In today’s creative community, people tend to associate the word “trope” with poor writing, a lack of effort, or minimal creativity. However, most writing, no matter what genre it’s in, takes advantage of one trope or another. These common tools and practices are still around because people enjoy them. And while an overuse of tropes can saturate your story with predictable plot points and uninspiring characters, a practiced and conscious use of tropes is the perfect way to interest readers.
Fantasy is the genre where we seem to notice tropes the most. Whether it’s elegant elves who live in the woods or a system of magic that somehow includes the natural elements, you’ve probably realized that a lot of fantasy writing is repetitive. However, each fantasy trope is popular for a reason, so you shouldn’t completely disregard them. Take a look at some popular fantasy tropes and what you can learn from them.
The Chosen One
Whether the character is the subject of a prophecy, the secret heir to a throne, or a reluctant average Joe, the protagonist of a fantasy story is often chosen for some reason or another. This is a tool used by hundreds of fantasy writers through thousands of stories. While this means you have to be careful with your use of this trope, you can still learn some helpful information from this trope’s popularity.
One of the main lessons you can take away is that readers love to cheer for an underdog. Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. He’s an average kid who doesn’t believe in himself, but that is what makes him such a popular character. It’s hard to believe an eleven-year-old kid can defeat the greatest dark wizard ever, and that contrast endears Harry to readers.
Along those same lines, we learn that readers love the idea of escaping their average lives for something grander and greater. From Adventurers Wanted to Harry Potter to The Hobbit, the list of stories with this trope is endless. Most readers aren’t heroes, don’t have magic powers, and probably aren’t destined to defeat a great evil. Most are average people with average lives and average problems. So, the judicious use of the Chosen One trope can help readers believe, if only for a moment, that their ordinary lives can become something extraordinary.
Black and White Conflicts
Conflict is vital for any story, fantasy or not. Conflicts often provide the catalyst for a protagonist to grow, change, learn, and develop. A lot of fantasy stories rely on a black and white conflict to drive their plot and their character’s arc. A force of pure goodness must stop a force of innate evil; sound familiar? Sauron is a Dark Lord of pure evil who has no redeeming qualities. The conflict between the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force is another blatant example. If your fantasy world embraces the “gray,” then the black and white conflict trope can be problematic. However, you can still learn from it.
A lesson you can pull from this trope’s popularity is that readers enjoy weighty conflicts. They love to feel the seriousness of a conflict because it helps them get sucked into the story. A world-ending conflict between good and evil is an easy way to create this kind of immersive tension. When you write, you don’t need to include a supreme force of evil to pull your readers in, however. The conflict simply needs to feel real, serious, and impactful to the characters involved. The stakes need to be real. Maybe your protagonist wants their first date to be perfect. Maybe they want a new job to provide for their young family.
These conflicts and stakes can be world-shattering for these characters, and that’s the kind of emotion that a black and white conflict gets across in a fantasy story. But you can convey the weight of a good versus evil conflict without solely relying on that trope.
A Westernized/European Setting
How many fantasy stories are told in a world that could easily be mistaken for medieval Europe? More than one, certainly. This type of setting is extremely popular, but what is the reason it’s used so often, and how can you use it in your stories without including castles, knights, swords, villages, and inns?
The main reason this trope is so prevalent is the fact that readers love to feel a sense of familiarity when they read a fantasy story. In a story with a foreign magic system, strange cultures, and a completely unfamiliar world, the setting is a way to ground the reader in something they understand.
You can also learn that the setting is a great way to help readers suspend their disbelief. Magic is easier to accept when it’s used in a place the reader understands. That’s why stories like King Arthur and Beowulf are popular; they’re set in a place that’s recognizable, so the fantasy aspects don’t seem so unbelievable or outlandish.
When you write, you can use this trope by including details that are familiar to the reader. One example of an author maintaining the trope while using a different veneer is the Grishaverse books. Leigh Bardugo wrote a fantasy series that is similar to other fantasies, but she changes one thing: her books are set in a fantasy Russia. This is a refreshing change that still allows the reader to ground themselves in something familiar.
Powerful Magical Artifacts
We can see these powerful magical artifacts in all sorts of stories across all different entertainment mediums. The Avengers and the Infinity Stones. Harry and the Deathly Hallows (and the horcruxes). King Arthur and Excalibur. Frodo and the one ring. The Elder Scrolls and … well, the Elder Scrolls.
Powerful relics or magical items litter many fantasy stories, and for good reason. One thing you can learn from this trope is that magical items are just plain cool! Most readers find the idea of life-and-world-altering artifacts or items to be interesting. But the main purpose of these objects isn’t just to incite interest. They give the characters an objective, a purpose, or a goal.
Rarely do people like a meandering story, where characters simply aimlessly go where the wind takes them. They should be proactive, not reactive. Your story needs to have a driving force or a goal for the characters to work toward. This gives them room to face setbacks and mature in a satisfying character arc. Your story needs to progress, and your characters need to gain skills and knowledge then grow.
H.P. Lovecraft uses the Necronomicon in many of his stories of the Old Ones as a plot device and motivation for his characters. If you stray from novels, the Dragon Balls from Dragon Ball Z are the driving force behind the story. In each instance, the magic item gives the characters something to work toward, and they sometimes facilitate and fuel the conflict. Use items like this to give your story a goal and as a way to strengthen your story’s conflict. You don’t need a magical sword or a corrupting piece of jewelry. Find an interesting way to accomplish this trope.
Tropes are popular and have been popular for generations—they won’t disappear anytime soon. Each trope can be effective and helpful if used correctly. Learn what each trope is accomplishing and how it does so, and then put your own spin on it. Readers crave what’s familiar, but they’ll love seeing an old trope presented in a new way.