Weapons are a major part of fantasy literature of every kind. That's why there's a whole category called "Sword and Sorcery." But as fantasy stories have proliferated, some fantasy weapons tropes have taken over the genre. Here are the ten we'd like to see retired.
Nothing in this list was necessarily bad the first few times they appeared. It's the constant, never-ending use of them that started to just come off as lazy. Or, to be kinder, the tropes are so ubiquitous now that writers include because that's how things in these worlds work. Please, stop. Or, at least restrict yourself to one.
Spoilers for some things ahead...
1. The Reforged Weapon
Do people think this is a subtle metaphor anymore? This is always when a weapon is meant to represent its wielder. It usually breaks when the hero is at his lowest point, showing the shattering of his will. And then, when the hero is ready, his sword is reforged and stronger than before.
Sometimes, the twist is that the weapon is a family or cultural heirloom. Then it represents the regaining of family honor or the restoration of a people.
Either way, this trope has run its course. We know exactly what it means and the meaning is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. Which was broken by my father when he failed in his duty, but has been repaired and reinforced now that I am ascending to lead.
2. The Secret Legend in Your Back Pocket
We can forgive some genre blindness. But, at this point, you cannot find a random weapon, discover that it's magically better than anything that anyone's ever seen, and then take the whole book to realize it's actually the blade in the legends you've been told since you were a child. That just make characters look stupid.
For example: Although the invisibility cloak wasn't exactly a weapon, the fact that no one thought to mention to Harry Potter that it was unusual that it had worked perfectly for decades is kind of ridiculous. It could have been people could have been distracted or Dumbledore avoided it to keep it hidden, but still. Take notice of things you use all the time.
Contrast with Discworld, where everyone is so genre savvy, they recognize that the sword Carrot has is a little too perfect to be just any weapon.
3. Mystical Materials
It's never enough to just have a sword that's been made well and is wielded with great skill. Oh no, it's specialness has to be outwardly manifested by the use of a rare material that makes the sword look cooler.
We've got crystal swords, black meteoric iron (not a thing, it's not black), and various versions of mithril and adamantium. But hey, it sounds so much cooler to make something up. It's an instant identifier that this blade is different. Valyrian steel from A Song of Ice and Fire is just the latest in a long line of rare materials.
4. The Absurdly Sharp Blade
No, not just sharp. Almost too sharp. Look for language that indicates that it's a blade so sharp it can cut through reality. Again, a merely sharp blade could do the job just as well. But, again, how would you know how totally awesome the weapon was and, by extension, the character wielding it.
Image by McSorely/deviantART
5. The Rusted and Dented Swords of Evil
How do you know that you're up against the bad guys? Their blades are covered in gunk, bent and warped to show heavy use. Good guys are always literally shinier. You could assume that evil always loses because of their moral failings, but there's every chance that the lack of weapons maintenance had something to do with it, too.
Bonus bad points if the evil side has weapons traditionally associated with non-western cultures, like scimitars. Those are some unfortunate implications being thrown around in that.
6. Weapons Tied to Specific Races
Every race in fantasy is identified with a specific weapon. Elves use bows, Dwarves use axes, and men use swords. It's pretty lazy to assign one weapon to each group rather than create a little diversity. In larger groups, that may not be the case, but for the main character of that race it almost certainly is.
Note that this doesn't have to just be fantasy races, it can also be just different nations. In The Belgariad and The Mallorean by David Eddings, each nation tends to have a specific kind of weapon that ties into their national stereotype.
7. The Weapon Too Big to Be Useful
Like mystical metals, this is a trope that's supposed to act as a metaphor. See how big this weapon is? It's directly proportional to either how awesome or evil its owner is. There is no doubt that for many characters in fantasy, their sword is tied into their identity. But, seriously, unless the size is meant to show that a character cares more about appearing badass than being badass, they just look silly. In Codex Alera, the corps with swords like this are used as a battering ram. Rule of cool, and all, but those are just too big swords.
I lost? I'm not supposed to lose. Let me see the script.
8. Unusually Plot-Specific Ability
You'll see this most often with arrows, where someone will be carrying a trick arrow that's really only useful in this a very specific instance. It's a Chekov Gun with a lampshade on it: There's no way that doesn't get used. You may also get a blade that can cut through a specific material or a magical defense ability springing from nowhere. It's a very specific deus ex machina, and very frustrating because it doesn't seem earned.
9. The Evil Weapon That Hungers For Blood and Corrupts the Soul
This one's annoying because, unless handled very carefully, it eliminates free will from the equation. When someone's evil, it's nice to have a reason why, that's what makes them interesting and compelling characters. Otherwise, it's an easy way to create drama by turning an ally evil but not having to actually lose him to the dark side. There's also an easy pay-off for you hero, where you show how pure of heart they are by having them reject the weapon's siren call. Terry Pratchett's Discworld devoted an entire book, Men at Arms, to the premise. Of course, the Tolkien, the King of Tropes, had a sword that liked to drink blood.
There's also an allegory about how violence just begets more violence, no matter what your intention when you pick up a weapon. But, again, we've reached a point where that message isn't new or subtle.
10. Weapons With Minds of Their Own
Come to think of it, weapons that make their own decisions are just a general thing that we can do with much less of. The issue isn't nearly as pressing as it is with evil weapons, which tend to overly simplify a plot, but it's the kind of thing that draw focus away from characters. In Diane Duane's A Wizard Abroad and The Dresden Files, there are swords that treat their users like conduits. Suddenly, the weapon, which has no character, takes over moving the plot forward from the people.
On the more humorous side, there's only so many times you ca n have the joke of someone arguing with their weapon before it becomes clear that, no matter how powerful, it's probably more bother than it's worth. A normal weapon would make your enemies just dead.