14 Popular Fantasy Tropes — And How to Make Them Feel New Again
Fantasy tropes, like any other type of literary trope, are recurring images, themes, or devices that are used to the point of being common conventions amongst its genre.
When writing a genre such as fantasy (with such well-known conceits), authors often feel the need to straddle a fine line: include too many tropes and readers will get déjà vu; don’t include a single cliché and you risk losing readers who have come to expect certain themes and touchstones from a fantasy novel.
The thing is, conventions commonly crop up in stories because most of them contain some element of universal relatability — and people enjoy the familiar.
So embrace the balancing act by acquainting yourself with some of the most popular fantasy tropes out there, and by learning how to prevent your characters, plots, and worlds from becoming a complete cliché.
At their heart, all stories are about characters who represent some aspect of human nature — and fantasy is no exception. Many novels in this genre feature archetypes, which is not necessarily a bad thing — so long as your characters' development aligns with the narrative arc and doesn't rely on cliché pitstops.
1) The Chosen One
A character who is alone capable of fulfilling an important purpose, and whose responsibility is to resolve the plot’s main conflict — which will often be to save the world.
Example: Harry Potter, who is literally called the Chosen One. (Scroll down to the section on making tropes feel like new to see how this one is deconstructed.)
2) The Secret Heir
An orphan ends up being the long-lost scion to a royal throne. Often, this character is raised on a farm or another humble situation that contrast their true lineage. Maybe they lost their parents at a young age and sent away for their own protection. Perhaps they were switched at birth in some sort of hilarious misunderstanding. Maybe their mother had a summer fling with an undercover prince in her gap year.
Example: In C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, protagonist Shasta is a prince, kidnapped as an infant because he's been prophesied as the saviour of Archenland. Found and raised by a fisherman, he eventually discovers his true identity.
3) The Evil Overlord
Fire and brimstone, darkness and inhospitable lands, the Evil Overlord usually lives in a realm that reflects their wicked intentions, surrounded by their minions and followers. The Evil Overlord is also often bent on world domination.
Example: In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent’s castle is perched on a precarious and jagged mountain-top, looking over a land of darkness. She leads an army of minions and refers to herself as the “Mistress of All Evil.”
4) The Reluctant Hero
The protagonist is thrust down the path of a story they don’t wish to be a part of. They long to return to normal life and only continue on their quest out of obligation or necessity. Think of it as the difference between Frodo (who wishes to return to the Shire but knows a task must be completed) and Conan the Barbarian, who relishes the role of rough-hewn hero. Often, the Reluctant Hero is also the Chosen One.
Example: In the urban fantasy Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, protagonist Richard Mayhew is involuntarily pulled into the “London Below,” a secret world located beneath the capital. He spends the whole novel wanting to go back to his old life. (Scroll down to the section on making tropes feel like new to see how this one is subverted.)
5) The Lucky Novice
This sometimes manifests when a character who has had never attempted a specific activity before is suddenly extremely talented at that specific skill. Other times it’s presented in the form of a protagonist — who’s had a moderate amount of training — defeating the villain who has been honing their powers for years or decades (or even centuries).
These sudden skills cab be a byproduct of being the “Chosen One;” it might be because those skills “runs in their blood,” or the protagonist might have an inexplicable influx of energy and skill when their back is pushed against the wall.
Example: In Phantom Menace, Anakin rides a starfighter for the first time — with enough control that he’s able to blow up a massive spaceship.
6) The Mentor
Usually an elderly character who prepares the protagonist for whatever conflict they are facing. The Mentor often leaves before the big climax — whether they are killed, retire, or have to leave to carry out a job elsewhere — forcing the protagonist to stand on their own two feet.
Example: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White follows young Wart and his mentor and educator, the old magician Merlyn.
While the many subgenres of fantasy will all have their own tropes, here are a few worldbuilding conventions that you're bound to see more often than not.
7) The World That Never Progresses
When a novel of series covers a society through the ages — but that world seems never change or progress. It could be a century later, but no social, technological, political, or cultural developments seem to have occurred. This one is fairly typical of high fantasy, which usually take place on grand, epic scales.
Example: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is set in an unspecified time of the future. The sequel, Speaker for the Dead is set 3,000 after the first novel but the setting remains largely unchanged. However, the novel sort of suggests that frequent time travel has led to a world where time is “relative.”
To see these tropes in action, check out these 12 epic fantasy series like Game of Thrones.
8) The Pseudo-European Medieval Setting
A feudal system governing a society where taverns are frequented and duel-by-swords are a daily occurrence. The stories don't usually take place in actual Europe, but a world that very much resembles the continent’s medieval era. This setting is a mainstay of fantasy — significantly solidified in the genre by The Lord of the Rings, but harking back to European folklore and tales of King Arthur.
Example: So many! But a classic one is A Song of Ice and Fire, which is mostly set in “Westeros” — based significantly on medieval-era Europe and renaissance Britain.
9) The Powerful Artifact
This convention is used across all types of genres: an object of great power must be saved from falling into the wrong hands. The object is typically inanimate and derives its power from the manipulation of those who use it. The object might not be inherently evil, but its powers can have the effect of tempting and corrupting even the noblest characters.
Example: Two words for you: The Precious. Another example is the Auryn medallion given to Bastian in The Neverending Story — it’s not an evil artifact, but its power to grant wishes temporarily turns innocent Bastian into a cruel and cold version of himself.
10) The Homogenous Species
All elves are beautiful and love trees, and all dwarves are obsessed with gold and living underground, right? Categorizing entire races into a few commonalities is typical of fantasy novels, and if one character from that race differs, you can bet they’re an outlier — and often the protagonist of the novel (or a trusty sidekick). Another common feature of this trope is when one species is inherently “good”, and another is inherently “bad.”
Example: Hobbits = good, love beer and agriculture. Orcs = bad, love not taking showers and destroying nature.
11) The Waiting Evil
Long, long ago, an evil force is defeated in battle and locked away, never to wreak havoc again. That is, of course, until now. Having bided its time, the evil entity breaks free with an eye for vengeance. This Waiting Evil might break free of their own volition, might be released by an avid supporter (that is usually then disposed of — hello, Peter Pettigrew), or it might be released accidentally by an unknowing passerby or by natural causes.
Example: In Duma Key by Stephen King, the ancient evil force Perse is sealed in a keg and dropped down a well. When the protagonist finds the keg, they discover that it has all but leaked dry and Perse has escaped.
12) The “Here Comes the Cavalary” Twist
All is lost. The villain and their minions are too strong and despite a noble fight, the jig is up. The heroes simply can’t hold off the opposition any longer. Time to lay down and die. But wait! Do you hear that? It’s faint, but growing louder. It’s… it’s… it’s the heroes’ friends, showing up in the nick of time to save the day! Hooray! Not all is lost!
You get it.
Example: The Lord of the Rings movies do this better — and more — than anything else. There’s the prologue, where Isildur defeats Sauron just before he's about to defeat the Alliance. There’s the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, when Boromir saves Pippin and Merry from death-by-orc. Or that time in The Two Towers when the elves come to the rescue during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. What about when Gandalf totally owns the Nazguls in The Return of the King by blinding them with the powers of his white staff (see below for a related trope). And finally, who can forget when the eagles save Frodo and Sam from being swallowed by lava after destroying the ring at the end of the series. Chills, every time.
13) The Black and White Morality Theme
The battle between “good” and “evil” is such a prevalent theme in fantasy — and it’s no wonder. When it strays to a cliché is when the line between good and evil is perceived as black and white, with no grey area. The good guys are purely good, and the bad guys are pure evil — end of story. Often, the good guys manage to defeat the bad guys without killing a soul or even wrecking a single building.
Example: In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan and those who stand by him are good. His enemies and those who oppose him are bad.They don’t have redeeming features and the “bad” side’s main champion, the White Witch, is not given a backstory to explain why she is the way she is. (Scroll down to the section on making tropes feel like new to see how this one plays with expectations.)
14) The Quest
The hero — and usually a handful of secondary characters — sets out on a quest with a specific goal. Typically the goal ranges from saving a princess, defeating a villain, destroying a corrupt artifact, or finding someone. The goal of the quest doesn’t matter as much as the fact that there is a solid one. While The Quest very closely resembles The Hero's Journey, there are key differences between the two story structures: while the former is all about the character's journey to achieve a goal, the latter is more about the character's inner journey than the actual objective.
Example: The Percy Jackson series follows Percy and his demigod friends as they fight mythological monsters on their quest to defeat Kronos, King of the Titans.
How to put your own spin on classic fantasy tropes
Almost all fantasy series contain tropes, but only the best series actually put a unique spin on them. Remember, one of the best things your novel can do is surprise readers — make them imagine or question something they haven't before. Here's a few ways to keep readers on their toes, even if your book contains a trope or two.
You can deconstruct common tropes when you play them straight (adhere to their traditions), in order to discuss the deeper implications of that convention and to shine a light on their real consequences.
For example, yes, Harry Potter is the Chosen One. But, atypically, Harry only become the Chosen One because the antagonist chooses him. The convention is further played with when Dumbledore suggests that prophecies are only as true as people believe them to be — implying that the only reason the prophecy came true is because Voldemort decided to believe it, and decided to “mark Harry.” In other words, there could just have easily not been a Chosen One: Voldemort — blinded by his hatred and thirst for power — was the creator of his own demise all along, and the notion of Chosen One only had as much power as Voldemort gave it.
Furthermore, Harry is negatively impacted by his title. He’s isolated and used; the fact that he doesn’t show surface abilities far beyond his peers results in obvious disappointment. On top of that, the responsibilities that come with being the Chosen One lands him an unearned reputation for being arrogant and reckless.
Deconstruction tip: Try to think of the most overused fantasy element you’ve come across. Now think about what would actually happen if that was true? For instance, if totally homogenous races existed, is it realistic to think there would never be dissent or perhaps civil war?
People have expectations when they encounter common fantasy elements. The Reluctant Hero will be noble and good. The Mentor will be elderly and bearded. So on and so forth. But you can give an archetypal character a dose of originality when they meet the basic standards of that trope — while defying assumed ones.
For instance, Evil Overlords are most oven male — or masculine-identifying — characters, shrouded in darkness. In The Chronicles of Narnia, the Evil Overlord is represented by the White Witch. In contrast to the expectations of this common character convention (and Black and White Morality) expectations, she is a woman shrouded in white. White is used to symbolize everlasting winter, death, and decay. All of the boxes of an Evil Overlord are ticked, but they’re presented in an uncommon, different way.
Defy expectations tip: If you want to play an archetype mostly straight without wandering into cliché territory, determine which elements the trope requires, and which elements are simply expected. Come up with your own specifics for the latter category.
Use a reader’s assumed knowledge of a common convention to your advantage. Give readers the sense that a well-known trope is being played out, and then reveal that there’s actually something else going on.
As mentioned earlier, Neverwhere follows Richard Mayhew on his quest to leave London’s underworld and return home. Usually, when a Reluctant Hero’s quest is complete and they go back to normal life, and they’re happy about it. They might eventually long for adventure again, like Bilbo Baggins — but not right away (the tea needs putting on and feet need putting up). This is not the case for Richard, who returns home only to find that his life feels empty and the people and things he used to care for mean little to him now. He despairs and longs to return to the underworld.
Subversion tip: Think of the components that tip readers off to the fact a trope is unfolding. What will they expect to happen? What could instead happen to surprise readers and prompt them to reevaluate the “trope” with new eyes.
To lampshade a trope is to shine a spotlight on it, acknowledging the readers’ knowledge that an element of the story is, indeed, a trope. This is usually done when an aspect of the story is so cliché or unbelievable that it risks breaking the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. You can also do this to let the reader know that you’re aware of the cliché — and that it’s not just poor attention to detail — and to kind of assure readers that even though the plot point might be hard to believe, in the realm of the story it’s not impossible.
For example, in Walter Moers’ The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, the protagonist is saved from a deadly island by a pterodactyl who introduces himself as “Deus ex Machina” — which is where a conflict in the plot is abruptly solved in an unlikely way.
Lampshading tip: Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where a totally implausible scene made you roll your eyes? What could the author or director have done to make the scene feel passably self-aware and not as suspension-of-belief-shattering?
Finally, put your own stamp on a trope by determining its narrative purpose. Are you just using it because you’ve seen it in tons of other fantasy novels? Well, then you run the risk of playing it totally straight — which might work for your story — but it’s likely to also be cliché and perhaps not be all that memorable for your readers. Are you using it because it serves the story? If so, that probably means you’re adding your own specifics to the trope — distinctive details that keep your characters, worlds, and plots from feeling like a rerun.
So have fun with tropes! The more you know about them, the more you can actively give them a unique and specific purpose in your story.
Tropes: we love to hate them and hate to love them. What are some of your favorites, or most eye-roll-inducing fantasy novel conventions? Let us know in the comments below!