Fantasy tropes get a bad rap. Everybody’s used them. None of them are new. And you want to be original, dammit!
Popular advice about fantasy tropes
Most advice about fantasy tropes is to flat-out avoid them.
A perennial topic of learning for emerging fantasy writers, we’ve all been there. We write our first big work thinking it’s the next Lord of the Rings, right? And then look back on it after some experience and die a little inside, because it’s rough – filled with clichés and all manner of nonsense. While we work to figure out why it sucks so bad, we research. And that’s where we learn to spot the buttload of tropes in it we didn’t realise we stole from every fantasy writer before us and didn’t do half as good a job at executing. Aaaand then vow never to do that again.
But hey, you have to start somewhere.
Don’t let the hot mess you barf out your first time deter you. No one needs to know the crap we write to get to the place where we write something brilliant.
Fantasy tropes’ staying power
I take issue with any advice about fantasy tropes that imperiously pronounces they’re to be “avoided at all costs”.
Because that’s not actually the case.
It’s the tropes that shaped the genre, after all, and therein lies their staying power. When you see or read one of those tropes, you know it’s a fantasy story. And let’s remember, the fans are there, because they love the format. Really, there’s nothing inherently wrong with many of them. Using them well is the key. I’ll even put my hand up here and confess I freakin’ love them. I don’t just write fantasy, after all. I’m a reader. I expect to see them in the fantasy stories I read. I mean, that’s why I’m there, dude. They take me to my happy place.
Don’t fuck with my brain candy.
My advice is yes, use fantasy tropes. The obvious crap ones aside, embrace them as an integral part of the genre. BUT fantasy tropes are like every other “writing rule”. Meaning, apply the same approach you absolutely should with everything else about your writing: put an original spin on them.
The only way to know if you’ve got something unique is to learn. Read the fantasy writers who came before you. It also doesn’t hurt to study your genre or sub-genre for badly-used tropes to teach yourself what to avoid. And then manipulate them. Reinvent them. Sprinkle fairy dust all over those puppies and turn them into a Pegasus. When you make them your own, that’s when you’re using fantasy tropes well.
Fantasy trope cliché example
How do you know when you’ve leaked over to the Dark Side? Look, I don’t profess to know everything or even do it perfectly all the time, but I do strive for it and from experience, I can say it’s usually when the trope doesn’t add anything to the story or to any character’s development. Or plain just doesn’t make sense. If you catch yourself in the Bad Place, don’t panic. All is not lost. Do what the rest of us do – edit and aim to hold yourself to common sense during your rewrite.
As a for instance, this clichéd version of a common trope just plain makes no sense if we think about it for half a second.
The “Elite” Yet Get Killed by Everyone Guards
This is a paradox and actually makes me nuts when I run across it. What’s “elite” about them if it’s possible for everyone to bump them off? There has to be a plausible explanation for their lower-than-elite skills here or you should be calling them cannon fodder instead. Throw in a spell that makes their swords have no edge. Make them travel into a dimension where their strength is diminished, so they’re vulnerable to the native creatures there. Maybe they all came down with the flu? Something. Otherwise, they become the Star Trek “redshirt” equivalent in your fantasy story.
And yes, of course, there’s a definite place for stock characters we’ll kill early and never fully develop. But remember, even those characters die to advance the plot or they should be left out.
There are a lot of tropes – character personality tropes, world building tropes, plot tropes, story element tropes… These lists are not even close to comprehensive, but let’s call out some of the more common ones as a first step in how to identify them.
- 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
- The World That Never Evolves Even Over Centuries
- The Present Day Values in a Pseudo-Medieval Culture World
- The Perennial Winter Worlds Where No One Freezes Their Ass Off
- The Desert World With No Water Sources That Somehow Survives
- The Everyone Speaks the Same Language no Matter Their Location World World
- Matriarchal or Goddess-Worshipping Folk are Good vs Patriarchal or God-Worshipping Folk are Bad World
- The Cookie Cutter Species World
- The Pseudo-Medieval World
- The Societies Without Commerce or Industry Yet Survive World
- The Life is Cheap World
- The Untried or Lucky Novice Defeats Battle-Hardened Warriors
- The Quest
- The Lurking Evil that Suddenly Breaks Free
- The Doomsday Weapon/Magical Artifact Will Go Off And Wipe Out The World Without Intervention Premise
- The One Twin is Good and One Twin is Evil Premise
- The In the Nick of Time Twist
- Black Magic Must Be Defeated by White Magic
- The Magical Item That Can Both Destroy and Save the World
- Black and White Morality With No Shades of Grey Universe
- The Villain is the Hero’s Parent/Close Relative
- The Prophesy Foretold of the Hero’s Birth but Nobody Bothers to Mention Until After Everything’s Gone to Shit Premise
story element tropes
- Reviving potions are sold at stores and every adventurer carries them around so no threat of death
- Magic systems that follow no rules or change rules at a whim
- Swords that weigh a tonne
- Fights break out at taverns on the regular for no good reason and bust them up
- No such thing as any form of local law enforcement
- Death seems to be the only punishment for even the smallest crime
- The villain’s minions are all idiots
- No one ever has to go to work and has time to go on endless capers
- Names with a million apostrophes for no linguistic reason
- A group of adventurers who all hate or distrust each other at the beginning admit they really admired each other all along and are now besties
- Societies are loosely Celtic or Norse or everyone’s a Viking
- Names too suggestive of a character’s personality or are a synonym for their profession (including in other languages)
- Women warriors are scantily clad while their male counterparts wear proper armour
- No one ever has to pause in their quest to take a pee, eat or sleep
- “Secret” passages in the villain’s lair that somehow the hero just happens to know how to navigate
- Secret passages have no booby-traps
- No one seems to have a problem with slavery, but they’re all progressive about gender roles and homosexuality
- Women are routinely molested or offered as payment and everyone’s okay with this
Make fantasy tropes into something new
Fans of the genre want to be entertained. No one wants to see the same old tired stories. And yet we know the most enduring and beloved stories incorporate at least some of these fantasy tropes. When we examine those stories, though, we see they’re used in ways that aren’t clichéd and with a unique spin that makes them new again. While brooms are generally thought of as something witches use, in the Harry Potter series J. K. Rolling turns them into a piece of sports equipment. Other realms are generally accessed through a portal and in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the back of a wardrobe becomes a door to another dimension due to C. S. Lewis’s unique take on that. These are simple yet elegant manipulations of those tropes that make them fresh and interesting.
Think of fantasy tropes as, perhaps, a frame. And what you do within the frame is where you dare to be different – that’s your challenge.
The goal is to create a brand new, interest-capturing story incorporating familiar aspects that give readers a sense of comfort and familiarity. I think one of the easiest ways is to examine what a trope is at its core and then figure out how to work around the cliché. Add extra elements. Turn it on its head. Mash it together with another trope. Juxtapose it against something completely foreign. Know you don’t need to stick to the form of any trope you saw the first time you read Lord of the Rings and are not allowed to play with it.
You absolutely should. That’s when you know you’re doing it right.
Want more? Check out all the Avoid Fantasy Writing Clichés series:
Check out my other tips on writing fantasy, magic and magic systems: