Tuesday, 12 October 2021

5 overused fantasy tropes that need to go

NB I co-wrote this essay with a friend years ago. In mid-2020 I submitted it to a certain fantasy writers' website for publication. Unfortunately, the site's administrators rejected it because they think that good fiction = a ham-fisted lecture on political correctness. Fuck that noise. I respectfully disagree.

Anyway, enjoy.


We’ve been enamoured by the fantasy genre since we were adolescents. If fantasy didn’t exist, we probably wouldn't have taken much of an interest in reading. That doesn’t mean we love all works of fantasy, though, nor do we love every little thing about our favourites. We think that’s because too many fantasy authors rely on tropes that have been sitting like thick tomes on a dusty shelf in some wizard’s lab (next to flasks of colourful liquids, some bubbling and fuming) far longer than they probably should. That’s why we’re sick of hearing about:

5. Inns and taverns

Apparently regarded by authors and readers alike as time honoured - even customary - stops on our tour of fantasy worlds, inns and taverns are places where skulduggery is practically guaranteed and where secrets (and boobs!) are often revealed. And we get it. The idea of a quaint, candle-lit nook crammed with wooden benches, busty wenches and copious amounts of alcohol is difficult to resist. We love it when characters visit them, soaking up their Old World atmosphere as they catch up on the latest news and gossip with their friends, listening to the resident bard, washing down a steaming platter of roast beef with a horn or two of freshly brewed ale. And all for the bargain price of two coppers!

Why we're sick of that shit

Aside from their objectionable ubiquity, inns and taverns seem to be the only places where characters obtain nourishment (not counting castle kitchens or the ‘kill it yourself’ option). Given that restaurants and fast food have been things in the real world for at least a couple of thousand years, it seems a little odd that we've become so fixated on inns and taverns that we're fine with them having a virtual monopoly on the supply of meals and booze. We realise we’re not talking strictly history here, but surely it wouldn’t hurt to vary things a bit, would it? It’s fantasy! Take us to a dwarven burger joint, an elven juice bar, or maybe order centaur home pizza delivery… anything apart from yet another visit to a Prancing Pony wannabe.

And another thing – we can’t help but notice how the overwhelming majority of inns and taverns are operated by people who are on the run. Chances are high that you’re buying your next pint from a fugitive legendary sword master, insurgent mage, or public enemy number one royal scion. Is becoming the highly visible proprietor of an establishment that opens its doors to the public around the clock really the best way to stay incognito, though?

Oh yeah, and why do inns and taverns always seem to be places of extremes? Either they’re pits of sin and debauchery teeming with society’s miscreants, or they’re proudly family oriented venues frequented by honest, hardworking citizens. They’re packed to the rafters with customers or completely deserted. Booze is either the best you’ve ever tasted or heavily watered down. Food is hearty and wholesome or utterly inedible, possibly teeming with weevils. Beds are soft and immaculately clean or they’re filthy and literally crawling with vermin. And women? Women usually don’t visit taverns unless they’re travellers disguised as men or if they happen to work there. The latter, of course, are voluptuous and dress like sexy milkmaids, and they seldom shy away from a bit of cock when offered sufficient incentive. Apparently, it’s a rule of fantasy that alcohol cannot be offered unless it’s served by costumed whores flaunting D-cups. Important exceptions include the proprietor’s own daughters. They're invariably maidens whose pro-virginity stance has the unflinching support of all the regular customers. Only an outsider would make the mistake of propositioning them (thereby initiating either a tense standoff that is eventually resolved peacefully or through a massive brawl that settles everything right then and there).

4. Characters of uncertain/dubious/absent ancestry being revealed as royalty

Although nowadays in real life the concept of nobility is largely seen as outdated, some people remain fascinated by it and plenty of fantasy novels feature a ruling class. We’ve got nothing against that, except when it’s abused. Unfortunately, it’s abused a lot.

Scenario one: your protagonist has grown up thinking he’s an ordinary villager (he’s the son of the local tavern keeper, most likely) but now that he’s on the cusp of adulthood, he suddenly shows amazing promise in axe fighting or spell casting or whatever. That is, of course, because unbeknownst to everyone he’s really the heir to the throne of the Sultanate of Fooqed Yermam. His humble father is revealed to be a deposed monarch who’s set up a tavern to live out the rest of his days anonymously, before being discovered, of course, by enemies (and also just in time by allies thought to have been murdered but who have miraculously survived) and will eventually be persuaded to take back the crown. He’ll die tragically, but his son will succeed him and all will be right with the world.

Scenario two: your protagonist is the bastard child of the ex-sovereign of Takan'at'in Tha'but, cast out of the palace at birth and forced to grow up on the mean streets of Yurvgaa’tah Bijookan, its bustling capital. No one knows her parentage except for the Big Bad who usurped the throne, a man who has suddenly realised that, now that the protagonist is just days away from her eighteenth birthday, she could be discovered and legitimised by those meddlesome surviving supporters of the old regime. He marks her for death, naturally, but fuck it if her latent magical powers don’t suddenly come to the fore and thwart his assassins’ every attempt to take her out! It’s because she carries the blood of the Previously-Thought-to-be-Wiped-Out-But-Conveniently-Making-a-Comeback-Ancient-Magical-Royal-Family-of-Takan'at'in Tha'but, naturally.

Scenario three: a mysterious stranger arrives at a remote village and immediately heads straight for the nearest tavern. It’s obvious they’re carrying a dark secret because of their black garb, the way they keep to themselves, and their propensity for staying conspicuously cloaked and cowled in public at all times. Is the secret that they are an elite assassin sent to kill the hidden heirs to the throne of the king of Stroakin Myego* before they can discover their parentage, gain incredible hereditary powers and cut down the assassin’s employer? Nah, that's way too predictable! The mysterious stranger is actually a recently deposed monarch who’s arrived to buy the tavern with the expectation of living out the rest of their days pulling beer. Anonymously. That is until they’re discovered, of course, by enemies (and also by allies thought to have been murdered but who have miraculously survived) at which point they’ll reluctantly be persuaded to take back the crown. Oh baby, now that scenario is totally fresh!

*a king who was, incidentally, killed by a rival but whose surviving loyal followers smuggled his small children to the remote village and disguised themselves as pig farmers before settling down to a quiet life of animal husbandry as a cover for their formulation of an elaborate plan that will eventually see their master’s unsuspecting children on the throne

Why we're sick of that shit

Woah, woah, woah! Wait a second... you mean your unassuming characters were really royalty all along? Wow, that totally explains why they were so much more awesome at everything than everyone else! Now they are more legit than ever and they will occupy a special place in our hearts until the end of time. Ugh.

3. Characters wearing swords on their backs

We really hope there’s a special place in Hell reserved for the myriad authors who put back-mounted swords on their characters. People seem to think it’s cool. It’s not. It’s stupid because it’s not even remotely practical. There’s a reason why you won’t find a single example of a real warrior who wore his sword with the hilt jutting above his shoulders in, oh we don’t know... the entirety of human history. If you don’t believe us, find one. We’ll wait here while you look.

Didn’t find one? Colour us unsurprised. But if you still think it’s a great idea, go ahead and try it out for yourself. First you’ll need to put together a comfortable scabbard brace, something that lets you wear your sword safely and securely on your back all day long. Even if you succeed in doing that, you’ve just wasted hours of your time because, unless it’s a fruit knife you’ve stowed back there, now you probably can’t sit. Forget about lying down as well, or getting back up if you’ve fallen over. Congratulations! You’ve given yourself some major handicaps unless you happen to enjoy walking around all day as stiff and uncomfortable as if you’ve got your sword stuffed up your arse. You may as well put it there for all the good it’s doing you.

The worst part is that even if you do manage to rig up a wearable back mount that doesn’t look ridiculous, you can’t actually draw your sword any more. And what was the reason for wearing it in the first place? Oh, that’s right. It was so you could have easy access to it should the need arise! Yes, we know, you probably can draw a short blade from a scabbard on your back. But you still can’t sheathe it easily, so please enjoy stabbing yourself in the head, neck or shoulder as you flail around uselessly behind your own back.

Why we're sick of that shit

Your sword belongs on your hip.

2. Characters passing out

We can’t help but notice that a lot of fantasy characters are in the habit of being knocked unconscious right before any kind of physical fight. They wake up at some point later, when the conflict has been resolved, conveniently having saved us the... burden? of reading an exciting action sequence. Are authors who use this frustrating device simply unable to write gritty action? They do know they’re not disguising their ineptitude with the whole falling unconscious thing, don’t they? Or is there another reason they don’t want to give us awesome fight scenes? We really don’t get it.

Why we're sick of that shit

It’s a massive cop out as far as we’re concerned, and to explain how, let us give you a porn related metaphor. You know how when it’s time for the money shot, instead of taking it like a champ, the girl suddenly squeezes her eyes and mouth shut and flinches even before the first sticky blob of man goo comes arcing toward her? Not describing combat explicitly in fantasy is the equivalent of that. Both are, of course, completely unacceptable.

Um, it’s really best if you don’t think too deeply about the implications this metaphor might have for the writer/reader relationship.

1. Faux feminism

Oddly enough, the thing about good fantasy is… it’s real. It’s recognisable. Good fantasy lives, broadly speaking, in our world – with just enough ‘weirdness’ to create something new and interesting. Sure, you could create a world where the sky is yellow… eggs grow on trees… and 50 foot kangaroos stuff screaming peasants into their bloody, gaping maws. But that AIN’T good fantasy. That’s fifth grade mashing-ideas-together without thinking about HOW your world came to be.

That’s why we’re not fans of the many new fantasy books that feature tough, physically powerful, every-bit-as-strong-as-a-man female protagonists.

Wait. Before you accuse us of being misogynistic shitlords, consider. That’s not how biology works. Like it or not, the average man is taller and heavier than the average woman and has twice the upper body strength. Reach (a function of height), punching power and brute strength are huge advantages in close-quarter combat, formation fighting in particular. All else being equal, an all-female spear wall will probably not stand very long against an all-male one. You can argue the point all you want, but for the bulk of human history war has been conducted with spears, and history suggests a strong arm wields a spear best. It is mainly for this reason – and not because of some global male conspiracy to keep women off the battlefield – that female fighters have never been a thing.

Yes, there are historical examples of women fighting and even leading battles. They’re scattered, though, and the vast majority of those women fought out of necessity and didn’t actually wield weapons. That’s why, serious fantasy authors, you’ll have to excuse us if we laugh at your 15-year-old heroine who just happens to be a better brawler than an entire host of grizzled male veterans. Honestly, have you ever met a teenage girl? And we're afraid you’re going to have to explain to us in precise detail just how your fantasy tribe’s women, as a group, managed to become deadlier fighters than all its men. Or do you truly believe that having a vagina is the only prerequisite for 60kg girls to becoming unstoppable shield maidens? No. Come on, get real. In order to give a fantasy world where these kinds of things exist even a shred of credibility, you need to have a good reason. A specific type of magic could be a good one. Wanting to make your characters walking embodiments of third-wave feminist ideology is definitely not.

Why we're sick of that shit

We’re all for equal rights, but biology has rendered men and women very different. A woman is not merely a man in different packaging, and female characters need to display a different kind of strength apart from simply being able to swing a sword with more force than everyone else. We get that you want to show how a woman is just as good as a man. We also agree that women can – and should be – more than just decorative elements in a fantasy story. However, if you think the only alternative is to make them exactly like men in every way, you’re setting up a false dichotomy and forcing them down an avenue that is kinda difficult to take seriously.

5 overused fantasy tropes that need to go

NB I co-wrote this essay with a friend years ago. In mid-2020 I submitted it to a certain fantasy writers' website for publication. Unfo...