7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Sometimes creators of some of our favourite worlds run afoul of a few tiresome Worldbuilding tropes. Here are seven clichés that need to stop cropping up in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

Header Image Credit: Dragon Age Inquistion Concept Art by Matt Rhodes. It gets a few things wrong, but overall Bioware’s Fantasy World is pretty well put together.

7. The Evil Empire of Evil Evilness

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: The Leaders of Valkyria Chronicles’ Empire, who are totally not Anime Nazis you guys. No wait, they are.

Look, we get it – we English people were kind of massive d-bags as we gallivanted our way across the world colonising stuff for our Empire. A healthy mistrust of authority is occasionally a good thing. But why is it every Empire we come across always some giant conglomerate of absolute, totalitarian evil? Why isn’t a Federation ever the dick, or a duchy, or an alliance? Nope, always an Empire. There might be some inherent douchiness to the process of creating an Empire, but please, if you’re writing about one, don’t make them this singular mass of moustache-twirling badness. Give it some layers. Make some conflict. Anything but another Evil Empire.

6. Faux-Medieval Europe

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: Dragon Age’s Thedas skirts around this one. It’s not geographically Europe (although if you flip it upside down you kinda get something like it), but you’ve got your vaguely English guys, your vaguely Spanish Guys, your vaguely French Guys and your occasional vaguely Irish/Welsh guys.

This one’s a bit specific to Fantasy settings, but there’s nothing like a bit of Medieval Europe for your Fantasy, right? I mean, look at all the guys who did it excellently, your Tolkiens and your Martins and your what-have-you. But that’s not all Fantasy has to be. Author John Wiswell wrote a particularly great rant a few years ago on the overuse of Fake-Europe in fantasy worldbuilding:

But if you’re not fascinated with it, if castles and rolling hills are simply all you’ve seen lately, if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings flicks and want to make your own — then don’t write another Medieval Fantasy. Fantasy ought to be a non-denominational cathedral to the imagination, where any idea, no matter how impossible in reality, can flourish and enliven us. It’s not about new sub-genres, but about use of your pages. China Mieville ought to be one colourful brick in a mosaic of new materials.

Fantasy can encompass so many different themes and environments. Yet another round of Ye Olde Europe-e is getting awfully boring.

5. Insert Apostrophe Here For Exoticness

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: Stargate both messed up and used this one correctly – Apostrophised names like Teal’c and Rya’c where the apostrophe is used to denote an honorific or surname are all right, but then you get the Goa’uld, Tok’ra, Zat’nik’tel guns and Tau’ri…

Unless you’re using an apostrophe correctly, keep them out of your names. There’s nothing more clichéd than characters t’alk’ing li’ke they’re (see that one’s needed!) bl’oo’dy id’iots. Like all linguistic tools when you’re creating new worlds, punctuation should have a point, and not be liberally sprinkled over every world just for some visual flair on something that’s written down. That is, unless you’re writing about a race of perpetual stutterers.

4. The Single-Use World

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: Almost every Star Wars planet ever. Forest Moon! City World! Ice World! Desert World! Water World!

Although you might have a world that’s been terraformed for one specific purpose – see the Tea plantation planet of the excellent Ancillary Sword – but it’s not natural or smart to have a world that is made up of a single ecosystem. The worlds you make should be diverse and interesting places, not singular masses. This doesn’t just go for ecology and environments, but the races that inhabit them too (more on that later).

3. Common Nouns out the Wazoo

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: Destiny, Bungie’s latest shooter. You know, the one where The Guardians must wield The Light given to them by The Traveller at The Tower (where you can talk to The Traveller’s emissary, The Speaker) to fight The Darkness and go to The Black Garden because The Stranger told you to, and… ugh, you get the point The Point.

Naming things is fun, and while yes, referring to it with an unspecific Common noun (usually prefaced by a ‘The’) to it can give a a setting or a concept a sort of grandeur to a name, but if you over do it – like the examples from Destiny above – it just makes you sound rote and unoriginal.

2. The Homogeneous Race (That’s never Humanity)

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: A lot of different races in both sci-fi and Fantasy can fall into this trope, but let’s go with the classic granddaddy of them all with Tolkien’s Elves, who are all snooty nature lovers, or his dwarves, who all love gold and live underground, or his Hobbits, who are all simple agricultural folk.

A similar lack of diversity that leads to single-use worlds can also happen to whole species too – this can be especially common in sci-fi when a whole planets are seemingly populated by one homogenous mass of the same people without nations or alliances or any sort of diversity, but it can affect anyone. A race without different political identities or religions or nations or any sort of grouping is one without much culture to it or any sort of interest. If everyone is all the same or of the same disposition and all agree about something, where’s the the interest in that? Races should be multi-dimensional and nuanced, not sweeping generalisations made flesh.

Bonus points if this is contrasted with Humanity being lauded and portrayed as a diverse and multi-cultural race and are special because of said diversity. If you can write diverse humans, why not any other diverse race?

1. The Precursor Civilisation

7 Worldbuilding Tropes Science Fiction And Fantasy Needs To Stop Using

Bad Example: Halo’s Precursors. They’re not even Halo’s only Precursor race, theres another called the Forerunners (seen above). Precursors for everyone!

Want some instant Worldbuilding? Bam! Someone (usually super advanced) was here before, did everything before, served as the basis for all the technology that present races have, and are usually involved in whatever the current plot is for some reason (usually because they were probably taken out by the current Big Bad in an endless cycle of everything that has happened before, happening again). Not only is it a sort of cheap shorthand to instantly add depth to a world, it also seems to have been the hot new thing in the past few years that’s seen several properties latch onto it and try their hand. Not everything has to have happened before!


  • “Why isn’t a Federation ever the dick, or a duchy, or an alliance?” — the Alliance were the baddies in Firefly.

    • And the Federation are the dicks in Elite. At least, if you ask those who pledge allegiance to the Empire 😛

      (nobody cares what those with the Alliance think)

    • The Federation are also the dicks throughout most of the Gundamverse; though to be fair both the Federation and Zeon are kind of dickish in different ways. Also Zeon are Space Nazis too.

    • I know it’s an anime example, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes deconstructs this trope magnificently.

      The entire series centers around the question “Which is better? A benevolent dictatorship? Or a free, but corrupt, decaying democracy?” and also does an excellent job of not answering the question, but letting the viewer decide.

      The Galactic Empire came about at a much needed time, but led to a very authoritarian regime, that is eventually taken over by a more enlightened, forward thinking leader. Although aristocratic, is far, far more benevolent.

      The Free Planets Alliance is a democracy led by its head council, most of which are career politicians who only care about their jobs and empty rhetoric. There are good people among them, but their voices are drowned out by the sycophants.

      This is a broad, sweeping generalization, but honestly, if anybody is looking for a great deconstruction of this trope and doesn’t mind heavy subtitles and piles of dialogue and a giant list of characters. Check it out.

      • Another anime example that we really didn’t get to explore anywhere near enough was the setting of Ente Isla on the very excellent The Devil is a Part-Timer.

        There was so much hinted-at nuance in that world-building.

  • Meh, it’s your world. I say do what you want regardless of tropes. It’s kinda stupid that you’re saying they ‘need’ to stop being used like it’s causing some sort of social unrest…well some of these tropes might be, I don’t know, Im not a scientist or a rocket surgeon.

    In my world, humans and dinosaurs live side-by-side in modern times and they have jobs and eat commercially sold meat and veggies and a raptor is my roommate voice by Norm MacDonald. I call it Billy and the Cloneasaurus!

  • I think the reasoning behind Star Wars single Eco-system is simply due to the fact they are telling a story on a massive scale, and the only way to differentiate between what planet they are on is to create single Eco-system planets. But hey I am a pleb and what I think doesn’t matter much

    • It also seems an odd complaint given almost every planet we know of in real life is a single-biome planet. Earth seems to be the exception, not the rule.

      • Yes, but Earth is also the only one known to support life which is pretty important for a story because several hundred pages of dead people just laying there would be pretty dull 😛

        I guess you can just make them robots that can survive whatever conditions you choose to drop them into.

        • Yeah, the life thing is also pretty unique to Earth from what we know so far. That said, I’m not sure the two go hand-in-hand. It’s probably unlikely to have an entire planet that’s a forest (though a moon would be small enough to not have major climate changes through seasons, *cough*Endor*cough*) but ‘desert planet’, ‘volcano planet’, ‘ice planet’ and ‘water planet’ all seem pretty reasonable by current science.

          Side note: Endor is a moon that orbits a planet named Endor in a binary star system named Endor with two stars named Endor I and Endor II. The stellar cartographer in charge of naming this system and its stars and planets and moons must have been having a real “fuck it” kind of day.

      • One option would be to have a world that appears homogeneous to outsiders, while the locals see diversity that the outsiders overlook.

        • Yeah, this could work. Pretty much how a lot of people view deserts today, as big lifeless sandpits instead of the vibrant ecosystems they are.

  • but then you get the Goa’uld, Tok’ra, Zat’nik’tel guns and Tau’ri…

    y…you do realise it’s to represent a glottal stop, right? …in some languages a glottal stop is even a consonant of its own..hawai’ian its called an okina.. in tahitian an ‘eta…..in arabic a hamza…polynesian names are basically made of glottal stops…parts of Canada use a 7 instead of an ‘ or `.. it’s not the author’s fault you don’t understand that :/ it might be a trope, but it’s a real thing for a real reason.

    • Oh man, I’m dyin here.

      “We demand more diversity in characters!”
      “Make all characters speak proper English!”

  • The homogenous race also extends to one race has one belief system… except if its a story element and they have two and one is a true god and the other is an evil cult.

  • Well every Indian person I encounter bobs their head like one of those bobble head toys and usually start their conversation with “yes actually”.

    Someone should tell their culture not to be so homogeneous.

    • Every Indian person I’ve met has not done that. Indian culture is pretty ancient and the country’s quite diverse because of the various ethnicities and enormous population.

      More homogeneous populations are the Japanese and some Scandinavian countries, who have traditionally had lower migration.

      • You must of spoken to the ones that didn’t grow up in India. That head bobble is usually followed by a lie or some exaggeration.

  • Another very old i09 repost. Slow news day, I guess.

    Anyway, authors can do whatever the hell they like. If I wanted to write a heroic fantasy with all the usual trimmings (and I do), then damn I should be allowed to do it. Let the market make the final call.

  • What a crock. Do what you want, and if it’s shite then it’s shite. If it’s good then it just proves how poopy this article is.

  • Dragon Age is actually pretty good about giving their humans, dwarves and elves different factions, rather than one homogenous race.

    On the other hand, They live on the world of Thedas, which is short for THE Dragon Age Setting. *facepalm*

  • That was pretty unfair about the races in Tolkien’s works. While not every individual was an unique snowflake, there were several factions and ideological variations among races. Elves could be smug but benevolent and relatively modernised (Rivendell), humble, secretive and outright tree-hugging (Lorien) and hostile, greedy, bigoted jerks (Mirkwood). Dwarves could be precious metal and stones-loving miners, exquisite crafters or warlike nomads, etc, etc.

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