Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Flipping Fantasy Tropes

I read a lot of Fantasy. I love the rich worldbuilding. I love magic. I love fantastical creatures. The ultimate pleasure is disappearing into a rich, enchanting, new world with memorable characters.

We are tackling tropes on the Blood Red Pencil this month, so I wanted to touch on a few troublesome, perhaps trite, Fantasy tropes and suggest ways to change them.

1. The Chosen One

In a sense, the Protagonist is always the "chosen one." The protagonist is the character who ultimately solves the overall story problem. That said, they don't literally have to be "chosen" or "destined." They may just have the right skills, knowledge, or determination to win the day. I liked the character Kaz Brekker in Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows because he wasn't a "chosen one." She left that up to Alina in the Shadow and Bone series. Kaz was motivated to overcome adversity because of a rough childhood. He wasn't "perfect" or infallible. He was highly motivated and extremely clever.

2. Beauty and Perfection

I may be in the minority on this, but I am thoroughly sick of heroines and heroes who are perfect, the most beautiful, the best, etc. If I read the word "hot" one more time, I will not be responsible for what happens to the book's pages. I tried to read a book recently that had the word "hot" thirty-two times in the first chapter. Can we please have average or interesting looking people as heroes? Perhaps shift the focus of character description from beauty to personality traits, the way they walk, talk, act? What makes your characters unique? I will again refer to Bardugo's Ketterdam world in Six of Crows. There are so many fascinating characters that are not "hot" or "perfect."

3. The Dark Lord

This character is often called "the Dark Lord" or "the Dark Prince." He is usually, well, dark and usually a prince (or pretending to be one). He (or she) has dark hair, dark eyes, and dark clothing. Change it up a bit. Make him a ginger who likes outlandish clothing as a disguise or something. There is also a difference between being a cruel psychopath and someone who is motivated by things that happened in the past. Stoicism and depth are stronger than being completely evil. Whether protagonist or antagonist, the Dark Lord should be interesting as well as having complex motivations. 

4.  Insta-Power

A lowly street urchin becomes a badass warrior in a matter of days or weeks. Granted, if your characters have untapped magical powers, they will need to learn how to use them to save the day at the climactic moment. They don't, however, have to be the most physically adept character or the most powerful fighter. They can delegate some of the nitty gritty and be the one who moves the chess pieces around with their incisive intellect. If they have a talented team, they can work together to overcome the antagonist and his minions. Everyone should have an exploitable weakness. It doesn't make sense that a character who has magical abilities did not manifest them before they arrive on the scene unless your rules of magic require that they come into contact with something, reach a specific day and time, have their powers unlocked by something, etc. Make sure you craft believable rules of magic.

5. Insta-Love

Love at first sight is a Romance trope which is also used in Fantasy. Two characters meet, are instantly infatuated, and are soul mates forever. As with Romance, I would like to see more believable relationship building. Lust may be instant, but love takes building trust and finding commonalities. It requires communication, not just sex. What elements make one character admire another? We can dispense with "hotness" and "I know he is bad, but I love him." You can care for broken people while they do the work to heal, but not cure them with sex. People bond over shared narratives, joint interests, past experiences, and preferences. Allow the relationship to build as the story progresses instead of making them instantly joined at the hip. I will use Leigh Bardugo's worldbuilding to suggest an alternative. In the Grishaverse, which features in both series (Six of Crows, Shadow and Bone), there is a secondary character, Nina, who is being held prisoner by a guard named Matthias. The two of them travel together and must fight together. Despite their extreme differences, Matthias hates magical people, they overcome them in a believable way as the stories progress. What if your "destined" lovers really don't like each other and definitely don't want to "merge?"

6. Gratuitous Sex Scenes

Your characters have just been beaten to a pulp, cut with swords, stitched up, had one hour of sleep and no food, but succumb to insatiable lust anyway. Seriously? Have you ever been injured or had surgery? Sex is the last thing on your mind. Look, even if your characters are magical and have instant healing powers, it would take a while before they felt like performing the ridiculous calisthenics some writers put them through. Make sure your characters have recovered sufficiently from trauma before getting it on. There are other ways to bond than sex. Build up to the act if you must use it. Show the characters feeling desire. It is the longing not the culmination that brings tension to the story. 

7. Rape

Which brings me to the final trope. I would like to see this one die. Rape is a legitimate evil we need to fight in the real world. It sadly happens every hour somewhere across the globe, perhaps every minute. However, I think we should stop utilizing rape scenes in stories, especially graphic scenes. Writers are putting millions of images in people's minds in fiction and film. One could argue verisimilitude, but I argue blow by blow descriptions perpetuates and glorifies the act. I truly hate when writers have a character raped but soon after having sex with her Insta-Lover. Rape is traumatic. It causes PTSD. Your story does not need it.

The wonderful thing about Fantasy is: the only limits are your imagination. Find ways to make your story different. There is a huge fan base waiting for your books. That is the only "Insta-Love" I support.

I have a few mini-courses that can help develop your Fantasy novel.

Mastering Fantasy

Mastering Worldbuilding

Mastering Romance

Mastering Character Development

Posted by Diana Hurwitz, author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Love, love, love this post, Diana. What you say about the fantasy tropes can apply to many other genres, minus the magic. LOL I'm so tired of the word "hot" in any story to describe a character at first glance. Could there be something else that gets a person's attention when meeting someone else? And even if there is an immediate physical attraction could that be conveyed without the crutch word of "hot." Granted, that takes work, but that's why writing is a profession and not a hobby.

    And the dark evil one. Presenting the villain all in black is a trope from film when characters had to be recognized by viewers as either good or bad. Hence the white hat and black hat. But that kind of instant recognition isn't that necessary anymore. I think the slow reveal of a bad guy is more intriguing.

  2. I agree with Maryann's comment. As you noted, Diana, a fresh, unique way of describing a person, place, thing, or emotion allows the reader to step into a scene rather than jumping over the same ol', same ol' trope that adds nothing new to the story. This is a keeper.

  3. I'm so with you on these, Diana. I'll share a review next week of a book that flips The Dark Lord trope very humorously. :-)


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