YA Common Clichés series: Fantasy/Urban Fantasy

| Monday, May 23, 2011
Today's Tune: Little Boxes

One of the best bits of advice you will hear as a writer is to read, and to read a lot. Particularly within your genre to familiarize yourself with its tropes, clichés, and what's currently selling/being published. So, I read a lot of young adult literature, which is kind of its own beast. It's a specific genre, but within that genre are any number of subjects. I'm hoping to break them down and highlight some of the more common clichés (read: stuff that is so overdone it's boring and predictable) within each area.

The goal with this series is not to ridicule, but to inform and inspire a break from the usual in today's literature. Also, clichés do not automatically make a manuscript or novel junk. If used sparingly and mindfully, they can work.

Subject #3: Fantasy and Urban Fantasy

I'm sure the fantasy purists kind of want to kick me for lumping these two together, but I find it necessary. High fantasy isn't very common in Young Adult literature right now -- there are a few instances of pure fantasy worlds (Eragon, Graceling, Ash), but current YA tends to err toward the side of urban/blended fantasy. There may be a shift back to high fantasy in the future, but for now many readers seem to like their fantasy in a modern/urban setting.

The Chosen One. This is perhaps the most common trope in fantasy literature: the hero or heroine of the story is Chosen. Special. A savior. Their destiny, either by birth or prophecy, is to save a world/society/something from The Big Bad. They're often physically marked to illustrate their Chosen status (scar or birthmark). This trope is archetypal in fantasy, and in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing (Harry Potter was a Chosen One, Aragorn was a Chosen One, etc.). It does tend to become a problem when the Chosen One is TOO special -- when they're good at everything, they easily learn things that should take them years, they always win conflicts, they're beloved all around, etc. Another angle to try is opting for a hero/ine who makes the conscious choice to put themselves on the line, rather than being prophesied to do so.

Protagonist is half-human, half-something else. Half-god. Half-elf. Half-faerie. Half-witch. Something like that. Whichever way you slice is, this is a tactic that is often used to 1) make the protagonist rare and/or persecuted, and 2) give them special, unique powers. They're typically raised in the human world by their human parent or foster family, only to later discover their true history, which CHANGES EVERYTHING.

They're actually a prince/princess, but they don't know it yet. Another common twist is for them to be Secret Royalty -- either an illegitimate child or heir to the throne put into hiding for their protection.

Talking animals. Especially talking animal sidekicks. Either the protagonist has the special ability to hear their animal companion, or talking animals are commonplace in their particular fantasy world.

Different fantasy societies reflect our typical, familiar society. Alternatively, they are so far to the other end of the spectrum that they're unintentionally comical. Both instances are cases of weak world-building. A fully-realized fantasy society (besides our own or the protagonist's own) will probably have different customs, histories, philosophies, religions, and ideals. Sometimes writers will go to the other end of the spectrum and create a boorish, offensive-to-our-sensibilities caricature as a way of making a statement. Unfortunately, it's usually just gross.

The Wise Old Sage mentor. Another archetype that is constantly present in the genre, but can be played with to find a slightly different angle. Try a mentor who isn't a crotchety old man -- maybe a middle-aged woman or even a mischievous child-character. If you are going with the Wise Old Sage, make him a little different. Give him a light-hearted attitude, a zest for life, and maybe a little weirdness, a la Dumbledore.

Magical creatures exist in plain sight, they're just in disguise unless you have special senses. Common in Urban Fantasy. Often the protagonist will be able to see/sense these creatures. They've either been able to do it all their life, or it's a sudden onset that leaves them confused and wondering if they've gone insane.

Also, it's very important to keep the rest of the humans from finding out about their existence. They wouldn't understand! Panic! Chaos! Persecution! Secret must be kept! We'll kill those who threaten to reveal us!

Special powers are released at the onset of puberty or coming of age. Our protagonist is living an average, daily, human life until they reach puberty (often shown by menstruation in females) or they achieve a milestone birthday. After they hit this milestone, their latent abilities are released, often to much confusion.

Magical objects. The protagonist must find some ancient, special, magical artifact in order to progress the story. A ring, a key, a talisman, a book. Often it's an item that could cause mass destruction if it fell into the wrong hands.

Villains are maniacal, insane, and power hungry. They're the "just plain evil" to the hero's "just plain good." Because fantasy often deals with the duality of good versus evil -- black versus white -- it's easy to pigeonhole the villain into the power-crazed madman (or madwoman) role. With some tweaking and appropriate backstory, villains can be fleshed out and made relateable. A villain with a calculated motive is almost always more interesting than the guy that just went mad and decided to take over a kingdom.

Super-powered twins. It's a thing. Maybe there's something about the mysticism surrounding twins that makes them such an appealing inclusion in fantasy novels.

What are some of the other common tropes and clichés you find in YA fantasy?


{ E.J. Wesley } at: May 23, 2011 at 6:41 AM said...

Great writeup, Steph! Although it probably isn't cliched, can we all agree that sparkling vampires should probably be forever shelved? :-)

{ thebloodfiend } at: May 23, 2011 at 6:57 AM said...

They're actually a prince/princess, but they don't know it yet. Another common twist is for them to be Secret Royalty -- either an illegitimate child or heir to the throne put into hiding for their protection.

I hate this trope more than anything else. It's like saying normal people can't really save the day, they always have to be royalty in disguise.

Another trope that's arisen from the Hero's Journey is the companion of the chose one who turns on him, ie Boromir/Murtagh/Anakin(because Obi Wan was the real hero of the 3rd movie). I don't mind that trope, but it gets old after a while. And then you have the, I'm your father/brother/mother trope. It's way too common in fantasy.

{ Magan } at: May 23, 2011 at 8:53 AM said...

It's funny because these are all SO true. So how do you suppose one would beat the urban fantasy cliche and still get published? That truly is the question...to sell out or not to sell out.

{ Robyn Lucas } at: May 23, 2011 at 9:50 AM said...

So true! Thanks for the reminder (putting away my secret princess, half god, chosen one with special powers who has to face a hero's journey through a fairy laden forest.)

{ Andrew Leon } at: May 23, 2011 at 12:30 PM said...

Wonder Twin powers... activate!

{ Jenna Cooper } at: May 23, 2011 at 1:55 PM said...

I think all of these are true, but like anything else, it's about the crafting. I mean, Harry Potter covers a whole lot of these troupes, but that series is amazing (as you've pointed out in your post). It's all about the take on it.

{ aspiring_x } at: May 23, 2011 at 7:26 PM said...

great list! lots to think about!
your sage mentor point made me think of the replacement, which uses the morrigan as a really unique (to me) spin on this! :)

{ Sherri Hunt Smith } at: July 13, 2011 at 3:52 PM said...

thank you

{ Lauren @ Pure Text } at: April 7, 2012 at 6:51 PM said...

Thanks for this post!

{ Chrissie Parkes } at: November 20, 2012 at 5:57 AM said...

So let me be controversial - can it belong to the genre if it has none of the cliches?
Put another way, what was the last book in this genre that had none of these cliches?
(I can't think of one!)

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: November 20, 2012 at 7:47 AM said...

ASH and HUNTRESS by Malinda Lo are two recent YA fantasy novels that strayed from most (if not all) of these tropes :)

Kristen Cashore's GRACELING/FIRE/BITTERBLUE strayed from these, as well, except perhaps for "maniacal villain is evil because he was born a sociopath." It's not necessarily about not using these tropes AT ALL, but subverting them into something fresh!

{ linda } at: December 19, 2012 at 9:31 PM said...

Ah, yes. The super special snowflake the uber rare magical power and a secret identity/heritage who is destined to do great things. There are lots of those kinds of characters running around in fantasy. I actually didn't even like those tropes very much in Harry Potter! I liked the intricate plots a lot more than I liked Harry, haha.

{ Sunayna Prasad's blogs } at: January 11, 2013 at 2:10 PM said...

What a useful list. I know not to use these in my books now.

{ TheStrangeAlev } at: April 21, 2013 at 4:03 PM said...

Wow. Thanks for saving my pencil from writing some of this stuff!

{ Kayla } at: December 29, 2014 at 10:11 AM said...

I like this list! I don't like it when books have all of these tropes in them, but the one that bothers me most is the "chosen one." I'm writing an urban fantasy now, and my hope is to challenge *some* of these tropes!

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