top of page
fant trope.png

Fantastic Fantasy Tropes

Also, check out the science fiction tropes here..

Tropes

The word trope can refer to any type of figure of speech, theme, image, character, or plot element that is used many times in particular genre as a kind of shorthand to get information across to a reader. Common tropes in fantasy literature include

  • The chosen one

  • Dragons as a fantasy creature

  • Hidden lineage (you really are the princess / prince!)

  • The reluctant protagonist.

  • Prophecies and legends of long-gone times

Every one of these carries information that readers can fill in the assumed story and assumed arcs and twists that may exist.

trope.png

The chosen one may merge with the reluctant protagonist. They don’t want to be the chosen one, but they have to save the world anyway. The chosen one may carry with it the common surrounding cast of the mentor, the protectors, a band of friends who come together to help the chosen one grow and change.

Or… we may immediately assume the opposite. We may assume the writer will not use the tropes, but will deliberately twist them for effect. The chosen one isn’t the chosen one, it was all a lie. The chosen one is in fact energetic about it, wants to be the chosen one and in fact pays attention to everything the mentor character says. Maybe as a chosen one, they throw away their friends, thinking they are better than them now and try to make a go of the “quest,” alone.

In these cases tropes are not the enemy.  Some specific tropes rise and fall, become more and less common as time marches on, or fall in and out of vogue. The reality is that tropes cannot be avoided in full, so it is important to know you are doing them and know how to do them well, whether you lean into the trope or away from it knowingly. Over the next few weeks, we will talk about the common ones found in fantasy and science fiction and a handful that can show up in any genre.

Remembering we can not escape them is extremely useful as our starting place. Imagine a science fiction novel that doesn’t involve in some way one of these:

  • Space travel: sub light speed.

  • Space travel: faster than light speed

  • Post apocalyptic worlds

  • Dystopian society

  • AI / Robot uprisings.

  • Subspecies uprisings.

  • Alternate reality and parallel universes.

  • Time travel

  • Steam punk / cyber punk

  • Aliens

 

There are more but that alone cuts out the majority of science fiction books even though these are all a wonderful basis to build books on. They are what make science fiction science fiction. Doing them well is the key.

See you next time, as we begin with the oldest fantasy trope of all. The chosen one!

For more help on writing don’t forget to subscribe, and check out our other sections on dialogue, architectural writing, villains and conflict. If you want to see these principles in action, check out our free short story section here.

Always remember, writers write.

Tropes: The Chosen One

In the realm of fantasy literature, few tropes are as ubiquitous and polarizing as the "Chosen One." This archetype, which features a character destined for greatness or burdened with a monumental task, has enthralled readers for generations. However, its overuse and predictable nature have also drawn criticism.

Neo and Skywalker as Chosen Ones

The good:

One of the most compelling aspects of the "Chosen One" trope is its ability to captivate audiences with themes of destiny, heroism, and self-discovery. At its best, this archetype provides readers with a protagonist who embodies courage, resilience, and sacrifice. By following the Chosen One, readers are invited to explore universal themes of identity and purpose, resonating with or against their own desires for meaning and significance.

A prime example of the positive portrayal of the Chosen One trope can be found in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. Harry Potter, the titular character, discovers at a young age that he is the only wizard capable of defeating Voldemort. Through seven novels, readers witness Harry's growth from an ordinary boy into a courageous hero who confronts his destiny with bravery and integrity. Rowling's storytelling imbues the Chosen One trope with some depth and nuance, exploring the complexities of power, friendship, and morality.

Another exemplary use of the trope is seen in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Frodo Baggins, the humble hobbit is thrust into the role of ring-bearer, and exemplifies the virtues of resilience and selflessness as he embarks on a quest to destroy the One Ring. Tolkien's depiction of Frodo's inner struggles and moral dilemmas adds complexity to the Chosen One archetype, elevating it beyond mere cliché and giving it relevance.

 

The Bad:

Despite its potential for greatness, the Chosen One trope is not without its flaws. Perhaps the most significant criticism leveled against it is its tendency to rely on predictable plot devices and clichéd narratives. When executed poorly, the trope can lead to formulaic storytelling and one-dimensional characters, diminishing the impact of the narrative and alienating readers who crave originality and depth.

Christopher Paolini's "Inheritance Cycle" series falls prey to the pitfalls of the Chosen One trope. The protagonist, Eragon, is revealed to be the Dragon Rider destined to save the world from tyranny. While the premise holds promise, Paolini's derivative world-building and thinly drawn characters undermine the narrative's impact, rendering Eragon's journey predictable and uninspired. The trope's overuse in the series serves as a reminder of its potential to stagnate and detract from the overall quality of the storytelling.

 

The Ugly:

 

An example of the trope's shortcomings can be found throughout Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series. The protagonist, Bella Swan, is portrayed as the object of supernatural fascination, with both vampires and werewolves vying for her affections. However, Bella's passive demeanor and lack of character agency undermine the Chosen One archetype, reducing her character to little more than a passive observer in her own story. Meyer's reliance on romantic melodrama and superficial characterizations detracts from the narrative's emotional resonance, resulting in a shallow portrayal of the trope.

 

What to do.

To use the chosen one story well there are some broad strokes to follow:

  • Establish a Compelling Backstory: Provide a rich and believable backstory for the Chosen One that explains why they have been selected for their role. This backstory should involve elements such as prophecy, lineage, or unique abilities, but it should also delve into the character's personal struggles, doubts, and conflicts. By grounding the Chosen One's identity in a well-developed backstory, you can make their journey more relatable and engaging for the audience.

 

  • Subvert Expectations: While the Chosen One trope often follows a predictable narrative arc, consider subverting expectations to add depth and complexity to your story. Challenge the notion of destiny by introducing elements of choice, agency, and moral ambiguity. Show that being chosen does not guarantee success or moral superiority, and explore the consequences of the Chosen One's actions on themselves and others. By subverting clichés and adding layers of nuance, you can breathe new life into the trope and keep readers or viewers engaged.

 

  • Focus on Character Development: Place a strong emphasis on character development throughout the Chosen One's journey. Allow them to evolve, grow, and confront their flaws and weaknesses. Show how they struggle with the weight of their destiny, grapple with doubt and uncertainty, and ultimately find their own sense of purpose and identity. By prioritizing character growth and complexity, you can create a more resonant and emotionally satisfying narrative that transcends the trope.

 

  • Expand the Supporting Cast: While the Chosen One is often the central focus of the story, don't neglect the importance of a diverse and well-developed supporting cast. Surround the Chosen One with complex and compelling characters who challenge, support, and shape their journey. Give agency to secondary characters and explore their own arcs, motivations, and relationships. By building a strong ensemble cast, you can improve the narrative, provide different perspectives on the Chosen One's journey, and create more opportunities for conflict, growth, and resolution.

 

  • Explore Themes Beyond Destiny: While the Chosen One trope is inherently tied to themes of destiny, prophecy, and heroism, don't limit your story's thematic scope. Use the Chosen One's journey as a lens to explore broader themes such as power, sacrifice, identity, and redemption. Consider how the Chosen One's experiences reflect universal truths about the human condition and the nature of existence. By engaging with deeper themes and philosophical questions, you can elevate the narrative beyond simple genre conventions and resonate with a wider audience.

 

Chosen One tropes have the potential to be both compelling and cliché. Effectiveness ultimately depends on how it is executed within the context of the story. By following these five "to do" bullet points, you can make the Chosen One trope work more effectively by grounding it in a compelling backstory, subverting expectations, prioritizing character development, expanding the supporting cast, and exploring themes beyond destiny. With careful consideration and creative execution, the Chosen One trope can be revitalized and reimagined to create fresh and engaging narratives that resonate with audiences across genres and mediums.

Are you the chosen one of the next generation of writers?

Only if you go write!

Next week, did you know I am really Prince Kevin? Just kidding, but we will talk about hidden lineage! See you then.

Tropes: Hidden Lineage

The trope of the hidden lineage is very common in fantasy novels. I will prove to you with example that there is nothing inherently wrong with the hidden lineage trope, and doing it well makes for an enjoyable read:

  • "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter learns that he is actually a wizard with a famous lineage within the magical world, hidden from him while growing up with the Dursleys.

  • "Mistborn" series by Brandon Sanderson - Vin, the protagonist, discovers her hidden noble lineage, which plays a significant role in her destiny as a powerful Mistborn.

  • "The Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R.R. Martin - Jon Snow's hidden parentage is a central mystery in the series, with implications for his identity, alliances, and the broader political landscape of Westeros.

If anyone wants to say all three of those are made worse by the trope, I guess we just can’t see eye to eye. 😊 So now that we can say it happens, we should probably delve a little more into the idea of what it is.

Vin, mistborn

In a hidden lineage story, a character discovers or reveals to the reader that they are descended from a significant, often powerful or noble, lineage that was previously unknown to them or kept secret. This revelation typically has significant implications for the character's identity, abilities, or role in the story.

In many cases, the character starts off unaware of their true heritage, living an ordinary or even humble life, only to later uncover their hidden lineage, which may come with newfound powers, responsibilities, or enemies. This trope is often used to add depth to characters, create plot twists, and explore themes of destiny, identity, and the importance of one's origins.

I will be the first to admit that hidden lineage runs side by side with chosen one, for the first possible failing. Overuse: The hidden lineage trope is a popular and frequently employed narrative device, leading to its overuse in fantasy literature. When used excessively, it can feel formulaic and uninspired, failing to surprise or engage readers. This is not a “don’t do it.” This is a warning, that reader will recognize it immediately, bring all of their assumptions forward with it. This means you MUST do it well.

Because we bring those tropes in with us, and the assumptions about the lineage tale, we often see Simplification of Character Development: Relying too heavily on a character's lineage to drive their development and motivations can oversimplify their complexity. Characters should be multidimensional, with a range of influences shaping their identity and actions beyond just their ancestry. Main story lines can rely on the secret, but the character happens to be of a lineage, it is not all they are. Unless of course that is a character flaw to be explored!

An example and a series I loved growing up, but will admit has it slightly on the nose is Taran from Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" series, particularly in the first book, "The Book of Three." Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper, content with his modest role in the fantasy world of Prydain. However, as the story progresses, Taran learns that he is not merely a common pig-keeper but is actually descended from a noble lineage. His true heritage is revealed, and he discovers that he has a significant role to play in the battle against evil forces threatening Prydain. Taran's journey from a humble beginning to embracing his hidden lineage forms a central arc of the series. It is an enjoyable read, but by many modern standards would be considered a simple character arc.

My number one pet peeve for hidden lineage is the same as my worry with chosen one arcs. Undermining of Character Agency: The revelation of a hidden lineage can sometimes overshadow a character's individual agency and accomplishments. If their significance primarily comes from their ancestry rather than their actions, it may diminish the character's autonomy and growth. AKA, they win because that is what the trope calls for.

This is very hard to avoid in my mind. In Eragon, the protagonist Eragon is a farm boy who discovers a dragon egg, setting him on a path to become a Dragon Rider and play a pivotal role in the struggle against the evil Empire. However, it is later revealed that Eragon is not just an ordinary farm boy; he is actually descended from the ancient Dragon Riders, making him inherently special and giving him a significant advantage in his quest.

While the revelation of Eragon's hidden lineage adds to the story, it also raises questions about his agency and the extent to which his actions are driven by his own choices versus his predetermined destiny as a descendant of the Dragon Riders. This can diminish the impact of Eragon's character development and make his journey feel less earned, as his success is partially attributed to his noble ancestry rather than his personal growth, skills, and decisions.

To perform the trope well think to hold to these three opposites to the issues noted above.

Empower character agency: Make the lineage matter in a way that drives new choices, and choice availability instead of taking choices away from the characters.

Use it as a catalyst for growth: Instead of relying solely on ancestry as a source of power or significance, use it as a catalyst for character development and self-discovery. Explore how characters grapple with the implications of their lineage and navigate the expectations and responsibilities it entails.

Integrate it slowly and organically: Ensure that the revelation of the hidden lineage feels natural within the context of the story and aligns with the established world-building and character development. Avoid abrupt or contrived reveals that disrupt the narrative flow. Consider even going so far as to treating it like Sanderson’s laws of magic. You can’t solve the problems of the book with it like a hammer looking for a nail. Characters must still solve their own problems.

 

However you chose to use the trope, even if the answer is “ignore it,” always remember. Writers write. So put pen to proverbial paper, and make your stories into a reality.

Tropes: The Reluctant Protagonist

In fantasy literature, film, and other media, the reluctant protagonist is a common archetype. This character is often thrust into a heroic or adventurous situation against their will or initial desires. They may resist the call to action due to fear, doubt, a sense of inadequacy, or a desire for a normal life.

Despite their reluctance, circumstances compel the reluctant protagonist to embark on a journey, fulfill a prophecy, or confront a great evil. Along the way, they often undergo personal growth and development, eventually embracing their role as a hero or leader.

Frodo Baggins

Famous examples of reluctant protagonists in fantasy include Frodo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit.

Like other tropes there is nothing specifically wrong with this one, but the trouble with this trope comes from the story arc that must happen for our protagonist to be endeared to the reader. They must grow and we know it. We know that they will have a inciting incident between 15-25 % mark, they will become self-actualizing in the 45-55 % mark and we know they will eventually become the hero and heroine we all need.

This brings us to the first two problems we have if it is not done well.

Predictability: The trope has been used frequently in fantasy literature and other media, which can make it feel cliché or predictable if not executed with originality or depth, and as noted above we know the story beat very well. So well that when you don’t do them the story actually feels wrong. It’s a self-defeating problem. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Lack of Agency: Reluctant protagonists may come across as passive or reactive, especially if they spend a significant portion of the story resisting their role or avoiding action. This can make it challenging for readers or viewers to fully engage with the character's journey long enough to get to that self-actualization mark.

Will they, or won’t they? Because we know we need to nudge the protagonist along to their destiny the conflict often turns internal leading to two more problems.

Stagnant Character Growth: If the protagonist remains reluctant for too long without significant development or change, it can lead to a lack of narrative progression and emotional investment in the character's arc. We spend the whole book waiting for them to become something.

Overemphasis on Internal Conflict: While internal conflict can be compelling, relying too heavily on the protagonist's inner struggles at the expense of external challenges or conflicts can result in a narrative that feels overly introspective. We might feel like the motivation handed to us by the author is not sufficient to make us believe the protagonist can overcome their inertia.

It also doesn’t work for all character types; therefore, it limits your protagonist pool to some degree:

Limited Character Diversity: The reluctant protagonist trope often features characters who fit a specific mold. E.g., young, ordinary individuals, inexperienced people thrust into extraordinary circumstances out of their control.

So, what do we do to combat these possible issues?

  1. Provide Complex Motivations: Instead of relying on simplistic reasons for the protagonist's reluctance, give them multifaceted motivations that reflect their personality, background, and past experiences. This can add depth to the character and make their inner conflict more relatable and engaging. Make the character real, and perhaps not even 100 % reluctant. Part of them wants to go forth and do, but… and find a reason they can’t.

  2. Show Incremental Growth: Rather than keeping the protagonist reluctant for the duration of the story, allow them to experience gradual growth and development over time. Give them opportunities to confront their fears, overcome obstacles, and make difficult choices that contribute to their transformation into a hero/heroine. Do not wait until the 70 % mark to start having a character show some agency, the reader won’t hang with you for that long.

  3. Focus on Agency and Proactivity: Empower the protagonist to take active control of their destiny and shape their own narrative arc. Instead of passively reacting to events, allow them to make proactive decisions and drive the story forward through their actions and choices. Being a reluctant protagonist means reluctant to the main quest, not reluctant to take any action. This is a wonderful way to emphasize and use, “yes, but,” writing styles where they have taken action, but the circumstances may be truly unavoidable.

Tropes: Prophecies and Legends

The trope of "prophecies and legends of long-gone times" has been a staple in fantasy literature for centuries going back literally to mythology and old literature, captivating readers with its promise of mystery and reveals. I think we are drawn to the idea because we want to believe there can be more than this world. More than what we see. We don’t want to always believe the problems of today’s world are the best humanity can do, and we want to believe the worlds of old had more to offer than they really do. However, despite its popularity, this trope often falls short. Here are several reasons why this trope can fail to resonate with readers in fantasy novels.

Nostradamus and prophecies

Predictability: One of the primary issues with the prophecy trope is its predictability. When a prophecy foretells the events of the story or the fate of its characters, it can strip away the element of surprise and suspense. We know what the trope has to offer and it is going to surround that prophesy one way or another. Readers may find themselves anticipating the fulfillment of the prophecy rather than being genuinely engaged in the unfolding plot.

 

Lack of Agency: This one comes up in many guises with possible failing s of many tropes, for a reason. We want to see people have agency, because we want to believe we have agency. Prophecies can diminish the agency of the characters within the story. If the fulfillment of the prophecy is inevitable, it can make the characters feel like mere pawns in a predetermined narrative. This can detract from the sense of empowerment and personal growth in the protagonists.

 

Overreliance on Exposition: Fantasy novels often rely on exposition to convey the details of prophecies and legends, which can lead to information overload, especially in a forward loaded tale. Excessive exposition can bog down the pacing of the story and hinder the reader's immersion in the fictional world. Instead of experiencing the events organically, readers may feel as though they are being spoon-fed information about the prophecy, diminishing the impact of its revelation.

 

Unfulfilled Expectations: In some cases, prophecies introduced early in a fantasy novel may fail to deliver on their promised significance by the story's end. If a prophecy is built up as a central plot point or driving force behind the characters' actions, its resolution must be satisfying and meaningful. When prophecies are resolved hastily or ambiguously, readers may feel cheated or disappointed by the lack of payoff.

 

Cliché and Stereotypical: The trope of prophecies and legends can also feel cliché and stereotypical if not executed with originality and depth. Readers may tire of encountering the same tropes and archetypes repeatedly in fantasy literature, craving fresh and innovative storytelling instead.

 

Despite these potential pitfalls, the trope of "prophecies and legends of long-gone times" remains a popular device in fantasy literature. When executed thoughtfully prophecies can add depth, intrigue, and thematic resonance to a story. It can put layers into the world. However, we must be mindful of the challenges associated with this trope and strive to subvert expectations, surprise readers, and ultimately deliver a narrative that feels new, despite the old.

Here are recommendations to use the trope well.

Subvert Expectations: Instead of presenting prophecies as absolute truths, you can introduce ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding their interpretation and validity. Subverting expectations allows you to surprise readers with unexpected plot twists and character developments, keeping them engaged and intrigued. What if the entire thing is a lie? 😊

Integrate Prophecies Sparingly: Especially for complex or large backstories that need to be told, do it slowly over time. Rather than relying heavily on exposition to convey prophecies, integrate them more subtly into the narrative and conversations. Prophecies should enhance the story's themes and conflicts without overshadowing the characters or plot. Providing just enough information to pique readers' curiosity can maintain momentum and intrigue without overwhelming them with unnecessary detail. As we have said in past posts, tell readers what they need to know after they are asking the question, not before.

Empower Characters: Even inside the boundaries of a prophesy which may or may not limit character behaviors the character’s should still lead the tale. Rather than relegating characters to predetermined roles within a prophecy, emphasize their agency and autonomy. Characters should drive the narrative through their choices, actions, and personal growth, rather than being passive vessels for fulfilling a prophecy.

As always, remember to get out there and write some stories!

bottom of page