Friday, May 23, 2014

Overused Science Fiction/Fantasy Tropes: Elemental Magic

What are some overused plot or character tropes in science fiction/fantasy that you're tired of? Are there any authors or books that give them a new spin?

I'll share one of mine: elemental magic, which is usually defined as magic relating to earth, air, fire, and water. Occasionally a fifth element (like spirit) will be added to shake things up. These classical elements first arose in Greece and India and spread to other parts of the world, and belief in them persisted for thousands of years right up to the birth of modern science. I suppose that's why the elements fit so well in traditional fantasy in a medieval setting. I've personally read enough of that type of fantasy and prefer nontraditional settings/magic systems.

That said, there are still authors who can take an overused plot element and make it fresh. For elemental magic, I would recommend S.A. Bolich's Masters of the Elements series, which so far consists of Firedancer, Windrider, and Seaborn. (The next book will deal with Earth, but I don't know the title yet.) What makes this series work for me is the world-building. It's a comfortable world that I enjoy spending time in. The elements have a unique relationship with each other, and each type of elemental master has a distinct appearance and way of working with their element.

How do you feel about elemental stories? Are there any that you would recommend? If you were going to write one, how would you approach it?

12 comments:

  1. Does Captain Planet count as elemental magic? Otherwise I got nothing.

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  2. I don't read fantasy, so I never ran into this. But one trope I hate is human cloning to get an army. You don't need clones for an army. You can round up a bunch of orphans and raise them to be warriors for cheaper and easier than a bunch of clones.

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  3. I can't, off the top of my head, think of anything I've read that used that idea. I know that that show Airbender did, but I never watched that.
    I've never even considered using it myself, so I don't know how I'd approach it.

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  4. Pat, I think it would count.

    I agree, Nigel.

    I haven't seen that either, Andrew.

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  5. It's disturbing that Nigel actually has a plan to raise an army of orphans. Let's keep an eye on him.

    I only did 'elemental magic' once, sort of, in "Astrid Forever," where Astrid uses plants to work her magic. I agree with you, Sandra. It can be overused. It would work best if used the way you say it is in those books: as an integral part of a well-thought out system.

    I can't think of elemental magic offhand. Maybe Gandalf? Didn't the brown wizard work with birds and Gandalf worked with fireworks and light? I think Tolkien had a system.

    Lyndon Hardy wrote a series of books I enjoyed a lot called "Master of the Five Magics" and "Secret Of The Sixth Magic" wherein he had very detailed systems of thaumaturgy and sorcery, etc. I've been looking to get a used copy of them, as I'd like to reread them. I think it's similar to what you're talking about here. I'd recommend them, but I haven't read them in 20 years and I am not sure they hold up. So if you read them, let me know.

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  6. The only thing that came to mind was The Airbender show that my kids enjoyed (and still, as older teens, sometimes watch re-runs of.) They were HUGELY disappointed by the live-action M. Night Whatsisname's version.
    I don't normally read fantasy, so I have no recommendations.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

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  7. The Avatar show was amazing. One of the best cartoon series ever. But that was really the only elemental show/book I could think of. Although I have heard that it's overused before - I'm just drawing a blank.

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  8. I love fantasy but I agree, some tropes are overused. If I were to write an elemental story, I would ground it in a specific folkloric/mythic genre. For example, Vedic art and science or ancient British (don't have to call them that) traditions.

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