that every fantasy book has to contain these to be a good one, and nor am I saying that these things are good intrinsically. I would argue, however, that the genre would be a poorer place without them!

What about all of you? I know there's a good number of fantasy afficionados among you. What are YOUR favourite things about classic fantasy? Do you agree with what I've said here? Or am I barking up the wrong tree entirely?

~ Charley R


  1. Hoom, hrm. I especially agree with the forests. ;)

    1. I concur. Especially if they have exciting things in them. Like ents. And man-eating pixies xD

  2. So I'm madly trying to finish the trilogy before the 14th... the forest that suddenly grew outside Helm's Deep is the Ents, isn't it? :D

    I prefer the cheese-eating pixies, myself. Much cuter. And you're not as likely to end up without a leg that way.

    1. I suspecteth so. It's been a long time since I read the books *sigh*

      I like the man-eating variety. Much more fun to set on the characters!

    2. Yes, that is the Ents.... *grins*

  3. I love fantasies with swords and dragons. They are my favourite. Fun re-telling of classic fairy tales are fun as well. I've read a few good ones of those.

    1. Ah, the good ol' retelling. I've never been quite as keen on those - I like original plots, I guess, because I can't always guess how they're going to end. A well-done retelling never goes amiss though!

  4. He he, Have I made you an Anne McCaffrey fan? *grins*

    I actually found a book all about the best done Dragons, anne Mccaffrey is in there... along with, gah! the books whose names I can't remember - about the pit fighting dragons with the one that ends up being able to communicate with his boy via colors..... *Knuckles forehead* anyway they are in there, along with, I believe, the Earth Sea Dragons - but I need to read it through.

    I think I'm also a vocab fan, at least I have tones of fun thinking up ways people would swear or exclaim (COWS! *giggles*). Lots of fun. :}

    1. Oh yes, I am an enormous McCaffrey fan now. Was never so keen on the Earthsea books - none of the protagonists in the stories I read were ever very interesting - but the one about the pit fighting sounds fascinating!

      "COWS!" - that line will stay with me until I die. As I said: best. Exclamation. Ever.

  5. Wow, I LOVED this post. Probably because I'm a fantasy writer and you hit the nail on the head. I especially loved it how you said cliches can be used, and doing so it's ALWAYS the sin-of-the-century. Fantasy is known for creepy forests and man eating pixies (you're right, they're better that way). It just HAS to be that way. Mind you...I don't have a lot of those things on your list in my books. But I'm not writing traditional fantasy. I'm trying to mix a bit of horror/dark into the medievalness. See how it turns out, eh?

    1. Well done to you for branching out! I am referring mostly to "classic" fantasy here, meaning the old-style quest epics and such, but as you said, these things can go anywhere, and just because they're old doesn't mean they aren't still useful.

      Glad you loved the post :)

    2. I don't know... I think Cait hit some of those points... creepy forests, humanoid creatures, multiple characters... :) That sort of thing...

      I had to agree with most of those points. Fantasy's cool. :) The only cliche that gets me is the giant spiders. What is it with the giant spider?! Just because it's everyone's horror... :)

  6. Hic sunt dracones.

    That means here there be dragons in Latin. Awesomeness incarnate.

    You did forget a few things, such as the ever-present fantasy prologue that we see in Star Wars, Game of Thrones (the prologue for which was the only thing I was able to read before the book was ripped away from me), Lord of the Rings (the movies, at least), and millions more. The prologue is incredibly useful in telling readers that this is what the story is mostly about, not the quaint village life Eragon has in the beginning. But it's almost boring when we realize that it's been used so often.

    I don't know about swords and cool armor and everything-- I just want to manipulate fire.

    1. Ah, prologues, of course. I don't like them very much, hence why I didn't put them on the list - it is a personal list, for all I'm arrogantly objective on it. I find them . . . pointless, sometimes. And often they've got very little to do with the actual story, save in a few cases.

      Fair enough. I just know I'd make a terrible mess in any fantasy situation, but I want to look awesome while I do it.

  7. Awesome post! Thanks so much! It was super helpful, especially since I am writing my first fantasy novel at the moment. I have almost all of your points (yay)! Thanks again!!!!! I really love reading your blog when you put things like this up! It is AWESOME!!! (I love reading it all the time, I mean, but these posts are incredible!!!)

    1. Oh wow! Going in for a real classical feel, eh? I'm not saying these things are ESSENTIAL, of course, but if they've helped you then I'm happy too!

      N'aww, you flatter me ridiculously. I'm very glad you like them. :)

  8. NO DISSING BOMBADIL OR I'LL SET THOSE PENGUINS ON YOU. (You know, the ones you threatened me with on the envelope of my Christmas card which I haven't dared to open yet.)

    "Worldbuilders like me will also have a great time developing their historical and cultural background, as well as customising their appearances."
    Ha ha. Ha. Ha.
    You need to see my current document, which doesn't only cover EVERYTHING about the fairy world I can think of - or will when I'm finished - but also has the life story of every character. Ever.

  9. Magic, mythical races and strange creatures definitely do it for me! I mean, magic has such a wide range, from the Deep Magic in Narnia to the amazing Adept and Elementary stuff in Skulduggery Pleasant to EXPELLIAMUS!! And fantasy beings/animals are brilliant. Why would anyone want to NOT include a centaur in their story?! XD XD