World-Building Tropes in Fantasy Writing
Now let’s focus on ways to not regurgitate clichéd version of fantasy world-building tropes to make your story unique.
Typical advice around fantasy tropes is to avoid them. However, knowing that all those tropes shaped the fantasy genre, it’s important to understand that readers expect to see them in the stories they read, so you shouldn’t avoid them. BUT that doesn’t mean they want to see the same tired or outdated ideas over and over or a middling imitation of one of the better ones. Our task is to use those familiar tropes as a frame and then make them into something new and attention-holding.
World-Building Tropes Overview
Here’s that list of some of the more common fantasy world-building tropes we reviewed in the introduction:
- The World That Never Evolves Even Over Centuries
- The Present Day Values in a Pseudo-Medieval Culture World
- The Perennial Winter Worlds Where No One Freezes Their Ass Off
- The Desert World With No Water Sources That Somehow Survives
- The Everyone Speaks the Same Language no Matter Their Location World World
- Matriarchal or Goddess-Worshipping Folk are Good vs Patriarchal or God-Worshipping Folk are Bad World
- The Cookie Cutter Species World
- The Pseudo-Medieval World
- The Societies Without Commerce or Industry Yet Survive World
- The Life is Cheap World
Cliché Solutions: World-Building
Not a complete list of course, but you get the general idea. Let’s take a couple of these and think about how we might use them in a way that’s not clichéd.
Perennial Winter Worlds Where No One Freezes Their Ass Off World-Building Tropes
Of the fantasy world-building tropes, I’ll admit I love this one simply for the look of it. Oh, the tasty prose that can arise from describing a perennially frozen world: piercing arrows of sun refracted through ice, cocoons of unbroken snow connoting purity of heart or an untried hero, bone-drilling chills creeping into every character exponentially along with the mounting threat, Herculean struggles to advance inches through storms of centuries along with the plot… *drool*
When clichéd, this is where we see no one actually freezing their ass off despite going on a quest of months through that frozen wasteland. No one stumbles, their feet never becoming frozen. They’re all able to grasp and draw a bowstring with fingers that never numb. Trees never freeze solid and are easily chopped down for firewood. People sit around campfires outside like it’s the middle of July and no one notices the ice crystals thrown into their faces by the howling wind.
This just makes it weird
Your readers might not know exactly what’s wrong with it, but I bet they’ll pick up on it subconsciously.
By all means, use this trope, but think about the ramifications of that cold in every scene. This could introduce conflict which makes for a much more interesting story. The cold and snow could become its own character – inhibiting our intrepid hero at every turn, thwarting every attempt to vanquish the villain, almost sentient and nearly alive. The effects of cold on character bodies could put limitations on what they can do or accomplish. The effect of that snowy environment on their world can put limitations on the places your characters could access, as well as the course of their journey. It may even stall their plans and add tension.
Instead of ignoring the effects, you could try making them work for you to add interest.
Everyone Speaks the Same Language no Matter Their Location Worlds
In this one, there’s a quest where our intrepid hero travels from place to place with his band of compatriots. They range far and wide and yet? Wherever they go, they have no difficulty communicating with anyone. There’s something odd about this world – everyone speaks the same language. Now, okay, it’s a fantasy story. I’m with you there – you can make your world however you want it. Fair enough.
But I’ll offer that it’s not very realistic and you may want to rethink that choice. Readers are sophisticated and often globe trotters themselves. They know what happens when they go to a different region far from their home and so they may have a hard time connecting with the situation in which your hero finds themselves. I suggest this is another area of opportunity to introduce conflict into your story.
Hurdles that get in your hero’s way don’t always need to be battles or henchmen or an antagonist
Something that may seem as trivial as encountering people who don’t speak the same language could actually impact how the story unfolds. Maybe one of your protagonist’s group had a parent from one of those distant places and learned to speak the language as a child, but has now mostly forgotten it. Translation errors and half-understanding could hamper getting answers. If none of them speak a language from a foreign culture and definitely need something from them in order to vanquish the “big evil”, this could seriously jeopardise their efforts. Misunderstandings of their motivations could abound. They might be detained. Chased out of town. Or they might even find a sympathetic local, but can’t get anything done, because they don’t know how to ask anyone for anything.
Voila, now you have a lot more to talk about. And showing how your hero reacts and makes choices within these situations can be a handy vehicle for revealing more about their personality.
The Cookie Cutter Species World-Building Tropes
Cookie cutter species clichés are more than outdated. Some are worse than others, of course, but products of their time at creation, many are reductive or flat-out racist. This is an area where, in my opinion, we have a responsibility to blaze a new trail and bring the fantasy genre into the present.
What we now accept as the mainstay fantasy species (elves, orcs, dwarves, etc.) came into being during less enlightened times and if we stick with the to-this-point traditional descriptions and characteristics of these species, we now find many are no longer palatable. While they may not bother you as an individual, recognising that some of these could be offensive to someone else should be catalyst enough to want to put some additional work in here.
As a society, we’re working to unravel normalised cultural stereotypes
And yeah, we’re just fantasy writers – we can’t change the past. But we sure as hell can all write from a more enlightened place now while we create a more comfortable, inclusive space within the fantasy genre for everyone. Most especially for anyone who may have previously been put-off exactly because of the fantasy species racist tropes. We should all work to set the stage for the fantasy writers who will come after us and who’ll follow what we normalise now.
In working on this article, I’ve rewritten this section on solving for cookie cutter species world-building tropes multiple times. The challenge is, it’s simply too large a subject to talk out in a couple of paragraphs. So instead of my doing a perfunctory job at it, I offer you this wonderful post by Alex Raizman, author of the Small Worlds books, entitled Fantastic Diversity – The Fantasy Genre’s Unfortunate Implications. He does an excellent job of getting into the nitty-gritty of where cookie cutter species came from, what happens when we use them, and especially why they need the heave-ho. Some people may find it blunt, but I think Alex says what needs to be said in nice plain language. Please, give it a read,
The Life is Cheap World
Now I love fight scenes and I’ve written about them before. BUT when you create an entire world where life can be tossed away by anyone for little reason, it’s a bit much. This is the world where we see characters take out anyone they have a cross word with. No attempts at reconciliation or negotiation, no back and forth, nada. Where’s the fun in that? If your characters take out everyone who doesn’t align with their views, you take out all the conflict. And that’s bad for your story.
There’s a spectrum of these and at their worst, these world-building tropes are usually steeped in an overbearing honour code and where there’s none or very little governance over wrongdoing – no form of law enforcement. Everyone can apparently run around killing off anyone without any consequences for their actions and no one has a problem with this. Sure, they’re on a quest. I get they have bigger fish to fry and want to get on with the business of vanquishing the villain. And killing off incidental characters doesn’t harm your story. Or does it?
While it may be cool to have our hero running around showing off their sword skills or super powers, when a character dies and it doesn’t advance the plot, they shouldn’t be there.
And give this a thought… If a villain inhabits a world where life is this cheap and everyone’s totally cool with that, protagonists have little reason to be concerned about the carnage your villain causes. Threatening villages? Killing off inhabitants? Bumping off the hero’s family? When your hero and their band kill people off with too much frequency, they’re hardly better than your villain. Then your motivations will be relegated to maybe revenge or greed or other less noble needs. If that’s your aim, then sure. But if you were going for a hero story? You may want to adjust the parameters of your world.