SF & Fantasy

Poll: Which Epic Fantasy Trope Do You Dislike Most?


feist-magicianIn this age of the internet(s), I’ve witnessed a great many readers and writers belittling epic fantasy at its core recently.

Perhaps epic fantasy deserves it, albeit in an indirect way. After all, epic fantasy lorded over all other sub-genres of fantasy for several decades, crowding out other forms like urban fantasy, steampunk, and the like.

Things are different now though. Urban fantasy. Grimdark. Steampunk. Paranormal romance. These are growing areas in the publishing industry. Yet many readers like myself grew up with stories told in the tradition of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, where Jungian archetypes infuse the stories. The everyman orphan discovers he is more than he seems. He is called into battle against a terrible foe, a dark lord, that will destroy the world if not stopped. To aid the orphan in his quest, a wise mentor/teacher steps to the fore, offering guidance until the orphan is prepared to rid the world of evil. Talismans may be involved. Quests are assured.

I grew up with these archetypes as many of you likely did. I read The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, Magician by Raymond E. Feist, The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams. Even newer writers like Patrick Rothfuss use these archetypes to infuse their stories.

These archetypes exist because, as Carl Jung put it, we have a “collective unconscious”, a kind of inherited pool of psychological experiences that influence us without our consciously being aware of them. We enjoy these archetypes because they are intrinsic to our nature.

But humans are more than their nature. We yearn for the “else” at times. Hence the rebutting need for grimdark fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, etc.

For me, I yearn for and read all types of stories but I still venture back to that tried and true collective epic fantasy formula that has been around for millennia. But that does not mean that I like all of the archetypes. Some just downright annoy the hellfire out of me, to be honest!

So here are some examples of the archetypes:

  • The OPPHAN
    Arthur Pendragon. Shea Ohmsford. Frodo Baggins. Belgarion. Richard Cypher. Pug. Ged. Eragon. Lyra Belacqua. Harry Potter. Simon Snowlock. Kvothe.
  • THE DARK LORD
    Sauron. The Warlock Lord. Lord Voldemort. Torak. Darken Rahl. Taran. The Dark One. Galbatorix. Ineluki the Storm King. The Chandrian.
  • THE MENTOR/TEACHER
    Merlin. Allanon. Gandalf. Macros the Black. Belgarath & Polgara. Brom. Dumbledore. Dallben. Zedd. Elodin.
  • GOOD VS. EVIL
    The Jedi vs. the Sith. Richard Rahl vs. Darken Rahl. Garion vs. Torak. Harry vs. Voldemort. Simon Snowlock vs. Ineluki the Storm King. Frodo vs. Sauron. Kvothe vs. Cinder.
  • THE QUEST
    The search for the Holy Grail. The trek into Mordor to destroy a ring. The slog northward to end the Warlock Lord. The hunt for the Orb of Aldur. Seeking Dust. The pursuit for Sorrow, Memory, and Thorn. The rebirth of the Ellcrys.
  • THE MEDIEVALISM SETTING
    Middle-earth. The Four Lands. Osten Ard. Earthsea. Prydain. The Westland, Midlands, and D’hara. Four Corners.
  • RACES
    Humans. Elves. Dwarves. Orcs. Trolls. Gnomes. Dragons. Fairies. Sithi. The Fey.
  • MAGICAL TALISMANS
    A magic ring that makes people invisible even as it corrupts their heart. A sword that confront’s people’s lies. A sword that acts like a drug. A magic tree that forbids demons from entering existence. Three swords that, when brought together, fulfill dark prophecy. A white gold ring filled with wild magic. An orb that can undo reality. A black cauldron able to bring back the dead.

My poll question today is:

Which epic fantasy trope do you dislike the most?



23 Responses to “Poll: Which Epic Fantasy Trope Do You Dislike Most?”

  1. W.Glade says:

    As a lover of fantasy as a whole (Although some Grimdark writings push my boundaries), I find all the above choices are what make epic fantasy magical. I don’t dislike any of the choices. Throw them all in the cauldron and stir, the bubblier the better.

    It’s the author that weaves a good tale, the elements are simply flavour.

  2. Manuel Sánchez says:

    I am a lover of fantasy as well, and have the same opinion as W. Glade above: if you remove all those things from the epics we enjoy so much, what is left? Do we expect a great fantasy novel with rabbits going to school in the present time? Like the previous poster says, it is what the author does with the ingredients that produces a good book, not just the ingredients themselves, no matter how original –or not– they are.

  3. Penny Hill says:

    While I like “races” and magic talismans, they can get tedious and distract from the need to create believable characters and plot.

  4. Paul says:

    The only trope that shows up a lot that I really dislike is Elves being better than humans in every possible way.

  5. Tommy says:

    It’s not so much that I dislike ‘good vs evil’ it’s that good people tend to question whether such a dualistic, limited binary exists in the first place, while evil people take advantage of all those wasting their time philosophizing it. In the meantime, we all tend to suffer. Good vs Evil can’t help but be the perennial archetypal trope, but at the same time it could ultimately be the most useless where specific individual actions, morals, virtues and values and their consequences are what matter.

  6. Scipion says:

    Thanks to David Edding I loathe The Quest trope.

  7. That’s a really interesting question. I’m curious to know the general consensus.

    As a lover of fantasy, I don’t think I hate any of them. I miss them in books of other genres.

  8. That’s like asking: ‘I’ve been eating Rocky Road ice cream all my life. Which part of Rocky Road do you hate the most? The chocolate ice cream, the marshmallow bits, or the nuts?’

    Um… They are what make Rocky Road, Rocky Road. If you hate them, you can’t really say you like the ice cream itself. And, I love Rocky Road.

    We exist in an industry that seems to think that something has to be ‘new and different’ in order to be good; to have value. Try that, sometimes, with the shoes you wear, or your car, or your friends. I prefer the well-worn, comfortable, reliable and fulfilling, essential components of Epic Fantasy, and hate none of them.

  9. Bear says:

    I liked Good vs Evil until I read Steven Erikson’s “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series… now, every time I see characters branded with “good” or “evil”, I think “Why are they good/evil? Why are some of them ONLY good/evil? What does good vs evil even mean? Is it simply the protagonist vs the antagonist? Is it a question of altruism versus selfishness?”

    I can’t read any series now without wondering why the three alignments are so delineated, or who defined good or evil in the first place. On the other hand, thanks to Erikson, I think I finally know what amazing fantasy is like.

  10. Apollo Haner says:

    I don’t mind any of the tropes listed, but voted for orphan. The orphan trope on its own isn’t bad, but when used in conjunction with the, “yet another story about a prince,” trope (aka the orphan who turns out to be a prince) I simply put the book down. A bit tired altogether of stories from the point of view of royalty, and especially young princes who inexplicably wade through armies of soldiers with actual practical experience.

    Love David Gemmell’s books which not only place the older experienced warrior at the core of the story, but also tend to come from the pov of the lower classes.

  11. Bronwen says:

    I don’t dislike any of the tropes that were listed, but I do loathe one that was not: The Prophecy. It feels like I’ve read too many stories lately where the entire plot rested on a flimsy prophecy, thus sending the character on his Epic Quest. A lot of times it feels like the author could not come up with a valid reason for their characters to fight this evil or that, or to go on this quest or that so they throw in a prophecy and BOOM everything is suddenly on it’s way no further explanation needed.

  12. Its amusing to me that the majority (thus far) has picked that they love them all. Though some can be overused and done poorly, I feel in general as long as the author twists the plot and is good at storytelling, all can be great!

    JT Williams

  13. Aaron says:

    I hate it when the “magic dies” because the world is our history and the author is explaining why it disappears… unless… and this holds true with every tragedy, I’m told in advance it happens. Tragedies are satisfying when you know the end because suddenly, they aren’t a shock or surprise, they are a chance to learn what brings them about.

  14. Karen says:

    I voted good versus evil, because it’s hard to do really evil without making the bad guys one-dimensional stereotypes. We all have a little evil in us that we could do, if it came to it. And even bad guys have some good in them.

    I’m with everyone else. I like the tropes when they are done well. Especially when I get characters I love with it.

    I am at the stage, however, where the book has to grab me early. If I start reading a book and a chapter in I’m thinking, ‘ho, hum’ another ‘Wheel of Time’ or ‘ho, hum, another Lord of the Rings’, I’ll put it down.

    So it’s less about the tropes than the way the tropes are presented.

  15. Thomas says:

    These are vital elements to almost all “Epic Fantasy” stories. It’s not so much what tropes are used as HOW they are used. As weezact7 linked to, tropes are not bad. They are tools, and like any tool, they can be used properly, or they can be used incorrectly. Proper use of tropes creates an immersive world in which you can get lost. Incorrectly used, they make the world fall apart at the seams, destroying the very experience they try to provide.

  16. BhenRudha says:

    I love all the posted tropes actually. The one I’m tired of is the manly men saving the dainty, wilting princess type. Strength is is not just in the arms. It is in the heart and in the will, and neither of those things are dependent on gender.

  17. G. Bowen says:

    I see a lot of agreement here. As many have said these tropes can be overused and thus it falls to the author to make them fresh or pertinent. I voted other because the trope I get tired of is not just specific to fantasy or even books. The Chosen One-this has been overdone so often it is aggravating. One person, through accident-birth-deed-inheritance or whatever becomes a messiah figure and the only hope to stop the villain. Imperfect or reluctant heroes/heroines make for a better read than 400 pages of self doubt and introspection from a being with god-like abilities.

  18. Archon says:

    I agree with Paul in that I hate when elves are made out to this master race that are superior in every way to every other race… but my most hated epic fantasy aspect is the (what I have termed) Steven Seagal storyline/character… where the main character (or one of the characters associated with the mc) is made out to be an unstoppable bad-ass to the point where there is no real drama in the story, it’s simply a matter of when he will catch up to the main antagonist and kill him… by extension, I also get quickly bored of story lines where it is very apparent that there is no chance that any of the main characters aren’t going to make it… again, ruining any sense of drama…

  19. Feel free to delete this comment after you’ve made the correction.
    The first category in your list reads “The Opphan” instead of “Orphan.”

  20. Darcy Perry says:

    Look for the silver lining. Tropes are story telling tools. I like this list of tropes and yet I can understand how bad writing would make any one of these tropes unbearable. Find me a fantasy story without one of these? They work! Sometimes the medium can let a story down. I watched the first series of Game of Thrones and thought, ugh, predictable with two dimensional characters. Then a friend suggested I read the books. So much better!

  21. KC Herbel says:

    While I was tempted to say that I loved them all, I decided to answer with the trope I liked the least (not disliked the most), so sorry if my vote throws off your calculations. ;)
    That trope to me is the stock fantasy races. While I find them easy handles and fully understand how useful they are, sometimes it gets a little old reading about the same races. That said, I’m sure I and other writers will continue to use them -not due of a lack of imagination, but because they are extremely useful character shorthand that fantasy readers all know – and yes; sometimes love. A fantasy writer who ignores them does so at their own peril. How many readers want to read a book that, on top of telling a great story, must also explain the entire cultural background and physical description of a new people or world of peoples. While I do applaud such efforts, they tend to add a lot of excess verbiage to an otherwise tight story.

  22. David Greybeard says:

    I cannot read the coming-of-age Fantasy novels. It’s too tired of a sub-genre. I get that it’s an easy-out for the writer trying to exposition his world-building. But you’re going to have to come up with something cleverer than that to maintain my interest.

    I voted for the Orphan as it is the nearest fit as my most hated trope.

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