Fantasy clichés… Yeah… Time to get ready for some anger! More annoyance than anger really, but anger sounds better! I want to talk about the things in fantasy that annoy me. General things in Epic Fantasy that just irk me.
I’ll focus mainly on fantasy clichés because they are the most abused and misused component in fiction. Sure they can be fine to use every now and then, if done with enough skill. Unfortunately, very few people ever have that skill. So let’s look at some of my personal pet peeves when it comes to the genre of Fantasy, shall we?
***Pro Tip: I have a few lists of clichés linked in my “Fantasy World-Builder’s Resource Guide“. Check it out if you want to avoid these (and many more) mistakes.***
Hoo boy, we’re off to a good start! You generally find this in amateur fantasy so luckily it isn’t a hugely prevalent problem. This fantasy cliché takes the form of highly elaborate names for characters. Whether the character is human or elf, or whatever, you’ll find some weird Frankenstein-esque name. Made of many different, un-matching parts stitched together by apostrophes…
Stop! Please stop! For the love of all that is good and pure in this world, stop it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with mono or bi-syllabic names! We don’t need names with more than two syllables. In fact, I rarely actually read names like that. I find it easier to just skip over the word. And guess what? So do most of your readers!
Look, if you have a character from a strange culture, you’re more than welcome to give them an odd name. In fact, for the sake of diversity, I encourage it. But don’t expect me to fully read out a name like “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok” every god damn time… Because I won’t. And it’ll bring me one step closer to putting that book down every time I see it on the page. Want an example of names done right in fantasy? Read the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. That’s how it’s done.
2. The Chosen One
Ah yes… This… God I hate this fantasy cliché. You have a hero. You have a prophecy. You have something threatening the continued existence of the world as we know it. Combine it all in a big melting pot and what do you get? That’s right, a steaming pile of crap.
Please stop doing this. Unless you’re exceptionally talented like J.K. Rowling, you cannot pull it off. I won’t elaborate too much on it further. Just please stop. It’s over-used. It robs the plot of its tension. It’s boring.
3. Different Races
Ok so this is more of a trope than a fantasy cliché… Is it a trope? *checks notes* This is a recipe for soup. *Chucks notes away* Regardless, I don’t like it. And it’s not because I dislike the races or the concept of different races. It’s because of how some authors use it.
Think about it. The most common race to use is the elven race. Now you could have humans and elves in your story without a doubt. And you could have them be unique and distinct from each other, sure. But what happens most of the time? The humans worship one god and the elves worship another. The humans have their king and the elves have theirs. The humans have their citadel, and the elves have theirs. What is missing here?
Variety people! There’s no variety! You’re telling me that the elves (the same goes for the humans, but let’s focus on the pointy-eared bastards for now) have only a single civilisation and religion? A whole race has one god and nation? Not even real-life humans have been able to achieve that!
That’s my problem. Lack of diversity. Unless you’re going to have multiple nations, cities, religions, etc. within each race, don’t put them in. Seriously…
4. Over / Under-description
Okay, so I will admit that this has nothing to do with any particular genre necessarily, but I’m throwing it in because why not! So this isn’t a fantasy cliché, but I have noticed it in a lot of fantasy. Basically the author either describes every falling leaf, or the author describes so little that you can barely picture the characters or even the setting.
If you want an example of over-describing, look no further than J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. I’m not a hater of his work in particular. I really enjoyed the story, but god was it a pain to get through. I’m probably going to get a lot of hate for this, but such is life. Tolkien’s tendency to tell you the history of every damn tree the heroes passed really annoyed me (an exaggeration, I know, but bear with me). There’s nothing wrong with world-building. There’s nothing wrong with having a rich and detailed world for your story. But there is a fine line between giving backstory and info-dumping, and Tolkien crossed it. No, he practically lived on the other side. Other than that, his work is a masterpiece and should be revered as such (however nothing is exempt from criticism).
The next one is the one that irks me more. Under-describing in your writing. Lewis Carroll is a prime example, but his work isn’t that bad. There is another, more recent author that has grown in popularity despite this (in my opinion) flaw in her writing. Fantasy author who under-describes in her books to the point of absurdity? You might know who I’m talking about. That’s right, I’m looking at you Trudi Canavan! Now I have no problem with her stories. I quite enjoyed what I read of them. But her lack of description is so glaring that I can barely stand reading more than a chapter at a time. Some would call this minimalist. I call it lazy, but hey, that’s just my opinion.
If you want an example of an author who has top-notch narrative and description, look no further than Cassandra Clare. I only recently discovered her work, but I must say that her style is on point!
5.The Magical School/Academy
I went on for quite a while on the previous one, so let me keep this one very brief. This is basically the premise of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. A story focussing on a student within a magical school.
Nothing wrong with the idea, and it can be excellent when executed properly. Unfortunately it rarely is. Over-done and boring…
6. The Common Tongue
By the gods, this one pisses me off too. Unfortunately most authors who’s work I enjoy tend to use this. Instead of just thinking of a name for a language, they make their characters speak “the common tongue”.
Usually “the common tongue” is just the default language that everybody speaks unless they are a barbaric or exotic civilisation. Take A Song Of Ice And Fire for example. Most of Westeros speaks the “common tongue”. A kingdom of previously fractured and splintered kingdoms (most of which have their own cultures) all speak the same language? Sure there isn’t a huge problem with that, but wouldn’t it have felt more organic for them to speak at least different dialects? But let’s leave George R.R. Martin alone before the horde of fans utterly devour me.
This one is probably a little unfair, but it really annoys me when I see a lack of language diversity in stories where it makes sense for there to be variety. It annoys me more when I not only have to deal with them speaking the same language, but also them only calling it “the common tongue”.
There’s a reason we still call English by its name and not “the common tongue” (despite how common it is). When the English met people of other cultures for the first time, it made sense to name your language in order to begin communication. Calling yours “the common tongue” makes no sense when you interact with other civilisations. It is then, by definition, no longer common… I guess I’ve gone on about a single point for long enough. Moving on!
7. “The Dark Lord”
This is a major fantasy cliché that many new writers use without realising just how bad it is. A “dark lord” who likes to show off their power by unnecessarily killing their servants for the most minor accidents. They wake up every morning exclaiming, “How shall I display my wicked evil-ness today?”
Stop. Please stop. Let me explain something real quick. Nobody believes that they are an evil person unless riddled with guilt over past wrongdoings (and even then, the guilt proves that they aren’t wholly evil). Lord Voldemort? He believed that what he was doing was to the benefit of all Wizards and Witches (he didn’t consider muggle-borns to be true Witches and Wizards, which is why he treated them like that). Hitler? He believed he was doing the world a favour by killing off the Jews and attempting to usher in a single, superior race along with a one-world-government. Bad guys are only seen as bad by the people working against them.
This is why I never understood why Voldemort would allow people to call him “The Dark Lord” (unless he was going through an emo phase). It would have made more sense if he had reprimanded them for slandering his name, but in all fairness he was one twisted sonofabitch, so I guess I can’t criticise it too harshly.
So I’ll be brief again because this article has already gone on for a lot longer than I originally intended. This fantasy cliché goes like this: the protagonist is orphaned and was raised by another family member or a farmer or a blacksmith or a [insert generic medieval profession here].
I can see the appeal. It’s much easier to have a protagonist do whatever they want when they don’t have family weighing them down. Unfortunately this has become the “go-to” option. I won’t lie. I’ve been guilty of this myself. However, I learned from it. Please don’t go the “orphan route”. It’s lazy and unoriginal.
9. Unlimited Magic
If you’re a fan of magic in fantasy, like me, then you could easily fall for this cliché. The problem is not that you have magic, but rather that you have no limitations on magic. Harry Potter was all about magic, but even J.K. Rowling was able to think up some limitations: you need formal education and training, you need a wand, you need a certain amount of skill, and you even needed to be over 17 years old in order to do it without being tracked by the Ministry.
Your magic needs rules, regulations and laws (not judicial, more like laws on how it functions). You cannot have unlimited magic. It eliminates any conflict in your story, because “Why can’t they just fix their problem with magic?” will become the regularly asked question. Just do yourself a favour and steer clear of this fantasy cliché. Your story will thank you for it.
So here is a very short list of a few minor grievances that don’t need their own heading, but still warrant a mention.
Hay Bales: Fantasy story with a scene on a farm or in a barn? Remember that the Hay-Baler was not a medieval invention. Unless you go to great lengths to develop magical methods of baling hay (in which case, I must ask: Why?).
Stew: It can take ages to make a good stew over a campfire. This makes it a very poor choice as travel-food. Also it takes up more space to carry all the ingredients and equipment you would need to make it. Note that this usually only applies to small groups or individual travellers.
The Wise Old Mentor: A cliché so overused and old that it doesn’t even warrant spending a whole paragraph on it. Just avoid it.
Doomsday Weapons: Another age-old fantasy cliché. Avoid artefacts that could destroy (or even save) the world. Over-done and lazy. Blegh…
Friendly Dragons: This could cause a lot of backlash, but it must be mentioned. I don’t like friendly dragons. Dragons, in my humble opinion, should be vicious creatures that would sooner tear your face of than look at you (though they might be tamed from a young age with lots of effort). And even if you give them human-level intelligence, remember that these are immensely powerful creatures (usually). They have no reason to be nice to humans whatsoever. We’d be like ants to them.
Alright so this article went way longer than I thought it would, but it felt good to get all of that off of my chest. If you have any clichés, tropes, conventions in fantasy, etc. that you can’t stand, let me know in the comments!