I want to preface this by saying that this is by no means a be and end all list. You can absolutely have these things in your work and it’d be something great that I’d love to read. These are mainly pet peeves, things that are often executed poorly, and such.
So take all of this with a grain of salt and think of your own.
If magic is in your world, “bad” magic might also be there. A common thing I’ve read in fantasy is the protagonist or someone who’s close to them is cursed. Hell, sometimes it’s the world that’s cursed, or an object, or the bad guy. Either way, breaking the curse is often a huge part the story.
That’s all fine and dandy. Problem is, a lot of these curses don’t feel like curses. Sometimes we don’t even get good reasons why they’re there, or some mysterious force put it on the world/person/object.
It’s fine for curses to be somewhat vague, but if your curse is going to be a huge part of the story the reader needs to understand why it’s there. It needs to have a basis in the magic system, that it’s entirely possible for it to happen in this universe (even if it’s mythical or uncommon).
It also needs to actually be a curse, not just something that is inconvenient sometimes or something that could be an advantage. A curse of “eternal beauty so that every man/woman they meet falls in love with them” is not a good curse because it could lead the character to going “I’m just so pretty and it always sucks.” Make it darker than that. If beauty is the curse, maybe people start murdering each other over this person or the cursed character will never know if they’re truly loved because it’s the curse that people fall in love with.
Think of the curse and how it has an impact on the plot and characters. How bad do they want to break the curse? How much does it interfere with every day life? What happens if it’s broken?
Curses should also be hard to break. No Wizard of Oz “there’s no place like home” and heel clicking. It should be nearly impossible to break the curse or come at an enormous cost to those involved.
- Where does the curse come from? Who cast it and why? Does it fit in your magic system?
- Why was the world/person/object curse? What is the impact on the plot and characters?
- Who is cursed? What impact does it have on their life?
- How is the curse broken? How difficult is it?
- What does the curse involve? What is the actual content of the curse (ugliness, death of loved ones, etc.)
Sidekicks that are always devoted to the main character
I hate this. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. This can kill a narrative and it will especially kill a protagonist.
Your protagonist can have pals, sidekicks, helpers, friends, and whatever, but here’s the thing: Your side characters are people too. They need to be treated as your main characters are treated.
With these characters what always happens is that they meet the main character and after knowing them for 5 minutes are suddenly devoted to their cause. They usually have nothing better to do with their time (for no reason), and no matter what the main character does, they are always devoted and never falter.
That’s not how relationships work. Strangers who think they’re your best friend after 5 minutes are generally considered a little odd or at least clingy and pushy.
I don’t want to say this is an “easy” fix, but all it really needs is some TLC to fix. The things these character needs are reasons and limits.
Think of yourself as the protagonist in your life. You and your friends probably shared some sort of mutual experience whether it was work, school, proximity, etc. Something drew you to them and not to other people, the bond developed over time, there are things about them you care about and admire, etc.
But if your friends started being hurtful or awful, you wouldn’t have endless devotion to them and vice versa. Even so, there are things you probably disagree with each other on or annoy each other about. You don’t agree on everything with everyone, even with people you like.
Relationships like this work both ways for your characters. The characters need reasons to be around each other. They should also have conditions and limits on what actions and behavior they will and will not tolerate. Harry, Ron, and Hermione had devastating arguments sometimes. The Fellowship of the Ring was not all fun-adventure-dudes.
In short: Tell the reader why these characters follow the protagonist and what limits will you push them to?
Names I can’t pronounce/understand.
This one you should definitely take with a grain of salt because I read stories all the time that I love, but don’t always know how to pronounce the names. I was the girl who pronounced “Hermione” as “Her-mee-own” until the movies came out.
What I mean by this is don’t give your characters and places names that are too “out there” and by out there I mean “not pronounceable in any human language”. This will depend on what language you’re writing in, obviously.
It’s fantasy so things that are too “modern” or “real world” are usually out, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a character named Tq’ilgfxz’ulochn. This is something I see a lot in new fantasy work and I’ve seen readers put books down because “I couldn’t pronounce the names.”
Hearing how a name is pronounced vs. having to figure it out by reading it with no point of reference are completely different things. Remember your readers cannot hear the names.
There are plenty of name resources: baby name books, name generators, websites, even typing letters to see what fits. Some modern names can be tweaked or just made to fit in your world as George R.R. Martin has done.
On the flip-side of this, don’t use names that are too “modern”. Things like “Miley” might make me shake my head in disbelief for a second.
This is a total pet peeve and something you shouldn’t freak out about too much, but still, remember that keeping the names somewhat sensible in the language you’re writing in is a good way to go, unless you have a reason to do otherwise.
This is a button pusher and again, personal opinion, so grains of salt and what-n0t.
But I’m personally sick of fantasy worlds where women can’t rule or are oppressed for no reason. My biggest question is: WHY?
“Because it’s more realistic” is not a good answer. Fantasy worlds have magic, different races, dragons, wizards, and all that. If I can suspend disbelief for dragons, I can do it for the social system.
I’m not saying make it a utopia, but there are so many other ways to have social issues, social conflict, or oppression in your narrative that aren’t based on “real world” standards (skin color, gender/sex, etc.) especially in a world that you make up, write the history for, and so on.
Can you have institutional sexism and have a compelling story that I’d read? Yes. But you should do it, as with everything, for a reason. Don’t put it there for “realism” or to give female characters an obstacle. You’re not writing realism, you’re writing fantasy.
If institutional sexism is a part of your world, does that mean you hate women? No. Just as killing characters doesn’t make you a murderer. My main problem with authors doing this is the realism argument or just to arbitrarily give women characters something to fight against when there may be more interesting options. It shouldn’t be an excuse just to focus on male characters since women can’t do anything.
Don’t go for “realism”. Go for authenticity.
So like I said, you can do this, it can work, and I’d read it, but give it a reason. Develop your female characters regardless. Justify that in your world. Do it for a good reason and explore other options too.
The same races used over and over again.
I like elves, dwarfs, and so on. I don’t like it when they’re the Tolkien style ones used over and over again.
Elves are always beautiful, immortal, mystical, and hate dwarfs. Dwarfs are always bearded, axe wielding, miners, and we never see a female dwarf ever. Orcs are always mean, bad, gross, strong, bloodthirsty, etc.
Why not have other races and turn them on their heads. Maybe you have a race of ocean dwellers like mer-people. Maybe elves aren’t the wisest and fairest of them all, maybe they’re violent and bloodthirsty. Maybe there are different kinds of various races: Fairy-Elves vs. Dark Elves, dwarves who don’t live underground, nymphs, sentient “monsters”, dryads, and so on.
What makes one race different from the others? What makes them unique? What is different about their biological abilities? What place do they have in the story?
There are so many options and a lot of times the Tolkien versions won’t fit into your narrative. So give these races reasons to be there, their own cultures, languages, histories, and so on. Make them your own and don’t fall into the trap of using them for the sake of using them.
I sorta covered this when talking about prophecies, but here I go again.
The chosen one is a solid storytelling tool and, as with everything, can be done well. However, the problem is that it becomes so obvious what’s going to happen:
- Protagonist has a mysterious past/is a normal every day peasant kid/an orphan.
- Some weird event happens to protagonist (magical ability that showed up randomly, a cryptic message, etc.)
- Protag learns of their true identity and has a whole team with them to help them.
- They go on a journey.
- Protag angsts.
- Protag overcome difficulties and saves the day.
There’s more in there, but I’ll leave it at that. It’s almost guaranteed that the chosen one will survive and save the day. The whole random peasant kid=chosen one thing is cool, but odd because it can feel really out of place. There needs to be something really unique about the chosen one in order for it to be them.
If you’re going for the Everyman Hero chosen one, then you’re going to have to make that super unique
It’s tired and unless you can do something really rad with it (which is entirely possible) or it’s integral to your story, don’t do it.
Let’s switch it up:
- There is more than one chosen one or at least a lot of possible contenders.
- Maybe the chosen one doesn’t want it and was happier where they were in the beginning.
- The chosen one is a really crappy chosen one and is horribly flawed (power hungry, crappy at magic, a really bad ruler, not easy to get along with, out for themselves, etc.)
- Different factions have different opinions on who the chosen one is because the prophesies are vague or for their own reasons.
- The chosen one isn’t really a chosen one, they just happened to have to right ability at the right time.
So think very carefully before putting a chosen one in your story. Consider if you need one at all. Harry Potter was a chosen one, but that was more a matter of circumstance. In A Song of Ice and Fire the prophesied hero could be a few contenders and it’s really unclear.
I’ve covered similar ground, but again, here we go.
You can have a moral, a lesson, a theme, whatever, but don’t get preachy and keep it character based.
For example, if you want a “dictators are bad” message, that can run the risk of looking really preachy, obnoxious, and way too connected to real world history and our world in general. Don’t put the Iraq War in your story disguised as different factions and locations. It’s preachy, obvious, and it takes away from the characters’ journeys.
The characters should learn, grow, and change so keep it focused on them. If the dictator is bad, show me how bad they are in this world for these characters. If humans are destroying the environment, show me that in your world for your characters.
Don’t take real world issues and insert them in there to make a point. You can cover those things (racism, sexism, environmentalism, etc.) but you have to do it in the context of your world. If you don’t, it looks preachy and it becomes obvious the author was just writing our world in a different setting.
So explore issues that are centric to the human experience, but make it work within in your own story and in your world.
To be honest, I never got into the vampire craze. I had friends who were obsessed with Twilight before it got popular (insert: “I knew about it before it was cool”) and I just never got into it, even after it was the new hot thing.
Vampires have since permeated genre fiction and that’s cool, but I’m always really hesitant to read this kind of stuff because of how they’re done.
You can have sentient even “good” vampires, but don’t make them glittery, or gorgeous, or able to breed sexually.
The Witcher series did this right. Vampires were sentient, even beautiful, but there were different levels of them. There were higher vampires, there were sewer monster vampires, and even the higher ones (who weren’t always bad guys) were still somewhat monstrous. They’re threats, scary, terrifying, and very hard to defeat/kill (no garlic and stakes through the heart).
Your vampires should fit your narrative, but remember their nature: they are blood-sucking monsters. They are threats. If you’re going to have vegetarian, gorgeous, and they all love humans, than why even have a vampire in the first place?
Fate and Destiny
I’ll do a larger point on this sometime but here’s my two cents for now.
I personally love fate in fiction. More specifically, I love when it’s toyed with, when we can’t really be sure what is what.
If you’re going to have fate, you have to establish it exists in your world. It shouldn’t just apply to a main character all of the sudden because it’s convenient.
Predestination should have a source whether it be nature, gods, whatever. That should be defined for the reader or else it becomes cheap.
Don’t make it clean and pretty. Make it messy. Maybe the protagonist is destined to die and does everything they can to avoid it. Future prediction can apply here, so again, make it convoluted and make it not happy.
Otherwise it’s just feels way too convenient.
Yes, plot armor is necessary. I know that the main character in a long TV series isn’t going to die because then the show would be over. That makes sense and doesn’t bother me.
However, the characters should not know they have plot armor. They should not run into a very life threatening situation willy-nilly without a second thought (unless it’s been established that they are that type of person). They should not take huge risks all the time without considering any consequences (unless previously established.)
The reason for that is because it makes it very obvious to the reader that the character knows they’re going to survive the ordeal. Even if it’s not a conscious thought, the author has made it clear that this character is going to come out alive and well.
That’s why consequences, tragedy, and yes character death are important. You can have “safe” characters, but they should not know they’re safe. If they think they’re safe, prove to the characters that they aren’t.
If your characters have plot armor, they should not know that they have it and their actions should reflect that.
That’s what I’ve got for now. Hopefully this gets you thinking. Remember that these aren’t hard rules and you can do whatever you like, and as long as you do it well, it will be great.