Dear Readers: A Letter from Mike Braff


From the Desk of Del Rey Editor Mike Braff


Dear Readers,

Like many of you, I consider myself to be an epic fantasy aficionado.  Some might see our tastes in the genre as a bit close-minded or even a mite snobbish.  Fair enough, but I think that while good epic fantasy can be amazing, the less favorable variety can be terrible; if I’m going to invest significant amounts of time in a fantasy series that sprawls vast periods of time and space, I want it to be awesome all around!  To that end I’ve identified several negative tropes that we see far too much in fantasy submissions.  While none of these are dealbreakers unto themselves, seeing any one of the below in a submitted manuscript gives me significant pause.  Maybe you’ll agree?

The Prophetic Orphan: Raised by an elderly blacksmith/farmer/merchant, your protagonist is actually (spoiler alert!) a prince/princess/mage from an all-but-extinct line of royalty/spellcasters prophesized to save the world.  While the whole orphan angle gives the author a good chance to explore themes like identity and family, it often just comes across as lazy and predictable for the reader.  “I wonder who the lost mage-king is. Could it be the lowly orphan that appeared the day after the antagonist’s coup nearly 18 years ago?”

The Expository Sewer
: Rather than plop your reader into the middle of a vast and complicated fantasy world and let them figure it out as the plot unfolds, we are treated to a long and arduous exposition passage setting the world up in advance.  It’s like having to hang out in the sewers for a while before you get to go above ground and look around.  Knowing the full history is supposed to make the first glimpse of the world all the more magical, but it actually just comes off as confusing and slow for the reader.  Exposition is sometimes necessary, but it should only be limited to relevant information about the developing plot, rather than every single cool detail about the created world.

A’pos’tropheus the De’stroy’er
: This one might be a bit more subjective than the rest, but I find that I’m generally very critical of fantasy naming conventions.  Whether it is including uncommon letters in the name or breaking it up with apostrophes and n-dashes, we’ve all seen this somewhere or other.  Of course you want your characters/world to have unique, identifiable names.  Of course you want your proper nouns to enable your reader to place the identified thing within your created world.  I get it.  But, can we figure out a less cumbersome way to do this? It’s something that is totally subjective, but poor naming can be the roadblock that keeps a reader from getting into the story. This clip from the 2009 movie, “Gentlemen Broncos” hits close to home on this regard.

Now, there are some truly great epic fantasy novels out there that embrace one or more of the above tropes, and still manage to be successful. At the end of the day, it’s all about how the author handles such tropes; do they simply run with something familiar or turn these concepts on their ear?  A great book is a great book, after all, and a book can be great even if it includes a bit of the old hat.

Are there any tropes that you’re sick of seeing in fantasy?  How about other genres?  Let us know so we can avoid them when finding new awesome books for you to read!

Happy Reading,

Mike Braff
Associate Editor
Del Rey Books

  • Jim

    I am completely sick of the evil church trope. Too many authors offer up this as an opponent, or as one of the opponents of the good, non-religious protagonist. Its been done to death and rarely offers anything original.

  • Jessica

    If I come across one more Dark Lord, I will become one.

  • Chris D.

    I completely agree on the first two tropes you mention above, less so on the unusual naming. Part of the fun for me is thinking about the different ways a strange name can be pronounced and then settling on one, only to hear someone else pronounce it differently and once again muse on the different possibilities. My favorite trope, though, one I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of, is “diverse band of heroes meet up for a quest,” where each of the heroes often has something similar (e.g., dwarves tend to be grouchy or untrusting, elves graceful, halflings perhaps mischevous). It gives me a fuzzy feeling to pick up a book, read about a hero quest, and already feel the characters are old friends that I now get to learn new things about.

  • Related to the prophetic orphan, the very idea that only one person can save the world and no one else and the mage/wizard/prophet will do anything and everything to find this person, rip him from his comfortable existence as a cobbler/farmer/travelling salesman and force him to risk his life on a dangerous quest against an enemy he’s never even heard of, providing him only with cryptic clues and a magical weapon that doesn’t work at the moment but that’s okay as the hero has no training in the use of weapons anyway.

  • I am on board with all of this. One of the other things I’m getting tired of is the idea destined love. It’s not as bad in epic fantasy as it is in say urban fantasy or paranormal romance. but the idea that our hero belongs with one destined partner and the whole story revolves around that relationship. Epic fantasy example – Richard and Kahlan from Sword of Truth. That got old so fast.

  • Jane

    @Jessica, you win the internet today.

  • Mike Braff

    Thanks for the great responses, everyone!

    @Jim – Religious institutions often do get a bad rap…

    @Jessica – I’m willing to bet that you’ve already become a Dark Lord since writing this comment 😛

    @Chris D. – \But they wouldn’t be dwarves if they weren’t ornery ground-dwellers obsessed with treasure!\ I agree completely, though; it’s often much better to be welcomed into an existing group of friends than simply relive the same old \I don’t like your race but I have to work with you and will eventually respect you and change my ways\ trope.

    @KokkieH and @Carey G. – Absolutely. I have a problem with fate in general as it pertains to prophecies and destined love. It takes all of the free will away from the characters! They might as well be empty vessels…

    @Jane – Agreed! Let us all be Dark Lords.

  • Robert Pezanowski

    Is there going to be a seperate book on Leia as Kenobi?

  • Chris

    I definitely agree with the three you’ve listed. A corollary to the first is the Prophetic Bastard. And over punctuated names irritate me.

    My addition to the list would be life “threatening” situations for the narrator in a first person book. Maybe it’s my left brain getting in the way, but when a first person narrator is about to be executed halfway through a book I don’t feel any tension.

  • Donna

    I’m amazed at all the copy cat writers out there. One author comes up with something absolutely wonderful (at least some think so) and all of a sudden, there are one hundred like it – the vampire lover, especially…or the “unbeknownst to the female protagonist, her soon to be lover is a werewolf/demon/time traveler/thief/ etc. and she either becomes one like him or lives with it…blah…blah…blah.

  • Queen Bee

    HECK YEAH on the A’pos’tropheus the De’stroy’er one. That does drive me bonkers.

  • Can’t we have just an epic without the whole world being in danger? Can’t we just limit it to New Jersey or Arizona?

    My other peeve is women having to prove that they just as good or equal to men by killing 5,000 orcs.

    I personally love grumpy dwarves, graceful Elves, halflings perhaps mischevous and cowardly villains.

  • TMarks

    One spotlight-hugging obnoxious character that can make an otherwise acceptable story bog down like it’s trying to buffer on Youtube. That one’s definitely on the ‘dreaded sins of fantasy’ list (but applies to general fiction as well).

    Another is going to be paranormal romance, period. It’s a whole team of dead horses that have been beaten. (At this point you’d imagine those hack bandits are sitting whistling by a roadside with cudgels in hand waiting for another dray cart to come along.) Yes, human beings will always be drawn to sex, violence and death, but there can only be so many mass marketed fiction stories around ‘Jessica X the paranormal fishing instructor who dared love a paramour of the night!’ Just so many.

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