Story Element Tropes in Fantasy Writing
Knowing what we know now, let’s have a look at some fantasy story element tropes and talk out ways to avoid the clichéd version.
The bulk of advice about fantasy tropes tells us to avoid them, but really, we just want to avoid using them badly. Readers expect to see them in the stories they read, so let’s not disappoint them. What they don’t want to see are the same tired stories over and over or a half-assed attempt at imitating one of the better ones. Our task is to take the frame of those familiar tropes and make them into something different.
Story Element Tropes Overview
Here’s that list of some of the more common fantasy story element tropes we reviewed in the introduction:
story element tropes
- Reviving potions are sold at stores and every adventurer carries them around so no threat of death
- Magic systems that follow no rules or change rules at a whim
- Swords that weigh a tonne
- Fights break out at taverns on the regular for no good reason and bust them up
- No such thing as any form of local law enforcement
- Death seems to be the only punishment for even the smallest crime
- The villain’s minions are all idiots
- No one ever has to go to work and has time to go on endless capers
- Names with a million apostrophes for no linguistic reason
- A group of adventurers who all hate or distrust each other at the beginning admit they really admired each other all along and are now besties
- Societies are loosely Celtic or Norse or everyone’s a Viking
- Names too suggestive of a character’s personality or are a synonym for their profession (including in other languages)
- Women warriors are scantily clad while their male counterparts wear proper armour
- No one ever has to pause in their quest to take a pee, eat or sleep
- “Secret” passages in the villain’s lair that somehow the hero just happens to know how to navigate
- Secret passages have no booby-traps
- No one seems to have a problem with slavery, but they’re all progressive about gender roles and homosexuality
- Women are routinely molested or offered as payment and everyone’s okay with this
Cliché Solutions: Story Elements
Some of these tropes are self-explanatory, but let’s break down a few. What can we do to keep from perpetuating an uninspired and clichéd version?
The super heavy sword story element tropes
Why, oh, why do so many fantasy stories have swords that weight a tonne?
In the real world, actual swords don’t weigh that much. They’re meant to be used by a human arm and for long periods of time. If they were that heavy, they’d be useless after the first five minutes. If you want to have a sword that weighs like that, make it for a reason. Put a spell on it. Maybe it’s meant for another race with bigger arm muscles and greater upper body strength. Or enchanted and won’t allow anyone to properly pick it up until they’ve attained a certain level of skill. Something.
Fights break out in taverns on the regular for no good reason and bust the place up
Especially when they keep happening at the same local tavern, how the hell does this tavern owner stay in business with this nonsense going on? How can they constantly spend money on repairs?
You know the scene and we all love it – chairs flying, tables shattering, someone hiding behind the bar springs up to clonk someone on the head with a clay pitcher that shatters and our hero drags an opponent down the length of the bartop with tumblers and brew flying every which way. I never hide I’m a big fan of a good fantasy sword fight or brawl, but there are so many other places beyond taverns. Honest. With a little thought, we can set these scenes up to be infinitely more unique when there needs to be a violent disagreement in our story.
Why does everyone always have to meet in inns or taverns?
Taverns cannot be the only place to hire people, gain info from shady characters or buy outside-of-the-norm items. To me, the tavern meeting/purchase has become clichéd to the point it’s basically the dark web of fantasy and as a description right up there with “it was a dark and stormy night”. Aside from it being just too easy, everyone’s done it.
Another thing about this trope is it’s often thrown in for no good reason. As with any other part of your narrative, if the scene doesn’t add anything to your story or advance the plot, no matter how cool a scene you may have written, it shouldn’t be in there.
To get around this trope, we might fall back on our world-building and consider what we’ve created. Often, we have these rich universes in our heads and fail to make use of a lot of it. This is an opportunity to pull some of that stuff out and get it into the story. Think about the layout of the land, the places people can go, cities or towns we have in our imagination or locales in general and move characters to or through them where the story can unfold over top of them. The more variety we have, the more interest we inject into our story.
Okay, so you’ve got your heart set on a tavern meeting…
Fair enough. At the very least, aim to steer away from the groan factors. Don’t have the shady dude sitting in the shadows at the back of the bar. Avoid the barkeeper conveniently having a military background and ready to jump in to help your hero. Remember that peasants and royalty rarely frequent the same establishments if at all. And not every random drunk person is angry and spoiling for a fight.
Think about the real consequences of individuals reacting with each other in this setting – bills need paying, manners need keeping, unruliness won’t be tolerated and people would be kicked out by any half-decent barkeep. If you’re going to use this trope, give a think to all the clichéd elements you’ve seen a million times over and do something outside the norm.
The villain’s minions are all idiots
Is it just so the antagonist can say the line “I’m surrounded by idiots!”?
Okay, I get wanting to make your villain the smartest person in the room. And I’ll grant that most of their minions would need to be a bit on the dim side to blindly follow a sociopath bent on world domination. That tracks.
At the same time, your villain needs some toadies to help them carry out their dastardly plans. But if they were constantly bumbling their way through their days working at cross purposes, your villain wouldn’t continue to keep them, would they? And if they’re expendable? Make sure it’s to advance the plot. Like everything else, make their existence make sense.
Apostrophes for no linguistic reason
Character and place names with lots of apostrophes… I don’t speak multiple languages with enough confidence to have a conversation, but I’d say I have a higher-than-average basic understanding of how most languages work. I credit studying linguistics for radio (to cold read copy ripped off the wire) and off and on continued study of it out of interest. But when I see those names with a billion apostrophes in a fantasy story? Even I can’t be bothered to take a stab at them. It makes it too hard. Breaks the magic, y’know? Don’t get me wrong, I think all those apostrophes look hella cool. But if it makes the names unpronounceable and takes the reader out of your story, is it the right choice?
At its most basic, if names are so complex they continuously pull a reader out of your story, how can they enjoy it? Make the apostrophes have a logical reason for inclusion. Don’t make the reader skip over those names. I want the reader to hear the name in their head the same way it’s in mine, so we have a connection.
Years ago, someone gave me this piece of advice about naming places and people. Take it as you will. They said, “You want people to read the books, right? You want them to talk about the books, right? If they can’t pronounce the names, they’re never going to talk about it at a book club. They won’t want to appear stupid in a group, so will choose a different book with names they can pronounce. Kiss your free word-of-mouth advertising goodbye.” Yeah, it’s on the business end of writing, the part we don’t like to think about while we’re in creation mode. But it’s a fair point.
“Secret” passages the hero knows how to navigate
Unless you make your hero character psychic, this cliché is pretty hard to swallow. How could they know how to navigate the secret passages of the villain’s never-seen hide-out when they’ve never been there, no one ever told them and no map exists? C’mon. Give it a reason. At the very least, they got the info from the “wise one” of your story. Maybe the compass they brought with them from home that was their parent’s is enchanted. Or someone they lost along the journey who they tried to save comes to them in a vision and shares the knowledge to pay them back for their efforts. Or they receive the knowledge as a reward for surviving a trial during the story arc. I’m sure you can do better than even these if you put your mind to it.
In general, for any element cliches, apply common sense, make sure they add to the story and have a reason. Otherwise? Like everything else in your story, if it doesn’t advance the plot or build-out a character, it needs to go.
Want more? Check out all the Avoid Fantasy Writing Clichés series: