Five Fantasy Pet Peeves

Let’s talk pet peeves.  We all have them.  Those things that annoy the everliving snot out of us, and make us roll our eyes.   In fact, the more likely you are a fan of a genre, the more likely you are to have some specific pet peeves about it.   Here are just a few of my own:

1. The Name Game

Imagine.  You’re reading a new fantasy novel.  The protagonist has just moved to a new school in a new town.  He encounters a group of kids.  We find out their names are Charles Rivera,  Amy Lin,  James Wood,  and Otto von Malfeasance.  Hmmm one of these things is not like the other . . .

If Otto has a sinister mustache to boot then there’s no hope.

Let’s be honest, it’s  really not likely Otto is the good guy here.

Unless the author is writing a book in which every name is meant to be an over the top indication of a character’s alignment, it’s not only a distraction from the story, but often a huge spoiler in terms of plot.  Point of fact, if an author doesn’t want the reader to know who the villain is until a big reveal point, then it’s probably best not to name them things like Hortensia, Baron Dracon, Lord Savage, or Esmerelda.

I admit, I’m liable to throw the book across the room if the villain is obviously named and yet no one in the story guesses they are a villain.  I’m not fond of  protagonists who blindly trust an adult teacher named something like Bane Deathstar and then are just shocked, just shocked when he betrays them.

(And if you have an old school mate whose name can be crafted into a a dark little tune about how awful she is, better hide your Dalmatian puppies!) 

2.  Oh, the Prophecy!  Otherwise Known As the Story of The Chosen One

Okay, so Harry Potter may not have been the first.   When this series about a boy-wizard went viral, however, it spawned a plethora of stories with secretly special boys and girls who have powerful destinies awaiting them.   Obviously, there’s a lot of appeal in the Chosen One plot.  What kid hasn’t dreamed about being special with a great destiny?  Television Tropes & Idioms discusses the topic of the Chosen One in more depth here.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Chosen One plot when it’s done right.  The Dark Is Rising,   The Lightning Thief, The Book of Three and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are all examples of decent Chosen One story arcs.   But come on folks,  it’s obvious that Harry Potter helped to provoke a whole new generation of author’s to write books using this self-same trope.  Secretly special boys and girls with a powerful destiny.  There’s usually a prophecy.  And our characters are often orphans.  Mistreated orphans at that.    It may be a favorite plot device, but it’s been overused and wrung out, and unless the writer can infuse it with some fresh ideas and new twists, it becomes lazy storytelling in my humble opinion.  Check out Garth Nix‘s humorous take on some overused tropes (including The Chosen One) in My New Really Epic Fantasy Series

The worst  of the lazy writing  is when the chosen character does absolutely nothing to merit all the prophecy and acclaim, and is pushed through the story rather than actually choosing to act or choosing the course of their story themselves.   He or she is merely a passive character who gets pushed into every event and encounter, still gets all the best scenes and the happily ever after.  It’s just destiny.   I want my heroes to merit the name.  I want my protagonists to act and have the outcome affected by those actions.

I prefer, if I read this plot at all, to read one with a twist.  Un Lun Dun by China Mieville is a great example (the girl who winds up on the adventure is NOT the intended Chosen One, as she is often reminded).  Or The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey (a con artist family inadvertently makes themselves into the saviors of their town when they mess with a prophetic tapestry).

3.  Ineffective Villainy

In comic stories, ineffective villains are great.  In James Bond movies, they’re an essential part of the story.  In serious fantasy, writing an ineffective villain may make me hurl a book across a room.  Dark lords,  evil emperors,  black magicians, arch enemies . . . most fantasy stories have some kind of villainy in play to allow the story to progress.  Check out Television Tropes & Idioms here for more insight. Sometimes that villainy is fairly monstrous and elemental.  (gigantic spiders,  bloodthirsty lions and ghoulish bone constructs generally don’t need a motive to be nasty. )  But I want to talk about thinking villainy.  Though at times it seems to be “what the hell were you thinking?” villainy.


Curses! Foiled again! I would be ruling all of Eternia if it weren’t for those meddling kids and their dog . . . oh wait, that’s another cartoon.

Recognize this guy?  It’s okay if you don’t, but he was a part of my childhood cartoon afternoons.   Recently I’ve been watching the old He-Man cartoons for nostalgia’s sake and very quickly realized just how  useless Skeletor is (so is the Sorceress, but that’s another peeve).    Granted, the point is that the heroes, even the bumbling ones, get the best of him in every episode, but c’mon: Skeletor just can’t do anything right.   It really shouldn’t take “the most powerful man in the universe” to defeat this dude.  A precocious child of five with a pointy stick could probably accomplish it.

While I might be able to forgive a cheesy children’s cartoon featuring a pantomime level villain, when I’m reading a serious fantasy story, it’s a lot harder to forgive.  It destroys the suspension of disbelief, and it ruins the tone.   A good villain should be scary, and not particularly stupid.   The best villains, in fact, are those who are almost as good as the protagonists.  They think on their feet, plan well, and do more than throw henchmen and minions at the good guys.  I like the tension to be thick enough that I, as a reader, almost believe the villain could win. If the villain tends to swan about in a black cape, order his minions to go harass the protagonists, generally laughs and monologues his plans to anyone in sight, I’m going to get peeved.

For a humorous list of recommendations that all dark lords should consider, Peter’s Evil Overlord List .

You want some scary, complex villians that give your characters a run for their money? Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass gives us a few to choose from–better to just not turn your back on anyone!  The Lone Power from Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series is another seriously tricky villain, and one that can almost convince our protagonists that it has a point! In Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz  we know who the villains are, but beating them will be a real challenge when magic and power are on their side!

4.  Superman’s Kiss

Spoiler warning! If you don’t know the reference, at the end of Superman II, after Lois and Superman have been through so much together and she knows his true identity, he kisses her  and takes it all away.  He makes her forget the truth.  Talk about a let down.  I mean, I get the fact that writers needed to have an opening for more movies and it’s useful not to have Lois know the truth, but it just aggravates me.

Superman's Kiss

Same is true for fantasy stories where the person goes on an absolutely fantastic adventure–one that requires courage, endurance and maybe some pain and suffering before they get to save the day etc. –and then comes out the other end back into the mundane world they left with no memory, or the conviction that it was “all a dream”.  It’s my big bone to pick with Silver On the Tree by Susan Cooper, from The Dark is Rising Sequence.  It’s the sense of betrayal I feel at the end of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz that rewrote the ending so that everything is just a dream.  To a lesser degree this  is Alice returning from the rabbit hole, or the Pevensie  children (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)  falling back out of the wardrobe and into their own lives again.

When the hero or heroine goes back to their old identity and their old lives and there’s no change it’s a cop-out.  It’s a safety mechanism that is especially used in children’s literature to break any power and danger the fantasy may really pose.  Now at least in the case of the Pevensies, their one adventure through the Wardrobe was obviously not their last, but there is still this lingering feeling that after these grand adventures in Narnia they always go back to normal lives.  There’s no report of other kids thinking they’re suddenly different, or them having sets of skills that would startle the adults around them.

Thinking on it, that might make an awesome story right there: kids living an entire life inside a fantasy realm to adult hood, yet stuck in the bodies of kids when they return to their old lives.  What might they do with the knowledge they possess?  But for C. S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll, the point was to pull the reader through the adventure, not what the children did outside the adventure.

My personal opinion is that a character who undergoes a life-changing adventure deserves to keep their well-earned story.  And while the promise of a return to the ordinary with nothing changed may be regarded as a safety net to the fantasy world, it denies the actual substance to what the character does and how it affects them.

One of my favorite twists on this sort of ending, however comes from a fairly obscure book  called Under Plum Lake by Lionel Davidson.  In this book, a young boy named Barry goes on an extraordinary adventure under the lake in a land that is a utopia of sorts.  In the end, before he returns home, he supposedly has his memories wiped by  the elders there.  Only, things go wrong with the memory wipe and Barry starts having dreams and nightmares and strange associations that at first he can’t explain.  Finally the whole adventure unwinds again for him, and leaves him yearning to see that other world again.  The book ends with him still out searching, hoping he’ll get one more chance to see his friend again.

5. Magic of Convenience

This one can drive me up a wall.  A good fantasy writer knows that if you’re creating magical powers and magical systems for a fantasy world, you darned well better have rules and limitations well understood.  that is perhaps why, even though I enjoy them, I will never label the Harry Potter Series excellent fantasy.  It’s good storytelling.  But, frankly, it’s terrible fantasy.  For one blaring example, let’s take the Time Turner.

Time Turner

This is a magical device that is given to a student so she can attend extra classes.  Time travel.  It might not be the TARDIS, but this is still a hugely astonishing thing to do.  Either the Time Turner is the only device of its kind, and therefore should be guarded day and night or it is one of many, in which case anybody could have one lying about.    It’s used to solve a singular set of circumstances, but not used later on when time travel sure would be handy. There are several dozen little potions, artifacts and spells that seem to only be used to counter one set of events . . . and then never spoken of again.

Check out How It Should Have Ended‘s clip: How Harry Potter Should Have Ended :

While there’s no reason for the author to outline all the magic rules in the story, it’s a good idea that they know them and abide by them.  I’m not saying you can’t have a genie’s lamp or a super powerful artifact that can solve the character’s  problems. There are a great number of stories that feature whimsical artifacts that do magic when and if they please (a mysterious wardrobe, silver slippers, a golden ring to name a few . . .). But magic on that level needs to be sparing and precious–or with loads of consequences.  Too much power without consequences can lead to stories that are little more than wish fulfillment.  And while that may be fun for the sake of daydreams, it does not make for satisfying stories.

Oh, and that works in reverse as well, Magic that continually fails at crucial moments in order to advance the plot is also lazy writing.   It’s one thing if a magic-user never gets her spells right, it’s another if they only fail to work when the hero is captured or in danger.  I’m going to bring up He-Man one more time as an example here.


My awesome power is failing to keep this blog from posting! He-Man! I need your help!

You remember The Sorceress?  You know the bird/woman magical figure that is the protector of  Castle Greyskull and the dispenser of wisdom?   The sorceress character in the cartoon is supposed to be a super powerful magic worker that can rival any magic on the planet.  Yet in any crisis, those extraordinary powers fail her.  Every episode.  Without fail.  She doesn’t have enough power to stop whatever it is.  And this is because the writers knew He-Man was the hero; he had to save the day.  So they set the sorceress up to never be effective in her role.  I guess it’s just a good thing the main villain was even more ineffective.

Great fantasy doesn’t make you feel the author just happened to invent a particular spell on the spot.  The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane allows characters to do amazing things, but there is always a price to  pay for the energy used, and sometimes that price is very high.   In Chris Moriarty’s The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, magic exists in an alternate  historical New York City, but it is regulated and  structured by society much in the way any other resource is.  And in a more obscure reference,  in the actual book The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, the more Bastian uses his power to change things, the more he loses himself.

So there you have it, five fantasy pet peeves of mine.  Please comment and tell me some of yours!

About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on April 7, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. elliejameswriter

    Awesome post! I’m right there with you, especially when it comes to convenience/just in time storytelling. DRIVES me nuts, and sadly it’s epidemic in Hollywood. Names are tough, too. Whenever I have a villain to name, my first thought is Victor. What a great villain name…but that’s just it. A villain name. However, having a villain named Charlie just doesn’t feel right either 🙂

    • I think it’s about balance. One of the books I read recently has a secondary prince character named “Fred” –he’s actually Prince Frederic, but having him called Fred throughout the story constantly throws me out of the fantasy world. I agree with you about Victor. In fact, any “v” name is going to scream villain (hence Voldemort). It can be tricky, coming up with good names. I always have to go through and list my characters by name to make sure I haven’t given every one “K” names or all three-syllable names.

  2. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    OMG you reminded me of Under Plum Lake! I used to have that book…must find it again. And you put your finger right on what’s wrong with Harry Potter: too much magic without consequences. Excellent post!

  1. Pingback: Five Science Fiction Pet Peeves | Views From the Tesseract

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