Fantasy is a genre notorious for its tropes. For better or worse, they are what people who read/watch a lot of fantasy have seen a million times. Some of them are tired and worn out, but others still keep their charm despite being battered and bruised by ham-handed misuse over the years.
Here’s my take on some of the best and the worst of the bunch:
Love – Swords with Names
What sword did Alexander the Great carry into battle? What blade did Genghis Khan wield? Naming swords just wasn’t a tradition for much of Earth’s history. In many fantasy worlds, they might as well come with a birth certificate.
What was the name of Arthur’s Sword? Excalibur. What blade did Gandalf wield? Glamdring, the Foe-Hammer.
Fantasy swords having names is fun. It makes a utilitarian tool of death into something that is nearly a character in its own right. This lends itself to legend and swords whose deeds outlive their owners.
Hate – Damsel in Distress
Oh look, it’s another princess stuck in a tower. Oh, you’re saying it’s not a tower this time, it’s a cell in a concrete bunker? *yawn*
I get it. There is something noble about risking your life to free an innocent from unjust captivity. But why a damsel? Oh, because women are weak pawns, meant to be the object of quests, not a participant. From time to time people poke this one with a stick, only to find that it’s still dead. Leave this dead horse alone; it has suffered enough.
Love – Grumpy Old Wizards
There is something that gets stuck in your craw sometime after the tenth time you’ve saved the world. You’ve got the mysteries of the universe this close to unraveling in your head, yet young folks keep stopping by to pester your with the most trivial of problems. A lifetime of stuffing your nose in books has given you a wonderfully exotic vocabulary, and having kings and emperors ask nicely when they make requests has stripped bare all semblance of pretense from your discourse.
If you presume to intrude on a wizard’s time, you’d better be prepared to get an earful for it. What’s that you say? You’ve got a vitally important reason? So does everyone, and you’ll listen to a few stories about other young pups who prattled on when their elders had better things to attend to.
The Lesson: Do not think to spar with words against one who argues with the laws of nature, and wins.
Hate – Dark Lord
Well, since he’s named Lord Deathicus von Evilguy, I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s the villain. If you were worried I might not pick up on the subtle naming hints, you can dress him up in black, possibly with spikes or blades everywhere. You can even give him a cowl or a helmet, so I either don’t see his face at all, or I just catch an occasional glimpse of his horribly malformed features.
If the dark lord’s personal appearance and name weren’t going to be strong enough clues to his irredeemable evil, he’ll have a brutal temper which he’ll take out on his underlings. He’ll also shoot every messenger who brings bad news. Still not convinced? How about a nice mad cackle?
Being hammered over the head with the reasons a villain must be opposed is tiring. Parodying the dark lord to subhuman levels just makes it justifiable for the “hero” to be just as callous in return, except be lauded for his efforts. Killing someone evil can’t be bad, right?
Love – Discovering Ancient Magic
You’d think that after seeing it enough times, it would get old. Somehow, it rarely works out that way. It’s like Christmas in a way: you know that the funny old box with indecipherable lettering is going to hold some mysterious magical artifact, but you won’t know what kind until it’s been opened (and maybe even for a while after that). Is it the key to further treasures, a weapon that has a mind of its own, or a beacon to all demonkind that Earth is now ripe for the picking?
Magic and civilizations that don’t have (or don’t have much) magic are a recipe for instant culture shock. No one is prepared for the consequences, and few people are likely to have any knowledge about the ancient people who created such a wonder.
It’s more a seed for a story than a story goal itself. It’s continual freshness lies in the fact that it can take on almost any form. Most often, the real story won’t get rolling until it’s powers are unleashed, making it the National Anthem of fantasy: you take your hat off, wait for it to finish, and then get ready to watch the players duke it out to see who wins.
Hate – The Farm of Heroes
Yes, farming was a common occupation in the medieval societies that many fantasies ape. Statistically speaking, a person picked at random from the peasantry had a good chance of being a farmer. However, it really became a stand-in for a blank slate. A farm boy is generally excepted to have grown up with a good work ethic, strong morals, and little knowledge of anything but plowing and milking. He is ripe fruit for some grizzled veteran to pluck off his farm to train for world-saving duty.
The problem is the repeated abuse of plausibility. Any individual instance is forgivable. After a while, you start wondering what it would take for some poor city kid to catch a break and get a world-saving mentor. This could be because I grew up in the suburbs, and the “pining for a better life” farm boy just doesn’t resonate with me like it might for other people. I also tend to find it a welcome change when a nascent hero actually has some useful background before they get shipped off to hero-school.
I don’t hate Star Wars. For all the trope-trampling is does, Episode IV knocks it out of the park. Though most of the dark lord, farm boy, princess saving stuff was old even then, it did it all with flair, heart, and an unparalleled sense of excitement and adventure. It gets a pass.
Yes, I think Star Wars is fantasy. It has a sci-fi background to it, but The Force is clearly magic.
Note 3 – Beware
Many of the links in this post go to TV Tropes. It is a trope unto itself that TV Tropes will ruin your life. It is a certifiably addictive site, and will break all media you have ever consumed into tiny little pieces with funny names.
Thanks for this post. My thoughts exactly on the Damsel and Farm boy. Having grown up in the “burbs” myself, I can’t relate to the farm hand most of the time. What about the guttersnipe or young squire? Good post!
Actually, I think a twist on the farmboy would be to do an ACTUAL farmboy. Once technology reached a certain level, say, past subsistence farming and up to crop rotations, horse collar plow, some gear-driven equipment, etc, and ESPECIALLY “freeholding”, a farmer could actually be expected to be a thoroughly capable person. Just think for a moment of all the things that a farmer who owns his own land has to figure out: Understand and manage various kinds of livestock (training, midwifing, simple veterinary work), identify seasons and plan which crops to plant when, sell crops for profit, hunt wild animals for additional meat, hunt or trap predators, build fences, barns and shelters for animals, maintain a well, sharpen and maintain blades, etc etc etc. Also, be strong enough to do all that constantly, every day. The English Longbowman was typically a freeholder, and the French learned well not to look down on them.