We’re doing this again, but we’re switching genres this time around!
Clichés might be clichés, but they didn’t just become that way out of nowhere. They’re tropes that have a dedicated audience and, when done well, are proven to work. So what are some tropes in fantasy that get diehard fantasy readers groaning, but nevertheless appear all the time?
Dragons and/or Dragon Riders
Dragons. They’re awesome.
There’s a reason media involving dragons has so much mainstream appeal; everything from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragons to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, fulfills the wish that many fantasy fans have: that they could ride a friggin’ awesome dragon shooting fire and ripping things apart with their claws ‘nd shit.
Fantasy is often all about immersing readers in a world nothing like our own. It lets us explore, escape our woes, (and oh, how many woes there have been as of late) and dragons are often the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks “fantasy.” Besides, who wouldn’t find it absolutely incredible to make a living working with magical, impossible beasts like a giant, winged lizard that breathes fire?
It might be considered a bit cliché at this point just because dragons are so iconic in the fantasy genre and therefore so prevalent. But there are so many ways to keep a fantasy story involving dragons fresh.
What would happen if you flipped the script and made it so that dragons had every reason to be afraid, instead of the usual “the whole realm fears dragons” schtick? What if they were treated as vermin, easily disposed of, instead of majestic, all-powerful beasts? What if the story was set in some alternate world or universe where dragons are the only sentient, sapient species that have built civilizations? What if, instead of many fantasy stories where dragons are near-extinct and an intrepid dragon rider finds an egg, it is humans/dragon riders who are near extinction, and we follow a dragon who comes across one for the first time in centuries?
A cliché is just a great trope used the same way over and over again. So ask yourself: how can you innovate that trope? What new and fresh ideas can you bring to something seen time and time again?
The Magic Academy
As a kid, I wrote a lot of bad, cheesy stories about going to a magic academy. There was no math or P.E., no homework or “pulling cards” when you misbehaved (any of you remember that?), no report cards or popcorn reading. It was like recess every day, except even better. Because there’s magic.
Similar to the dragons/dragon riders trope, the magic academy is pure wishful thinking. It appeals to the middle grade and YA audience quite a bit because it’s what many of us wish our experience at school could be at that age.
I was obsessed with this trope as a kid, especially during my worst years in school, when I felt the most alone. For that reason, it’s a trope that always holds a special place in my heart, no matter how trendy it is or how cliché is becomes.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep it fresh, though!
Typically, the magic academy trope only features magical high schools or the occasional magical middle school. I’d love to see a writer take on writing a magical college. Or perhaps a protagonist who’s a teacher working in a magical preschool. Imagine the shenanigans dealing with toddlers with magical powers.
And hey, don’t forget that—while witches and wizards tend to be the most common magical students and instructors—there’s a myriad of other magical beings who are just as in need of an education! What would a mermaid school be like? An elemental school? Angel or demon school? A school for ghosts/spirits? Gods? Fae? The list goes on and on.
Honestly, just take a mythical creature you like and there’s a good chance you’ll find a whole slew of ideas to keep the trope fresh, and prevent it from becoming a dreaded “cliché.”
Soft Magic System (Magic Does What It Does, Man)
Hard and soft magic systems are a fierce topic of debate among diehard fantasy readers.
Which is better? And why?
If the terms “hard magic” and “soft magic” are new to you, a hard magic system is one in which the magic has a defined source and very clear rules. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn is often used as an example (which makes sense considering he is credited with coining the terms). As the writer, you are much more confined by the rules of the system you created. And it’s a lot easier to write yourself into a hole if you’ve set rules and then written your characters into a situation where the constraints of their magic prevent them from using it to get out of that situation.
By contrast, a soft magic system is one in which the magic exists, but it’s vague and kind of just…works the way it works. There’s not really a formula to it, no set rules, and the limitations are a bit blurrier and easier to cheese.
I feel like soft magic systems get a lot of crap because they can make for some very convenient plot resolutions. And I don’t disagree that the vagueness becomes a little too easy to lean on if the writer isn’t careful, especially if they run into a block or a plot hole in their writing that they don’t know how to fix without using magic as a crutch for the protagonists.
But I’m forever an advocate of the soft magic system. Hard magic systems take so much work and love and care to do right, and I have mad respect for them, but soft magic systems exist for a reason, and that reason is this: I don’t read speculative fiction to be logical, or to follow rules to a T. I don’t care about the minutiae of how the protagonist can shoot lightning from her fingers or how the antagonist can mind control every dragon within a five mile radius. I’m here for a good time, for the whimsy, for the adventure and the mystery. So long as the soft magic system in question doesn’t completely break the story (and by extension, our immersion), then it’s a perfectly valid approach to a magic system—and arguably the one I tend to prefer.
The Chosen One
Before you grab your pitchforks, hear me out: I’m not saying this isn’t a trope we see all of the time in fantasy, to the point where it’s a total cliché. Nor am I saying that it’s not rather, ahem, convenient for the plot that this nobody character we follow is actually a prophesized hero destined to defeat the evil that has been festering for centuries. Hell, one of the most popular articles on this little noodle site of mine is a collection of fun ways to subvert this very trope, written by the wonderful AK Nephtali.
So I must empathize that I’m not saying this is a wonderful trope that I adore and that I think we should see in fantasy all the time, even more than we do now.
What I am saying is that it’s one of those clichés that—even if I don’t personally like it—I’m completely down with it existing. Because—above even dragons and magic academies—I can’t imagine anything that gives off “wish fulfilment” vibes better.
Is it logical for this character we follow to be super powerful and destined for greatness just because? No. Does it send the best message by having someone be special and important because they’re just meant to be? Also no.
But a lot of fantasy readers enjoy the trope because even if we feel unimportant and easily forgotten, we are presented with a character we relate to, who maybe struggles with their identify or being seen and heard. They’re almost always the underdog, forgotten and ignored at best and actively derided at worst. And suddenly, they’re a hero, saving lives and changing the world for the better.
I don’t know, man. When I was younger, it was the kind of trope that gave me hope. Made me feel like even a nobody could be a somebody, even if in retrospect it’s maybe not the best idea to hand that destiny to someone for no reason.
Evil For No Reason
Ok, ok. I know I said in a past article that this was a terrible character motivation, lazy and cheap, to be evil just for the sake of it. But I have since revised that thinking. Know why? Because as our own world gets worse and worse, it becomes harder and harder for me to make the claim that it doesn’t make sense for a character to be evil for no reason.
The hard, terrible truth is: some people are just genuinely bad people. Not from some tragic event or some secret motive unbeknownst to anyone else—sometimes people are just greedy and selfish and cruel because they choose to be. Because they think they have the right to be. Because they think they deserve more than everyone else, and are literally willing to let everyone around them suffer so long as they get what they want.
At this point, we have all seen this far too many times for me to claim that no one is really motivated purely because they’re just…evil.
So, sure: maybe the evil wizard cursing a city of innocents because he’s just an asshole isn’t the most creative approach to building a villain. But, like all tropes (and even cliches), it can work if it’s done right. Maybe the villain is simply a sociopath. Maybe they weren’t evil to start with, but found that destroying others to get what they want got them far in life, and they kinda liked doing it. Maybe—in a not-so-subtle fantastical metaphor—the villain was a perfectly normal person until they acquired power that grows with every evil action. And now, the more powerful they get, the more addicted to that power they become, willing to do anything to get more no matter what it costs everyone around them.
Or maybe they’re just one of those edgy nihilists who does bad things because, “Nothing matters anyway, duuuuude.”
Up to you, really.
Bonus: Elemental Magic Systems
I added this one as a bonus because we technically covered it already by covering soft magic systems. But I felt it still deserved its own section here.
Look…I like this one, okay?! It’s fun. And awesome. And badass.
You’re telling me you don’t think it’s cool as hell to watch benders in Avatar: The Last Airbender doing all kinds of cool tricks and shooting lightning from their fingers, or turning people into blood puppets, or wrapping themselves in makeshift metal armor instantly, or making a big-ass wind wheel?
Is it the most innovative of tropes at this point? No. Can it safely be called a total cliché at this point? Yes. Most definitely.
But I won’t even justify it. I will always advocate for some pew pew lightning. You’re NOT GONNA RUIN THIS FOR ME, NERDS!
…However, if you do worry that your desire to write a story involving the elements might be heading into cliché territory, consider this: use elements that are not strictly the classical four elements: air, water, earth, fire.
For example, celestial powers, smoke, poison, energy, etc. Can the classical four elements be involved in some way? Sure. In fact, they probably will be. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make something out of them that hasn’t been seen before.
Besides, like I said: screw the haters. Elemental powers rule. Do you, boo.