If you polled fantasy readers on the most overdone tropes in fantasy fiction, chances are that most of them will name something like ‘the rebellious princess’ or ‘the stableboy who becomes king’ or any of the other numerous royalty tropes which frequently appear in fantasy. Yet it doesn’t stop fantasy authors from churning out a constant stream of books about royals, or readers from consuming them. It has reached the point that members of a royal family have almost become the go-to cast for a fantasy novel, and sometimes it can be difficult to find a fantasy book which doesn’t feature a member of the monarchy in some form. If royals are such an overdone fantasy cliché, why are we still so obsessed with them?
…And they lived happily ever after
It all goes back to where modern-day fantasy spawned from – fairy tales. The standard fairy tale plot is a princess gets captured or imprisoned, a hero shows up out of nowhere to save her, and he is rewarded with the princess’ hand in marriage and half the kingdom.
They may be old and horribly outdated much of the time, yet they are still the stories we are told as children, whether it is through bedtime stories or Disney movies. This teaches us from a young and impressionable age that being a Princess is something special and desirable and that a Prince is ideal marriage material.
The real-life fairy tale
This also explains why society is so obsessed with royalty in real life, despite several dark periods of history making royalty almost entirely obsolete in modern times. We’re well aware that modern monarchs are only figureheads with no real power anymore. Most of us are also aware that they’re living comfortable lives which none of us can ever hope for. Yet that didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from descending on London last year to watch the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle, or thousands more from watching it live on television. They have what we’ve been taught to desire, but instead of feeling jealous, we adore them for it.
Escape into fantasy
Time Magazine explains that our obsession with real life royals is a parasocial relationship, similar to our relationships with our favourite fictional characters. We form one-sided relationships and become invested in the drama and stories of their lives without actually interacting with them or having them directly impact our lives in any meaningful way.
Whether they are real life or fictional, royals provide us with a necessary means of escapism. The British people don’t care that the royal family are costing them money at a time when their financial and political future is uncertain. They ignore the fact that high expectations and constant media bombardment probably make the life of a royal more stressful than it appears in pictures. They prefer to think about the dresses and parties and the smiling faces they see in the newspaper.
Fantasy is one of the prime forms of escapist fiction, and what could be more escapist than picturing yourself as the beautiful princess living in a fairy tale castle and falling in love with the handsome prince? Even the old fairy tales provided an escapist fantasy for regular people to envision themselves rising above their stations and becoming royalty.
In reality, being a public figurehead would be incredibly stressful, a castle would be cold and drafty to live in, and falling in love at first sight with a prince you barely know probably wouldn’t work out in the long term. Yet even knowing all this, it’s still much nicer to just think about the happily ever after.
The media cycle
Media outlets know that royalty is used as a form of escapism and that they can use this obsession to increase their sales. Being fed a constant stream of articles, images, and news pieces about royals keeps them in our collective consciousness and keeps people buying newspapers or clicking on news websites. Disney keeps on making movies about princesses because they are fully aware that they will sell more toys and more trips to Disneyworld. Similarly, publishers keep putting out book after book featuring royals because they know that as overdone as it is, readers will keep buying them, and the publishing cycle will continue.
Updating a tale as old as time
Yet a constant stream of books about royalty doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, or a sign of an unoriginal writer. Our knowledge of royalty also comes from history and folklore. Historically, a king was much more of an ‘everyman’ and representative of the people with a lot more say in the management and safety of his kingdom. This makes royals ideal protagonists for fantasy fiction based upon a historical setting, since they will need to make decisions which affect their entire kingdom. It provides more leverage for everybody’s favourite trope, the forbidden romance, with the royal finding a way to marry for love rather than political reasons. If you look closely enough at history, you’ll find that there are many more obscure royals or little-told-stories which would make for great fantasy books.
There are a multitude of creative ways that modern readers can use royalty to subvert the old tropes and put a fresh spin on them to attract more readers. This is why we are seeing more stories about overweight princesses, transgender princes, or royals from cultures which aren’t quasi-European. The beautiful princess and the handsome prince are still good starting points for writers, but it is up to them what to do with these old favourites.
Recommended fantasy books about royalty:
The Icemark Chronicles by Stuart Hill
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Pegasus by Robin McKinley