Fantasy fiction is rife with tropes. We’ve all bemoaned the most overused: dark lords, ancient prophecies, faux-medieval Europe, quests, magic blades, and so on. Some argue that the existence and over-reliance of these tropes is more good than bad, in that it allows them to be tweaked or twisted. Joe Abercrombie, for example, plays with the quest trope in The First Law Trilogy, just as China Mieville deconstructs the chosen one in Unlondon. As good as those books are, however, they can’t make up for the plethora of write-by-numbers books out there.
The above tropes are well documented. But there are a few that drive me crazy that aren’t often mentioned. I’ll list them below.
How it is:
From the exotic deserts of the south to the cold winter lands of the north, fantasy countries have ubiquitous amounts of beer and wine, if not spirits. Drinking copious amounts of it always equates to being manly and masculine. Every culture has taverns that serve it, usually frothy and in a tankard.
Alcoholism, even in fantasy, also seems to have become the standard character flaw for otherwise skilled characters.
From kava in Fiji, to baby mice wine of China, from fermented mare’s milk of the steppes to fermented reindeer piss of Finalnd, there are a lot of real world alternatives to the barley and grapes used throughout the fantasy worlds. When world-building, behaviorally changing substances could certainly branch out a bit, especially in worlds with magic.
Moreover, in many cultures alcohol is used ceremonially or spiritually rather than to be quaffed in pints in pubs and inns. In addition to the ingredients, the purpose of alcohol in fantasy books seems far too uniform. It would be great to see D&D like inns fade entirely from the fantasy lexicon.
How it is:
For a long-time, fantasy was written in a Tolkien-esque faux-medieval parlance. Over time, it has relaxed, which isn’t a bad thing, but these days the pendulum has swung about as far as it can the other direction. Fantasy and historical fiction both these days has characters speaking with modern parlance and 21st century idioms. It’s not quite a case of fantastical noble elves saying “OMG….Like totally squee” but honestly it’s close.
Too many characters quipping like action-movie stars and also the shortening of names into nicknames are also too uniform to my eyes.
Languages, idioms especially, are cultural. It would be great to see not just all cultures speaking the same but to have their own language constructions. Some writers do this (Patrick Rothfuss comes to mind, as does Ursula K. LeGuin) but language as a vehicle of culture is a seriously underutilized aspect of world-building. Furthermore, modern euphemisms and language construction really breaks immersion and there’s no reason for it other than laziness.
Kingdoms & Princesses
How it is:
This one isn’t as prevalent, but the default setting of fantasy fiction is all too often a kingdom. This is a subset of the medievalist devotion that still permeates the genre. It’s almost as though we can’t picture things like matriarchies or royal systems without familial based nobility…even though they existed around the world well into the middle ages.
Worse I think is the Royal point-of-view character. Of course, Tolkien had his share of nobles but wisely he chose the everyman Hobbits as the caretakers of his POV. Even today I read way too many books where the main characters are either royal, noble, or related to them. (There are exceptions–James Blaylock’s The Elfin Ship has a cheesemonger as main character, for instance.)
For the kingdoms, all it takes is some light world-building. Why not have faux-medieval socialism, democracy, republics, or anarchism? Fantasy worlds are a great place to explore these, or to create new systems of government.
Howard Zinn is not a perfect historian, but at least he helped shift history away from stories of rich white men and their wars. I’d love to see some/more of that in fantasy–more tales of the 99%. People who aren’t heirs to thrones, good with swords, or capable of world-shattering magic. (China Mieville kind of does this in the Scar: Bellis Coldwine is nothing more than a linguist–but every other character is Dragon Ball Z level of powerful so I’m not sure if it counts.)
How it is:
Fantasy has a lot of different places to live. Kingdoms and dutchies, cities run by wizards, hamlets owned by heroes, swamps and forests and steppes and jade jungles too.
In nearly all of them, men marry women in a monogamous ceremony because of love. (Except sometimes for princesses, who are supposed to marry for duty, but this is usually avoided.) Things like dowry and fertility and polygamy, polyamory, open relationships and so on and so on hardly ever enter the picture.
Not only is this blind to both current cultural diversity (arranged marriages currently account for over half of all marriages in the world today) but also to historical antecedent. Which is not irrelevant seeing as how the setting is almost always pre-modern.
Books like Stranger in a Strange Land show how interesting it can be to explore these issues, but even then it is contrasted with the dominant cultural paradigm of engagement rings and wedding vows.
These are fantastical worlds where a wealth of societies and customs could exist. 20th century western wedding ideals are a cop-out, or at least a wasted opportunity.
How it is:
What does the wizard spend to buy his potions? How does the barbarian purchase a new sword? What do kings and peasants alike lust after?
Gold of course. Which exists the same, across all the countries in the world. Even going to new lands, there is no conversion, no mention of any kind of central mint.
Barter seems to exist only in post-apocalyptic societies. It’s hard for us, living in the heart of the neo-liberal paradigm, to even imagine societies that are free from money. At the very least, different lands should or could use different currency. In fact, coin images as political propaganda is an interesting part of history/numismatics and one that could be used to good effect in fantasy fiction.
Converting money at the borders, something modern travelers go through each time they enter a country, is something that could lead to intrigue and adventure.
Also, why is it always gold (or other precious metals)? In our world, everything from turnips to giant stones to feathers have been used currency. Fantasy writers can really up their games here.
How it is:
Most cultures have pets, which are usually cats or dogs, or something similar. Dogs are loyal and cute; seemingly they domesticated in their magic world the exact same way as they did in our mundane one.
Countries where animals haven’t been domesticated or aren’t kept as pets. Lands where dogs are scary or don’t exist or do but aren’t loyal buddies. Places where because of magic, humans never needed to domesticate animals at all.
How it is:
In fantasy books, having sex is usually bad, especially for female characters. Adults blush and look away at nudity. There is a puritanical undertone to all this. This is true of characters ranging from Rand Al’thor to Geralt of Rivia.
Contrary to what American ways tell you, nudity isn’t inherently sexualized. But in fantasy novels, all too often nudity is a shorthand for promiscuity, which itself shorthand for moral failings. Or at best, shameless nudity is an indicator of the noble savage.
I don’t personally want a lot of sex scenes in fantasy books, because frankly they’re just as boring and gratuitous as action scenes. But it sure would be great to have characters from a diverse background of cultures and societies not all share uptight judgement of sex or teen boy shyness of nudity.
All of the above tropes are variations of one idea of course. What I’m hoping for is a building block to fantasy societies that is thought out and constructed from the ground up. Not just a fantasy world where all the inhabitants happen to share our customs and morals (and those who don’t are often antagonists). There are exceptions but I’d love to see them become the rule–there is no better genre than fantasy in which to really explore the human experience. Fantasy is fine as escapism, but falls far short of what it could be–rather than simple redressing stories about princes at war, we need what Ursula K. Leguin called “realists of a larger reality.” Or in Picasso’s terms: “…the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” However you look at it, modern fantasy is plagued by tropes that really limit what it can achieve.
*Absolutely nothing, as you very well know.