To trope or not to trope? That is the question. One to which no small amount of discussion has been dedicated. Does the world really need another farmboy with a secret destiny? Have elves become old and tired? Do you really want another rock hammering, tunnel drilling dwarf? You bet! But then, I love the tropes. I don’t need them. But I love them regardless. I admit it can be overdone. And if the story is weak, all the elves in Elrond’s army won’t make it better. That’s where I think people get turned off.
I’ve always believed that a good story should be able to translate into nearly any genre. Simply adding elves, dwarves, dragons, magic, etc., isn’t enough. And if the writer is lazy about it, the tropes become annoying. Simply ramming a prophecy in so that the plot makes sense, or to use in place of subtle foreshadowing is a fine example. Not that there is a thing wrong with a good prophecy. Done well, it can add an air of mystery and be used to enhance the book’s ah-ha moments.
The races in fantasy are another bone of contention. But again, we run into the same issues. Elves, dwarves, trolls, orcs, are absolutely wonderful in my view. Overdone? Yes. But so what? Again, it’s not the frequency of their use, it’s the way they are portrayed. Creating a society is not easy. It’s meticulous, time consuming, and often frustrating work. Simply ripping off Tolkien is a sure-fire way to turn off a reader. No one wants another group of eternal know-it-alls. If they are so damn wise, why didn’t they get rid of the bad guy in the first place? And why do they all have to live in trees? Are they cousins to the mighty squirrel? But if you give them a real history; one that is complicated and perhaps a bit tumultuous, they can be fabulous additions to your world. This is true with any of the trope races. I think it’s when there is an utter absence of thought and depth you see the “trope haters” take exception. And who can blame them? Orcs are evil, elves good, dwarves xenophobic mole people, and humans…in power and governing the world, yet at the same time the least special and weakest race. Yeah. It’s easy to see why an avid fantasy reader could scream, ENOUGH!
And there is the plotting. How better to start a good fantasy novel than with…wait for it…the farmboy? But hey! I like the farmboy plot. Though massively overused, it is a great way to launch an adventure. Now keep in mind the farmboy doesn’t have to be an actual farmboy. Your hero can be a farmgirl. Or the child of a blacksmith. Or whatever. The point is the unlikely hero. A mundane person who discovers they were special all along. The reason it works so well is that people desperately want to see themselves this way – a lowly worker bee with untapped potential and undiscovered greatness. How could you not relate to that? And there isn’t a thing in the world wrong with it. But if you use this plot, you must use caution. Pay close attention to how you flesh out the main character. When using a common theme, you have to make up for it with great characters and exciting storytelling. It’s one thing to rehash the farmboy plot. It’s something else to do so with two dimensional characters and jaw-droppingly predictable storytelling. You’ll lose the reader…even the trope loving kind. This applies to other common themes such as the dark assassin, disgraced soldier, and the lost prince or princess, to name but a few. Use it. But you’ll need to step up your game.
Tropes in general are not bad. They provide a sense of familiarity that I, along with many readers, find pleasing, and even comforting in a way. Used well, they can help paint a picture of your fantasy world that can transport a reader away from their hum-drum and provide a bit of pleasure in an otherwise harsh life. It’s when they are used in place of well-considered storytelling that they begin to annoy people. You have to strike that balance between the familiar and the new. It’s a tightrope walk, to be sure. But no one ever said being a writer was easy.