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Writing

6 Common Fantasy Tropes: How to Use Fantasy Tropes Effectively

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 16, 2020 • 4 min read

When it comes to fantasy tropes, it can sometimes feel like you’re straddling an impossible line: an abundance of tropes and clichés will make your work feeling boring and predictable, but not including any will ignore the touchstones of the genre that keep readers coming back for more. That’s why important to deeply understand the tropes and conventions of fantasy writing.

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6 Common Fantasy Tropes

Whether you’re working in the high fantasy, urban fantasy, or sword and sorcery subgenres, there are certain common tropes you may wish to explore in your writing. Here are some of the most commonplace fantasy tropes:

  1. The chosen one: One of the most common tropes in the fantasy genre, this trope involves a seemingly ordinary protagonist being plucked from obscurity in order to fulfill a great and singular purpose. Oftentimes, these characters are fulfilling the prophecy of an ancient text or dream. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the titular main character is deemed “The Chosen One” and is seemingly the only person capable of defeating Lord Voldemort. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a simple farm boy until he discovers that he is destined to become a Jedi.
  2. The dark lord: In fantasy fiction, this is often a character who personifies the forces of evil—a magical overlord who commands vast armies. An example is Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series.
  3. The quest: A quest is one of the most common clichés among sci-fi and epic fantasy writers, and it involves a character going on a journey in order to complete a goal or task. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his sidekick Samwise must leave the safety of their hobbit village in order to destroy the One Ring of Power.
  4. A medieval setting: Many fantasy settings draw from medieval European folklore and fairy tales in their worldbuilding, and modern fantasy series often contain creatures that were inspired by medieval fantasy stories like the legend of King Arthur; these creatures include goblins, druids, and trolls. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, takes place in the fantasy world of Westeros, which resembles medieval Europe.
  5. The damsel in distress: The damsel in distress is another common plot device in fantasy and science fiction stories and video games, in which a female character (usually with little backstory and oftentimes the love interest of the protagonist) is placed in mortal danger by the bad guys, requiring the (usually male) hero to rescue her. This plot device can be found in many Disney movies, such as Snow White and The Sleeping Beauty, and has been subverted in more recent movies like Tangled and Moana.
  6. The mentor: One of the most popular fantasy characters, the mentor is a wise, elderly figure (such as an old wizard) who educates the protagonist and gives them the training and information necessary to eventually save the world and triumph in the battle of good vs. evil. In the fantasy novel series The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan serves as a mentor for the siblings, helping them grow into their roles as kings and queens.

3 Tips for Effectively Using Fantasy Tropes in Your Writing

If you’re writing your first book in the fantasy genre, it can be hard to come up with story ideas that don’t feel clichéd or overdone. It’s inevitable that your fantasy novel or short story will contain some tropes—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  1. Use audience expectations to your advantage. Audiences’ familiarity with tropes and genre conventions will likely cause them to jump to a conclusion about a character or plot point, which gives you the opportunity to subvert those expectations. If your audience is expecting a helpless damsel, make her a secret badass with strong character development. If your audience is expecting typical dumb, slow-moving zombies, make them fast and hyper-intelligent. Subverting genre clichés will keep your audience guessing and make your story all the more exciting.
  2. Establish clear rules for your world. Deus ex machina is a plot device in which a seemingly unsolvable problem or unbeatable obstacle is suddenly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely event. Since the fantasy genre is filled with magic and underworldly creatures, it can feel tempting to introduce a magical solution to a seemingly unresolvable plot problem. However, deus ex machina is often unsatisfying to the reader, since the sudden solution to the story’s central problem seemingly comes out of nowhere. One way to avoid this is to establish firm, consistent, logical rules for your magical world in the first place. That way, if you need to summon a magical solution to a plot problem, it will feel less abrupt and unmotivated.
  3. Use tropes to tell an emotionally compelling story. There’s a reason why fantasy series often follow the hero’s journey and conclude with good guys triumphing over evil. Fantasy tropes are so resilient because they serve as the building blocks of a satisfying, emotionally compelling story. The most common fantasy tropes contain seeds of real-world struggles, relationships, and themes played out on the most epic scale imaginable (and with orcs, mages, and minions). Don’t be afraid to lean into tropes—as long as they are in service of a story that is emotionally satisfying.
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