Fantasy Genre Pet Peeves
I decided to ask people on Facebook and Twitter about the things in fantasy that bother them and promised to keep their responses anonymous while I used them for this post. There's a wide variety of things that were discussed and it goes to show that everyone's tastes are different, but also, there are valid criticisms here of the genre's failings. Read on to see what everyone had to say.
WHAT ARE YOUR FANTASY PET PEEVES?
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The Chosen One
"The farm boy chosen one. By a wide margin."
"I'm honestly sick of chosen one narratives. Pitting Average Joe with a sword against dark powers better left alone is vastly more interesting to me. The chosen one rises against evil because they are chosen to; average Joe fights against evil because goddammit it's the right thing to do and he has kids at home."
I am frankly not surprised to see people post about The Chosen One. It runs side-by-side with prophecies, another thing fantasy fans seem to be over with. I think the issue here is agency and motivation. People don't like it when a hero arises because they were picked or fated to, but because they have something they need to protect, or something more important to them to motivate them to fight.
I don't mind if a chosen one comes from humble beginnings, but being a "farm boy" must have pushed this from trope over into full-on cliché territory. It's shorthand for "humble" or "modest" and there are other ways writers can show this if they so wish.
"Too many complex made up names - like to the point of where I can’t keep the different characters straight."
"Proprietary names for too many things that don’t need to have a unique name. A bear can be a bear. Similarly, important characters, concepts, or forces just being called The Noun. The Harbinger. The Winterstorm. The Cliché."
"[...] I find myself not enjoying the story when I have to sit and stare at a word I have no idea how to pronounce. I want to get it right for the sake of the writer. And if I talk about the book with someone else ..I want to know what I'm talking about. I get it.. fantasy. It needs to be fun and not set in Iowa. But the city of Drendelcinaville. Please don't ask me to pronounce that."
I can definitely sympathize with a lot of these comments. I think a lot of this might come from Tolkien, who was a philologist and made up his own languages for Lord of the Rings. That trilogy really shaped fantasy as a whole, and I think a lot of people in the genre feel like they have to do what he did, which means coming up with unique naming systems that make the world feel different from our own. That has become a hallmark of the genre.
I admit that I like making names up that I don't think are out there already. But I'm also a little worried...Son of the Siren has a couple names that might make people do a double-take when it comes to pronouncing them, like Lord Iesin (pronounced EYE-EH-SIN) and Brandegil (pronounced BRAND-EH-GILL). I thought I chose spellings that are strange but pronounceable, but, who knows!
"Dragons? I get so bored with them being the go-to-villains for fantasy books."
"Dragons. Mermaids. Badly done werewolves."
"I am tired of the same ol' elves, the same ol' dwarves, and orcs and goblins and trolls [...]"
I can see how elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, and trolls might be tiresome. We can partially thank Tolkien for this, then everybody else who copied Tolkien and made them a genre staple. Are they a thing in tabletop RPGs, too? I feel like TTRPGs have a lot of influence in fantasy.
I like elves, though, so some of them ended up in Son of the Siren. I hope I made them more unique than the elves we know and see today so they aren't a clichéd Tolkien elf.
I wasn't surprised to see dragons on the list either, but mermaids? That shocked me a little. I didn't think there was a lot of mermaid fic out there right now. In my book I have sirens, which are technically mermaids (but evillll)…I guess everybody has their own tastes!
Doorstoppers, Trilogies, and Standalones
"Not enough standalones."
"I hate the doorstop trilogies and series and would love more standalones."
"I 100% agree with more standalones. I don't always want to read a trilogy or giant series."
It seems like the consensus is for there to be more standalones (books with a single volume that tells a story in its entirety). I keep wanting to blame Tolkien for everything, since he wrote a trilogy, but I think it also was all the writers trying to emulate Tolkien, plus publishers milking stories for all they're worth, to expand into multiple volumes to get customers to invest more $. It would be nice to pick up a book and have it not be dependent on a previous volume or a sequel in order for the whole story to be told.
Race, Gender, and Representation
"No Black characters with agency."
"Men being men with men. Women? They're for backstory."
"No POCs anywhere."
While I do think things are changing, these are very much real issues with fantasy. I can't speak to adult fantasy, but YA fantasy seems to be getting more diverse, especially over the last few years. But these problems haven't gone away. BIPOC and LGBTQIA authors are the ones bringing diversity to the table the most, so I recommend supporting these authors and marginalized creators who are only enriching the world of books further.
"Biggest pet peeve is when fantasy 'races' are called 'races' and everyone in them runs true to type, having their personality defined by their category."
"I personally find it offensive when there's a race that somehow inherently evil, and so must be killed. The world is not black and white! Create some nuance so you're not just murdering others because they are from an 'evil race.' Do you not see how that's a problem?"
Once again I'm wondering how much of this came from Tolkien and TTRPG spaces. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's the feeling I get.
This is definitely problematic...an entire people are not a monolith, and it's reductive to view them that way! Plus, it very easily lines things up for racism.
"Heroines that are always young and beautiful. I want to see a freaking frumpy middle-aged heroine for a change!"
"Pretty equals good, ugly equals bad. It's simplistic and silly, but prevalent in a lot of fantasy."
"Everyone being teenagers or young and beautiful."
I think the oldest fantasy stories (like fairy tales, for example), cemented this in the genre. This is also something that occurs in modern culture (scroll down to "Attractive Equals Good" in this article), where people consciously or unconsciously believe that beauty indicates morality. Because we see this in everyday life, it seems natural that it would trickle into fiction. Though it's clear it's tiresome.
"Endless travelling without any encounters."
"Endless travelling, for like half the book. I know it's 'about the journey,' but must it be a literal journey?"
"[…] Every single time they go on this journey the bad guys catch up no matter how far in advance they set out. Also every turn of the journey is something. At one point the main characters must get separated. Someone totally new comes in and tries to wrong them, etc."
This one was a bit of an "ouch" for me because I love the journey (I think this is because I've been on some big ones in my life, and I love how travel changes you). I put a journey in Son of the Siren while the characters are looking to retrieve items from the sky and to search for missing family...and it goes a lot like how that last comment describes it, with characters separating, a new character tries to mess things up, etc. BIG OUCH!
"[...] Books where the relationships are so complex that the book has to include genealogy trees. Or any reliance on appendices. It's very ableist. For those of us who need to use audiobooks (especially for medical reasons and not just convenience), any reliance on appendices or glossaries or lists of characters or maps makes the book unreadable."
I admittedly hadn't really considered this before. But I do think if your story needs to have these things in order to be understood, maybe your story isn't clear enough to begin with.
I know sometimes this stuff is used as "candy" for readers, too...but I think I can blame Tolkien for this one, and all the writers who felt like doing what he did. It shouldn't be necessary to include these things
"The master-of-all trades characters that are immediately good at everything are tiresome."
Yes, I believe people want flawed characters!
"Too many Mary Sues that just happen to be desired by everyone despite her 'rebellious spirit' or clumsy nature, etc. I'd love some stories that don't end with romance or always having to give up something for love, etc."
I think this occurs in multiple genres, not just fantasy! Seems like a YA thing for sure.
"When they are super weak against the villain but in the end they find some mysterious power that will help them solve everything despite having only began training 45 minutes ago and half of that was them being in love."
This one packs a punch!
"The hero/heroine being related to the villain in some way."
Yep, I've not forgiven J.J. Abrams for doing this in Star Wars.
"I need magic to have concrete rules. I don't need to know them explicitly, but you can't have a spell work sometimes and not others without a reason. You especially can't have a magic user casually whip out a spell in chapter 7 that would have made whatever they were dealing with in chapter 2 way easier [...]"
This makes sense to me. I'm a fan of soft worldbuilding though, where magic rules aren't explicitly stated, but rather things just sort of "are." But I get where there would be frustrations with inconsistency and logical issues that come up from not fleshing out the magic system.
"Utterly generic European medieval settings where the elites behave as though they were in a suburban gated community. Royals with privacy, for instance."
I can see where this is coming from as it's been done many times before.
"Starting an overly descriptive chapter from a different character point of view but not outright revealing who the character is that you're seeing the thoughts of [...]"
I'm lucky to say I haven't run into this issue with any books I've read so far. This would be frustrating and potentially confusing, especially if the author did a poor job of making the narrative voice of the character distinct.
"An 'affected' tone instead of a conversational one (gatekeeping madness!). And any time shadow work is completed simply by making it consciousness but not actually working on it (same thing with trauma that only moves the narrative, but doesn't show side effects)."
I had to follow up with the commenter on this because there was a lot of depth to it (like Jungian psychology!) that I was afraid I was missing or misunderstanding.
So first, the "affected" tone is kind of like a pompous, high fantasy voice speaking with Great Importance™ that's performative, doesn't explain things, and doesn't sound natural or is self-reflective at all. I wrote a "generic fantasy opening" that uses this kind of voice is you want an example (here--scroll down to "What is a trope you don't like in this genre?").
I also get annoyed by this type of voice and I tend to see it in doorstopper high fantasy novels.
Next, "gatekeeping madness" refers to writers who have rigid views and think their way is the only way to write about something (such as neurodivergence--having neurotypical ideas of neurodivergence and writing as if their presentation of it is the only way to depict it).
Lastly, "shadow" refers to the hidden aspects or motivations we're not conscious of, and "shadow work" focuses on how we reconcile or deal with that. In this instance, the commenter means that the only work done is to make a character conscious of their shadow, without the actual processing of it or any actions taken towards it (awareness but no action). The same thing goes with trauma--a character may recognize that they have trauma, but nothing is done in the narrative to confront it or work with it, or illustrate the trauma's side effects. It's basically a character merely saying "I have trauma" and not going beyond that.
I think these are pretty serious issues to have in a narrative and you can see how it potentially is problematic. Luckily I haven't really seen much of this in the books I choose to read, but I see it on places like Twitter, especially with authors divulging advice!
"[...] Monolithic beliefs/ traits. More prevalent in sci-fi maybe, but entire cultures of one religion or one environment. It brings cultural conflict forward more easily maybe, but seems a tad simplistic (the whole planet is forest or ice, um, no)."
Yep, it isn't realistic to pin an entire people down to a single trait!
"Is it just me or does no one ever get mad? I feel like a lot of times people don't have realistic reactions to things. I'm all about fantasy and pushing through stuff, but there are so many times where I feel like the main character should be so angry at what's happening to them. Cry. Rage. Throw something if you need to!"
Now that I think about this, I do think I've seen some pretty calm reactions to some very serious things!
"[...] the MC pulls a new power out of their ass that hasn't been alluded to."
Yep. This seems way too convenient!
"[...] I'm not a fan of 'time travel to fix something in the past' [...]"
I think there are a lot of loopholes that present themselves that remain unclosed when authors do this.
I think a lot of criticisms here are valid, and some are just a matter of taste. A few responses had me a little worried though, because I did put some of what people said into my own writing, so I hope the way I went about it was a bit more unique (as many of these are tropes/staples of the genre).
Friends, what are your fantasy pet peeves? Feel free to comment below!