So while novel writing classes and avid fantasy literature fans will tell you to avoid these cliches, why is it that we still largely see these sort of stories on the shelves of popular book stores?
The simple answer is because they work. Most writers predict that their readers are male, so they write a male character, with female characters fitting in with the traditional mold of deferring to the male lead. Even if they are otherwise capable, they still are usually second in command after the male character, often times even falling in love with the male.
The five most common fantasy cliches and why some of them will survive (or won't):
- The Male Hero. The hero is a man of various backgrounds who saves damsels in distress and shows how they can overcome anything. They always get the girl in the end.
- Verdict: It will stick around, as this is going to be a very hard theme to shake off, but it's also not going to stay on top. With more and more books coming out with female protagonists, and feminism becoming a common thing, the typical male hero will start to fade a bit.
- The Prophesied Hero. Whether male or female, this is pretty common as well. This hero's birth was prophesied in some way. Whether they were secretly adopted or a part of a race that was wiped out (sometimes because of the prophecy), they have a humble start before they find out their purpose.
- Verdict: It works, and it's going to stay. No matter how cliche it is, it gets people interested. Everyone wants to be in this hero's shoes. They want to escape their mundane lives for a little adventure.
- A Band of Heroes Save The World because it is their Duty. Somehow, when a band of friends (or strangers) are faced with the task of saving the world, a town, a race or some other cause, they chose to do it for the greater good. Not revenge, not personal gain, not even fame or reward.
- Verdict: It's already started to fade. With the popularity of anti-heroes on the rise, people are writing more characters who have their personal gain in mind. While so far it's usually a side character, there a few main character that adopt this idea.
- Elves are helpful, Orcs are evil. This is a theme that a lot of people hate, as it is indictive of racism. Certain races are good, others are bad. While the 'racism' claim is a bit silly if you look at the mythological backgrounds of these creatures. It is when people view these creatures as humans that the racism emerges.
- Verdict: It will stay, but it will also evolve. They are stories of 'evil' races being good, such as RA Salvatore's Drizzt stories, and just as the anti-hero is becoming popular, so is the evil race anti-hero.
- European Setting. Even if it isn't precisely Europe, medieval or otherwise, most fantasy worlds resemble medieval Europe. European mythology, terminology and speech. European Dragons, weaponry and architecture. All of them, European.
- Verdict: It'll stick around, but with the growing knowledge of the common writer of Asian culture as well, there are more Samurai based stories. There aren't a lot of Indian, South American, African or any other medieval cultures. They'll come with time, however.