BESTSELLERS 101: Or how NOT to write a fantasy novel!!!!!!!

by - August 23, 2019

(credit to my dear friend Nicole Dust for giving me the idea to write this post!!!!)

We all want to write good fantasy books. We all want to write something that sells. But sometimes, things get a little TOO tropey. I'm not talking about the infamous vampire stories, dystopian love triangles, or angsty drama that defined the aughties. Nope, I'm talking about the books of 2018-2019, the fantasy novels hitting our shelves right now and topping the NYT bestseller list and getting talked about.


And the fact that they're all the same.

Wicked Saints (Something Dark and Holy, #1)Girls of Paper and Fire (Girls of Paper and Fire, #1)Rosemarked (Rosemarked #1)Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of OrΓƒ¯sha, #1)Grace and Fury (Grace and Fury, #1)Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2)
We Hunt the Flame (Sands of Arawiya, #1)The Girl King (The Girl King, #1)


Let's talk YA, guys. And some of the tropes so prevalent in these modern releases--and how to do them better.

TROPE 1: PICKING AN EXOTIC SETTING FOR YOUR BOOK

Wicked Saints: Russia
Girls of Paper and Fire: sorta Asian
We Hunt the Flame: Kinda Middle East
Children of Blood and Bone: Nigeria

Look, there is absolutely no problem with setting your book somewhere non-European. Goodness knows we have a lot of those books. I don't have a problem with setting your book in medieval European-esque world either (that's more similar to mine, gosh) but the MANNER of doing it is what we need to talk about.

Throwing in a few words from either the real language of the region or the fictional language you based on the real language doesn't count as worldbuilding. 

Making your characters non-white just for the sake of not being white doesn't count as worldbuilding, much though I know we all wish it did.

Having vaguely Asian sounding food doesn't count as worldbuilding.

Making character's names unpronounceable for the sake of "authenticity" doesn't count as worldbuilding.

If you're going to base your book's culture off a real place, be it Europe or somewhere else, do research. Make it genuinely important. Slip in aspects of the culture that people might not know about. The food, the fabric, the customs, the day-to-day life, the marriage ceremonies, the evening activities, the holidays, the courtship, the rituals, the RELIGIONS, the cursing, the dialect--ALL of it. Give me a world that feels so real I could imagine going there. Don't just put in a couple of things that make it feel DIFFERENT but in a weird way. 

No matter what sort of world you have, let me go into it deeply.

TROPE 2: THE EVIL FATHER AND ANGSTY MURDER SON

We all know this one like the back of our hands, right? The villain of the book is the king who rules his country with an iron fist, sitting on a throne he usurped from the true ruler. The ruler was probably a magic user, and the king hates magic for some undisclosed reason. He tortures his people for no reason whatsoever--because who wants to read about politics, right?!--and has an evil second-in-command who does his bidding. (This person will probably die at some point in the first book, just FYI.) 

Most importantly, though, he has a son. A son who he has groomed to submit to his every will, especially killing people. But that's okay, because we all know the son has a CONSCIENCE. Which becomes very important when he meets the snarky female protagonist and falls for her beauty...

I have to be careful around this trope and making fun of it tooooo heavily, because I actually have my own version of this in my novel (heh). But I think there are a few things that we need to observe here in our writing, and the main one is this:

GIVE THE VILLAIN A REASON.

He can be the evil murder king--I have no problem with that! One of my favorite villains ever is Capricorn from the Inkheart series. And oh my word, he is such a deliciously evil murder king. He kills people for fun. He has a mother he cares about--who's just as evil as he is, if not more. He does things just for the heck of it and laughs while he kills people. YA KNOW WHAT? I LOVE IT. He doesn't need a reason. But that's okay--because he is never, ever presented as human in any way.

If someone is a father--even if they're the worst father ever--they have to be at least a little bit human.

Give them a backstory. The king almost always has had magic eradicated--if that's the case, WHY? He hates women--WHY? He's cruel to his son--WHY? What does he have against the protagonist? Her family? Her people? Straight-up racism and sexism do not work, folks. You have to give them something personal. No one is just systematically anything. There is ALWAYS a reason.

Don't caricature your villains. Make them human.

And then in terms of the sons: Making someone good and morally grey takes WORK, people. A lot of work. I wrote my entire first book revolving around the arc of a morally grey villain boy. It can be done. BUT, please, I beg you, do not redeem your villain boy by having him fall in love with your protagonist. (I'll get to that next.) Love doesn't change people like that. At least not that kind of love. Put work into it. Put your back into it.

Give him a real, human, lasting, good reason. Basically, that's my point here: Don't just take the cheap, normal way out. Don't just have your villain hate magic because he does. Don't just give him an angsty son. (Also, remember this: if you're writing a guy like this, he is going to be cruel to his son. And that is abuse. So you're going to have to deal with psychological repercussions on that front. Don't discount that aspect. It can be a lot to add--even if the father isn't on the scene at the moment, the boy can't just act like a normal human. He's gonna be messed up, folks. He's gonna be broken. FIGURE THAT IN. Emotional abuse is a horrible and real thing.)

That was a really, really long rant xD But basically: You CAN do this well. But don't do it the way it's normally done. Don't take the cheap way out. Turn it on its head. GIVE REASONS AND MOTIVATION.

TROPE 3: THE BAD BOY AND THE SASSY (GOOD) GIRL

The heroine of your story is a too-big-for-her-britches little Miss who is the Chosen One (TM) who has to save her (ambiguously defined, mostly irrelevant to the story) land/people/tribe/race/ whatever. She probably has a sibling who she LoVeS mOrE tHaN aNyThInG eLsE. One of her parents died tragically. She's snarky and a Powerful Magic Wielder (whether she knows it or not) and she will probably go to head to head with authority and walk away with her best friend or sibling or somebody DEAD because of her impertinence.

And in the course of her quest, she'll find a different sort of magic--the magic of LOVE!!!!!!! 

Are you rolling your eyes yet?

Don't start yet--we haven't talked about the object of her affections! She'll meet the horribly mean but devastatingly handsome son of the villain, who will probably fall in love with her at first sight. She's a bit stronger than he is and so she lasts a whole day hating him before, suddenly, she's caving and they're making out passionately in the middle of a dangerous situation. And then--he'll betray her. But then be forgiven. BUT THEN BETRAY HER AGAIN. DUN DUN DUN, the book ends! Cliffhangers! Stay tuned for the next installment!!!!!!!!!

*groans loudly* Please tell me I'm not the only person rolling my eyes right now.

Please, please, please don't force your bad boy and good girl to fall in love.

It's more powerful when they don't! I'm just gonna come right out and say it! And if they have to, if they're going to, make it a slow burn. You've got a trilogy--you don't have to let them start kissing and declaring their undying love on page 275 of the first book. Because we all know what that means--the dreaded angst and sobbing of the second book, complete with the crucial fake breakup and all that jazz. No one wants that. That was over back in 2007 (was that when New Moon came out? Maybe? We'll just say it was xD) 

Let them become friends first. No one seems to understand how rare that is. Nobody actually likes or ships insta-love. Your girl and boy can LIKE each other without LIKING each other, if you know what I mean. They can get to know each other. They can spend time together. They can talk (gasp what is this travesty). They can hug each other and fight for each other and grow closer and become extremely important to each other--because that's how real life relationships, the healthy sort, work.

You don't even have to have one single kiss in book one.

Obviously if you're writing a standalone things work differently--but in standalones your timeline is different. You can even just hint at the romance and leave the ending open. It'll drive your readers crazy but it WORKS. xD 

Like everything else, make the romance real. It helps, I promise.

TROPE 4: WHERE ARE YOU, MAGIC?

Once, there was a land full of good, perfect, beautiful magic users. But then--the wicked king came and eradicated it. And it's gone. And we must go on a quest to find it and return it through some cryptic ceremony where it's revealed that our main girl is the only surviving magic user. 

I have one thing to say about this, basically: Please stop. 

If you're gonna have magic (which at this point, is not just a given) then please don't do this. No quests for magic. No people groups that will die without it. Just stop this. Please. I beg thee. I can't tell you how to flip this one--just STOP *sobs*

If you can't do magic creatively, then consider not putting it in your book. DO YOU NEED IT? Will your story die without it?

Decide that and then figure out how to use it. And if you're gonna use it, for Pete's sake, let it be clearly defined. This is obviously something you're gonna have to work out in edits--I'm still not happy with the explanations of my book's magic system--but you can do it! Make sure all the rules are clear. Make sure they're in English (please. I beg thee. I don't care if you understand your fictional language--I do not. You have to explain the system to me in a way I understand, not through your fake fantasy language. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.)

TROPE 5: I SWITCHED POVs AND THAT MADE A CLIFFHANGER!!!

Dual POVs are cool if you do them right, but I would recommend, at this point, either have lots of POVs or have one. Obviously you need to make sure they're all necessary. 

But the biggest thing I want to say is this: switching POVs to the villain's POV to give us a piece of information we already knew or to do something angsty from a side characters POV or something like that doesn't create a cliffhanger, darlin'. 

Cliffhangers are hard to pull off. You can do it by switching to your villain's POV--but ONLY if that leads into the next book with an actual plot line. It's tough. But it's doable.



My dear readers, I know you're great writers, and I have more faith in your stories than I do in the current bestsellers, if I'm being quite honest. You can write amazing books. Much of this was a roast/rant, but I know for a fact that y'all can do better than this and I just needed to get this off my chest xD 

Write the story of your heart. Write it REAL.

Make it beautiful.

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40 comments

  1. Hahaha, this was very funny to read. Each of these tropes are very true, and I think we need to remember to look at our own writing objectively and ask ourselves what kinds of plots and characters we truly have, and why. What would you say your favorite trope is?

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! And that's 100% true and I love it. My favorite....hmm, I'd have to go with a really well-executed slow burn romance, or found families. xD

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  2. I am hurt. I ship insta-love sometimes. xD

    And hello, the angry father-angsty son?? YOUR SPECIALTY, DEAR!

    Lovely post, all kidding aside. xD

    Brooke @Chasing Dragonflies

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    1. Yeah well, not in fantasy :P

      YEAH I KNOW xD I need to do a clarifying and longer post entirely about that now...

      Thanks! <3

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  3. Wow what a post. I roll my eyeballs till they fall from their sockets @ the GIRL IS SO TOUGH AND STRONG AND OBVIOUSLY THE ONLY REBEL trope. Bc wow. I'm so impressed. #sarcasm

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  4. HECK YEAH THIS WAS AMAZING AND I LOVE EVERY BIT OF IT. (also now I have ideas for an ATLA post that talks about these topics and shows why the TV show does them right. πŸ˜‰)

    Ugh, the not-clearly-defined-magic-system-because-magic-can't-be-predicted is the ACTUAL WORST EVER. IT CAN BURN. It makes me feel like the magic is a cop-out.

    Amazing post, Faith! I loved every minute of this. (And you're welcome for the idea! ;) )

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    1. Yes!!!!! I want to see this! Do it do it do it.

      Exactly! It bugs me no end. There's no rules so...why is it even there?????

      Thank you!!!! (And ;))

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  5. CAN I GET AN AMEN.

    Hinting at romantic feelings and going (essentially) no further is one of my favorite things to write, I cannot lie. XD

    YES YES YES - A THOUSAND YESES TO THIS POST. I love your blogging style to pieces. :D

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    1. AMEEEEEEEENNNNNNNNN xD

      *glares* Why do I feel a faint sense of foreboding rn? (And yeah, I like doing that too...mwahahaha)

      You are just the absolute sweetest <33333 THANK YOU

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  6. Ahh this post is awesome. You basically put into words all the frustrations I have with a lot of YA novels currently popular on bookstagram. AND YES trope #4 is the worst--as much as I love fantasy, sometimes it's refreshing to read a book in which there isn't any magic and the characters have to cope with reality on their own! While I could definitely name several books in which the magic system is clear and well-written, sometimes it seems that the magic system is the only thing driving the plot of the story...as if it's the only "thrill" a reader is looking for. Personally I'd rather the plot be driven by PEOPLE to show that the average person can make their own magic, as cheesy as that sounds. XD

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    1. Yes!!!! Okay, that doesn't sound cheesy at all IT IS PERFECT. People-driven stories are absolutely my favorites. <3

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  7. This is so accurate! I really enjoyed this!

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  8. YAS FAITH! Except I rather like the angry father-angsty son trope.... whoops. xD

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    1. Well, I do too...unless it's done in this one uniform way xD

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  9. THIS POST IS GOLD RIGHT HERE.

    We do tend to fall into the trap of SAMENESS. That's why people were getting sick of vampires and dystopian, because all the books were carbon copies of one another. I think we can still enjoy those things IF they brought something fresh to the table...but they never do. And now we're having the problem with ALL fantasy books. It is sad!

    I loved ALL your thoughts here. #3 and #4 are especially sooooo overused. Honestly, both of those things can be fun, but they're overdone and, like you pointed out, not done WELL. Especially the bad boy and sassy good girl getting together after like 0.7 seconds. Just STAHP. Give them tiiiime. I LOVE how you said there doesn't have to be a kiss in the first book. PREACH IT. It's true! Slow burn romance is the way to go. It'll make me ship 'em 1000000% more.

    Ahem. Anyways. I can rant for days about so much of this, but I'll spare you. XD Needless to say, I adored this and 1000x over agree that we need more unique YA! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.

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    1. THANK YOUUUUUUU

      I agree! It's so sad how publishers think there's only one thing to publish. I wish we could get more fresh stuff because I am bored, frankly xD I haven't been introduced to a 100% amazing fantasy universe since DECEMBER when I read Strange the Dreamer :'(

      Yes!!! I love it when they're done well, but they're just NOT anymore. And yes! I love me a good slow burn. Always, always, always.

      Thank you!!!! and yes please, give me allll the unique YA <3

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  10. "They can talk (gasp what is this travesty) << ahhhh love this!! XD XD XD

    There are sooooooooooo many annoying tropes in YA Fantasy (and even sci-fi), I hate how often they're used. Sometimes I give up on reading a fantasy/sci fi novel if it's filled with overused tropes (*cough* Rosemarked *cough*). This post was AWESOME, thank you for writing what needs to be heard! <3 <3 <3

    —Ash

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    1. xD It's true thoooouuuugh

      Agreed! I can barely get through most of them these days :P Rosemarked was definitely one like that ;P Thank you so much for reading!!!

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  11. Oh dear, this is way too true. XD Yes, nobody likes the insta-love!! Give them time!!! Everything you said about #3 is spot on!!!

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    1. xD Insta-love is exhausting and I don't like it. XD XD

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  12. I really like all your points, I am not a much of a fantasy writer or reader but a lot of these could be in any book. ;)

    astorydetective.blogspot.com

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  13. Sometimes it is so hard to write unique stories with all the cliches out there. But I shall endeavor my best so that you don't have to read the same plot over and over again XD XD XD

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  14. I love posts that make me die of laughter or set off my internal Smirk (TM) xD

    Great post!!

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    1. Glad to hear that this one succeeded! XD

      Thanks!

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  15. I love this post!! And I agree with it one hundred percent (because even though current YA's not exactly my genre, I've encountered these things enough that...PLEASE, NO MORE). Not to mention it made me laugh. XD

    THE EXOTIC SETTING ONE THO. It's the worst because I LOVE the idea of some of the settings! But I am continually frustrated when I open the covers of these things, and it's like...some American wrote an American story with American characters who talk like Americans and threw in a few foreign words, two random foreign weapons, and one super-random custom. The latter usually for conflict. Like, I signed up for medieval China, not an American's eleven-year-old self-insert romantic daydreams of medieval China!!

    And #3 and #4...PREACH, SISTER.

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    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!!! I don't want any more of this, PLEASE.

      YES!!!!! I feel the exact same way. And then the ones that do set them in actual exotic places never explain anything so you're just CONFUSED.

      THANKS :D

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  16. The accuracy X'D Literally all of this was why I hated the Throne of Glass books so much.

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  17. I agree with all of these. Why do writers even have Insta-love in the first place? It just seems to annoy everyone.

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  18. Can I just amen this post approximately 57 million times!!! THANK YOU FOR WRITING IT.

    Seriously, I'm going to use this as a guide as I go back to edit my current fantasy. I especially need to work on my magic system. Even I don't completely understand it right now... so yeah. I'll be back when I figure that out, lol


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbosityreviews.com

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    1. Ahhhhhh that is so cool!!!!! So glad this post helped you ^_^ It was really fun to write!

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