It’s time for round two of my guest posts for Wyrd and Wonder this month! Today I’ve got fantasy author and fellow Scot, Cameron Johnston, sharing his favourite fantasy tropes with us.
I appreciate an original setting with weird and wonderful new creatures and unusual storytelling as much as anybody else, but I still love some of the classic fantasy tropes. There’s fantasy, and then there is THE Fantasy with orcs and goblins, wise old beardy mentor wizards, elves, dragons, dwarves, magic swords and evil dark lords. An author or reader is perfectly free to sneer at those old fantasy tropes and go off to look for something entirely different, but some of those tropes are still alive and kicking because lots of people like them. And I am one of those people. For me, a fun old-fashioned quest fantasy full of tropes can be great reading when it’s done well, so I have picked a few of my familiar favourites to explain exactly why they work for me.
A terrifyingly huge winged predator with nasty big pointy teeth that can also breathe fire – honestly, what is there not to love about that? I don’t mind if they possess human-level or greater intelligence, or are simply winged fire breathing dinosaurs with animal cunning; both are great as far as I am concerned. I like them best when they have elements of real horror worked into their descriptions, depicted as truly dreadful beasts much like a larger version of a flying T-Rex (as anybody who has been in the presence of a large dinosaur skeleton can attest, imagining them as they were in life standing right next to you makes for a pant-wittingly scary scene), or more terrifying still for cat-owners, imagine a housecat grown to gigantic size (we are so doomed). As modern humans, most city dwellers are used to being the masters of all life, but when up close and personal with a big cat, a great white shark, or an elephant, that arrogance falls away and we realise just how small and vulnerable we really are, and if you can do the same for a dragon in fantasy, that’s a wonderful thing for a book to make you feel.
If you ask me about nice and friendly dragons then you may get my frowny face, as I prefer the scary ones, but then I remember Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon and must concede the point.
Many of the tropes I enjoy are in a qualified way, by which I mean I while I enjoy the trope itself, it had better be used in an interesting way, or have some new tweaks and details fleshed out in the story world – but I love magic weapons in all their forms. From Callandor to Stormbringer, shardblades to Dragnipur, I can’t get enough of them. Have a character find a miraculously rust-free (and improbably modern in design) sword in a mysterious ancient dungeon or temple and I will read on to find out what special abilities and uses it has, and to discover if it *makes signs to ward off evil* has something bound inside them. Magic weapons are just cool: why bother attacking somebody with your boring old longsword when you can lay waste while looking suitably epic using your Inferno Blade of Forced Intrusion +2.
Elves. Ugh Nobody likes those smug Instagram-perfect elves always bragging about how much better they are than everybody else. Dwarves though, are cool, despite being arguably the tropiest of all the fantasy races. Taciturn, gruff, practical, taking no nonsense, honourable and loyal, and probably depicted as a belligerent Scottish blacksmith that’s had a few too many ales and harbours life-long grudges. Why I like them is a trickier matter. Is it the awesome beards? Is it that they too tend to dislike those flashy, elitist elven bastards? Sure, but they are also a race that appreciates artists and engineers and who make many things, from ingenious weapons and intricate machines to vast stone halls and cities deep in the hearts of mountains, and that is an undeniably interesting aspect of their trope. They tend to be the most technologically advanced of the fantasy races, which makes a nice change of pace from the medieval-centric swords and arrows and poorly maintained latrines.
The Grizzled Old Badass (probably dragged out of retirement)
I’m such a sucker for the grumpy old warrior coming out of retirement to save somebody or wreak havoc, all the while complaining about their knees and back, being too old for this shit, and taking no crap off anybody. I grew up in the 80s and early 90s reading about naïve farm boys destined to become chosen ones and save the world but I much prefer an actually competent character who has lived a full and interesting life with all its ups and downs. A grizzled old badass character like David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend just has so much more depth and presence on the page than any thick-skulled naïve farm boy blundering about. Jen Williams’ Winnowing Flame series has one of my very favourite older characters in the form of Vintage, who is not a badass warrior, but a badass scholar and archaeologist who will happily shoot irritants in the leg. Knowledge is power, and Vintage knows her stuff and is not afraid to share her opinions. These are not mere pretty farm boy faces on a page: they are rugged forces of nature.
Zero to Hero
Yeah, so, you just read about my extreme boredom with books about naïve farm boys becoming chosen ones, possibly with a prophecy attached, and yet, I still find myself being won over by a variant of that trope. The zero to hero is where some poor powerless sap starts out on a quest of self-improvement and gains great power. The Cradle series by Will Wight is great example, about an ‘unsouled’ weak boy who discovers he is not as weak as he was told, and embarks on a road to power by working damn hard at it. As many of us are, I’m a sucker for underdogs, and when that zero character grows through a series of trials and is finally able to stand up and fight back against the bullies, monsters, etc that’s just a fantastic moment for me as a reader. Bonus points if those who underestimated and mocked the character previously get a big slice of humble pie shoved right down their stupid throats.
The Secret History of The World
There is something greatly appealing about following a character going through their routine days in the world they know (possibly this one), and then having that rug yanked right out from under them and the blindfold ripped from their eyes to reveal that there is far more out there under the surface of their reality than they could ever have imagined. A magical society of mages and monsters, an ancient awakening evil and those who secretly fight against it, I’m here for all of that with my plate out asking for second helpings. I’m a big fan of history, archaeology and mythology so if you can unveil the secrets of your world to me as a reader in interesting ways then I’ll be hooked – hello Malazan Book of The Fallen! Which leads me onto…
Closely related to the previous trope, I’m always all-in when artefacts of some ancient super-powerful and godly-advanced precursor race are discovered. The modern races are the new kids on the block, playing in a sand pit littered with relics of giants and getting their fingers burned by poking them into super-advanced plug sockets, or sticking hands into seemingly innocuous blenders. Where the Precursors went and why, nobody knows, but I always hope we find out. From The Expanse to games like Freespace and Mass Effect to Malazan Book of the Fallen, Realm of the Elderlings and Foundryside, this trope works equally well in fantasy and science fiction, and the thrill for me is the joy of discovery.
Cameron Johnston is a Scottish writer of speculative fiction (usually a mix of fantasy and horror) and a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle since 2010.
He is also a swordsman, gamer, enthusiast of archaeology and history, a fine ale drinker, builder of LEGO, a cat-slave, and owns far too many books to fit on his shelves.