There are many story conventions that readers may expect when reading a fantasy novel. In an earlier article for new writers, I explained that cliches are best avoided. But there are still certain expected conventions within the fantasy genre. Some will expect magic and mythical creatures. Others will long for a world without advanced modern technology, or perhaps a heroic quest. These conventions are called tropes.
Tropes in and of themselves are not bad things. The problem arises when a writer uses a cliche. A cliche is a trope that has been overused within a genre, such as a shadowy government organisation in thrillers, or ‘the bad boy’ in paranormal romance. In this article I will explain the fantasy cliches and ways you may be able to twist or completely avoid them.
Character Cliches to Avoid
The Chosen One
This is by far one of the top fantasy cliches to avoid, as it is the most common. It is often paired up with a great and terrifying prophecy of some sort. One way I’ve seen it subverted is by adding multiple Chosen Ones, as in Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series and Jenn Lyons’ A Chorus of Dragons series. Another way is for the prophecy to simply be wrong. Perhaps it was spoken by a false oracle, and people mistook it for truth. Finally, the prophecy could be about a different character. If this is the case, the true Chosen One will likely have to be a supporting character so that the readers don’t see the twist coming.
There is no true way to subvert this trope. You are either an orphan or you are not. Having said that, most orphans in books I have read are miserable. I know there’s nothing happy about losing both parents, but many authors take this a step further by continuing to abuse their protagonists at the hands of strangers, and even at times other relatives. Is there a rule that says all orphans have to be haunted and abused? Perhaps your orphaned hero was raised by their parent’s best friend, or some kind relative. It may not completely fix the hole in your character’s heart, but it is a step in making your orphan a little different from the likes of Harry Potter.
The Dark Lord
Paired together with the theme of black and white morality, The Dark Lord or at times the Evil Queen is by far one of the most common fantasy cliches in the High Fantasy subgenre. Villains like Kronos from Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty embody true evil. They want complete supremacy over the lands they rule and they will go to any lengths to keep it. Everything about them often further highlights how truly wicked they are, such as their hideous facade, their dark lair, and their dark apparel.
If you want to keep your dark Dark Lord or Evil Queen, my suggestion is don’t make them too obvious. Make them look normal, but perhaps not too beautiful either. Give them a kingdom that doesn’t scream ‘dark realm’, with architecture that doesn’t look gothic. Perhaps even give them a backstory explaining how they became the way they are.
Worldbuilding Cliches to Avoid
For better or for worse, fantasy novels containing worlds resembling medieval Europe have become a staple of the genre. It is one of the hardest fantasy cliches to avoid for many who have grown up in the Western world, because it is part of what is taught from a young age in History class. Thus, it becomes a comfort zone. But that doesn’t have to be how your story goes. To avoid this cliche, consider exploring cultures outside of Europe. There are rich recorded histories of medieval Asia, for example. Another idea is to explore periods outside of the medieval era. There are many you could choose from, including:
- Classical Greece
- Ancient Mesopotamia
- Ancient Egypt
- Pre-independent America
- The Roaring Twenties
- The Swinging Sixties
- Present Day
Stereotypical Fantasy Races
As we all know, elves are tall, slim, fair haired and beautiful. They have pointy ears and love nature. Faeries are deceptive and cunning and mistrust humans. Trolls are hideous and violent. I could go on. The point is, you’ve heard of many of these creatures, and you know what they’re like already. While some readers may find the familiar comforting, many will yawn and likely pick up something else if you include one-dimensional races with no nuance. Am I telling you that you have to avoid elves and faeries and trolls? Not necessarily.
In order to make your fantasy races intriguing, don’t make them homogeneous. You can do this by dividing them into tribes or clans and give each one different defining elements. In popular mythology, faeries are divided into Seelie and Unseelie, but you could go further with this. Melissa Marr completely avoids this dual division in her Wicked Lovely series by creating her own faery courts: the High Court, the Dark Court, the Winter Court and the Summer Court. Sarah J Maas does something similar in her A Court of Thorns and Roses series with the Day Court, the Night Court, the Dawn Court, Summer Court, the Autumn Court, the Winter Court and the Spring Court.
Another way to completely avoid this cliche is by creating your own fantasy races. Jenn Lyons does a great job of this in her A Chorus of Dragons series, particularly with the vané, an almost elven-like race famed for their magical skill, prowess in battle and their beauty.