Everyone's Most Hated Fantasy Fiction Clichés
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This is a companion piece to my article Fantasy Cliches to Avoid: What Beginners Do In Fantasy Fiction. Awhile back I checked in with a couple of science-fiction and fantasy communities at LiveJournal and posted the following message:
"Hello, readers and writers. I would love your opinion on this. What are your most hated clichés that you run across in either your own writing or in books you read? My most hated clichés in fantasy fiction are probably excessive flashbacks and the two-dimensional villain. But then there is always the made-up arcane languages ... "
I got terrific feedback from readers who seem evenly sprinkled across a range of demographics. The thing that everyone finds most annoying is what you might call Tolkien-lite. That is the endless, shoddy recycling of epic fantasy elements first popularized by Tolkien such as absolute evil in the form of a Dark Lord, elves and dwarves, simplified politics, extended poetry, and romanticizing the pre-industrial age.
What single thing did everyone hate most? Hands down, the prophecy of the humble peasant boy who must fulfill his destiny and become the Chosen One. Most readers seemed about to blow a gasket, and understandably so, as they expressed their loathing of this particular cliché.
My thanks to everyone who gave me feedback: Your comments in your own words were priceless, and brought up things I never would have thought of on my own. I've grouped the comments under the broad categories that follow:
"'Non-human' or sentient animal races that act, think, and socialize just like humans."
"I hate blondness / blue-eyed-ness / attractiveness as a symbol of virtue."
"Blondes good, brunettes and dark-haired women bad."
"I dislike the white / light = good and black / dark = bad. Even Saruman gets stripped of "white" status after showing his evil. Enough, already."
Babies / Childbirth.
"Excessively fast and 'dramatic' childbirth scenes. Urgh. Everyone gets that wrong. ... First kid takes about thirteen hours on average, and you don't scream the entire time."
"The Magic Baby. The protagonist (or his female love interest) becomes mysteriously or magically pregnant, gives birth in a week, to a baby who grows up in a couple of days and either wants to take over the world with her mind-boggling powers or else saves the world but dies of the effort. Ugh."
"The cliché boy-must-fulfill his destiny to become king to save the world or whatnot – way overdone."
"The chosen one. Not just because it is a cliché, but because it feels like a big lie."
"The chosen one, as already noted."
"Prophecy and the Chosen Ones. As other people have mentioned, nobody can beat the evil overlord all by himself."
"The Wheel of Overtime made me hate orphans of ye olde mysterious background with the fire of a thousand exploding suns."
"My biggest objection is fantasy societies which have had no contact with Earth but closely resemble the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, feudal Japan, or some other Earthly culture. (Of course, this excludes alternate-worlds stories.)"
"Non-human species or humans with no contact at all with Earth and who yet have Modern Western values and pseudo-medieval societies."
"Idealization of the middle ages. They were dirty and smelly and full of racism, sexism, classism, and pretty much any other -ism you can think of."
"The Technologically-Stagnant Fantasy World, which is assumed to be better off for its lack of progress. This bothers me because I know quite a lot about how people suffered before modern industry, and because it came into fantasy largely from a good writer, J. R. R. Tolkien."
"Bloody stupid bloody annoying cod-medieval societies. C'mon, people, if you want to think of political organisation, can you not think of something else? For example, has anyone ever written a fantasy about an anarchic society that wasn't about cave men?"
"Supposedly medieval societies with modern concepts (like mobility between classes, and happy peasants)"
"Absolute monarchy. Sigh. … Pseudo-medieval society where one major influence has been removed (usually the Church) and yet, nothing has changed."
"Worlds where nothing changes in hundreds or thousands of years. Literally nothing. Not language, not customs, not the ruling bloodline, not borders between countries. No new ideas ever."
"Entire societies of people who all look the same, act the same, and have the same values. "All murgoes are evil..." (This adds fuel to my theory that some fantasy writers literally never leave their house...)"
"Non-humans are very powerful and yet they don't rule the world."
"Almost any bildungsroman in fantasy."
Descriptions, Too Flowery
"While I agree with not spelling out every single thing, sometimes descriptions help. But I don't need to know that the princess had black onyx lashes framing her liquid emerald pools ... again, I think it's how you use descriptors, and not overusing them."
"Anything that requires a trip through dreams-vs.-reality is painful."
Fantasy Novels, Multi-Part
"Fantasies with six bloody trillion pointless and boring parts, as practised by George R. R. Martin, and the high king of endless infinity-parters, Robert Jordan, may he rest in peace. … Multi-part novels that you can't read in a standalone fashion (unless the total is less than, say, 600 pages - there are a couple of notable exceptions)."
Heroes, too Perfect – see also Characters, Mary Sue
"What induces great eye-rolling for me is what I refer to as 'The Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness.' That's where Our Hero is not only destined for some great role, but also is so much better at whatever thing he's only just learned to do that he surpasses even his teachers with about five minutes of training and becomes the Best Ever at whatever it is."
"Main hero is supposed to be good and yet goes around killing everyone who doesn't agree with him … Main hero has just been orphaned and yet never misses him family, doesn't have any extended family, and indeed isn't traumatized at all."
"The peasant boy who turns out to be king … the peasant boy who gets the princess / first girl he meets and falls for … The fact that the hero is usually an instant master at everything, and can beat his teachers who have practised their skill for YEARS."
"Horses used like cars."
"Everyone speaking the same language. Most of the world isn't like this even now."
"I see no one has mentioned the languages yet. Surely the problem is that they aren't made-up arcane languages, just a few words made up by someone who isn't trained in philology and doesn't know the rules by which languages operate? Look how successful and important a part of Tolkien's work they are."
"Authors who go overboard in creating a 'language,' or toss nonsensical words onto the page with no thought for structure."
"Too much D&D type magic. I think a far more subtle approach is needed, to the point where events and situations happen that leave the reader wondering, did that happen naturally or is some kind of 'influence' directing things behind the scenes (like the magic in the movie Excalibur or in the Earthsea books). Even in Tolkien's works, with a couple of exceptions, magic was very understated."
"Magic without an interesting back-story for how it works and its impact on the world. The same goes for the Forces of Evil. Pure evil is a religious concept, if you're going to use it, use the metaphor to its fullest extent. If you don't believe there is such a thing as pure good or evil in the real world, I think you'll have a hard time making it seem real in fiction."
"The peasant boy with his older mentor. why can't the brat struggle through on his own ... ? or with a group of people? why does it have to be one older guy to look after him?"
"I HATE DRAGONS."
"I'll tell you what, I always cringe when people put random apostrophes in proper names. I seem to remember a few years ago there was some sort of internet push for all sci-fi / fantasy readers to mentally replace the apostrophe with the word 'boink' whenever they encountered it. That was pretty cool."
"If I pick up a fantasy book, and I can't pronounce the names in the blurb without getting a headache, it's back on the shelf for that book. Meh."
"Jewelry / swords / plot devices of any description that light up. Ok, Tolkien and Elizabeth Moon get away with it. That's all."
"I really dislike songs/poems that the author has written and decided to stick into the novel. Unless they have direct bearing on the plot, I don't want to read them. An example of this done well is in A.S. Byatt's Possession, because it works so well thematically."
"Poetry … Songs. Unless the book comes with a CD, I have no idea what the melody is and so this is only bad, bad poetry."
Politics, Too Simplistic
"The politics we see in fantasy novels tends to be pretty simplistic. … In the real world, history reveals complex alliances and motivations, Byzantine court intrigues, and so forth. … this isn't the typical "good freedom-lovers versus evil empire" conflict that we've seen in LOTR, Star Wars, derivatives such as the Shanarra series and the Inheritance cycle, and countless Hollywood war films and spy films set in the real world. It would be a refreshing change for a story to be able to draw in the reader but have enough ambiguity so you don't know (at least from the beginning) which side is the good side. Perhaps the good guys can do rotten things now and then, or the bad guys have some redeeming features."
"I hate it when the ruling class is presented as either completely dutiful and good or as completely exploitive and evil."
"And apparently economics don't exist, except if you're a Thief."
"I'm gonna come out of serial-lurkerdom for this one, because I'm so glad to see that prologues made your list! Yes, there's nothing more annoying than having to get into a story twice within the space of a few pages! And even worse are the ones that tell you a creation myth... *shakeshead*
"I liked what you said about prologues. I hate prologues."
"Prologues which are nothing more than a background infodump and most of the time unnecessary as well."
"I hate Prophecies, especially when capitalized."
Races / Species
"Why are alien species and fantasy species so often homogeneous? People aren't all the same. We don't look the same, we don't have the same personality types, and we don't have the same attitudes on important issues. Yet too often in science fiction and fantasy literature aliens are as stereotypical as we used to think other races of humans were. It's unrealistic and very offputting."
"Elves, Dwarves, etc have been overdone … [but] I don't mind reading about them if they are used in *new* ways. ie, the Dwarves and Elves don't have to war in every. single. book. ever., and not every elf is gracious and beautiful and perfect, nor is every dwarf gruff and anti-social. Take a race and -make- it your own."
"As mentioned above, 'human character traits' disguised as 'races.' REAL races aren't born with distinct character traits, why propagate this false metaphor in fiction? Tolkien was writing during the last gasps of social darwinism, so it's at least understandable in his case, but even in his books it grates on me."
"Non-human species which *are* humans except for the funny ears."
"Fairies / fey folk / elves in modern society."
"Rape, to show how evil the bad guys are."
"Rape used as a plot device to motivate male characters. As in, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, random females are raped to further the *male* character's righteous indignation and thirst for revenge."
"Religion is only for fanatics, priests, and the gullible. Not true. While I'm not religious myself, I know people who are."
"SOULBONDS. Oh, how I loathe them. Romantic soulbonds are a cheap shortcut to an unearned 'happily ever after,' and human-animal soulbonds are just . . . lame."
"Swords that stand in for potency, if you know what I mean and I'm sure you do. Especially when young hero bloke pulls it out at every opportunity, polishes it, waves it around, and even, god help us, shoots something out of it magically. Or quasi-oriental fantasy that's all about sword-worshipping, and ones that confer Magical Powers on the wielder."
"Telepathic happy-land. As if knowing people's thoughts would fix all that was wrong in any given society … Telepathic over-mind. As if a telepathic species must have a single many-mind, and no individuality among its members."
Tolkien – Lite
"Ripping off Tolkien. Fantasy is inherently a perpetuation of past myths and legends, but please find someone else to steal from for a change. There are plenty of other sources to swipe from. For example, Tolkien swiped from Beowulf and Norse and Celtic legends. These were great sources to use."
"Evil overlords without any motivation or insanity as only motivation."
"Villains are usually the worst in terms of clichés, especially the dark lord type who, in many cases, never seems to have a motive for being so evil and nasty other than to setup an opposition to the good guys. One of my favorite 'bad guys' is Javert from Les Miserables. In the end he was so tortured by the fact that doing the lawful thing is an immoral choice that he killed himself."
"I'd have to say that quests against some Supreme Eville Baddy where the protagonists always win despite overwhelming odds is a bit overdone. It would be refreshing to see moral ambiguity … or perhaps the bad guys don't get thoroughly routed but are forced to make concessions."
"The evil monster who wants to destroy the world without ANY reason or thought of what to do when everything's blown up or whatever."
"Armchair warfare. Fantasy writers who have no idea what war does to civilians, peasants, and society. Also, they often have wrong ideas about medieval weaponry and their use, and no idea about logistics or strategy or tactics. … Societies where wars have raged non-stop for hundreds of years and yet there has been no advancement in arms."
Women, Portrayal of
"A woman making her way in a man's world / profession / etc. I realize saying this is a cliché will probably get some pointed remarks in my way; after all, I'm too young to remember a time when a woman couldn't enjoy all the freedoms I have now. I didn't have to work for them, but someone did. That being said ... I would much rather see a story about a man making his way in a woman's world these days ... without him being gay."
"I also hate (although they are blessedly becoming an endangered species) the 'charming little barbarian' female hero. Their toes are barbaric and little. They are little bundles of fire and energy. They are nasty but oh so cute because they're just so *little*. Generally speaking, these characters are often injected to set apart the boring civilized women who don't focus on things that are important in life like, you know, being spontaneous and barbaric and little."
"I hate spunky young heroines who rebel against restrictive gender roles (agree with the sentiment, detest the cliché)."
"The whiney ass princess who then becomes lovely … the fact that a great female warrior is NEVER as good as the hero. *yawn*"
"Random Capitalizations to a point out that Some Things are really, really Important or at least Weird."