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Friday, June 26, 2009

Top 10 Overused Fantasy Cliches

I'm surprised that I haven't done this one before. There are quite a lot of fantasy tropes/cliches, so this list is particularly difficult to put together to my satisfaction. Which ones deserve to be on a top 10 list? Which ones don't? Well, here's what I came up with. If you have suggestions, let me know in the comments!

10. Alternate Worlds/Dimensions (like Narnia)
Mostly an issue in the YA world, but let's be honest, how many more of these alternate worlds can we take before it becomes irritating? They're piling up on one another and it's getting hard to keep track of all the pieces. Aslan is being eaten by a talking toothpick! Good lord! (Yes, that is a Leven Thumps reference.)
9. Schools (of any description)
Harry Potter ruined it. Blame Rowling. Now any time you see a wizard school, you think of HP. And don't forget all the blasted schools that teach eleven-year-old boys how to be great knights. How many knights do we need, anyway? I think we're good with three. Bill, Ted, and King Arthur. That's good enough.
8. Enchanted Weapons, etc.
The sad thing about this entry is that I still like enchanted weapons, but they have become an overused trope. All these magical flutes and swords and crystal balls, it's just too much. Are there any normal things left in fantasy, or is everything magical? Even food is enchanted! Elven bread! It would suck if you were allergic to magic, wouldn't it? Wait...that's a story idea. Ha!
7. Elves
I'm sick of elves. Honestly, I was sick of elves when Tolkien used them for Lord of the Rings. They're all the same. Calm, collected, and slightly mental. They've invaded science fiction too. Someone needs to come up with something less, err, cliche. What about a weird mutant hybrid between an elf and a gerbil?
6. Bearded Wizards
Dumbledore is lovely and likable, and yet one of a long list of cliched figures crammed into the fantasy genre. Bearded wise old men are probably annoying for most people, but they've made a glorious comeback in YA fiction. My question is: why are they always old and bearded? Where are all the young, attractive know-it-alls who hang out in libraries reading dusty manuscripts?
5. Vampires
Technically part of the urban fantasy vein, vampires have pretty much flooded the market with their pointed teeth and thirst for blood. And I do mean flooded. The problem is that now all the vampires seem the same to me. Come on people, you can come up with something else. Where are my urban fantasy tales about talking capybaras? Or vampiric capybaras...ooooooh.
4. Heroes
Fantasy has this thing with heroes. It's like an intentional, seventy-year mating ritual between two siblings...or something like that. There aren't nearly enough stories about villains, and certainly not enough about folks who have no desire to be heroes. It's just about heroes. Black and white. Which brings us to...
3. Good vs. Evil
There's not nearly enough gray in the fantasy genre. Everyone is purely evil or purely good. Thankfully we're seeing a few more novels that highlight the unexpected heroes of the world (thieves, assassins, etc.). But, such novels are overwhelmed by all the cookie-cutter black and white, good vs. evil battles. I get it. It's a human thing. We want easily defined good guys and bad guys, but sometimes reality is more interesting.
2. The Chosen One
It seems weird that there is always a Chosen One. I guess it makes sense when you think about the prevalence of "chosen ones" in the real world, but I still find them grossly overused. Too many fantasy novels with chosen ones and prophecies and all that garbage. I think we need more books where the Chosen One dies and everyone is screwed. That would be interesting.
1. Dragons
Whatever it is about dragons, fantasy writers love to use them. They love them so much that the genre is ridiculously saturated with them. There's Eragon, Naomi Novik's stuff, Funke, Genesse, etc. Everyone is using dragons. Don't get me wrong, some of them are wonderful stories, but it's gotten to the point where if I see a dragon on the cover, I won't pick it up--with rare exception. It's sort of like the vampire thing: there are simply too many novels out there with dragons as a centerpiece, and after seeing it repeated over and over, it gets old and pointless. We need novels about centaurs and ninja unicorns and pirate lawn gnomes...

And there you have it. What overused tropes bug you?

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  1. Re: Alternate Worlds -- LOL! You should see what D&D ended up with. Prime Material, Ethereal, Astral, Elemental, Para-Elemental, Shadow, Shadow Elemental, and a whole whack of planes of existence for Heaven, Hell, Law, and Chaos.
    AND! -- Someone it all works together. Yoicks!

  2. ok i'll go with you on the whole wizard school thing, but otherwise pffft! :p

  3. 10) I think they're okay if they're somehow linked/intrinsic/important versus "let's just send someone in who doesn't understand the world". I think Pamela Dean did this very well (need to read the whole trilogy) ~ "The Secret Country".

    9) Yeah, schools are tough. You've really got to make them work in context. Agree with not needing knights unless you're going to war. World needs to be made real.

    8) Can definitely be overdone. Again the sort of thing that needs to be made real in context for it to not seem hokey/cliche. ((Elven Bread, I'll argue, could well be not-magic, just really densely good foodstuffs)).

    7) Agreed unless you're pulling from older fantasy/myth and making them more real (hmm. trend here)

    6) Hot? Old wizards have long beards as a sign of "I'm a bad ass wizard who can keep long hair and kick ass". They're not hot young wizards (Hmm: Harry Potter/Hermione?) with exceptional wisdom until they've spent their lives locked away in libraries getting ugly. ;) {{ mind you: beards are also very good at hiding ugly }}

    5) eh. market. saturated. except it's not, you know? vampiric zombie mage-schools. Yes.

    4) There's some villains stuff. But I'll agree there could be more to shake things up.

    3) This is something I struggle with with every epic I've thought about penning. Good v. Evil is "weak". Conflicting ideologies where both sides are just but are still somehow completely incompatible and must destroy each other? difficult.

    2) Prophecy is best to be avoided unless it's something you're going to be exploring in depth--and even that's been done a lot. Could go for some stories where the chosen one dies and people make do, but only so many of those, too. ;)

    1) Hmm. I'm writing a novel with dragons. ;) For some value of writing. And some value of dragons. No chosen ones, though, and no magic items (I think). Also no elves. No magic schools (though there are _guilds_). I wish I had the world/plot/etc more nailed down. I've been trying to write it for half a decade? Maybe a touch more. :/ Need to find more time to read/research/plot/plan.

  4. I'm guilty of #8, #7, and numbers 4-1....

  5. Simon: Wow, that's rather convoluted.

    Hagelrat: Pfft right back at ya!

    Kaolin: Oh, sure, you can probably do all of these cliches, but still, it's not easy to do them well anymore :P. Let me know when you finish that novel of yours.

    Sparkling: Haha. It's okay. I'm guilty of these things too.

  6. I kind of like alternate realities as well, but in SCIFI not fantasy.

    I'd have to list 11.) as: "Middle Earth"

    You kind of touched on it a bit with your "elves" listing but I'm sick of the Tolkienesque setting before the story style of writing fantasy. In my opinion, one of the great things about Fantasy is that you don't have to use long descriptions of your world because people have a general idea of what a fantasy world all ready looks like.

  7. Caine: That's not necessarily true. Folks don't always know what a fantasy world looks like. Description is always good, just, you know, don't overdo it :P.

  8. TO be fair, I don't think there's anything wrong with the elements of these cliches, just the content (the particular way they're used). I feel we're a little obsessive these days with the "high concept" - I've read plenty of wildly original fantasy stories that were horridly cliche in their execution even sans all cliche elements.

    What I'd REALLY like to see is an originally WRITTEN fantasy novel, rather than one without recognizable or (arguably) overused bits and pieces. I can think of a way for any of the 10 cliches listed here to be used in a worthwhile, unique way, though admittedly I've almost never seen such fantasy novels published (though there are a few notable exceptions - Gene Wolfe and Barry Hughart off the top of my head). I want more books like THOSE guys'!

  9. Dave: I agree completely. It's tough going, though. I think the problem is that the things listed here tend to saturate the markets in their less-than-adequately-handled forms. I'm about sick of vampires and dragons, to be honest, because of that.

  10. Anonymous11:01 AM

    Don't bother printing Nikara. I have 7/10 of those things. Of course I also have young, attractive, know-it-alls, but to me they're the jarring bit--barring Nikara, how the heck have all those young people had the time to get so knowledgeable?

    And again, you can't say a thing about any of these because you haven't read widely enough. Stop tarring my genre with the rubbish when you refuse to read the good stuff. There's plenty of novels that deal in grey. Geez.

  11. Or you could not get offended by everything and realize that the list wasn't meant to tar the genre at all...

  12. Re the Chosen One, I figure that it would be a great idea to have the Evil Overlord spread the myth of the Chosen One, so that most people (because most people are sane and would never consider themselves or their friends and neighbors a Chosen One)would be handicapped by thinking only the Chosen One could do anything about the Evil Overlord. Bwahahaha! It would keep the crusades to a minimum.

    First mention I can recall of the bearded and kindly wizard was Merlin in "The Sword & The Stone," for what it's worth. It's been around forever it seems.

  13. Anonymous9:40 AM

    I agree entirely. I've got my first fantasy novel out now and it fails to conform as:

    10. Alternate Worlds/Dimensions

    - It's set in a slightly twisted version of Late Rome and is almost historical.

    9. Schools

    - There is no school in it. I think a little sword training creeps in, but that I feel is acceptable.

    8. Enchanted Weapons, etc. & 6. Bearded Wizards

    - Whoa. In fact, I include no magic at all! When I used to run RPGs, I tried to avoid magic if possible.

    7. Elves, 5. Vampires & 1. Dragons

    - In fact I have no monsters or non-human sentients! Men, horses, wolves etc only.

    4. Heroes

    - You can do so much more with an anti-hero. I used one as my main protagonist.

    3. Good vs. Evil

    - What vs. what? There is no good. There is no evil. There is just 'human'

    2. The Chosen One

    - Nah. Who chose them? I bet it was their mum.

    So yes. I agree on all 10 points. If you're interested in my opus, Interregnum, you can find out about it on

    This wasn't meant to be an advert, but I might as well, while I'm here...


  14. writtenwyrdd: Yeah, the bearded wizard thing is ancient, but it's still overused :P. And that would be funny to see a story in which the Evil Overlord created the myth of the Chosen One!

    sjat: It wasn't really a checklist so much an observation, but I suppose you can look at things that way too.

  15. Kristina10:21 PM

    "It would suck if you were allergic to magic, wouldn't it? Wait...that's a story idea. Ha!"

    This was done in a book called Spinner's End, or something like that.

  16. Kristina: Thanks for letting me know. I'll check it out and fiddle with it to be more "original."

  17. Anonymous12:17 AM

    10. guitly as charged. I jsut find that my type of fantasy doesn't fit on Earth.

    9. speaking if knight schools, one of my ideas involved King Arthur :D

    8. i agree. they take the fun out of things. Its su much more fun doing things the hard way.

    7. OR you could change their personality. THey don't always have to be so uptight.

    6. Now its hard to picture an old wizard without a long beard.

    5. Well i get turned off vampires because all stories about them seem to be romance "Epics". I mean vampires are fine but it owuld be much better if they were not falling in love with their victim all the time.

    4. Ummm....well i have no problem with this one.

    3. I agree. opposing something just because its "evil" is lame. Even satan had his reasons.

    2. Incidentally i happen to be reading a book right now that's about a kid that refuses to save the world even though he's the "chosen one". its quite amusing.

    1.Well i am the opposite. I see a book with a dragon on the cover and a gravitate towards it. lol. They're my favourite mythical creature. They are THE fantasy creature. Mind you i am quick to put it back on the shelf if its about a dragon hunter.
    Just because they're big, firebreathing creatures with claws doesn't mean they're dangerous. lol.

  18. Anonymous: Well, to each his own :P. Enjoy your dragons :P.

  19. Anonymous12:20 PM

    i'm planning a novel which will literally involves none these things (i hope anyway <:) )

    Elves - hate them when they're white, pure and simply good. love to see an alcoholic elf or a dark-skinned elf sometime or another ..

    Dragons - why do they always have to breathe fire? That's what really get's me. My sister's written a short novel where the dragon's moved the ocean's waves with their wings and they did NOT use any fire in anyway to do what they did :)

    Enchanted weapons - i like them, just they've been used in dodgy in-your-face way.

    Chosen Ones - don't mind prophecies and such if they aren't all in-your-face. ..

    Vampires - TWILIGHT RUINED THIS FOR ME. simple as.

  20. Anonymous: Well, there have been a few dark-skinned elves in fantasy literature. They're not terribly common, though, mostly because the Tolkien elf still remains a bit of a staple.

    Also, dragons have not traditionally been fire breathers. There are many different kinds of dragons, from the fire-less ones that are nothing more than winged lizards to acid spitting to magic-wielding. A very varied show, indeed. The problem with dragons is that people latch on to the fire-breathing ones, even though they aren't the only ones being written about even today.

    Thanks for the comment!

  21. Anonymous3:35 PM

    wow this is cool! I agree with u on the elves, im getting bored. Ditto vampires. Personally i luv vampires, that long cape and pale skin is just dreamy. But they dont have to go around falling in love and marrying all the time. I find a half-human half-vampire kid totally screwed-up. Oh, and there should definately be some hot knowledgeble people around ; ) old wizards are a big, big yawn. But i like chosen ones-but preferably chosen by fate, not their parents.

  22. Glad you liked it.

    Word of advice, though: "u" and "luv" and "i" are not words. :P

  23. Anonymous12:15 PM

    im the girl who posted the comment about vampires screwed up kids and the 1 who used 'i' 'luv' and 'u'. Im twelve years old and find abbreiviations(did i spell that right?)acceptable. Oh and i m writing a story about elves who, if male, are thin, haughty, and good healers as well as mediocre fighters, and if female are willowy, strong, and fight well. I was sick and tired of females being healers and males being fighters, female archers and male swordsmen, so i did it vice versa.And my name's maham.

  24. Ah, well, work on your use of "you" and "I." You're twelve, so you get some slack, but you got to work on your writing if you want to get published :)

  25. I would like to say first off, I appreciate this and the other lists like it I have found. I am using them as a kind of guide to avoid anything that I might not recognize as a cliche and agree with most of them.

    One that I slightly disagree with are dragons. Mostly in the comparing to vampire novels. I won't disagree that there was a small run on dragon novels and they are in a lot of fantasy novels, but compared to the CRAZE of vampires. I just don't see that, sorry.

    The other is the bearded wizard comment. My first problem with this is your example is Dumbledore. A wizard in a series of books that revolves almost entirely around only witches and wizards. Of which Dumbledore is one of, what, 3? with a beard. Literally hundreds of wizards, young and old, no beard. Is it cliche to have a wizard with a gray beard? Absolutely. Is it cliche in Harry Potter? Considering all of the other wizards with no beard, I have to go with no.

    And this, and MANY OTHER cliches are either busted or used in entirely new ways in some of the best of all fantasy series. My favorite (non LOTR and non Potter series, lol) is Discworld. Amazingly written and turning most traditional ideas on their head. The grey area between good and bad blurred, wizards both young and old but also mostly inept. Death is a good guy. The hero is OFTEN either inept or corrupt (see Color of Magic for the former and Going Postal for the latter)

    As I said, I agree with most of them, but these two got me so I wanted to jump in.

  26. Anonymous6:20 PM

    Orphans don't forget the orphans

  27. There are a lot of tropes that are expected, but the best fantasy twists those tropes and makes them real. That's the difference to me. It doesn't matter whether it's been done before in a general sense. If the world, the adventure, and the characters feel real and immersive and have something unique and important to say, I'll be delighted to read about any of those ten things. Hopefully, not all in one book. :D

  28. Martina: I agree. But a lot of fantasy that uses these tropes doesn't do anything new or unique or twisty. They just re-map it over a standard plot.

    But if someone can twist things around, awesome.

    Thanks for the comment!

  29. Too bad there can't be a revised edition of the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Before TV tropes, there was that book, and she nails them all.

    All of the above are indeed overdone now ( I still haven't been able to touch Percy Jackson after loving Harry Potter). But I'm a sucker for dragons. But I actually rarely see them used in ways that satisfy me. The Magic Thief books by Prineas were the first dragon concept that felt new in a long time.

    I'm going to write a book about a vampire who can only bite dragons. Ha!

  30. 7. Elves
    I'm sick of elves. Honestly, I was sick of elves when Tolkien used them for Lord of the Rings. They're all the same. Calm, collected, and slightly mental. They've invaded science fiction too. Someone needs to come up with something less, err, cliche. What about a weird mutant hybrid between an elf and a gerbil?


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    (Install Civ IV, mod it from here - - and enjoy)

  31. So, let me get this straight: you essentially want people to stop using fantasy elements in fantasy? Did you even read what you wrote? If writers and creators of fantasy were to follow your list and exclude all of those items, do you know what we would have? An original work? No, a blank, boring formless thing. That is exactly what we would have because you are tabooing everything that makes fantasy fantastical.

    Fantasy is about elves, dragons, alternative worlds, enchanted weapons, etc. These are not tropes, they are conventions. If you remove the conventions of fairy tales from fairy tales, then what are they? Well, they're not fairy tales, that's for sure. The same instance applies to fantasy and even science-fiction. Your fantasy taboo list is similar to a science fiction taboo list that says guns, aliens, spaceships, etc. are strictly prohibited.

    What you are claiming as overused clichés and tropes are essential conventions that defined not only a genre, but an entire media culture. The biggest cliché in the creative industry is not the items of cliché, but the claim of cliché itself. Originality in terms of elements and content is dead -- every literary professor and media expert agree on this, but the real difference is not in the content, but the context by which it is used -- that is where originality and creativity become alive.

    1. 1) At no point do I say "stop using these elements." The list defines the perspective which framed this post back in 2009.

      2) The post was written in 2009, so what might have been overused cliches and tropes then may no longer apply, and so on. It's also possible I don't agree with this post anymore. I tend not to delete posts because I think doing so presents an unfair reflection of my development as a blogger.

      3) "Dragons" are not an essential convention of fantasy. There's no requirement for a fantasy story set in a secondary world to have dragons. A science fiction story set in space, however, requires spaceships to exist. These two things aren't comparable.

      4) I don't disagree with your last paragraph.