Unless you’re Canadian like me, when I utter the word “Zappacosta”, you will probably think I’m referring to some exotic disease one is in danger of contracting on a trip to Sicily. “Be careful, Luigi, that one, he’s-a got the Zappacosta!” However, if you are Canadian and of an age that you were exposed to popular music in the early 80s, you’ll recognize the word as the name of a Italian-Canadian pop singer who had a few modest hits between 1984-1990.
Bruce, what does this have to do with the fantasy genre?
Well, nothing in and of itself, but if you’re patient, you’ll see where I’m going with this.
Before Mr. Zappacosta went solo (he’s still active and, if you want to catch a show, you can check here for his schedule), he fronted a band with even fewer hits and less impact on popular music called Surrender, one of whose songs has always stuck with me: ‘It’s All Be Done Before’.
Whew, it was a long haul but here we are: the subject for this round of posts on Guild of Dreams is fantasy conventions or
tropes, all of which have been done before. The subject comes up because my new epic fantasy, Blood of the King (Khirro’s Journey Book 1), will be released on Sept. 30 (shameless plug) and one of epic fantasy’s prevalent tropes is front and center in my book: farm-boy forced into heroism. Someone, who will remain nameless (mostly because I’ve forgotten who it was), once read my book and pointed out that many epic fantasies have the farmer as the central character, and this person went so far as to call it a cliché. While they are right about the farmer being oft-used in this fantasy sub-genre (Eragon in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, Rand in the Wheel of Time series, and many others), I would argue the use of the term cliché. As most epic fantasy is set in medieval-style worlds (another convention, but part of what actually makes it part of the epic fantasy sub-genre. Move your story to our world or a dystopian future and you move yourself into a different sub-genre), the likelihood of a character being involved in farming is great. In such a society, most citizens living outside the cities would have been involved in farming at least for their own sustenance if not for their living. I could have made my character a city dweller, but such a drastic change to his upbringing would have changed his character and, therefore the story.
So what else would be considered a convention or trope in epic fantasy? A quest? Yep, got that in my story. Khirro has to take the king’s blood to the Necromancer to try to save the kingdom. Dragons, that’s another one. I’ve got one of those. Medievalism? Check. How about magic? That’s a big one; it’s barely fantasy without at least a little. I’ve got some of that, too. Even George Martin couldn’t leave that out of his Song of Ice and Fire series. Non-human races are another big one in epic fantasy (and other types, too): orcs, elves, dwarves, etc. I mostly skipped those.
There are many others, too. If you want a pretty complete list, read JRR Tolkien; he either invented them all or used them all. Good vs. evil. A dark Lord. A powerful artifact. A MacGuffin such as a sword or staff. Made up languages. Prophecies. The list goes on and on and I defy anyone to come up with a fantasy novel that doesn’t employ at least two or more of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably not a fantasy.
What turns the farm boy-turned-hero, the dragon, the quest or the dark Lord from convention to cliché is not the fact they were included in the story, but how they were used once they were placed there. It’s all been done before, but it doesn’t have to be the same. It doesn’t have to become a cliché.
What are some of your favourite/least favourite fantasy conventions? Who does them well? When have you seen them done poorly?
Bruce Blake is the author of On Unfaithful Wings and All Who Wander Are Lost, the first two books of the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series, as well as the upcoming Blood of the King, the first book of the two-part Khirro’s Journey.