How I Smashed 17 of the Most Common Fantasy Tropes in One Book
Rules exist to be bent. Conventions are there as a safety net until we think of something better. Tropes are useful to hook a reader with a familiar concept, but it's so much more fun to mash them up!
When I wrote Beyond the Gloaming Pass, at the top of my mind was writing the style of book I personally love to read.
I seek novelty. Desperately. It's one of the primary attractions of the fantasy genre in the first place. That, and escaping to a universe that reminds me just how trivial my real-world problems are. I find there is a gap in the market for variations on the tropes we know that feel fresh, while maintaining that comfort level of the familiar.
Here's 17 of the most common tropes in epic fantasy and how I shook them up with Beyond the Gloaming Pass.
1. Medieval Europe setting.
I'm not sure why fantasy tends to be so strongly associated with medieval times. During that period of history, pretty much anything that didn't conform to the church's or nobility's standards was fair game to label someone as guilty of witchcraft if it suited the accuser. Maybe that has something to do with it. Whatever the reason, I made some modifications.
I kept some of the elements people love about the classic medieval setting - swordfighting, horse-drawn transport - but here's the thing: my main character is an oddball for owning a sword and knowing how to use it, because times have largely moved on. She used to be a blacksmith, but her livelihood got taken away by the industrial revolution. The town guard carries both firearms and swords. They figured out how to make shields that can stop a bullet, so shields still have a use in battle. And yes, they have steam trains as well as horse-drawn carriages. The setting of Beyond the Gloaming Pass is loosely modeled on Victorian times, with some intentional departures - namely, magic, and how that might've accelerated some technological advances and diminished others.
2. Good vs. evil.
It certainly seems that way at the start of the book. Civilized, familiar-feeling society is scared of the big dark unknown behind an ominous mountain range. Civilized = good, dark scary place = bad, right? It's all a matter of perception. Said dark scary place has plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons for being the way it is. Its people have a sophisticated culture and way of life adapted to the environmental conditions. The land has its own ecosystem. By the end of the first book, all pre-conceived notions of good and evil are thrown out the window; it's up to you to decide who is in the right over what (or that they're all as bad as each other).
3. The “Pure Evil” Overlord/Ruler.
I'll admit that I started off this way and then completely rewrote the character because it just wasn't very interesting. Evil for the sake of evil is not realistic; even the most dastardly characters have underlying motivations, which they believe are logical and justified. Sometimes the end goal is understandable even if we detest the means. My villain is a complex, enigmatic character with an extensive backstory, which we have no business knowing about this early in the series. Have fun trying to figure him out.
4. Good wizard, witch, or sorcerer.
That's not how magic works. Either you're born with it, or you're not. It's not divine, it's Mendelian genetics. What you do with that talent is entirely up to you... and how fortunate you are in receiving the appropriate training. It's a small percentage of the population, but enough to be part of everyday life, part of the economy, part of how cultures function.
5. Chosen one.
My main characters are relatively 'normal' people - at least by the definition of normal in the world of Beyond the Gloaming Pass. Eccentric, yes, but not chosen. Unless you count being used and ordered around by their superiors, because their respective talents make them valued contributors to one grand scheme or another. There's no prophecy, no secret inheritance - just grit and determination.
Not taverns, but inns and hotels, there for the sole purpose of providing accommodation - because sometimes characters just need a place to sleep, you know? Fantasy characters always seem to head for the nearest tavern when in search of information. I can't say that has ever worked for me. Nothing to see here - move along.
7. Reluctant hero.
Reluctant, yes. Hero? Rubriel is far too down to earth for that nonsense. Both my main characters are capable and mature enough to understand their own strengths and limitations. One seeks self-improvement, the other misses her 'glory days'. Neither of them wanted to be caught up in anything as large as a brewing conflict between nations, but they handle it bravely. Love is the primary motivator, but do their actions make them more hero than villain? Again, it's a matter of perspective.
8. Not really dead.
This is as common in video games as it is in books, and while it can make for a good plot twist in the right situation, it is not something I plan to do with this series. For me, it is important for there to be consequences following a death - and character development as a result of those consequences. Bringing a character back to life robs their initial death of its impact. Once you've established that precedent, the stakes are instantly lowered. It's hard to take the threat of death seriously once you've already broken one of the most fundamental laws of nature. In Beyond the Gloaming Pass, it is possible for a spirit of the deceased to remain in the world of the living, but spirits are mostly unrecognizable as their former selves, and direct interactions with the living are challenging for them.
9. Libraries filled with hidden knowledge.
Hopefully, my readers love books, and that's why they read them. Libraries and characters with a book obsession will always be a hit with readers because they can relate. However, in Beyond the Gloaming Pass, the characters' fascination is not so much with books - it's maps and cartography, which happens to be more relevant to the plot. Printing presses are a thing, books are mass-produced. You're unlikely to find hidden knowledge in a Bantrian library.
10. The mentor.
If only there was someone so wise in the world to guide us along the right path... Sadly, that does not exist - in the real world, or Beyond the Gloaming Pass.
11. Fantastical creatures.
Elves, dwarves, giant spiders and dragons are so last century. What about giant blood-sucking bats? Huge bulls with exceptionally long horns? Did I mention they're domesticable? My creatures are non-traditional and used sparingly.
12. Hidden truth or inheritance.
Hidden truths aplenty, but I promise it's not all what you think. Subtle mystery is sprinkled throughout, not essential to the plot, but there if you're the observant type who likes to speculate over what the small details might mean.
13. Damsels in distress.
These damsels fight back. They're not afraid to influence, manipulate, and sneak their way into and out of trouble when a show of strength is a poor option. They get hurt, they recover, they carry on. After a lifetime of fending for themselves, these ladies are used to taking care of their own problems while still retaining feminine qualities.
14. Orphan hero.
Try 'doesn't remember her parents and is far too old to worry about it anymore'. Childhood trauma? Yes, probably, but she's moved on and lived her life. Orphans are convenient for authors because it lets you off the hook of having to create an entire family of characters and define family dynamics. My main characters found family in each other, and the central theme of the whole book is the sisterly dynamic between them.
15. Best ever.
It was very important to me to achieve balance and realism with my characters' abilities. They are as flawed in some areas as they are brilliant in others. Rubriel is particularly skilled with a sword, but that doesn't mean there has never been anyone else like her. Molindra has very strong magical energy, but it has been more of a hindrance than a help for most of her life thus far. She is an elementalist, which is the most common type of mage on the continent. They overcome obstacles more through sheer determination than innate superiority.
16. The cavalry arrives.
Unfortunately, no one is coming to save our main characters because they're just not important enough in the world. Sad but true. The only option is to look out for each other, make new friends and alliances, and fight like a lioness.
17. Price for winning.
My characters generally try to make the best of a bad situation and help others when they can. You'll have to read the book and decide for yourself if the outcome counts as winning.