Poppy has been an avid reader her whole life and is a fan of all things fantasy-related.
When done right, a fantasy story can stick with you for a lifetime. Due to the diversity and different sub-genres of fantasy, it is a highly popular genre that can be enjoyed by both children and adults across a range of entertainment, such as movies, video games, and, of course, books.
The most obvious books to come to mind when fantasy is mentioned include The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Game of Thrones. There are no limits in the fantasy genre, and that is why it continues to be a popular choice for readers and writers today.
Fantasy writers love to dip into a world of endless possibilities, but unfortunately, a brilliant idea you may believe is original and exciting might end up being one of the most eye-rolling cliches out there. These are extremely easy to miss by yourself, and might require a kindhearted (and honest) beta reader or editor to point out.
When I was 17, I wrote a fantasy trilogy that, at the time, I thought was awesome and original. I later realized that it was riddled with stereotypes, clichés, and painful predictability!
Top 12 Clichés to Avoid in Fantasy Novels
So, what are some overused fantasy clichés that'll have people sighing and putting down your book, never to be opened again? Here are some of them.
- The Orphan
- The Prophecy
- The Special Powers
- The Dark Lord
- The Magical Artifact That Can Also Destroy or Save the World
- The Sassy Female Who Isn't Like Other Girls
- The Gentle Giant
- The Medieval Europe
- The Training
- The Wise Old Mentor
- The Surprise Royal
- The Chosen One
- The Vision or Dream
1. The Orphan
The main character's parents tragically dying in an accident/in war/murdered by the antagonist is an exhausted cliché that appears in just about every YA novel these days, and not only in fantasy. While the prospect of having no living relatives is sympathetic, it is a trope that has almost become the norm.
We can have a brave hero or heroine with a close relationship with their father, an annoying sister, or an overprotective mother! Give the "orphan" trope a rest, already.
2. The Prophecy
The Prophecy is when the story foretells the protagonist's actions, usually as a hero who rises up to vanquish evil. It seems to be the go-to for fantasy writers to have some sort of religious or magical prediction that all comes together during the story.
Some readers actually say they hate this trope because it tells you what's going to happen before it has unfolded. Avoid a prophecy in your story if you can, as it has been done many times.
3. The Special Powers
"The main character is just a normal boy/girl until they discover they have special powers which makes them different and unique," usually after a traumatic event or when they come of age. Really, again? Why can't a character be average and normal, yet rise to the challenge and overcome personal flaws instead of jumping in with their super magical abilities?
Powers are cool, but being gifted and unique can only be charming for a certain amount of time before their ability to effortlessly kick everyone's butt gets tiresome.
4. The Dark Lord
Why are there so many antagonists, usually one tough guy, who is just evil with no real motive or reason? No one wants to rule the universe just "because," and yet we see it manifesting all the time: some unspoken, soulless baddie who lives to torture and maim and kill for no reason other than that "they're evil."
Bad guys are so much more interesting when they have a motive other than becoming overlord of the world, and perhaps a reason or two that they turned out like that.
5. The Magical Artifact That Can Destroy or Save the World
The sword of legends! The amulet of gods! The tome of treasures! There always seems to be one lost, legendary item that would control epic allies, destroy the universe or, more often than not, vanquish evil from the world. We've seen this trope in all kinds of fantasy stories and, unless done in an unusual or original way, is terribly overused.
It's even more tiresome when the main character can track down this special item fairly easily where armies and adventurers over centuries have failed!
6. The Sassy Female Who Isn't Like Other Girls
Everyone loves a strong heroine. Tris (Divergent), Katniss (The Hunger Games), and Yeine (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) are just a few examples. Unfortunately, though, what would have been different and sassy twenty years ago has now been used so much that it has become even more of a stereotype than the simpering damsel in distress of the early Disney days.
Some overused female character clichés include:
- Hating makeup and all things girly. A strong female doesn't always have to be a tomboy. Her disdain of "girly" women just makes her seem catty.
- Hating men. A "don't need no man" kind of attitude can be charming at first, but a character who turns up her nose at half the population because of their gender doesn't sit well with most folks.
- Breathtakingly beautiful but doesn't know it. Writers often write about characters who they wish they were, and it can be tempting to be an aesthetically perfect female character, but of course, has no idea her thick locks and epic jawline make those around her swoon. Your character can have physical flaws. Jacqueline Wilson does this a lot with her stories about young girls, and it sticks with you and makes a character way more relatable.
- Kicking everyone's ass all the time. Your girl doesn't have to be the best at everything. This can be everything from sword fighting to video games - your character can be strong without being perfect.
- Is really bad with children. I've seen this time and time again in stories and movies. Children seem to be condemned as something cool girls don't like, which isn't true at all. Your character doesn't have to have overpowering maternal instincts, but leave the "eww, kids" attitude on the back burner.
- Extremely rude and mean. A bad attitude doesn't equal strength. A strong character is empathetic and kind as well as fearless. A character who berates people for being upset or refuses to help the weak can be potentially unlikable and damage your story.
- Absolutely perfect with no flaws. This is a manifestation of a drop-dead gorgeous girl who is top of her class in everything and never loses a battle or an argument. Cool, but utterly unrelatable and unrealistic. We can't identify with someone who has never failed or had a bad day.
Your character needs to have flaws, fears, and self-doubt from time to time. Harry Potter had an awful temper. Frodo was almost possessed by the ring. Tris had mixed feelings about the things she needed to do. Let these inspire your heroine.
7. The Gentle Giant
It seems that everyone, at the same time, thought to themselves, "You know what's charming and original? A huge beefy guy who isn't huge and beefy on the inside, but a real softie!"
While some concepts of having looks that clash with personality are original, the Gentle Giant is not. TVTropes gives more detail on why this has become a stereotype.
8. The Medieval Europe
Fantasy is an awesome genre, but medieval Europe-esque worlds with harsh winters and rolling hills have become the go-to for fantasy novels (and video games as well; just look at Skyrim, The Witcher, and Dragon Age). Some have even started to call it a "stock" world.
When I wrote my fantasy trilogy at 17, I believed I was basing the world on Scotland, my home country. Then when a reader said that it was boring and unoriginal, I realized that he was right. Mountains, rivers, and forests are romantic as heck, but your world needs something special that separates it from the rest if it's going to stick out.
9. The Training
Not only in fantasy, but in many YA books, there is a period of "training." This could be from the mentor or group of friends in a sword fighting arena or a magical academy. I appreciate this is sometimes needed to develop the character's skills, but it could be done over a period of time throughout the story, not just "six months later and she was the best in the class."
10. The Wise Old Mentor
Another story trope that has bombarded fantasy novels since The Lord of the Rings is a mentor, usually elderly and incomparably wise, who often has the key to whatever the hero needs to take the next step in his journey. In fantasy, this is often portrayed in the form of a wizard or the grizzled veteran, like in Eragon.
Having a mentor or teacher is fine, but it doesn't always have to be portrayed as an old and wise wizard or war veteran. There is a lot you can do with a character like this, and it's easy to unintentionally fall into stereotypes.
11. The Surprise Royal
A twist that the main character or one of their friends is secretly the heir to a powerful throne has eyes rolling year after year. Although in its essence a fun concept to explore, it can become predictable very easily.
If you need to have a surprise prince or princess, make it someone who would be impossible to guess! The trick to having successful (i.e., not glaringly obvious) plot twists is baiting—making the reader guess that it's someone else. If the main character is a royal, then have them find out sooner, not as a surprise reveal at the end.
12. The Chosen One
A hero should be a hero because he wants to be, not because it's written in stone. A shocking plot twist where a strange artifact or moment of clarification deems our main character as the "Chosen One" has been so overused that it is almost stapled to fantasy now. It's not needed!
13. The Vision or Dream
The main character has a mysterious dream conveniently holding the information they need to find the next piece of the puzzle, or they have visions showing them where they need to go next. Not only is this overused, some could argue that it's an easy way out.
There are some books that do this very well, such as The Queen's Rising by Rebecca Ross and even the Harry Potter series. If you're going to use legend-related dreams or plot-moving visions in your story, do it creatively.
Writing a book is challenging, and it can be even more difficult to try to avoid overused stereotypes in any kind of fiction! Whether your fantasy novel contains none of these clichés or all of them, what matters most is that it is written well. Hopefully, this guide can help you spot any potentially predictable plots or overdone character types.
Questions & Answers
Question: I would like to write in the medieval Europe setting. How can I do this and make it unique?
Answer: You could add new elements that have never been used before. Different animals, a twist on the weather and seasons, a diet other than meat and bread.
Question: I want to make my main character the Chosen One without making it cliche. If my main character volunteered to help, and then she found out that she was most likely the Chosen One, would that still be cliche? If so, do you have any other ideas of how to make her the Chosen One without it being cliche?
Answer: I like the idea of her stepping up to help before finding out she's the Chosen One. Your prophecy, or whatever it is, could be misinterpreted at first so it's unclear who the Chosen One is. Did you ever watch Pokemon The Movie 2000? The prophecy had a line that said, "Thus the world shall turn to ash." Everyone thought it meant "ash" as in the embers from a fire, but it actually meant "Ash" as in the name of the main character. You could have something like that to throw readers off.
You could also have it where it could be several people. In Harry Potter, it was also possible that Neville could have been the Chosen One to defeat Voldemort, but Voldemort chose Harry. In Darren Shan's Vampire saga, a witch makes a prediction that could apply to one of three vampires. You could have the prophecy be so vague that it could be one of several people, and circumstances reveal your main character to be the One later on in the story.
Question: My heroine doesn’t have superpowers but other characters in the story do. Would that make her boring?
Answer: Absolutely not! People don’t need superpowers to be interesting!
Question: My main character knows she is sort of good looking, but can pick out her faults. Is this okay?
Answer: Yes, of course. Sounds like a well-rounded character!
Question: I am writing a book with the special powers plot. Should I make their powers restricted at some points to not make it cliché?
Answer: Powers are diverse, but you should definitely have some restrictions. What are the limitations of their powers? What does using their powers cost? What do they wish they could do with their powers but can’t? Create a rules system and use it.
Question: I’m writing a fantasy story and I’m really struggling with what to do with my main character’s parents. I don’t know how to get my protagonist out of the house without it being too unrealistic or introducing some other lame cliche. Can you please give me some advice?
Answer: There are a lot of things you can do with parents. Write a backstory for each of them. What are their personalities like? What is their relationship like - are they happily married and in love, or is there relationship strained and close to divorce? Are they similar or very different? How did they meet? How long have they been together? Does your main character prefer one parent over the other? Which one is stricter? Which one is more laid back? How do they react to what your main character is doing?
Parents are characters too, so they need to have their own personalities, stories, and goals. Start brainstorming!
Question: I like to write a lot of stories, but the problem is that I can think of what I want the story to be like, but I don't know how to make that happen. Could you please give me some tips?
Answer: If you have story ideas, make plans for the beginning, middle, and end, character profiles, and notes on the world, lore, etc. Then write the first draft. The chapters might be all over the place, the writing quality will need editing, but the first draft will be done. Then read it through; perhaps you'll come up with ideas for more scenes or feel you want to change things. When you've fixed those and organised your chapters, you'll have your second draft. When you're happy with what you've got, it's time for editing, tightening up your writing, and making final changes. Then you'll have a story!
Question: The main character starts off on the "good side", then later turns to the "bad side" when her best friend was murdered by them because she betrayed them. The main character then goes on a mission to get revenge but regrets this later. How can the main character go back to the "good side" without it seeming weak?
Answer: Having a character get blinded by emotion and bad choices is fine because it makes them more human. A hero who is constantly good is boring. Maybe someone close to her or an event she sees happen before her eyes can wake her up and help her see that what she’s doing is wrong.
Question: I want to make a strong, tomboy heroine. How do I do this without being cliche?
Answer: Give her flaws and fears. Make her likable rather than just a cardboard cut-out of “tough and fearless.” Make her strong in the way that she’s brave and selfless and does the right thing in the face of adversity.
Question: I don't want people to dislike my main character, but I want her to seem human. I don't want her to be that brave and often feel conflicted. She holds grudges and has a lot of issues. So, how do I make her a likable character without her seeming annoying?
Answer: Give her redeemable qualities. She could be empathetic towards people and their problems. She could see the best in everybody. Think about your friends, family members you love. What is it about them that you like?
Question: I am using various clichés: the mentor, the overlord, the medieval European setting, and artifacts that actually lead to the superpowers cliché. But I have many different twists and tweaks on all of these, like making the mentor an easily flustered army general, giving the villain a good backstory/motive, and making the artifacts very difficult to find. Is this stuff still too cliché?
Answer: I wouldn't know without actually reading your book. A lot of stories have these tropes yet can still be great books if they're told well and have some twists and turns we aren't expecting.
Question: My character is actually kinda ugly, and she is really uncomfortable with herself. She gets a wish and becomes a lil’ more pretty. Is that okay?
Answer: It’s OK as long as your story has some kind of message that physical beauty isn’t everything. There could be a love interest character who loved her even when she was ugly, or she could realize the attention she’s getting from her beauty makes her wish she could go back to how she looked before. You should have a positive message about self-image in your book that readers can take away from it.