After a year-or-so, I’m returning to the topic of story clichés, this time with a whole sub-genre of fantasy in my sights. That’s not to say I don’t like these books – I do, in fact. But they seem to attract quite a lot of repeated themes. Today, I’ll look into some of them.
One reason for this fact is that dragonrider books tend to use a lot of time-tested plot elements that aren’t specific for this genre. The fact this is a sub-genre with a quite specific niche leads to the fact that other story elements, specific for the subgenre, tend to reappear a lot. They range from “no harm done” to “obvious plot device”. Coming of age elements are frequent theme in dragonrider books while the main villain is often a power corrupts type of backstory.
The (lack of) family
A frequent part of dragonrider story is that the MC is either a (semi-)orphan, presumed to be one (meaning that one of his parents may appear later), or becomes one as part of the inciting incident. There are several advantages and disadvantages for both complete and incomplete family of a main character, however, the kind of story told by dragonrider fiction often heavily emphasized the orphaned side. It provides an extra challenge for the main character who not only has to take care of himself, but gets the extra responsibility that came with being a novice dragonrider. Just the same, it can be the source of additional motivation (be it revenge, justice, or rescue – in case they’re merely MIA).
Often, the MC’s parents had died fighting the villain during his rise to power. Some authors take it further, to the point one or both parents were once friends of the villain, to further accentuate the fall to darkness – it’s not the power that corrupted the villain, but how he used it. This also opens the path for another typical figure, the wise old teacher. This character is often a survivor of the final clash. Thus, the teacher can not only be a mentor to the MC, but also a way to share the backstory. And to include the with great power comes great responsibility speech, usually after the MC does something wrong by not having good-enough control of his power – typicaly after the first major skirmish using his newfound powers. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t do well if the teacher could guide the MC through the whole story, so he often dies early (typicaly the final battle of the first book) – this gives the MC some basics, but also pushes him to further look for potential allies. This often includes a couple more riders who survived the villain’s rise to power and, outmatched, went into hiding.
A bumpy road
However, the MC can’t just come across the wise old teacher in the comfort of his remote village. So what makes the MC leave it? A surprise attack of the villain’s generic, disposable minions – who may be inefficient but the unexperienced MC, often without any combat training whatsoever, has no chance but to run. The attack may be a surprise, but not a coincidence – something usually tells the villain that there may be something potentially dangerous to him in that place – or something that could bolster his power. Or both. Often the very dragon hatchling the MC eventually ends up rising.
Living in a remote village is often another practical story element. First, it provides some temporary shelter for the MC, adds a challenge in having to leave it and see the world at large, and allows the author to go nuts with world-building as the character travels.
On his run, the MC will usually run into three important characters. One of them being the mentioned wise old teacher. Dragonrider story often feature some form of prophecy or chosen one themes, so there will likely be someone who’d hint at that – though this may be a passing meeting the MC won’t even recognize as important by that point but the reader will be given a plenty of opportunities to speculate about the message’s meaning. The third type of character will be the MC’s love interest – a character who’ll likely end up in even more peril than the MC to spur the MC on (such as by being captured by the villain’s minions). Different approaches use different outcomes for the love interest, from happily ever after to death, and any scenario between those.
All the above strings together for a single purpose: to test the MC on his journey from zero to hero. While being a dragonrider without training may be a lot alone, adding distractions makes the journey harder. For a coming-of-age character, an unexpected love interest amps up the challenge a lot – it’s a test of values, priorities, responsibility, and control in a world that’s been on a downhill spiral for quite a while. In a world of hurt, the companionship and lover’s embrace is a strong temptation for a character that had their world turned upside down, and presents them with several hard choices that, eventually, are supposed to let them grow.
In some stories, there may be a couple of extras – such as a rival (whether in ‘who’s the better dragonrider’, in getting the love interest’s attention, or both) – and this rival character may turn out to desert and become one of the villain’s minions if the MC bests him in one or both mentioned aspects; or a comic relief character – such as a bard that happened to cross the MC’s path. This character may appear in any point of the story, though a practical point would be a short appearance before the wise old teacher does, so the bard would give the MC a hint of the larger picture.
So, why does all of this work? Using repeated themes is unavoidable, the trick is to use them well. After all, those themes are just one part of the story. The other parts – world-building, pacing, characters – come to form the whole and dragonrider books tend to do really well in world-building and characters.
You may’ve noticed that I had mentioned little about dragons so far – and since there’s a lot mentioned already, it’ll get its own post because there are many story elements to consider about them. For now, I’m adding a couple of links to my older posts – a set of posts about specific clichés and a set of posts about romantic subplots.
And you’ll be welcome to share your own thoughts on the topic.