Fantasy tropes are some of the best literary tropes out there (except, perhaps, for romance). Whether you’re writing a fantasy novel or screenplay, you may be tempted to include fantasy tropes in your work – but, likewise, you may also be nervous about using a plot device that’s been used so many times it’s no longer original.
So how can you include fantasy tropes in your story, without boring your readers?
In this article I’m going to be talking about what a fantasy trope is, listing some of the best-loved common tropes (along with examples), and discussing the best way to incorporate fantasy tropes in your story.
What Is A Trope?
A trope is a scenario in any story (be it a book, movie or play) where characters react or interact in a way that is expected. Some may even go so far as to say that a genre book isn’t a genre book without at least one or two well-loved tropes (at least!!).
Genre plays a big part in which tropes are used in which stories. You can always mix up tropes (no one is stopping a rom-com writer from sending one character off on a quest and making another a fallen hero) but when it comes to expectations, certain genres have certain tropes.
So, for instance, in horror, you may get an innocent person or object (child, doll, pet) that becomes possessed. And in romance, readers expect to see characters go from being enemies to lovers, or to have a happy ending. And in fantasy (which we will be focusing on in this article) readers expect to see characters go on a quest, discover they are the chosen one, or become the hero who uses a magic sword to fight a dark lord.
So let’s take a look at some of the most common tropes found in fantasy stories, listed in relation to popular categories found within the fantasy genre.
Our Top Fantasy Tropes (And How To Make Them Unique)
All common tropes in fantasy fiction share similar elements – in most cases, writers focus on worldbuilding (ie the magical world in which the story is set), characters (ie archetypes who possess certain attributes and qualities that people expect to find in their favourite fantasy fiction. ), or plot (ie some kind of great power struggle or attempt to save the world).
In this list, I will highlight the most popular fantasy tropes, give an example, and then highlight how you can give these tried and tested tropes your very own stamp or twist.
Let’s start with tropes found in fantasy settings…
It’s incredibly common to see fantasy novels set in a time that closely resembles the King Arthur medieval period…although often mixed with fantasy elements. Imagine people living in villages with straw roofs and farmyard animals, except the local blacksmith makes magic swords! Or imagine a reluctant hero galloping off on his horse to fight the bad guys…who also happen to be trolls.
Where to find it: When we imagine Medieval-style fantasy worlds we often think of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. But another fun example is The Witcher series on Netflix, inspired by the books written by Andrzej Sapkowski which were later adapted into a popular computer game. This is the perfect example of how one world and its story can be told in a number of ways!
It’s hard to find a fantasy world in fiction that doesn’t have some kind of magic system. Whether that means that witches and wizards exist, there’s just one character who can cast spells, or that the power can only be found in one mystical artefact, when considering worldbuilding and fantasy tropes it’s important to think about the magic system of your made-up world. Who can do it? How does it work? And why?
Where to find it: There are far too many magical systems in fantasy fiction to list here, so take a look at this article which highlights some of my favourite and original takes on magic!
Fantastical Races And Creatures
Surely you didn’t think you could get this far without a Tolkien reference? Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Trolls, and of course HOBBITS – Tolkien always went above and beyond to create entire communities of other-worldly creatures in his books. He even went so far as to invent a language for them!
So if you’re going to write a fantasy book that doesn’t take place in this world, you can’t avoid using this trope. In fact, why not check out our article on how to create your own fantasy creatures?
Where to find it: To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo is a great twist in The Little Mermaid, full of undersea monsters like you’ve never seen before.
Damsel In Distress
This is one of the most common fantasy tropes found in older stories, myths and legends. Although times have changed and we find fewer and fewer stories full of defenceless women needing a big strong man or rich prince to come to their rescue, having someone who needs rescuing is always a great inciting incident. Especially if the hero’s journey takes them not just to the trapped person but also helps them discover plenty about themselves along the way!
Where to find it: Every fairytale is a fantasy book, and most of the older ones (think Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty) are full of damsels in distress.
The Secret Heir
This is slightly different to The Chosen One trope (where, like Harry Potter, the protagonist discovers they’re the key to beating the evil force). A secret heir won’t necessarily have any magical power, but they will most probably be the one who is destined to be the next ruler. And often that means the one people want to kill!
This is a fun one to twist up as you can do ridiculous things, like have the pet cat be the secret heir because the prince was once turned into an animal, or have the servant be a secret heir because they were the king’s hidden love child!
Where to find it: Here’s a great collection of books where women are battling over the throne instead of the usual secret prince.
All fantasy books have to have a villain – even though it’s not always a monster or a man who is pure evil. In some cases, the villain can be the landscape, the curse, or the inner demon they are struggling to fight.
Where to find it: Where won’t you find a nasty villain in the fantasy genre? From Darth Vader and the Joker, to Lord Voldermort and Narnia’s White Witch, we sometimes enjoy reading about the villains more than the good guys/girls/people.
A dark lord is a villain, but not all villains are dark lords! The wonderful thing about someone who turns to the dark side is discovering their origin story, their backstory, and how they went from being a regular person to the one that everyone fears.
Where to find it: The Darkling in Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone series is my favourite dark lord. He’s mysterious, enticing, powerful, and as bad as you know he really is…you can’t help wanting to know more about him. As he famously says – “Fine. Make me your villain.”
This is where the protagonist has to do something heroic, but they aren’t ready yet. So you know what they need to do? They need to train!
Training sequences are not only fun to watch, but they are a great plot device to move time forward and to show how the hero is progressing. Sometimes it’s used as a midpoint marker, just before the real action starts.
It’s also a lovely way to introduce another character trope – the mentor. This may be another main character that only comes into play in Act 2.
Where to find it: The Hunger Games trilogy has a number of training scenes, which also prove as a great way to show Katniss’ character, as well as that of her rivals and those in power. In the same vein, Mulan also uses this trope to highlight her struggle of hiding that she’s a woman fighting amongst big, burly men.
A quest is when the characters are sent on a journey and a bad thing (or twenty) will happen. that quest can be as simple as crossing a river, or as complicated as crossing an entire kingdom in order to drop a ring into a fiery mountain.
Where to find it: In the movie Love and Monsters, an asteroid has released chemicals that make small creatures into huge monsters (ie killer centipedes) and the main character has to find his ex-girlfriend at the next camp without getting killed. Highly entertaining.
Good Guys Fighting Evil
Heroes need to win – there are no two ways about it. Especially in a fantasy novel. In real life, there’s a grey area when it comes to politics and what is fair because life isn’t really that black and white – but it is in fantasy!
Your readers need to root for someone, and they need to know who that someone is, so make sure that even if your hero has flaws, ultimately, we know who’s wrong and who’s right.
Where to find it: V E Schwab does this really well in her Shades of Magic series, with the main character, Kell, fighting both external evil forces and the dark magic inside of himself.
Dead Parents/Loved Ones
It’s a lot harder for a young protagonist to go on a big adventure, fight monsters and bad guys, and take unnecessary risks, if their parents or guardians are there to stop them. So what forces a child to grow up? What motivates someone to do wild things? How do you add trauma and grief to someone’s backstory that will justify the decisions they go on to make?
Kill off the ones they love.
Where to find it: Neil Gaiman handled this trope really well with his novel The Graveyard Book about a young orphan who is raised in a cemetery by supernatural creatures. The Walking Dead is also really good at dealing with grief and loss in fantasy.
How To Effectively Use Fantasy Tropes In Your Writing
As you have seen, when it comes to common fantasy tropes and the genre in general, there’s no right or wrong (just good and evil). The joy of writing fantasy is that you can create any world you want, and any characters you want, and as long as you stick to some of these expected fantasy tropes you can make it work.
So what makes a good fantasy novel? And how can you give your readers what they expect, while not being predictable or trite?
The secret lies in taking the very best from the books and movies people love – the most common tropes that people don’t want to let go of – and considering the needs of the modern reader. Harry Potter and The Hobbit have had their time in the limelight…it’s time to create fantastical worlds that reflect how society keeps changing and inspires new readers.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder we’ve seen a rise in fantasy written for women by women, feminist fantasy, MG and YA fantasy, books written by diverse authors incorporating cultures that we don’t see as often (ie not just European folklore), as well as more LGBT fantasy, and characters that embrace physical or mental challenges (ie not as a flaw but simply as something lots of people live with).
So how can you take these tropes and make them work for you?
Write What You Know
Yes, I know you have never lived in a land where unicorns shoot fire out of their mouths or dragons are the size of sparrows, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring a little authenticity from this world to your own.
Even if your book is set in space or ten thousand years from now, readers still want to connect to your characters and the situations they find themselves in. So if you introduce a trope like, say, an innocent hero having to fight evil, try and remember what it felt like when you stood up to a bully as a child, or when you had to have a difficult conversation with your boss.
Use Them Sparingly
Just because you love certain fantasy tropes, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should add them to your story. Writing is hard work; don’t make your job harder by adding tropes to your story that have no place being there.
Think of your plot and characters first, then see what works. Readers can tell when storylines have been forced to accommodate a scene that doesn’t really add anything. (Here are some fantasy prompts to get you started.)
If you write fantasy the chances are you read and watch (or even play) a lot of it too. That means you may well feel like certain rules are set in stone – Orcs are bad, damsels need rescuing, and all heroes rise to the challenge and defeat evil at the end.
But what if you went against the grain? What if you were brave and did something so unexpected, so uncomfortable, that everyone would remember your book forever?
For instance – what if the evil dark lord rescued the sleeping beauty? What if Orcs were the good guys? And what if the hero not only lost his power but didn’t care about winning? That, in itself, would make for an interesting premise.
Writing makes you vulnerable, whatever the genre, not even magical worlds and elf-eating giants are big enough to hide behind when it comes to writing something from the heart. So be brave and take a risk, shake things up a little, because the stories that scare you the most to write are the ones worth telling!
Step Into A Whole New World
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and it has helped you on your own writing journey; your very own quest for the perfect fantasy tropes.
Remember to look at both the real world around you, and deep inside yourself, and bring all of that emotion and experience to your fantasy books. Add the tropes that matter, twist them up, make them your own, and most of all have fun.
Because if you aren’t feeling what your character is feeling, if you don’t want to save the world from more trite and predictable fantasy books, and if you’re not bravely fighting good and evil for world domination in the fantasy genre (ok, just finishing your book is a good start) then what are you waiting for? Get going!
There’s a whole world of fantasy out there for you to conquer…
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