The old mentor, the quest, the secret heir… These are all examples of common tropes in fantasy. If you’re an avid fantasy reader, you can probably think of numerous books that include these tropes. Tropes are commonly used plotlines, characters, and settings. Just because it’s been done, however, doesn’t mean it can’t be done again. Unlike clichés, which are overused plots and characters, tropes still create viable stories.
You can and will use tropes in your writing, and that’s okay! No story is unique. How you tell it and what you do with it is. Thus, the most important thing isn’t avoiding tropes but using them in a way that surprises readers. This week’s post focuses on doing that in fantasy novels.
Most fantasy novels are character-driven, focusing on the experiences and growth of their characters. Many characters tend to have similar experiences and character development, resulting in countless tropes. Some character tropes that I have not described below include the reluctant hero, the invincible villain, and the sidekick.
This is one trope that is very close to becoming a cliché, especially but not exclusively in YA fantasy novels.
It’s just easy to make your main characters orphans. If they don’t have to deal with protective or caring parents, they can disappear for months and go save the world. Parents’ deaths can be a great way to build a dark backstory for your protagonist, giving them trauma that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
Most YA characters that aren’t orphans have lost at least one parent. That, or their parents just don’t care about them. For all plot matters, they could be nonexistent. Oh, and many other characters have abusive parents.
Now, it’s important to write about these things because people do experience them. However, there are also many people who do live happily with both parents. I would love to see a YA fantasy protagonist with a healthy family life, and unfortunately, there are relatively few books that feature characters like this.
The Chosen One
Harry Potter, King Arthur, and Frodo Baggins are all “chosen ones” in their respective books. A character is chosen by someone else to perform a task, one that typically revolves around saving a lot of people.
The chosen one trope helps get a fantasy plot rolling, but sometimes it can be borderline cliché. To use this trope in a unique way, you should answer some questions.
Who chose the chosen one and why? The fact that Voldemort unknowingly chose Harry Potter to be his killer surprised readers and helped the series twist this trope. And this all stemmed from a misunderstood prophecy. There were many points during the Percy Jackson series when the reader and the characters weren’t exactly sure who the chosen one was.
What does the chosen one have to do? Change things up! Make the villain feel like they are chosen to do evil things.
What is the outcome? Get creative with this one. Maybe, the chosen one fails at the end of the book.
Using this trope in a creative way can make for an exciting and unique read.
It’s always fun to throw in a little poem that changes your protagonist’s world and future, but your poem better be really creative. I don’t mean it has to be difficult to understand because that’s a given for pretty much every prophecy. Nor do I mean the consequences have to be large because no prophecies are trivial.
Remember that a large portion of fantasy books have a prophecy of some sort. This usually relates to the chosen one trope (as I described above) or then end of the world—or both! That provides little excitement for the reader because they’ve seen it a million times before.
Does this mean you should avoid prophecies? Not necessarily. A classic prophecy can be exciting if the other aspects of your plot are unique. Or, you can change up this trope. For instance, a straightforward prophecy can create humor (like Mars’s prophecy in the Son of Neptune). Maybe you raise the stakes by having your characters look for the prophecy.
Good vs. Evil
This is a decent theme for children’s books, but once you hit middle grade and beyond, themes can and should get more complex. Fantasy books explore complicated worlds and magic systems, and their characters should be no different.
Real people aren’t either good or bad. They have a moral code, which typically has lines they will never cross and things they will never sacrifice. Give your protagonists and antagonists depth. They should both have flaws and redeeming points.
Ruthless villains and heroes with no obligations to themselves are overused and unrelatable. Try writing characters in between. Make your story about the tensions between two or more groups of people, each of which have complex goals and means of achieving them. Your reader will be more invested in your story if they aren’t sure which side should win.
Every fantasy book has one, if not multiple, relationship subplot. The relationship tropes listed below are especially common in fantasy books, but they appear in all genres. For a longer list of (non-fantasy specific) relationship arc examples in YA books, click here.
Friends/Enemies to Lovers
Anyone who has been a part of the writing community for any length of time has probably seen or heard some sort of debate between the two most common relationship tropes: enemies to lovers and friends to lovers. These tropes are among the most popular relationship tropes out there, and for good reason.
Both of these tropes have high stakes and create tension. If the relationship is written well, readers will get deeply invested, making the book more exciting.
To make your plot unique, focus on the dynamic between the two characters involved. What makes them a good pair? How do they go about expressing their feelings? As with most relationship tropes, an exciting friends/enemies to lovers arc is based in having two unique and relatable characters.
This is probably one of the few tropes that are not controversial at all. Everyone loves it. And what’s there not to love? People without a loving family come together to form their own. They care for each other, fight by each others’ sides, and stand up for one another. Again, this trope will be a fun read so long as each character involved has their own engaging plotline.
Though found family is a widely-loved trope, it is among the few popular tropes of its kind. I would love to see more appreciation for other non-romantic relationship tropes. Friendship and sibling tropes are underused and refreshing to explore (stay tuned for a later post on those).
If your mind went to the Twilight saga, you’re probably not alone. But there are many examples of less controversial books that did a much better job of portraying a well-developed love triangle. The Hunger Games trilogy (though it is not a fantasy series) and The Keeper of the Lost Cities series are both great examples of this. Also, the Percy Jackson series is a big love web, but moving along…
The love triangle trope revolves around two characters loving one, but more importantly, it focuses on how that one character decides between the other two.
There are three main criteria to fulfill when writing love triangles. First, ensure all three involved characters are fully developed and have a storyline outside of being part of a love triangle. Second, show why two characters are in love with one—what is so special about that character? And lastly, make the decision difficult. If it is obvious from early on which of two characters will get together, readers will not be invested in the story. If one of the characters dies, leaving the main character with only one choice, there is no character growth. Show how the character decides between the two lovers.
The Middle Ages
High-fantasy has an obsession with medieval Europe-like settings, as you have probably noticed. The social classes, geography, and culture of people in most fantasy novels remains somewhat constant.
If instead you were to pick up a high-fantasy novel and learn about characters on Mars five hundred years in the future, you might be unsettled. If done right, it could be an incredibly interesting and unique read. It’s refreshing to find yourself submerged in a new and unfamiliar world.
However, it would take a lot of world building and explanation from the author because that genre doesn’t typically take place in that setting. Medieval Europe, on the other hand, is common enough in the fantasy genre that an author doesn’t need to explain the government structure; most readers are familiar with it.
The United States
This one is more specific to low fantasy (and fiction books in general). A lot of books would have you believing there’s only one country on the planet, and that’s not true. Our world, just like our history, is full of diverse groups of people and numerous distinct cultures.
Of course, a story set in the US typically requires less worldbuilding and background information, but writing stories set in different parts of the world can open your eyes and the eyes of your reader. It can also make the story and setting less predictable and appeal to a more diverse group of readers.
Importantly, setting a story in a country other than your own will require immense research. Relying on tropes and rumors is a recipe for disaster. Unless you are from that country, avoid writing a story about the country. Instead, make sure the setting isn’t the most important part of the story. If you are discussing sensitive topics, get a sensitivity reader. Do represent underrepresented regions, but do it well.
If at times this post seemed like I was arguing with myself about whether or not a trope should be used, that’s exactly what I was doing. While some people will adamantly say that tropes should be abandoned, that is not the case.
Most tropes exist for a good reason. They give readers a familiar ground to start off with. To make your story unique, twist these tropes and combine them in unpredictable ways.
What are your favorite and/or least favorite tropes in fantasy? Let me know in the comments!