Putting the Fan BACK in Fantasy—Getting Past Ye Same Olde Same Olde

Oh, and it looks like we’re in Medieval England…again…

I’m Kim Alexander back to talk about fantasy world-building. This time I’m looking at those writers who make every heroine in their stories a—wait for it—princess.

This is different from Chosen One Syndrome, because when it comes down to it, every protagonist is a chosen one; you’ve chosen to write about them. In this installment, I’ll be talking about working for a living. (More about Chosen One Syndrome in an upcoming blog post!)

When we create fantasy lands like, oh, “Gondfloria” (pop. 2 mill. unicorns), it’s easy to use the default: faux medieval Europe. If we have a bunch of forbidding, craggy, windswept mountains with impenetrable fortresses (I always feel like it should be ‘fortressi’ even though I know better) atop them, the next thing we’re gonna do is make our main character a princess. (Or a prince, I don’t know your life.)

I’m here to suggest to be brave and try something else. I’m not saying we have to make our enchanted land of Gondfloria into an Arctic survivalist encampment. But, we need to think a little bit outside the box…okay, dungeon, especially if the dungeon is full of Northern European royalty.

(Full disclosure: the main character of my novel, The Sand Prince, is – as the title suggests – a prince. But I hasten to add that he’s astonishingly bad at it.)

Sometimes it seems like every fantasy novel I pick up is crewed by the same group:

  • The sullen yet hot warrior who is certainly hiding a secret (it probably has to do with sex)
  • The sassy thief
  • The wise elder (also a thief, possibly retiring, clearly not going to make it to the sequel)
  • And of course our hero, the member of nobility who under the cover of darkness runs with a bad crowd because Daddy Issues.

Any of them may be masquerading as the opposite gender because it’s…daring. My money is on the sassy thief.

Don’t any of these people have jobs? And no, I’m not counting ‘thief’ as a job. You can’t put it on a resume unless you’re actually applying to be a thief.

Even if we’ve decided it’s written in stone that Gondfloria has forests and castles and bears, we can still explore the lives of people living there without falling back on ‘princess’ or ‘thief.’

Here are a few suggestions, on the house: bear wrangler, bee keeper, lute carver, magical bee keeper (the bees, not the person), cook, fixer for the local mob boss, mob boss, magical bee keeper (the person, not the bees – gods, keep up!), innkeeper, wench (if you have an inn, you’ve got to have a wench; I don’t make the rules), bard, dog boy, horse girl, and then way down at the bottom, thief, and finally, princess. You’re welcome.

Look, we want our story to stand out in the enormous ocean of similarly themed and titled books. We can do that by either taping a $20 bill to the inside cover of each and every one…or by making it unique.

I look forward to reading your take on a hot yet sullen magical bee keeper who lives in the misty woods of Gondfloira. Feel free to get on your magical sassy pants and sprinkle some flash fiction in the comments. Also any suggestion for other cool roles (characters) who’ve been forgotten, overlooked, or given little or no love. Maybe one not yet thought about?

Oooooh, extra XP points!

Unicorn trainers? Those suckers are magical so surely they could be house-trained right? Dude in charge of the “Pigeon Messaging Service” that later was forced into rebranding and a name change because PMS a really bad name for a business in communication (one not involving knives and chocolate). Use your imagination! ALSO!

Are you tired of ye same olde same olde? Losing that loving feeling for fantasy because, when it’s all the same, that is well, to be blunt, the OPPOSITE of fantasy?

Next time: The Chosen One, or, It is foretold that you and you alone will fix this coffee maker and save mornings for all of Gondfloria!


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  1. Yes, I do get tired of the prince or princess in disguise, not knowing they’re royalty and etc. I do enjoy fantasy realms that are somewhat medieval though because castles and dragons. But the setting should have something unique to make it stand apart.
    I’m currently brainstorming a fantasy (that likely no one will read but I intend to delight in writing during NaNoWriMo) with a “team” of heroes needed to save the day…or the world…or stop the bad guy. Still in the planning stages here.

    1. Team of heroes is so much fun to write, particularly when they aren’t really heroes. Go!

      1. I strongly believe GoT has taken off the way it has because of what you talked about in this post. So many of the characters we love or hate or love to hate aren’t even royalty. They are the most interesting and ignite our imaginations and passions. Spider, Little Finger, The Hound, Sam, etc. etc. are all intensely interesting. Also, Tyrion Lannister has almost single-handedly stolen the show and our hearts and he started out a drunken, whoring, deject from a powerful family with no respect, no authority and a future of liver failure brought on by syphilus complications.

        And we have all watched him grow and cheered for every success and worried at every setback. He STILL is not royalty and “only” an adviser.

  2. I understand where you’re coming from, and yet…

    As a romance reader, you give me a story about a hot hero and a princess, and I am pretty likely to read the blurb and consider it.

    If it’s a story about a keeper of magical bees…

    Maybe I’m just more drawn in by tropes. Maybe I’m pulled in by escapism. Maybe I have fairytale thing.

    Maybe I’m the only one like this, too.

    But I believe there’s a reason why so many Recency books are about dukes and earls.

    1. True, but can you think of how to mix it up. Same but different, you know? Princess who is a keeper of magical bees who’s addicted to what they make (ambrosia) and snorts that stuff like a trust fund baby at Vanderbilt? Who falls in love with a bard who can sing her through detox 😛 .

      1. Agreed, Elizabeth. Tropes get to be that way fr a reason. Read and write the story that speaks to you! But I’m asking us to be thoughtful and put your own spin on them. I hadn’t considered a princess who goes to raves and a bard who’s an EMD DJ, but there you are.

    2. Elizabeth, I agree with you. People may say they want something different, but what they really want is the same old, same old with maybe, just maybe, a slight twist here and there. Tropes are familiar, strong, and people like them–that’s why they’re tropes.

      1. Yet, I feel we have drifted into a non sequitur. Regency Romance has tropes because dukes and earls DEFINE the genre. Kim, at least in my POV, is addressing a lot of the fantasy stories, not Regency Romance. As an editor that gets countless new MSs from new writers, many of them fantasy? I swear they’re using a drop-down menu when coming up with a story. It’s dull. It’s done. It’s utterly predictable in a genre that should have the most imagination.

        You want to sell books, give audiences the same but DIFFERENT. Want to stick with the same old same old fine, but then don’t gripe about crap book sales.

        GoT is not the singularly most popular fantasy since LOTR because of a princess or a rogue who mysteriously really is a princess with a brooding knight with a sappy backstory.

        Heck LOTR didn’t even really have a princess unless you count Boring Elf Girl With Fainting Couch. What made these stories legendary were the OTHER characters from all walks of life and protagonists who defied expectations (Hobbits). The most interesting characters actually came from common beginnings. Even if we look GoT and at Daenerys. She started out as the backdrop for her narcissist brother who sold her off to a horse tribe. She rose from nothing. A disgraced family, sold as chattel and after everything she scrounged through she ROSE to become royalty through blood, death, tears, and loss.

        Romance is a whole other world. It has formulas. There is an HEA. You write Regency, it goes with royalty. But even a genre with strict constraints needs a shot in the arm with something fresh to stand out and set it apart from every other romance writer who’s casting the same folk. Beyond that? Fantasy? Up the game. None of us readers are interested in the low-hanging fruit. It has bug nibbles in it.

        1. Eowyn could be considered a princess in LOTR. She was pretty cool, too!

  3. I’ve always considered writing a book that features a prostitute as a heroine. I get tired of the same old virginal heroines, princess or not.

    It would also be a challenge to write a jaded, savvy, world-weary heroine as opposed to the less nuanced doe-eyed innocent who thinks the world is made up of all puppy dogs, rainbows, and magic bees (and their keepers, both magical and mundane).

    I also wrote a book with a goblin as the hero. He was cursed with handsomeness, which made him an outcast in goblin society. So, okay, not a job, but it’s thinking outside the box. ?

    Magical sheep herder and magical shepherd. ?

    Oooooh, nightsoil collector! That’s where you find your hero! Knee deep in human waste.

    Turnip-farmer (because you can answer yes when someone asks if he just rode up on the turnip truck)

    What’s that guy who blows the trumpet called? A Herald? Yeah, he definitely should be a hero. Seems like a thankless job. ?

    Now, you’ve got me really brainstorming! Thank you for the post. I wish I could click like on it, but that never seems to be an option.

    1. I’m glad you liked it and it got your mind-grapes working! Imagine what you’d find collecting the town poo. CLUES!! CLUES ARE WHAT YOU’D FIND.

  4. Oh yes, I am heartily sick of the princess-hero. I am ALSO heartily sick of the kick-ass warrior chick (princess or not). As well as romantic triangles. How about the princess’ maidservant? or the valet to the knight? Or any one of the servants? They are privy to lots of secrets, after all.

    1. SAME! We’ll be talking about the out-of-nowhere ninja skills in the weeks ahead. That really grinds my gourd.

  5. The Bee Keeper

    “Not again, Duster!”, swore Goner, the magical bee keeper. Duster, a naughty red-striped magical bee had gone missing for the fifth time that week. “For the mist of Gondfloira, why do you keep flying away?”

    “I should just eat all this magical honey and see what that does to me!”, he shouted, frustrated. He dipped his hand into one of the honeycombs and held a drop just over his open mouth.

    “Ouch!” Goner bit his finger, swallowing the honey drop. Then, he looked at his arm and saw Duster hanging, its sting partly visible inside his skin. “Were you trying to… save me from something?!”

    In a few seconds, Goner and Duster were gone. Nobody would ever know if the honey or the sting had killed the magical bee keeper. And the bees would do anything to keep it that way.

    1. When this is optioned by Netflix, I will gladly accept points on the back end.

    • Diane Kavanaugh on September 15, 2017 at 1:08 pm
    • Reply

    I have a WIP that features a princess as heroine who has spent the last ten years of her life as a common slave. Now that she is free she is determined to take down the bad guys and she will with magical help. Those who know her true identity want her to retake her former kingdom and rule as queen, but she refuses. She does become a spiritual leader, however. And yes, there are kingdoms and castles (I LOVE castles) and dragons but the world is set in pre-industrial Europe about 1750. Enough twists?

    1. This, I would read. I would NEVER tell someone not to write the story that speaks to them. Just think about how much story there is out there, and make it your own. And it sounds like you have.

  6. I’ve never seen the draw about using royalty. It’s hard to have adventures when you’re supposed to be ruling the country. And I never got the virgin thing. I do a lot of soldiers–enlisted, rather than officers, since officers have the royalty problem. Also people employed as mages. My current story has a water mage, though she can’t cook. One story had a spy and another had a clown.

    1. One thing that bothered me about Star Trek (only one thing!) was that we never really got outside of the military. There were people on the ship not in Starfleet, but it was always through the lens of military life. BTW, I love the not-cooking water mage. It’s the details that make the story come to life.

  7. I think it depends what you’re looking for in a book. Sometimes you don’t mind the overused tropes and just want to shut your brain off with something where you know exactly what to expect. I know I don’t mind generic “faux medieval Europe” settings, because a common pitfall of atypical settings is too much time spent describing said setting…
    But I definitely approve of encouraging writers to think outside the box, especially with characters! Typically, the better fantasy books are the more original ones.
    I know I tend to avoid any book where the blurb says “chosen one” or hints that the protagonist will fall in love with a vampire. -_- Or love triangles. Ugh.

    1. Agreed on love triangles. Man, is that played. How about a Chosen One vampire involved in a love triangle? Wait, that sounds familiar…

    • Raidon T. Phoenix on September 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm
    • Reply

    Lawyer. University student. Tutor – preferrably for someone thought to be the enemy faction. Shelf stocker at an apothecary or specialty potions shop. Historian. University professor (non-magical). Am I forgetting anything?

    1. I feel like you’re casting your next book, Raidon, and I am here for it!

  8. How about the eunuch who keeps charge of the king’s harem?

    1. As the eunuch charged with keeping the harem once said, “I’m not going to touch that.”

    • S M Spencer on September 15, 2017 at 6:26 pm
    • Reply

    I’d read a story about a magical bee-keeper ????? go for it!!

    1. MAYBE I WILL! (I totally will.) 🙂

  9. Augh! I confess, my main character is a princess, or at least thinks of herself as one. (The whole premise of “princess finds out life in magic kingdom not a fairytale” didn’t really work without the princess bit.)
    Except she’s not actually a princess; she’s a queen, which is a whole ‘nother job description. But why are queens in fantasy so often a) overlooked; b) evil; or c) tragic victims of fate? Can’t they unionize or something? Why this obsession with princessi?
    Most of my other characters are subsistence farmers, innkeepers, cooks, mercenaries, merchants, sailors and the like. (Don’t call the woman at the Leaf and Bud inn a wench. Her revenge will be long-lasting and poetic.)

    1. I’d like to meet your non-wench! In my book we also have a queen (no princessi) and she is…complicated. (Cait, I think you’d agree?) I think it’s because queen is a job, and princess is a state of being?

    • Anne Howard on September 15, 2017 at 8:04 pm
    • Reply

    Hi, I enjoyed this article. I am currently co-judging an annual ‘original fairy tale/folk tale/myth or legend’ competition, and your advice gives me food for thought. I think you can still write about the ‘usual’ characters, as long as you have a different and original slant on them. The outstanding entries in this comp, and previous ones I’ve judged, are those that are completely original. A touch of humour goes a long way too.

    1. Completely agree! The Princess Bride is maybe the best example. Let me know how the contest goes, not that I have a similarly themed book due to come out in two weeks..

    • Jessica on September 15, 2017 at 9:23 pm
    • Reply

    I didn’t really think about how tired some of these tropes are until I read Rainbow Rowell’s book Carry On. It’s like a who’s who of fantasy cliches, but then she turns them on their ear, so it works.

    1. Diana Wynne Jones did a similar thing with The Dark Lord of Derkholm. Somehow she manages to send up the whole genre without detracting from it. Oh, to have such talent…

  10. Your article makes it glaringly obvious how easily we fall into the familiar! Enjoyed reading the comments, so many ‘oh, wish I’d thought of that’ ideas.
    Guilty of having a prince and princess as the main characters in my current wip, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The protagonist in my first novel is also a princess who sees herself more of a warrior as her younger brother is heir, not her. She doesn’t have daddy issues, more demon issues to deal with. Pleased to say, no princesses or princes or royalty of any kind in my second novel; the main characters are peasants, wise women, priests and soldiers. Though the setting is based on medieval England – oh dear. Almost…

  11. One main character is a vintner and the main character is a solider gone rouge; he got tired of doing the grunt work of a narcissistic warlord. Good times. And I’m hoping that has the potential. I’m saving $20 bills just in case though.

    1. A vintner! I like it. Room for all sorts of shenanigans.

  12. I really enjoyed your post! I also am enthralled by the magical bee keeper idea. I suppose dragon trainer has been done but dragons are indisputably awesome. I love a good herbalist myself. Thanks! I was actually concerned that the heroine in my YA/NA WIP isn’t chosen or secret aristocracy or anything super cool. Now…maybe I shouldn’t be.

    1. At this point I am more or less married to using the bee keeper in my next series. Since this is scheduled to be written between now and when I leave for my new life in the off-world colonies, I have some time to think about it. And you make your heroine super cool under her own steam!

    • robintvale (Jessica) on April 19, 2019 at 2:55 pm
    • Reply

    In my book nothing is medieval and there are no dragons. HLol, for a while there the story was tagged #nodragons xD

    The main pov is a thief but that goes back to when I first started out and didn’t know any better. I’m going to think long and hard about changing this as really, she only uses her training on occasion like picking locks to escape. Taking that way would make things even harder for her. >:3 Hea.

    she’s a thief because I love the character Olive so much Olive in the book Azure Bonds. That was the best Fantasy book I rever read and it was from Forgotten Realms, popcorn fantasy. But wasn’t popcorn fantasy it had an actual plot, developed characters that made cry and root for them. Loved it.

    I think it’s time to let go of “I wanna be like” and find a different thing for Merryn to be, maybe something new that hasn’t been invented yet.

  1. […] writing a novella, Joanna Penn presents writing memoir with Roz Morris, Kim Alexander advocates breaking the same olde fantasy stereotypes to put the fan back in fantasy, and Hannah Kent wonders how much actual history do you need in your […]

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