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The point ought to be made at the outset that this post is by no means intended to discourage writers from writing their stories in a particular way. Rather, the purpose of this research is to give writers an insight into readers’ minds with the hope of helping them with their craft.
Tried and tested tropes are popular for a reason—they work. People like them. They make for enjoyable, engaging reads. And many of these tropes are synonymous with the fantasy genre, a genre that at the moment seems to be taking a step back and looking at itself in the mirror.
Fantasy is by far one of the most popular genres for writers. One book reviewer said to me the other day: “I receive a daily list from Readers Favorite and there is always a huge number of fantasy titles.” The fantasy market at the moment is heavily saturated with lots of stories featuring common character tropes. When situations like this arise, it has the potential to spark innovation, a shift. What can we do differently? In looking at the overused and common we can then find the unplugged gaps, the gemstones of originality, just like many brilliant writers have done with the ever-growing list of fantasy sub-genres.
It’s a competitive wilderness out there, and with the great developmental strides in self-publishing, things are only gonna get harder for writers. But that pressure can be a brilliant tool, one that can inspire and encourage you to push yourself to find and create something untapped. The insights below may help you get there.
This research was inspired by a brilliant thread on r/fantasywriters, which you can read here. The most upvoted suggestions in that thread featured as suggestions in the poll. Voters could also suggest their own reasons, which I’ve included below (they didn’t show up in the main poll). Individuals could vote for more than one suggestion. In total, 491 votes were cast, a pretty sizeable sample in my eyes and one thzt lends some credibility to the results.
The poll was made using CrowdSignal, a free and handy resource I came across when preparing this task. One of the things that appealed to me was its easy integration tools, particularly if your site is powered by WordPress. Embedding the poll was a simple matter of copying and pasting some code.
Sitting top of the list with a hefty 51 votes is ‘The orphan child with super-duper powers’. I’m sure we can all picture a character matching this trope—Harry Potter, Pug from Feist’s Riftwar Saga, or Vin in Mistborn. While common, I don’t think you could ever rid this trope from the genre. And I’ll be honest, why would you want to? Some of the most iconic and popular stories are based on orphaned characters who realise their potential and grow into formidable forces for good, or evil. As readers, we love to follow that changing and developing individual to see if they get the satisfying ending they deserve. As writers, we know that people like and engage with this kind of character. It’s a safe bet, I suppose.
Things to look out for. It’s one of the most common tropes and therefore the one readers are fed up of seeing the most. But, if done well, it’s a sure-fire winner. This post by Writer and Proud provides some further insights.
With 46 votes, ‘Evil villains because evil’ nabs second place. I’ve looked at bad guys on this blog before and in quite a lot of detail in A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook. Perhaps the best example of the ‘evil cos evil’ villain is Sauron from Lord of the Rings. We don’t know why he wants to kill everything, from dwarves to ents, he just does. The story worked tremendously well all the same.
Things to look out for. As human beings, we naturally seek out the reasons behind things. Gone, it seems, are the days of villains killing because it’s an evil thing to do. Readers seek reasons behind actions, reasons that sometimes blur the lines and make you question who in fact is right and who’s wrong. But again, if you can deliver this kind of trope well, it’s a proven winner.
Completing the top three is ‘Women who always need saving’. This was the reason for me putting down Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule 300 pages in. In the book, we’re introduced to Kahlan, a mysterious and formidable woman who’s quite literally been through hell and back, yet all she seems to do is get rescued by the protagonist, Richard. This ties into 7th on the list, ‘The “strong, independent” woman that needs no man but often ends up with a man doing everything for her’.
They are problems that still arise today, as a quick look at r/menwritingwomen will demonstrate, yet thankfully there seems to be a tide of change toward righting these wrongs, and there’s a strong appetite to avoid the pitfalls. The guest post on this blog, 5 Mistakes Male Authors Make When Writing Female Characters, has gotten thousands more hits than any other post. For things to look out for, I’d recommend checking it out. Guest writer Savannah Cordova did a cracking job.
4th and 5th on the list, ‘Prophecy-based characters’ and ‘Wizards who only speak in riddles but know everything’ I feel go hand in hand, for often it’s these beardy wizards who serve as the archetypal teacher for our gifted Chosen Ones. It’s common to see them guiding The One on their path, waiting for the right moment to reveal all, before dying in typical inconvenient fashion. We do love stories featuring chosen ones, though, like Aragorn for instance, or Rand al’Thor from A Wheel of Time. Their potential excites us, particularly if they come from humble beginnings—it provides terrific scope for growth, just like the ‘The orphan child with super-duper powers.
I’m going to wrap it up here with ‘Tree-loving elves who hate dwarves.’ This one crops up in the ‘other’ suggestions below too. It’s a classic fantasy trope made popular by Lord of the Rings. Everyone seems to be racist and hateful toward one another in Middle Earth. Where’s the love, fellas? There’s quite a lot of scope for writers to deviate from these tropes because they’re not experimented with all that often, that I can see anyway. Things to look out for. If you’re going to go down this route, try to give each race compelling reasons for their hatred toward one another.
The other reasons
‘Settings resembling Medieval Europe’ is one I see discussed quite often of late. Unfortunately, this wasn’t on the above list so people couldn’t vote for it but it’s something I’d certainly be keen to explore further. A lot of contemporary fantasy does centre on the medieval world, particularly European. I’ll be frank, I love this type of fantasy. It’s what got me into the genre in the first place. Bow and arrows, swords and shields. Most of those weapons were used prominently in the Middle Ages, so I suppose it feels natural to lean toward those settings. There’s still plenty scope to play around, though, taking your favourite bits and mixing them up in a new setting. Swords and steam, for instance, as in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt.
So there we have it, a quick examination of some of the more common character tropes in the fantasy genre. Thank you to everyone who took the time to get involved. Your contributions have made this a worthwhile exercise. What do you think of the results? Do you agree, disagree? Give your two cents in the comments below!