I Love Fantasy But Hate a Lot of Fantasy Tropes

So I’ve been working on a couple of different fantasy books — it’s a genre I absolutely adore.

But like any genre, there are a zillion tired tropes. For example, I can’t STAND the whole idea of the “Chosen One” — someone who, usually by virtue of their family background, is destined for greatness. The prophecies all say so!

I’ve hated this trope as long as I’ve been alive. The Force runs strong in the Skywalker family? Harry Potter is a celebrity at the start of his story, destined to kill Voldemorte (or die trying)? Frodo must destroy the One Ring that his cousin/uncle brought back from his adventures, redeeming the family name?

Where does all this leave the rest of us? We’re supposed sit back and let the Chosen One complete his destiny? If we’re lucky, we might get to help?

Oh, goody.

This annoys me because it’s so clearly based on the idea of royalty: that some family lines are simply better than other ones. They’re chosen by God, or the gods, or Destiny itself. (Often, this is couched in the idea that this greatness is some kind of unbearable “burden,” one that must be kept hidden from the ignorant rabble, but that’s mostly just a bunch of bunk. From the point of view of all these stories, the main character is the “cool” kid, even if the actual cool kids can’t see it yet.)

But I believe to the core of my being that greatness is democratic: it’s damn hard, but it’s available to ALL of us.

For the record, I will NEVER write a Chosen One story. If anything like the Force exists in any of my stories, it’s available to EVERYONE, regardless of lineage. Effort and character count, not DNA.

Another fantasy trope I hate is the idea that everything was always so much better in the past. Back then, everyone was in touch with nature, and magic was real. There was all this GREAT WISDOM.

But then nasty old Science came along and screwed everything up!

I get what writers are going for here: there is a loss that’s part of the modern world. There can also be an arrogance to science: the idea that any question can be asked.

But I think this whole trope is based in false nostalgia, the same impulse behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

Here’s a reality check: the actual past was almost uniformly brutal and ugly, and prejudice of all kinds was widespread. Wisdom? Sure, there was obviously some, but the reality is that most Ancient Beliefs were mostly a combination of ignorance and superstition.

Science isn’t perfect, but it’s a thousand times better than anything that came before it. If you think science is arrogant, what about the whole notion of divinely revealed truth (which is basically all that existed before science)? You’re so arrogant you think you know the will of God? You think you know the secrets of the universe?

I don’t love everything about the modern world, but in terms of “wisdom”? I’ll take the Enlightenment, and Rationalism, and Social Justice, and humanism, and democracy, over almost anything that came before, especially anything involving “mysticism.”

Let’s respect the past for what it is, and let’s appreciate the moments of greatness in human history, especially the major paradigm shifts. But there were paradigm shifts: knowledge, and our understanding of the universe, has advanced in massive ways. Let’s all appreciate the past, but don’t romanticize it. Don’t pretend the past was something it wasn’t.

For the vast, vast majority of people, this is the best moment in time to be alive. More freedom, better health, longer life-span, fewer caste systems, less extreme gender roles, a better understanding of medicine (including reproductive health), and on and on. It’s not even close!

If nothing else, today we have some knowledge of, and access to, virtually every belief system ever known. And most of it is at our fingertips, in the form of our phones. Talk about the wisdom of the ages!

So there you go. I’m a fantasy author, but I’m frustrated by two of the genre’s major tropes.

The good news, you’ll never see either of these tropes in my work!

Brent Hartinger