This is going to be a list. This is not going to be “You absolutely cannot have these things if you want your story to be good.” These things may just be overdone or not executed well.
Also these are personal pet peeves, so take them with a grain of salt.
A final note. You can have some of these things. You can have all of these. But you need to execute them well or else they may risk reader groaning.
Teenager (usually a girl) with a mysterious/unknown past falls into a new fantasy world or otherwise discovers that she has magical powers/a secret royal/or other really important figure. A character (who usually becomes the love interest) suddenly feels compelled to help them for no reason.
I’ve become really disillusioned with the YA fantasy/SciFi genre because this has been used over and over without contributing anything new to the scenario. The characters don’t act how it would make sense to act in these situations and it becomes boring, predictable, and not compelling.
There are a lot of variables here that an author writing this story will have to deal with.
- How would a 15 year old in this situation act? If they were sheltered and protected their whole life this should be shown in the plot.
- Do they really have the maturity to handle this properly? How many of us were our most level-headed, mature selves at 15? Some teenagers are more mature than others, of course, but I have a hard time believing a 15 year old who doesn’t have a ton of life experience being able to make the wisest choices.
- Why was this person’s past hidden from them? Why are they uncovering it now?
- How quickly do they acclimate to their situation? I don’t mean angst about it for a page and move on. If they’re suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar situation, it’s going to take them a while to figure it out.
- Why do the other character’s take the main character’s side right away? Do they instantly fall in love? Why? Are they type of people to fall really easily? What will this relationship look like in 10 years?
Harry Potter made a similar situation work. Chronicles of Narnia made this work. At the beginning though, the characters didn’t have a clue what to do. Even if they liked this new world/situation, they had to acclimate to it and discover both the good and bad of it. In Narnia, the first person to go through was a little girl who was more open to the fantastic and we saw this world through her.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jon Snow’s past is kept from him and he has a lot of identity struggles because of it. It’s probable that there is more to it that meets the eye, but Martin forces him to grow up, learn, and mature before that is eventually (hopefully) revealed to Jon. He doesn’t just learn about it on the first page and save the world (if that’s the point), he has other things to deal with first.
So you can do this and execute it well, just make sure it makes sense.
Straight forward prophecy.
Look at prophecy and religion today. Biblical scholars have been arguing about the Book of Revelation for centuries. You need to really think about your prophecies and their rules before including them.
- Do you even need a prophecy?
- Does everyone believe the prophecy? Are there people who think it’s a bunch of stupid mumbo-jumbo? Who believes in it and why?
- How old is your prophecy? Has some of it been lost in translation? Is hard to figure out exactly what it’s even talking about?
- Do other cultures have the same/a similar prophecy or does it vary?
- How did it get created? Is it from the gods? Did some crazy wizard believe he/she could see the future? Is it destiny/fate bound (if fate exists in your world)?
- Is the prophecy even true? How accurate is it?
- How difficult is it to find out who the prophesy is about? How can they prove it’s about this person?
This is another instance where A Song of Ice and Fire got it right. In the world, there are a ton of prophecies that sort of relate to similar things: “The Prince that was Promised”, “Azor Ahai”, “The Stallion that Mounts the World.”, and so on.
Each prophecy has a different set of folk tales, legends, and ways of identifying the prophesied figure who will save the world: One says that he/she will be born of a specific royal line, another says he/she will wield a flaming sword, and have other unique qualities that relate.
As a result, it becomes really mumbled as to who the person could be of the characters available. Since this is a world where magic is coming back after hibernating for a while, magical things are happening to a few characters, resulting in different possible contenders, or maybe more than one contender, or maybe the prophecy isn’t even that accurate to begin with.
It also changes by culture in Martin’s work. Different people believe in different versions of the prophecy and make it relevant to them and their beliefs. Some people don’t believe it at all or care.
So make your prophecies messy. Make them convoluted and hard to determine. If you have a prophecy that says something like “The hero that will definitely save the world will be born at this time, at this place, and find this specific artifact that everyone will recognize and they’ll kill the bad guy.” Then you’ve told me the ending. Make it vague. Give it multiple contenders, make it difficult, make things hard to figure out, make it so ancient that no one cares anymore except for a few fanatics.
Prophecy is a good tool. I like them, but it’s even more interesting to see how it unfolds. Making it to straight forward will limit the possibilities.
Characters drop everything they’ve ever wanted in the end.
If you’ve given a character a life goal or something they really want and the beginning and they suddenly give that up, that doesn’t make sense. If you’re going to do this make it difficult to part with, make them have to sacrifice it in favor of something else, or take away that option. Give them emotions about it: loss, regret, anger, etc.
Let’s say your character wants to join and be a part of a famous warrior faction and then they give it up in the end. Why? If it’s for a love interest who “doesn’t want them to be a fighter anymore.” that’s gotta be done really well to make me think that makes sense.
- Does your character become disillusioned with what they wanted?
- Do they figure out that what they wanted wasn’t as good/good for them as they thought?
- Do their wants change over the story? Why? What makes them change?
- Who/what influences them?
Your character should change, but don’t make their goals change suddenly or something that feels really out of character.
This is my (personal) problem with Katniss in The Hunger Games. Katniss is a great character, but in the epilogue (years after the main events) she settles down with her love interest and they’re hanging out with their two kids. The problem is that nothing in the rest of the story made me believe Katniss wanted kids. She said it outright a number of times that she didn’t want children and nothing she went through made me feel like this goal would suddenly change because her love interest wanted babies.
Now, this could be explained with maybe Katniss and her dude having talks about it, and maybe during the time the reader didn’t see she did change and decide she wanted that. That’s fine, but if you give the reader no indication or reason to believe the character will change in that way (especially on something they were adamant about for all/much of the story) then it’s going to feel really sudden and out of character when they do change.
Take Sansa Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire. She’s a bratty, little noble girl in the beginning (I give her a break because she’s like 12) who wants to marry a chivalrous prince and live in a fairy tale. After she spends time in the capital with her awful betrothed (and other horrible people) she doesn’t want it anymore, she wants to go home. In the beginning, she wanted to leave home forever, at this point in the story, she wants nothing more than to go back. I believe this because she’s growing up, she’s been through a lot, and has seen the reality.
So if your character does drastically change their life goals, show me how that thought process goes, or else I might get annoyed.
The setting is the same as the real world with different names.
If your fantasy story is a carbon copy of medieval Europe with all the same social issues, prejudices, history, styles, etc. as medieval Europe, you might want to consider historical fiction instead.
This is fantasy. You can make up anything you want. You have to justify it, you have to make it make sense, but there are infinite ways for you to do that and there are tons of tools at your disposal. If your major religion is a carbon copy of the Catholic Church or women cannot be educated (save for religious or royal ones) and women can’t rule/inherit, you have to justify that in the context of your world.
You can draw from medieval Europe, be inspired by it, and all that. That’s great, that’s fine. But make it your own, don’t limit yourself. Fantasy is great because you can push the limits and do things you can’t do if it took place in the real world during real world history.
It’s completely reasonable that a society that might be similar to medieval Europe evolved differently, has different religions, magic, geography, culture, values, etc.
Now you can address issues like sexism, racism, oppression, religion, war, and all that stuff. Of course, you can. But don’t make it work exactly the same as it does/did in the real world. Tell me why that happens. Do humans hate elves? Why? Have they been fighting for centuries over territory? Religious differences? Do elves have powers that scare the humans? Are the elves a violent and warrior culture that the human cultures despise?
Don’t disguise our world or its history in your story. Draw on it, be inspired, but make it fantastic. Make it your own, make it run deeper and more complicated than that. You will have to justify it (as you do in any writing on any level ever) but it’s possible, and you can create something really awesome by breaking out of that mold.
“Subvert every single trope/cliche!”
This is a trend I’ve been seeing recently where people are hating every single trope and cliche that exists and if your story has them in it, your story is automatically crap.
Tropes and cliches are not the problem. Poor execution is the problem.
This is especially tricky in fantasy because it’s (arguably, I guess) considered one of the most trope-filled genres in fiction. Some people avoid fantasy because it’s just “so full of cliches.”
Look at the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Look at the success of Harry Potter. These stories reach out to people who wouldn’t normally consider fantasy because they’re good and well executed. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones arguably is one of the ones that “subverts tropes”, but I’d also argue that a lot of tropes remain in tact, and that’s not a bad thing.
Tropes and cliches are part of storytelling. They have a long history in human storytelling because they work.
Can your villain be more morally gray than a “Dark Lord”? Sure. Can he/she also just be straight up evil and takes pleasure in being evil? Yes, and it can still be a really compelling work.
If you spend all your time worrying about which trope to subvert or trying to subvert them all, you’re gonna take a long time to write the damn story. I’d bet that someone could write a fantasy, using every fantasy trope ever and, so long as they executed it well, have a great story.
That being said, you probably have your own preferences. That’s cool. So use the ones you like. The ones that work for you.
Tropes are flexible, cliches as well are malleable. If you use them, make them work in your story as you need to tell it. They aren’t hard and fast rules that need to be avoided or be endlessly turned on their head. Change and twist them for you. Or don’t. Do what works. Do it well.
World building is a part of fantasy, it’s almost unavoidable. I love it. I love getting lost in a new world and seeing it through these characters’ eyes. That being said, info-dumping is almost always bad. New writers do it, experts do it too.
An info-dump is where the author dumps a bunch of lore, history, or other world building in 5 (or more, or less) paragraphs.
So info-dumping is bad, but the reader does need this information in order to understand the context of the world. This is hard, but it can be done well.
Don’t put it all at the beginning. If you start your book with: “It all started 1000 years ago when a great war happened, and so-and-so invaded so-and-so, and-” your readers will be tempted to put the book down. Remember at the beginning of your story, the readers have no reason to care about your world or it’s history. You have to make them care first and then tell them more about it.
Your characters will (and should) have different opinions. There are always (at least) 2 sides of history. In our world, people have disagreements about what’s good policy and what isn’t, who is a good leader and who isn’t. They will like/dislike different things or parts of the world. Once I start reading a bunch of paragraphs of very objective lore/history, I can tell it’s the author inserting their own voice with a bunch of notes they’ve written up about the world.
Different characters will notice different things and feel differently. This part is more about the environment around them. You need to give a sense of the setting in fantasy, it’s important. But different people will feel different ways. If your character hates the outdoors, they’re going to hate the bugs, the dirt, the muddiness, and lack of comforts available when camping in the forest. A person who can’t swim or gets seasick easily is going to hate being on a boat or be fearful of it.
What they notice and how they feel will depend on their background. A person who spent their life living in the tropics is going to feel certain ways about being in a cold, snowy tundra. If your character has lived in the same village for 20 years, they’re not going to notice things that aren’t out of the ordinary. A person unfamiliar with the environment will notice more, be more aware in general.
Don’t stick to vision. Think of the other senses. The environment should have smells, sounds, maybe your characters touch things or feel the temperature. You can use taste when your characters eat their favorite or even unfamiliar foods. Don’t have them see the enchanted forest, have them interact with it. Touch it, smell it, hear it.
Everyone is attractive and usually by modern standards.
Unless this is a world where everyone is super pretty for some reason, not everyone is going to be clean, super muscular, have clear skin, and straight/white teeth. Especially in fantasy with lack of skin care, dental care, or modern conveniences like running water or razors to save their legs.
If your characters are getting down and dirty, you need to show that. No one comes out of a battle without being bloody, sweaty, or covered in dirt. No one has perfect hair all the time (especially without modern styling tools readily available.) If your character has long, beautiful hair, it’s going to snarl, it’s going to be difficult to maintain, it’s gonna get in their face.
Unless your character has a magical glamour, can magically change their appearance, or is a noble person who never gets dirty. They aren’t going to be clean and gorgeous looking all the time. Even then things like crooked teeth can happen to anyone of any class.
Remember also that beauty is subjective, even to your characters. Some people find the body builder physique attractive. Some don’t. Don’t endlessly describe how beautiful/handsome your characters are unless the character whose perspective we’re reading finds that other person attractive. Different cultures had different beauty standards as well so think of this when writing your characters.
Don’t make your “bad guy” characters “ugly”. They can be, absolutely. But “ugliness” shouldn’t just be limited to “bad” characters.
Your character’s appearances can change and you can have it make sense, and if they’re going through stuff that would involve appearance changes, you should include them. If your character gets a series injury, they’re going to have a scar. If your character is going for weeks without regular meals, they’re going to lose weight. If you put your characters in situations where their bodies will change, it’s inconsistent to have them still look the same.
Female characters who are completely badass and can do no wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading awesome, badass ladies. I love writing them. I’m glad more people are doing it too.
Just like you would with literally any character they need to be developed. They need to make mistakes. They need to have flaws. Real flaws that aren’t just quirks or twisted around to be good flaws. Real screw ups. People who aren’t villains who don’t like or disagree with your character.
Treat your female characters in the context of your world like you would any other character.
I love romance in fantasy. I do, some don’t. That’s fine. But I hate pointless love triangles.
This is another gripe I have with The Hunger Games. Some love triangles have a risk of leading to Twilight level ridiculousness.
Don’t throw in a love triangle just so your character can angst over their choice or to create conflict that isn’t relevant to the main conflict/plot at large. Don’t do it just to show the reader how desirable or awesome your character is. Side plots are fine, but don’t make them pointless or out of character. Don’t throw them in for no reason.
You need to ask yourself questions before including one:
- Does this love triangle need to be there? Is it relevant to the plot?
- Does the character have a history of having multiple partners?
- How long are the other players in the triangle going to stick around before getting fed up?
- How does the character in the center approach relationships/love? How do the other two?
- How does the center character feel about the triangle? Do they not choose at all? Do they love the attention? Do they string the other two along?
- What does each character involved actually want?
If you’re going to have one, make it messy and make it complicated. If a princess has a lover but needs to marry another guy for political reasons, how does that go? Does she discover her husband isn’t all bad? Does the first lover come back having proven himself “worthy” of her station?
Does your character’s spouse die and they have another relationship? Does the spouse come back eventually, not having actually have died? Does the central character lose their memory and another character takes advantage of it?
The competing characters should be different, but not “good vs. bad” different. They should have different virtues and different flaws, they should both have something good and different to offer. I want to know why the competing characters want to be with this person. Do they like having to fight another person? Is it the thrill of the chase? Is it genuine? Is it just lust or infatuation?
If your character chooses one and regrets it, the other person shouldn’t be there for a big, “I changed my mind!” moment and not feel anything about it. The other competitor should have concerns and conditions, or be done with it. They shouldn’t be “Oh, I knew you’d always pick me because we’re meant to be together.”
There should be real things the character risks losing by picking between them. It should be different than “who do I love more?” it has to be “What will my life be like? How will this have an impact on my other relationships (family/friends)?” and so on.
In Titanic, Rose has to choose between a wealthy douche who will provide for her and her secretly broke family, or the poor guy with nothing material to offer her. She doesn’t have to choose between two loves, she has to choose love over duty, love over comfort, love over family.
If you must have a love triangle make it have sense. Make it have a real impact on the characters, their lives, and the plot. Don’t let your characters lose dimension over it. Make sure it actually has to be there.
That felt good to get out. There are plenty more, and I’ll write more on what I am sick of in fantasy at some point, but here’s a glimpse.
Remember that you can have all or some of these things in your work and have it be a great thing I’d love to read. And you are of course welcome to disagree on things. Some of this is personal preference, and it all depends on execution. Anything can be good if it’s executed well.
So think about your own preferences. Don’t let this stuff make you insecure. If you want it, write it, and write it well.