5 Classic Fantasy Tropes — And How to Make Them Your Own

Published 17 Nov 2021
by Anca Antoci

Today I have a guest post written by Savannah Cordova and I know you’ll enjoy it. She talks about five classic fantasy tropes and how you can put a new spin on them to spark some creativity in your book. I’ve included almost all of them in Chimera trilogy, which, by the way, will be completed soon. Blue Shadow Legacy, the 3rd and final book is now with my alpha readers. If you’ve read the first two books, you know I have the underdog trope, the mythical creatures, and the prophecy. Let me know in the comment section what’s your favorite trope and while you’re at it, recommend me some of your favorite books with that trope!

Fantasy is a genre that, perhaps more than any other, is defined by its tropes. Where you might find it difficult to cook up a formula for literary fiction or horror, the lexicon of fantasy is instantly recognizable. And while those tried-and-true tropes are part of what we love about fantasy, they can grow a little stale over time.

So how do you change it up for your readers? Well, to make something new, you need a solid understanding of what’s come before — or to put it another way, to defeat the enemy (in this case, tired tropes), you need to know the enemy. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of five classic fantasy tropes I think you ought to know, along with some thoughts on how you can make those tropes fresh again. (I’m basically giving plot ideas away for free — you’re welcome!)

1. The Reluctant Hero

Fantasy is littered with reluctant heroes: protagonists who somehow stumble into the limelight, who don’t want to assume the mantle, or who have no interest in taking on whatever existential threat is looming over the world. However, when it becomes clear that they are the only one capable of taking on this challenge, the protagonist agrees to accept the quest — in an “If you guys insist, I guess I can be a hand model and try this One Ring on for size” sort of way. 

This trope is meant to endear us to the hero. After all, who likes a power-hungry, ego-driven main character? But this character archetype also verges on overdone at this point, and “reluctant to get involved” isn’t the cheat code to likability that some authors treat it as. 

So if you’re writing a fantasy hero, why not subvert the trope? Rather than everyone convincing your hero that they can (and must) do this, make your hero a starry-eyed underdog, eager to please and take on the challenge — despite the well-founded doubts of those around him. Perhaps your hero grows more jaded over time, reversing the expected heroic arc of gaining confidence and self-belief.

You could even take this trope subversion one step further and have your character be power-mad from the start. Perhaps over the course of their journey, overcoming its obstacles and bonding with their merry gang of fellow travelers (another classic fantasy trope), they can discover what’s really important. By the end, they could be defeating the Big Bad for far more altruistic reasons than the motivations that they had at the beginning.

2. The Prophecy

Prophecies are another staple of the fantasy genre, often used as the catalyst for adventure and conflict. Whether the prophecy foretells a great evil, the rise of a Chosen One, or some other seismic event, they’re certified plot fuel in fantasy.

However, any editor worth their salt will tell you that the use of magical foresight to drive your plot can, in essence, drive that plot off a cliff. If your characters only do what they do because it’s been decided for them, you’ll lack the kind of layered character motivations and plot tensions that keep readers glued to the page.

Instead, why not spotlight these issues within the narrative itself? Give your hero a crisis of faith: an emotional spiral where they wonder if they have any free will in their own life, considering its predestination. Perhaps their rebellion against destiny will lead them down an unexpected (and much more interesting) path.

Another way of making this trope your own is to shadow it with uncertainty. Rather than presenting the prophecy as an absolute voice of truth, perhaps it comes from a pernicious source, or has an ulterior motive. After all, if we know that a prophecy can get people to do just about anything, the bad guys probably know that, too! So allow doubts to creep in over the veracity of the prophecy, and the motivations of whoever is delivering it.

3. The Mentor

An older, wiser character showing the newbie the ropes is a classic character dynamic in SFF. And while it’s a great starting point for your characterization, there’s often a tendency to neglect adding depth to that mentor’s personality and history, leading to lackluster characters. 

To refresh this trope, why not make your mentor a morally grayer character than the reader has come to expect? Perhaps they’re a fake-it-’til-you-make-it charlatan, looking to freeload off of our young hero’s glory. Or maybe they’re grooming their young mentee for power against the mentee’s best interests. Whomever they are, complete benevolence is boring, so start cooking up some character flaws ASAP.

To take this a step further, you could defy your reader’s expectations by having the mentor be your POV character. Rather than merely an accessory to the young hero, allow this mysterious older figure to take the forefront. What are their true motivations for helping the hero in their journey? Do they really know what’s going on all the time? How do they actually feel about a young upstart mastering the skill they’ve worked their entire life to obtain, seemingly overnight? Exploring these questions could lead to some great dynamics and conflicts in your story.

4. Mythical Creatures

Nothing screams “fantasy” like populating your tale with a healthy number of dragons and orcs. Magical creatures are part of the genre’s tapestry, but there’s a temptation to simply throw in a few mentions of mythical beasts without any real narrative purpose. Not to mention that once you’ve seen one dragon, you’ve kind of seen them all! So what can authors do to enliven this trope, while still paying homage to the genre’s hallmarks?

One way is by defying readers’ expectations of magical races. Over the history of fantasy writing, certain stereotypes have arisen: elves are wise and peaceful, dwarves are gruff and industrious, goblins are greedy and duplicitous. A lot of these characteristics are actually rooted in offensive real-life racial stereotypes — so resist conformity, and create new character profiles for your mythical races! It’ll be more interesting and thoughtful than leaning on lazy tropes.

(Pssst — if you’re struggling with this element of your writing, check out this guide to fantasy worldbuilding. I swear by the handy template!)

5. Magic Goes Away

A lot of fantasy deals with a post-magical world: a land which was once fantastical, but has lost its magic, either by design or by accident. This trope is usually followed by a triumphant return of said magic. It often starts out with some oppressive ruler (bonus points if benevolent magical beings have been forced into hiding). Or perhaps a child is born possessing the kind of magical powers that had once been confined to folktales.

If you’re interested in exploring a post-magical world, but worry about it seeming stale, try taking the trope to the extreme: if something as powerful as magic disappeared, would life just continue pretty much as normal, just with fewer elves? Or would a loss of magical energy lead to wider consequences — industries collapsing, economies dying, all the post-apocalyptic usuals? This kind of bleak landscape could be the perfect opportunity for a speculative sci-fi/fantasy blend, or even some fantasy horror.

You could also take the “magic goes away” concept in a more humorous direction, by following it to its logical conclusion. It might sound like a thin premise, but a novel about a wizard retraining to be an accountant is one I would personally love to read.

And there you have it: five classic tropes of the fantasy genre, plus ideas on how to put a new spin on them. I hope it’s sparked some creativity in you and inspired your next fantasy adventure, whether you’re writing an ebook or making up a bedtime story for your kids!