Plot Tropes in Fantasy Writing
This time, let’s get into ways around a clichéd version of a few fantasy plot tropes, so you can take that perspective into any others to help improve your story telling.
Again, the bulk of advice about fantasy tropes tells us to avoid them, but that’s not entirely correct. More correctly, we want to avoid using them badly. Mainstays of the genre, readers expect to see them in the stories they read. What they don’t expect are the same tired stories 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.
Plot Tropes Overview
Here’s that list of some of the more common fantasy plot tropes we reviewed in the introduction:
- 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
Cliché Solutions: Plot Tropes
Using a few from our list, now let’s think about how we might approach them in a way that’s not clichéd.
The Untried or Lucky Novice Defeats Battle-Hardened Warriors
Sometimes connected with the “Chosen One” character trope who just happens to “have it in their blood”, this is where we see a hero with zero life experience bust-out a natural affinity for weapons while showing unacquired situational awareness commanding legions like a battle-hardened veteran. Or on the small scale, picking up a sword or a gun and squaring-off against someone with years of practice and not only know how to use the weapon, but winning. Or unconnected with battle or weapons, opposing anyone skilled in something they’ve never tried before and not only knowing what to do, but coming out looking like an aficionado.
Expecting a suspension of disbelieve is our stock in trade, but this trope is a big ask of a reader. I love the genre, but action film is guilty of it a million times over (I’m sorry, when did that agoraphobic, house-bound accountant learn correct weapons handling?).
Don’t go direct from ‘A’ to ‘B’
What about showing time having passed? This allows for a reasonable explanation about how they acquired at least some of the skill needed to defeat those battle-hardened warriors/skilled antagonists in a believable way. I wouldn’t show much if any of that time passing, though, because it slows down the action too much. If you can work it into the quest, instead of jumping time, a better way might be to have your hero acquire knowledge incrementally at the shoulder of a supporting character and keep the action moving forward.
If you present it the right way, you could even bypass the whole “training with a master” thing completely, by giving your hero an assist. Have some unexpected series of events increase the likelihood they might actually overpower a skilled opponent. What do I mean by that? Have a tree fall on the other character. Or they get their foot stuck in a rabbit hole or trip a bear trap. Or maybe a sorcerer is standing off on the sidelines throwing incantations to weaken/throw off their opponent/keep them safe. Hey, it worked for J.K. Rowling to have Professor Snape muttering a counter-curse from the stands to protect Harry during his Quidditch match, didn’t it?
I think an all-around good way to approach this one is to put yourself in that situation you know nothing about. How would you win or what would help you? And then write it. Because all of our life experience is different, it’ll make for a more realistic, yet unique story.
Quests have a long tradition going back to ancient mythology with probably one of the most famous being Jason and the Argonauts looking for the Golden Fleece. The quest pulls the hero out of their regular life, they travel with a group of secondary character helpers, and always has a very definite goal. The start of their journey often arises from a prophesy and the goal is usually finding a magical item, destroying a great threat or defeating a villain. From Percy Jackson to Lord of the Rings, it’s one of the most enduring fantasy plot tropes. As a species we love these stories which is the reason they’re still popular after thousands of years.
While one of the most time-proven plot tropes in fantasy and sci-fi stories, there are still ways to freshen it up and make it your own.
Try deconstructing it or turning it on its head
Think about all the implications to your characters if the story unfolds in the usual way – and then do it differently. For example, take the fact that the quest requires your hero to leave their home and go on a journey. But what if they never left? Is there a way you might have them go on a “quest” without ever leaving the house? This could provide you with an innovative avenue like a mental journey, distance-seeing or even using the Internet.
Taking what you know readers would expect and then not doing it is a valid way to subvert this trope.
Perhaps, you could prevent your hero from travelling in the traditional way due to a unique situation like being in a wheelchair or being a formless species with no body to go walking about. Rather than focus on a solve for how to get them to physically go overland, a quest might then become a journey of discovery with revelations coming to them instead of their venturing out to find them. What about making the revelation through the supporting characters? A device could keep them in contact with their entourage who do the actual travelling while they still call the shots.
One Twin is Good and One Twin is Evil Plot Tropes
The One Twin is Good/One Twin is Evil Premise is an overused plot trope often done in a way that prompts much eye rolling. The alternate universe hero, doppelganger or split personality of the hero premise is the same thing. YA fantasy sometimes feels like it has a than a higher-than-average number of stories with the twin trope, but really it’s everywhere from Alexandre Dumas’s Man in the Iron Mask to Stephen King’s The Dark Half.
When done well, the twin/doppelganger/split personality premise does allow for exploration into some serious themes like destiny vs. free will, identity or self-image issues and can make for rich stories. If it interests you as a story vehicle, you’ll want to stay on the right side of clichéd. Since a strong villain should have an unbreakable connection with your hero, the twin or doppelganger premise bakes that right in for you. This takes a strong hero so readers gain a strong sense of who they are and familiarity with them before they’re thrown a double. This makes the contrast between them sharper.
Since the Evil Twin premise has been used so much, you may even want to steer away from using it in the literal sense and go for a creative representation instead. A shadowy figure just out of reach could add tension. Or turn it on its head and tell the story from the copy’s perspective and call into question who is the “real” hero and who is the double.
The Prophesy Foretold of the Hero’s Birth but Nobody Bothers to Mention Until After Everything’s Gone to Shit Premise
When clichéd, this one really bugs me. This is where you see someone who’s been with the entourage the entire time suddenly speak up while everything is on fire with:
“Well, y’know, my uncle used to tell me this story that it was foretold 600 years ago that the 4th decedent of the head of the Fletcher’s Guild from Mudtown will defeat the Disgusting Monster Threat with that magical thing we’ve been carting around since chapter 2 and hey scrappy, untried Hero, I know your great-great-great-grandparent was head of the Fletcher’s Guild in Mudtown, because I’m the town records-keeper”.
What? You had this knowledge the entire time and only thought to mention now? Even while everyone scratched their heads for days/months/years without a plan and while being killed off one-by-one? And after it’s revealed, no one thinks he’s an asshole for keeping it to himself. Run that rat bastard through with a sword!
Okay, I get it. You want to bust something out when all looks lost. Revealing the hero too early will spoil your plans. You want to increase tension. Excellent. But don’t hold back knowledge that’s so obviously available. It’s annoying.
Maybe don’t send the one person who has that knowledge on the quest. Make the hero and their troupe have to find that soothsayer. Make the only person with knowledge of the prophesy die before they gain that insight and have to figure it out through trial and error or accident. Anything is better than this!
Want more? Check out all the Avoid Fantasy Writing Clichés series: