There’s no such thing as a completely original book. Take a deep breath, stop yourself from dragging your manuscript into the recycle bin, and remind yourself of this. Strip away the details of Star Wars, and you see Luke Skywalker goes on a hero’s journey much like Odysseus. Ditto Iron Man and Simba. Gilgamesh and Harry Potter.
There’s one genre where following this classic plot structure gets a little too obvious a little too often, and that’s fantasy. It’s a genre particularly suited to an “ordinary” character’s “call to adventure,” his (and yes, it’s often his) refusal to answer the call, to his eventual acceptance, triumph over evil and return home a wiser man. Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favorite authors, wrote an absolutely hilarious book about it (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and then was inspired to write some amazing books that revolved around skewering the fantasy tropes while still making use of them (Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin). She goes into far greater detail with far more expertise than I could here, but I can share with you some tips for avoiding fantasy tropes that helped me write my debut YA romantic fantasy, Nobody’s Goddess:
- Don’t make your protagonist straight, white and male. Some of the most beloved heroes of all time are straight, white and male. But far too many are. You’ll be amazed how much of your story can change simply by changing even one of these characteristics. (And if you’re not aiming for historical fiction, why does your character have to be white? Even if you are opting for “accurate medieval Europe,” your character could have emigrated from another country.) You might explore gender identity in a fantasy setting, too.
- Don’t set your fantasy in a medieval Europe-type place. (I’m guilty of doing just that. But it’s fun, and somewhat rare, to see the fantasies in settings based on other parts of the world. )
- Focus on character. Fantasy is rife with plot-heavy fantasies like The Lord of the Rings, but if you go that route, your tropes will seem more obvious. Get your readers to feel for your characters—maybe even take them inside a character’s head with first-person narration—and even if the protagonist still goes on a hero’s journey, your readers will feel more invested.
But above all: Don’t worry so much about avoiding tropes that you stop yourself from writing. You can always change things during the editing process, or you might surprise yourself and take the story in a different direction than you originally intended. It’s okay if you have a few tropes in your finished product, as people come back to these types of stories because they find something meaningful in them. It’s what you can add to the genre that will make your story stand out.
Amy McNulty is a freelance writer and editor from Wisconsin with an honors degree in English. She was first published in a national scholarly journal (The Concord Review) while in high school and currently spends her days alternatively writing about anime and business topics and crafting stories with dastardly villains and antiheroes set in fantastical medieval settings. Nobody’s Goddess, the first book in The Never Veil Series, is her debut YA romantic fantasy. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.