J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Three fantasy tropes that need a vacation.

So here I am, fresh off my Dragon*Con hangover*. I love going there – despite all the ridiculous crowds, smells of geek BO and god knows what else, it makes me proud to be a nerd, and re-energizes my love of writing and storytelling, without fail.

*Hangover being a relative term, since as a rule, I don’t drink alcohol.

Most people go to Dragon*Con for the celebrities, the voice actors, the cosplayers, and what have you. Me? I’m a little bit different. The first year I went, I was totally stoked because I finally got to meet Terry Brooks – the author who first really got me into reading fantasy – and got him to sign my favorite book of his, The Wishsong of Shannara. I went to a panel by a bunch of veteran authors in the bowels of the Hyatt hotel about creative ways to kill a character, where there were plenty of empty seats, in contrast to the standing room only found in almost every other track of the con.

Basically, I like going to Dragon*Con to learn. It’s almost like being in college and going to lectures again, except I get to pick what I listen to, and that makes a huge difference. It probably bores my companions to tears, but it is what it is, I suppose. I always tell them they can leave me to it, but they never do.

This year, just like every other year, I attended a lot of these. I got to see and hear Jim Butcher and Cherie Priest talk their craft a bit, which was really nice, since I enjoy almost all of both of their work. I got listen to editors talk about how they feel about new writers (that we edit ourselves a bit too much, evidently). And yes, between my learning panels I went to Adventure Time and Power Rangers panels.

But it was a World Building in Urban Fantasy panel that really stood out to me this year – and not necessarily in a good way. The concept seemed simple and interesting enough… how do writers in the genre design their settings? World building, after all, is important in just about any work of fiction. In Urban Fantasy, generally it is a bit easier than traditional fantasy or sci-fi, just because you can copy and paste most of the real world you know and use it without much hassle. Something else stood out to me, though, as the writers introduced themselves and their work.

“Hi. I write about a vampire who lives in New Orleans.”

“Hi, I’m Cherie Priest, and I write really good stuff. Not sure why I’m here, though, since I’m better known for my steampunk.” (she actually said this, almost verbatim)

“Hi, I write about a vampire who lives in Washington DC.”

“Hi, I write about a vampire who lives in Atlanta.”

“Hi, I write about a vampire who lives in San Diego, and can go out into sunlight whenever they want.”

“Hi, I write about two vampires who live in Charlotte.”

“Hi, I write about a vampire that lives in New York.”

“Hi, I write a book about a catholic priest with a death wish that hunters monsters.” (and, coincidentally, he’s the only writer I was actually interested in checking out further)

I don’t really need to point out the pattern here. It became crystal clear to me that the vampire is more cliche than I could’ve ever imagined, and needs to be retired for a while.


So with that in mind, I decided I’d list out my fantasy tropes that need to die. Or at least, go to Belize for a long vacation.


I had a similar look on my face sitting in that panel.

With the lead in I did, this one is pretty obvious, as much as it pains me to admit. I don’t mean to sound like too much of a hipster, but I grew up reading vampire fiction before it was too big of a deal, and I really enjoyed it. In high school, Anne Rice was kind of my thing. The Vampire Lestat is still one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. I personally think the first 7 or 8 books of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series are some of the best urban fantasy that’s out there*. I still get excited when I see a writer whose work I have enjoyed in the past do a new book that includes vampires.

*Her later stuff pretty much is erotic fiction with some paranormal stuff added in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just don’t enjoy it as much.

But not even counting Twilight, vampires have just been overdone. If I see a new book or writer whose main plot point revolves around a vampire, my interest melts faster than… well, a vampire exposed to the sun. You know, like the ones who don’t sparkle like My Little Pony.

It almost feels like this… a writer wants to take an ordinary, human character with human flaws (understandable), but wants to put them in an urban fantasy environment. A normal human character would normally die within 50 pages or so of your average urban fantasy plot, so they HAVE to be levelled up somehow, and get cool powers. But they still have to look human, because readers like having parts of characters to relate to.

What’s the easiest, most accessible way to do that? Vampires.

If you’re going to write about vampires, at least use them in a different way from everyone else. In Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, he gives vampires a clever hierarchy by splitting them up into separate courts, depending on how their powers manifest. That makes them just fresh enough to work. Some die in the sunlight, some don’t. Some survive by drinking blood, some survive by sex.

Anne Rice made her books work because, while her characters like Lestat are nuanced and have plenty of depth, she goes out of her way to point out that once they’ve transformed, they are not people anymore. They are monsters, and should be treated as such. The most interesting vampire fiction comes when vampires embrace their inner monster, or are forced to walk a moral tightrope between giving in to their inner beast or live a life as a shadow of what they once were. In Interview with the Vampire, Lestat is made into this heartless beast of a villain, since most books of this type do need an antagonist. In The Vampire Lestat, he takes over the point of view to tell us “Hey, I’m not such a bad guy… although, I really did do all this stuff, and you really are little more than food. But let’s keep the facts straight.” It’s part of what makes that book so brilliant, and why it gripped me from the start.

But all those myriads of books that use vampires as a cheap, easy way to give their characters superpowers? All of them deserve a stake put through them.


Dang, he’s loaded.

I’ve ranted about this one for a long, long time. I simply cannot stand fantasy centered around dragons.

If the book is centered around them, or riding them, or slaying them, or befriending them, I’ll pass so fast you’d think the book itself was on fire. All because of one simple fundamental problem that comes when they appear in almost every fantasy series ever written.

What is that problem? Well, it’s like this. Dragons are supposed to be super badass, top of the food chain predators, right? Naturally, that makes them antagonists in most any story in which they appear, since we’re not made to root for dragons wantonly eating people and burning thatched roof cottages. Well, then it stands to reason that if a dragon appears, then it must be slain by a hero. If this is done over and over and over again, it creates two major problems.

1) It turns dragons from a major threat into just another monster of the week. You know that if a dragon appears, it may cause a lot of chaos, but it will die at some point to appease the story and make a character look good.

2) It makes the story in which they appear very predictable. We know there will be fire, piles of gold stashes, blah blah blah…. I’ve seen it done too many times.

And don’t even get me started on books where Dragons are ridden into battle. Not even George RR Martin has sold me on that kind of point.

That being said, there is fantasy out there that does do it differently enough to make them interesting, and I don’t mind that at all. As many issues as I have with The Name of the Wind, one of the best, most creative parts was when Kvothe and Denna are out in the woods trying to survive a dragon that eats trees. And more recently, Discount Armageddon dodged this trope by making the one dragon that actually appears into a big, major threat to all of the characters’ livelihoods. And shocker, the dragon in that story isn’t randomly slain! Always refreshing.

But yeah. If you want to put a dragon into your story just so your hero can slay it, please reconsider. Open up wikipedia, or a book of fantasy monsters or something, and give another monster a chance to shine. Dragons have had enough. I promise you.



Even my beloved Terry Brooks books have fallen into the trap many times.

C’mon, what says fantasy better than a sword? Or even better, a magic sword?

Well, sorry. They’re boring. Before you call me crazy, let me clarify. I understand, full well, that swords are important staple of most fantasy, as they were a staple of wars the world over for thousands of years. It’d be silly for me to suggest that if you’re writing a fantasy novel, that none of the guards in your castles, or the soldiers in your army should be wielding them because they’re boring. That’d be silly of me. Swords are a comfort trope for a reason, and I use them for that purpose all the time when I’m writing fantasy or making up a new campaign for my D&D players.

But if you’re using a sword as a macguffin, aka the major item that your characters need to use to vanquish the dark lord and save the world, please reconsider if you want me to read your book. I’ve already read enough The Sword of…. to outfit an army. Much like dragons, it’s a trope that is literally hundreds of years old.

And to me, that means it could use a vacation. In Belize.


I’m sure I could think of more, and I probably will. But that’s enough for one day. Time to start writing a new novel!*

*It doesn’t include any of these tropes, I promise.


One comment on “Three fantasy tropes that need a vacation.

  1. addisoncrow
    December 6, 2013

    Um… Joe Mason book… Freshman’s Tale… Just sayin’, Dragon guy. 😛

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