Traditional Fantasy Tropes I Can’t Stand, and What They Mean for The Shannara Chronicles TV Series

So first off, I love fantasy. And yet, upon hearing that, most people assume I’m a fan of the huge, big-name fantasies. The traditional stuff, the things that follow the common, most recognizable tropes. But that isn’t true. I like the non-traditional stuff, the works that avoid those most recognizable tropes. In some cases, I actively dislike some of the common, recurring themes in fantasy. That isn’t to say that these things are inherently bad in and of themselves–obviously they work for a lot of people–but they don’t work for me.

Here are the things I tend to avoid like the plague:

1. Chosen one narratives: Some protagonist, through no talent or ability of their own, is destined for greatness. Why? Because the story says so. I generally like to see my characters rise because of their own agency or skills, instead of some prophecy that chooses them. These protagonists might come to fit their role better later on, but they don’t earn what they have against all odds, because the people who believe in them are actually only believing in the prophecy. 

An average person is pulled out of the crowd at random, and is declared special, for reasons that have nothing to do with them. They’re different from everyone else by virtue of having a nonstandard background, but they don’t have to go through the full brunt of the hardships usually associated that. It’s wish fulfillment, but it certainly doesn’t fulfill any of my wishes. I don’t want to see protagonists handed status and importance for reasons that have nothing to do with them. I want them to fight for it. And if there’s an unfair amount of obstacles in place for them, I don’t want those obstacles glossed over because the prophecy allows the hero to skip a good deal of them. 

2. Princesses: Fiction is littered with princesses. Part of my problem with this is that they’re massively over-represented, blocking out all manner of other interesting character roles. And the other part is that they’re usually done in a way that bores me. Once again, we tend to have characters with status and importance without ever actually earning them. Or a responsibility without choosing it. Often, they have the exact same flaws, over and over again. They’re spoiled, and they need to learn to accept others. It’s just so overdone. This doesn’t need to be every story.

3. Villains evil for the sake of evilness: I probably don’t have to explain this one, enough people share my reservations. It’s a way to make things easier, to not have to deal with moral complexity. But it doesn’t work for me, because it means dismissing a character as a person.

In any case, of the standard fantasy tropes, there are the ones I usually can’t stand.

You’ll notice at least two-thirds of this list is the bread and butter of traditional fantasy series, the kind that dominated the genre in the 90s and early 2000s. I passed by so many of these books while I was perusing the fantasy section in bookstores, before the ebook market took off. They could be perfectly good books, and they certainly have the audience to back up that claim, but that didn’t change the fact that I had no desire to read them. Meanwhile, I was searching for something different. Something that was specifically missing those key words–‘prophecy’, ‘chosen’, ‘princess’, and ‘evil’. Something like the works of GRRM, Robin Hobb, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Jacqueline Carey.

This is all a prelude to saying that, while I’ve been aware of the popularity of the Shannara books, I’ve never read them. No matter how good these books might be, they sound like exactly the kind of thing that isn’t for me. So when I heard there was going to be a TV adaptation, I wasn’t excited. I don’t know if I would even have given it a chance, without the intervention of a friend. But I did, and it was neither as bad as I expected, nor as good as I hoped for. 

The Shannara Chronicles

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Borrowed from comingsoon.net

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: An ancient magical tree called the Ellcrys has held (evil) demons at bay for centuries–but now it’s dying. Our main protagonists (including a chosen one and princess) must protect the tree, to keep the world safe.

Series: First season is airing.

I’ve Watched: The first two episodes.

Verdict: Watchable, but extremely frustrating.

One thing I will say, I really do like the setting. This is a good looking show. It also has a good flow, and is well crafted. The characters themselves are fine, and have potential. But when our main protagonists start interacting with each other, it all comes apart.

The show starts off promising enough, with one of our main characters (Amberle) breaking with tradition to take on a task of her own choosing. No foreordained tasks thrust on a protagonist here. Granted, Amberle is a princess, which means that disgruntled looks are the extent of the consequences she suffers for ignoring society’s unspoken rules–but then, the story isn’t about social struggle, so this aspect had to be glossed over. This opening plot point is a bit idealistic, and a bit formulaic, but ultimately engaging. 

Then we’re introduced to Wil, a half-elven, half-human man who’s studying to be a healer in a poor village. I had no objections to him as a character in his first few scenes, until he left home. It all starts to go wrong when he decides to take a shortcut under a waterfall (really?), and accidentally ends up in dangerous territory. 

Before, my impression of Wil was as a somewhat sensitive, if naive, young man who knows what he wants out of life. But from this point onward, the show would do everything in its power to make him seem utterly pathetic. He’ll say exactly the most cringeworthy thing at the most cringeworthy time. He goes from pursuing a craft he’s already invested in, to following around a random druid who insists he’s got some kind of destiny because his dad was a really powerful dude. I literally do not know how he manages to get himself into some of these situations.

And the thing is, every now and again he’ll make a sardonic quip demonstrating that he realizes how utterly unsuited he is for this quest. It’s almost enough to earn a bit of my respect, but the problem is that all he does is make quips. He has literally nothing to recommend him to this journey except for a bloodline he didn’t even know about, yet we don’t see any reason why he decides to do this. In fact, we see no reasoning from him at all. When he makes a decision, we have no idea why. It’s like so much of his characterization is going towards making him pathetic that none of it can be spared to humanize his experiences.

Worse still,  the quality of the writing noticeably drops whenever the main characters interact. Their being in a scene together reduces them to the equivalent of twelve year-olds, and the dialogue adapts accordingly. 

Like, when Amberle and Eretria first met. It takes all of five seconds before they’re bickering like children trying to steal each others’ toys, wailing about how the other couldn’t possibly understand their lives. Or when Amberle and Wil meet. Which happens while she’s bathing naked under a waterfall, because of course it does.

Also, Amberle’s fashion is terrible. Yes, I have no fashion sense of my own, so perhaps my opinion isn’t objective. But opinions aren’t meant to be objective, and I have two things to say about her outfit at her celebration party. 1) She could wear it to a party at the Capitol from the Hunger Games trilogy, and not stand out. 2) Why was she the only person in the room who was barely dressed? Literally every single other character, regardless of gender, was wearing easily twice as much as she was.

I like Amberle’s uncle, though. He’s easily my favorite character. Not that I’m going to continue subjecting myself to this series on his account, unless it’s in company.

Overall, the show has specks of potential that aren’t really being utilized. But it is well produced, pretty, and the kind of bad that’s fun to make fun of with friends.

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One Response to Traditional Fantasy Tropes I Can’t Stand, and What They Mean for The Shannara Chronicles TV Series

  1. Good commentary on the first couple episodes. I especially like your last sentence about making fun of it with friends.

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