Character Tropes in Fantasy Writing
Let’s think about the ways we might steer clear of rehashing clichéd versions of fantasy character tropes to make your story more interesting and, hopefully, memorable.
The usual advice about fantasy tropes is to avoid them, but that’s not the right way to approach them. All those tropes shaped the fantasy genre and readers expect to see them in the stories they read. Though they don’t want to see the same tired story over and over or a half-assed attempt to imitate one of the better ones. Our task is to take the frame of those familiar tropes and make them into something new, unique and attention-holding.
Character Tropes Overview
Here’s the list of some of the common fantasy character tropes we reviewed in the introduction:
- The Evil Overlord
- The Male or Masculine-aligned Villain
- The Wise Old Mentor
- The “Cloistered Priest” Adventurer
- The Orphan
- The Female Hero Who’s Physically Tough as a Man
- The Girl Disguised as a Boy
- The “Elite” Yet Get Killed by Everyone Guards
- The Unexpected Royal
- The Perfect Hero (aka a ‘Mary Sue’/’Gary Sue’ Hero)
- The Reluctant Hero
- The Overpowered Hero
- The Chosen One
- The Trusty Silly Sidekick
Cliché Solutions: Character Tropes
I won’t go through them all, but let’s break a few of these down and think about how to make them our own:
Evil Overlord character tropes
An often-seen cliché, the evil overlord or “Dark Lord” who’s evil for no actual fucking reason except they love to be evil, comes in a variety of forms. They usually live in dark lands that reflect their intentions, wear black and have stupid minions. No question they’re the antagonist – it’s the lunatic bent on world domination with a seething hate for our heroic protagonist. Sounds good, right? But evil can’t be their only character trait. And why do they want to take over the world? Characters must have reasons for what they do or why they exist: past trauma, upbringing, personal goals, outside influence, psychosis, another character’s counterpoint, as a catalyst for character growth… No character with so little depth is interesting. I mean, even the Evil Queen Grimhilde from Snow White was motivated by narcissism and jealousy and wasn’t simply a fan of random evil.
One great way we can solve for this overblown cliché is with an anti-villain
This antagonist defies character tropes – think Marvel movies here. Morally ambiguous, they might even be likeable. Some of their traits can be noble, though the way they go about achieving their ends is uncomfortable or straight-up horrific to regular folk. Readers want complex characters with backstories who struggle to carry out their goals whether they’re villains or heroes. Readers get sucked-in by anti-villains and while they definitely know this is the character that needs to be vanquished, they’ll feel torn about it when it happens. Pit them against an anti-hero? And you’ll have your readers swimming in emotion and crying for more at the end.
Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions, so examples of very evil characters who are agents of chaos and evil simply for the sake of it exist. Voldemort from the Harry Potter series comes to mind. But even those characters exist to move a story forward and especially to propel the hero through their arc. If you think you can pull it off, all the more power to you. But if you’re going to pit a less-than-exceptional hero against one of these two-dimensional antagonist character tropes with no secret motivations or purpose for existence, don’t be surprised when it’s not an instant hit.
Male or Masculine-aligned Villains
The “evil overlord” or villain character tropes are nearly always male or masculine-aligned with motivations not always well-defined and live in the background shrouded in darkness while plotting all manner of misery. These clichéd antagonists usually embody the negative aspect of what we’ve been normalised to think of as male traits – ambition, pride, greed, heartlessness or ruthlessness. They would most certainly never cry, because men don’t cry, right?
Since the cliché of these character tropes is they’re male or masculine-aligned… maybe don’t do that? The solve for this one is simply don’t allow yourself to be a lazy writer and barf out more stereotypes. As humans, we ALL already know they’re bullshit – every point on the spectrum has the same range of traits and emotions. So reflect reality and mix it up. Make your villain female, gay, non-binary, androgynous, a formless species from another realm or a fluffy bunny in the woods. I’d love to see a fluffy bunny villain. Make them a sun god. A star in the night sky. Wicked goldfish. Hellbent alarm clock. A conspiring, conniving carpet… Whatever. Turn the trope on its head and throw out the masculine cliché aspect. Do something unexpected and create a more interesting and original villain.
“Cloistered Priest” Adventurer character tropes
These character tropes also come in a variety of flavours. This is where your hero loves their home town, never wants to leave and has never been anywhere, but trouble in the “Land” pries them out of their comfortable existence to smite the uprising/ruffians/magical army/scourge. Or they’re an actual cloistered priest and suddenly turn adventurer though don’t know anything about the world or even have experience finding food so they don’t die.
I mean, I get the attraction and hell yeah it’s the frame of a cool character development arc. But make it make sense. In the real world, if something catastrophic is going on? Most of us defer to people with experience. Your hero needs a reason, so up the stakes and make it impossible for them to not go. Threaten their family, burn down their village or monastery or take away the only thing they care about and make it personal. Otherwise, why would they ever leave?
The Female Hero Who’s Physically Tough as a Man
Just why? 🤷
Look, I have two daughters. Both are extremely intelligent, strong women. Neither of them could wrestle their gym rat brothers in a fight, but they don’t need to. They’ve been saving the day for those two wingnuts (and I say that with all the love in my heart) with half a brain tied behind their backs since they were in kindergarten. I have eighteen female cousins, two sisters and a buttload of aunts. All of them are the smartest, toughest, kick-assiest human beings I’ve ever known. Trust me, none of those women need a sword to slay anyone.
Strength is not the exclusive purview of a male gender
My point is, strong women don’t need to be physically strong. They don’t need to have male gender-conforming traits or behaviour to overcome adversity and be a heroine. Not to say that a female or feminine-aligned hero can’t have those traits. By all means, don’t exclude this type of hero if it suits your story. But don’t be lazy about it and get sucked into a two-dimensional cliché, because you can’t be bothered to expend energy coming up with something more original. Or think you can offset it by having them run around scantily clad in an apparently feminine fur bikini. Seriously, don’t do that. Heroes must have dimension, and strength comes in all shapes and sizes and types.
Have a female hero who uses their emotional strength to persevere. Or their superior powers of deductive reasoning. An innate ability to read a language no one else can. Or are from a species that never sleeps and thereby gains an advantage. And may be also willing to give a sword fight a go, but don’t make it their only thing.
Push the envelope or just burn it altogether and go a whole other way. What about a non-binary hero who loves jewelry and nail polish and construction boots and has a beard who overcomes obstacles and vanquishes the villain with the power of their mind?
The point is, work to rely less on cliché and put an original spin on strength to create truly unique and interesting female or feminine-aligned heroes.
The Perfect Hero (‘Mary/Gary Sues’)
What’s a Mary/Gary Sue? This archetype character is too perfect and boring for their lack of faults. Originally written as an idealized version of an author in fanfiction, this character is flawless or has “flaws” that aren’t really flaws – comically overwritten good looks, being too merciful or too noble. Some popular characters that could have fit into a straight-up Mary/Gary Sue model if not for being better-developed would be Superman, Luke Skywalker, Cinderella and even James Bond. But instead, they go beyond.
The way they got around this character cliché is they have flaws mixed in with their extraordinary natures that they struggle against and could even deny or try to hide to keep up the myth of their perfection. Superman loses his unstoppable powers around kryptonite and selfishly puts Lois Lane’s welfare ahead of the rest of humanity. Luke Skywalker avoids the trope by being easily manipulated and basically a dumbass whose bad choices eclipse his vast powers. Despite her enduring goodness and grace, even the Disney too-perfect version of Cinderella manages to sidestep cliché by needing a fairy godmother to achieve her night out, and limits on that boon make her responsible for what happens after the magic runs out.
Solving for this is as simple as adding flaws to the too-perfect character trope to make these protagonists more interesting and believable. They’re also easier for readers to connect with. With some flaws, we can imagine ourselves in them now. We want to be perfect, but our flaws get in the way, too, so it’s a circumstance we can empathise with that can bind us together emotionally.
Overpowered Main Characters
Overpowered main characters often go hand-in-hand with a Mary/Gary Sue and should never be confused with omnipotent. If they’re completely invincible, to me, that makes them boring. so where’s the story? What’s their struggle to overcome? Stories need conflict. Unless, of course, your characters are all omnipotent in which case, have at it. If you’re thinking of including an overpowered character, make sure it’s relevant to the story also. If they’re overpowered simply for the sake of it and it doesn’t add anything to your story, don’t go there and do something else.
Now, I’m a fan of overpowered characters, but I find it much more interesting when I have to wonder if a main character is going to win a fight or not. When the possibility exists they may not win, the stakes are higher. We want to root for our heroes, because we want to live vicariously through them and boo our villains, because they should never triumph. When the threat of failure isn’t there, any character becomes too lofty and makes it tough to care about them. And worse, an overpowered hero can come across as cheesy.
To avoid an overpowered character becoming comically overblown, incorporate limits to their power
This adds uncertainty. They could be “the most powerful sorcerer in the land”, but with a downfall? This hero is just as flawed as the rest of us regular schmucks. Even Achilles had his heel. Sherlock had his drugs and likely some form of Asperger’s and maybe Bipolar Disorder. Include something they can never avoid or ignore whether it be a specific moral conflict, someone from their past, emotions which are difficult to control, a habit or vice or some facet of their personality that consistently gets in their way.
An overpowered and morally bereft villain is a pretty big pickle for your average do-gooder hero. Why not make your protagonist overpowered or introduce other characters who are also overpowered? Then the threat is real on both sides, effectively nullifying the fact that any of them are overpowered while leaving you with lots to work with for when they clash.
In my opinion, something to avoid with overpowered characters would be to introduce “secret knowledge” late in the game that helps another character get around it. After you get past a first confrontation and can’t think of a cool way to do it a second time, don’t sell out and sneak in some info that would have come in handy four chapters ago. That’s just lazy writing. You can do better.
Want more? Check out all the Avoid Fantasy Writing Clichés series: