Fantasy Tropes and How to Use Them
Learn what fantasy tropes are, which ones are popular, which to avoid, and how to write them.
I love fantasy books. My shelves are stocked with Gaiman and Tolkien and Schwab and Anthony and all kinds of stories full of dragons, magic, gods, and heroes across time and space.
But why are those things - dragons, magic, gods, and heroes - so quintessential to the genre? They’re all parts of fantasy tropes that shape how we read this particular literary subset, and they can range from fan favorites to despicably unpopular, with everything in between.
If you’re a fantasy writer, and you’re worried that your story is too cliche, then I’ve got some context, advice, and activities you can peruse to make fantasy tropes work for you.
What are tropes?
Tropes, according to their literal definition, are words or, more often, expressions that are commonly used in a figurative sense. They might be sayings or scenarios and often have an associated well-established pattern that can be roughly predicted. The Latin and Greek roots of the word meant any figure of speech, as well as a change in direction, which is fitting. Tropes tend to outline the direction that a piece is going to go in, in terms of story.
Tropes tend to be genre-specific, meaning that they will only be common in one kind of media. For instance, you’d be more likely to see a “comedy of errors” style episode in a sitcom than you would in a gritty detective novel.
Why we use tropes to write
All writing has some kind of framework to it. Successful stories have frameworks that draw their audience in and provide emotional impact or intrigue. Tropes are by definition popular, meaning that they are the frameworks that were most appealing to audiences.
It’s a common misconception that using tropes in your writing is bad. This isn’t the case at all! As I said, they’re intentionally popular. What most people don’t like is building a story that is based shallowly on a single trope - for instance, if the whole story revolves around gathering an artifact that’s given no importance other than the characters saying it’s important (the McGuffin trope) and never explaining the payoff of having said artifact or showing any real struggles to achieve it. Using a single trope or a series of tropes as your plot rather than adding them to your plot as smaller elements in a larger story will mean that your story lacks depth and anything new for the audience to sink their teeth into.
Tropes, when used appropriately, can help your readers find familiarity and relatability in your story, ease them into a new world by giving them something to expect, and shock them if the trope is subverted or twisted in a new or exciting way. They are a jumping-off point for you the writer to get creative with.
Fantasy tropes people like
There are some plot elements and storylines that are so classic and ubiquitous that you can’t help but love them and their various iterations. Here are some of the most popular high fantasy and epic fantasy tropes.
The quest is a catchall trope that covers stories that follow the format of the Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey, according to Grand Valley State University, looks basically like this:
- The Ordinary World. You show off the main character in the “before” stage, during a regular day in their life.
- The Call to Adventure. Shockingly, something goes horribly awry and the hero is tasked with fixing it. Orcs are planning an invasion. Goblins are burning farmland. Evil mages plan to overthrow the government. Whatever it is, the good guys have to put a stop to it.
- The Refusal of the Call. Usually, the hero’s a little reluctant to drop everything they know and go save the world, so this is the part where they initially say no until the stakes are so high that they have to leave.
- Meeting with the Mentor. We’ll talk more about this step in a bit, but for now, it’s enough to say that our hero meets someone who teaches them the ropes.
- Crossing the Threshold. This is the point of no return, where the world shifts and the hero really begins the adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies. The hero meets their party members and comes to trust them through various trials and adversaries that they face together.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave. The hero team reaches the last part of the journey - the overlord’s lair, the dangerous dungeon/cave/temple/ruin/whatever housing their quest object, etc.
- The Supreme Ordeal. The final showdown. Either it’s in the hero’s head as they battle against despair and desperation, or they’re literally clanging swords with the baddies.
- Reward: The hero’s team gets the magic swords / one ring / mysterious object used as a plot device!
- The Road Back. The team heads for home, talking about what’s changed for them as they go.
- Resurrection. The hero realizes they’re a different person than they were when they started their trip, and that things can’t ever be the same.
- Return with the Elixir. They bring the quest object home, the day is saved, and the heroes can finally rest.
If this setup looks familiar…well, good. It’s often called the monomyth because it is basically the template for every hero story ever told. But it’s a trope that people like because it’s a great story setup. This format gives writers a plot to work with - it gives their characters meaning and motivation, and it can be adapted in a million different ways. For instance, both Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings follow this format, but I doubt you’d find anyone who says that Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins are the same character!
The misfit found family
This trope is often a part of the hero’s journey, but can also be the point of the story in and of itself. In this trope, we’re either following one person as they gather a bunch of weirdos around them, or we’re following an ensemble cast of strange and wonderful characters who somehow end up banding together.
These characters might bond over shared trauma, rejection from society, a particular quest, or a shared need to protect something or someone. They often have a defining feature that makes them stand out from “normal” people, which can be either mundane or fantastical - they can cast magic, they’re bound to a certain god, they have a physical abnormality, they’re neurodivergent.
The awesome thing about this trope is that the differences showcased in these characters are often if not always the reason they’re able to succeed. People love this trope because it celebrates differences and the things that make people feel like outsiders. There’s someone for everyone to relate to in these groups, meaning that people are often given vicarious feelings of belonging.
A typical setup for this trope is the “five-man band,” which includes
- The leader, either our central hero or the de-facto person in charge.
- The lancer, the direct opposite of the leader, who frequently challenges them.
- The strong man, who provides the main physical support, is extremely stoic and good in a crisis, or both.
- The healer or the ray of sunshine, who boosts the morale of the team. This is, in older stories, usually the token woman of the group.
- The brains or the magical powerhouse, who can get the team out of any bad situation.
Consider the original Teen Titans animated series. The show has a mostly episodic plot that focuses on a different character every week, weaving their personal stories and interpersonal relationships into a larger plotline. Robin is our leader, Cyborg our strong man, Beast Boy our lancer, Starfire our healer, and Raven our brains. They come from the shared ostracization that comes with being superpowered, and band together under Robin to protect the city that shuns them because they feel obligated to use their power for good.
That’s where the found family trope shines: deep, interconnected character arcs that the audience can sink their teeth into.
Dragons…literally any dragons
Pretty much every culture on earth has a myth about dragons. Tiamat and Abzu, Beowulf, Fafnir, St. George, Quetzalcoatl, the Four Rivers, Oroborus, Apep and Ra, the Hydra, the Nagas - wherever you look, here be dragons.
In fact, dragons are so common in mythologies all over the world that it’s difficult to define what a dragon is, exactly; some have scales, some fur, some have two wings or four or none, some are as intelligent as humans if not smarter, some are just large beasts for heroes to smite down.
Dragons are common in modern storytelling as well. Our books, movies, plays, and music are full of dragons, from Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) to Eragon to Harry Potter to Imagine Dragons (sorry, had to throw that in there). But what is it about these creatures that we love so much?
Nobody knows the exact draw of dragons. It might be the appearance of power, classic strength, the representation of ultimate evil, divinity, good fortune, or the natural world. Dragons are typically used to show very big, very hard-to-understand concepts that are foreign to us as humans.
Interestingly, the mythos of dragons is very different depending on where you are in the world. Western dragons are typically evil or at least bad in some way; they’re more often beastlike and violent. Eastern dragons, though, are usually kind and divine, befriending humanity and offering them boons they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to.
Even if we’re not entirely sure why people love dragons, it’s obvious that they do in their prevalence in modern media. You can get away with calling almost anything a dragon, so there’s tons of room for interpretation and reinterpretation.
The old man mentor
You know exactly who I’m talking about with this trope. An old man, probably with a long beard or grizzly stubble and scars, grumpily accepts the protagonist as their student. This guy’s probably a former adventurer himself, and knows everything there is to know about defeating the bad guy - he’s just getting too old for this crap.
Old man mentors come in two varieties: the sage and the grump.
Sage mentors are people like Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings. They’re wise, incredibly kind, and usually quite funny. They always seem to know the right thing to say and do, and even when they let the characters make their own decisions, they’re often guiding them from the background. These characters are meant to be gentle guiding hands and are infrequently involved in the main action - unless, of course, they’re pulling on the Secret Badass trope, but more on that later.
Grump mentors (my personal favorites) are those who have reached old age by luck and sheer determination; think Brom from the Inheritance Cycle or Haymitch from The Hunger Games. They’ve been through hard times and it shows, as they’re cynical of the world around them and especially of up-and-coming heroes. Typically, these mentors are the ones who practice tough love - they’ll make the protagonist do all kinds of insane, difficult trials to train for their destiny. And they’ll never directly say how proud they are, but they’ll be just as fierce in protecting their charge as they are in training them.
There are of course many other ways to do the old man mentor trope (Yoda is nearly a grumpy mentor but he’s funnier), and each of them has its own benefits. The main mechanical appeal of the mentor figure is as the teacher for the audience. Given that our hero is usually the audience insert and our point-of-view character, giving them someone to learn from, with their own deep history in the world, makes it easier for readers to get a sense of how the world operates. They also stand as excellent plot tools; killing or capturing the mentor can function as the “Crossing the Threshold” moment.
Beyond that, mentor figures tend to be loved for their rich, interesting backstories and the deep connections they forge with the characters around them. They’re easy to relate to; many people see them as father or grandfather figures. And the depth is key; the method doesn’t have to be perfect, they just have to try, and I think that trying makes them all the more appealing.
Fantasy tropes to avoid
For every gem, there’s a lump of coal. Though tropes themselves often aren’t bad, when they’re misused or overdone, they can become incredibly frustrating to read, which is why these are some fantasy tropes you might be better off avoiding.
The chosen one
Whether it’s a prophecy, a ceremony, or a curse, there’s something compelling one particular character to save the universe, or the kingdom, or the…whatever. But they’re just a normal person, they protest, they can’t do it! No, says the world, they’re the chosen one.
Listen, this trope isn’t bad on its own. Chosen one stories have been around since the myths of Ancient Greece and before, and they became a trope for a reason; everyone likes to think that there’s some greater cosmic plan that’s being followed and that someone will arrive to save us in our time of need.
The main problem with it is that it became an oversaturated part of the market; after the success of stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, nearly every story that came out had a protagonist that was the secret savior of something. Everyone was special, so no one was.
Another big issue with this trope is how hollow it often makes the story. If this character is a chosen one, then who chose them, and why? What intrinsic quality makes them better suited than anyone else to take on the quest? Sometimes, these questions go completely unanswered; the audience is left to assume that the hero is a hero because they’re the chosen one, not because of anything we’ve seen them do.
Worse, sometimes people bend over backward for the character before they know anything about them just because they’re chosen. They may even put their own lives on hold to attend to the character. Whole towns might do this or whole nations. Everyone and everything seems to exist to serve this character and their mission, which can leave the story feeling totally unrealistic - and this is in fantasy. It’s very hard to make a story that’s already about dragons and magic so painfully out of touch that you’re questioning its believability.
I’m not saying there isn’t a way to do this trope well; you can definitely still have your character be cosmically destined for great things. What I am saying is that you have to be careful with worldbuilding. The world shouldn’t always revolve around your character, and they shouldn’t always get special treatment just because of their prophetic status.
The Dark Lord
This is the opposite side of the coin from “The Chosen One.” The Dark Lord is a villain in fantasy fiction who does evil for the sake of evil. These characters are often given little or no explanation for why they are the way they are. Many have legions of minions who worship them and follow their orders without question. That lack of complexity often makes them uninteresting to modern audiences. Examples include Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or the Queen of Darkness in the Dragonlance Chronicles.
Medieval Europe style settings
The most popular fantasy setting of all time is a pseudo-medieval vaguely European country or world. This is due mostly to two sources: Arthurian legend and Tolkien’s writing.
The mythology surrounding King Arthur is, in and of itself, the source of many major fantasy tropes because it’s a culturally significant framework of stories that have been adapted over and over again to suit modern sensibilities about charity, romance, brotherhood, and chivalry.
Tolkien, being a scholar of classical literature himself, drew heavily from this setting for his Lord of the Rings and assorted Middle Earth books, which, themselves, later became massive shaping figures in the fantasy genre because of their detail and unique, extensive story.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with setting your story in the quasi-1400s in Definitely Not Europe. According to some researchers, we’re drawn to this setting exactly because it’s already so steeped in the mythos we associate with fantasy tropes - dragons, monsters, quests, divine intervention, magic, you name it, it probably started here.
That being said, it’s getting harder and harder to reimagine the European middle ages as something new, unique, and interesting. The setting also tends to allow for uncomfortable inclusions of racism and xenophobia that are covered under the guise of nonexistent races (though even some of those have hateful roots). Additionally, it’s difficult to justify a world that’s been stuck at a medieval technology level for hundreds of years - after a while, someone’s going to discover electricity, develop industrial machinery, and the concept of germ theory, whether or not there’s any magic.
When done poorly, a medieval fantasy setting can be anywhere from boring and nonsensical to straight-up offensive.
Damsels in distress
Oh no! Your princess is in another castle, and can’t possibly escape on her own! She’s too frail and weak and pure to even try to fight off the big bad man who has her captured! She may even faint from the sheer terror of it all!
That made me roll my eyes just writing it. The classic damsel in distress trope is that a character, usually a woman, has been removed from the main group and isolated in a dangerous situation. Kidnapped by a pseudo-suitor or other bad guy is the most common scenario, with them keeping her captive in their main lair. The damsel awaits rescue and, after the final battle, tends to pledge her loyalty or even her love to the hero who saves her.
The problem is that this trope is usually used in extremely shallow and underdeveloped ways. Listen, having a captive plotline can be great! It can be super interesting to see how characters handle another life in danger, especially if it’s someone they know and care about. It gets dicey, though, when the person being kidnapped is kidnapped for no other reason than being a beautiful love interest to be fought over.
What’s especially frustrating about the damsel in distress trope is that it tends to make for one-dimensional, painfully stereotypical characters that the audience has significant trouble investing any energy or emotion into. If you can swap your fantasy princess in with some random magical cloning device, then why wouldn’t you? Why should we care about this person whose only description is “beautiful and terrified?”
On top of that, I don’t know a single person who’d peacefully submit to being hauled away from everything they know and love without so much as a single punch thrown. Even the most non-confrontational, freeze-reaction people will usually try to find some way out; they’ll signal for help or stow away provisions to run or even try to attack their captor and leave. People have a driving survival instinct that insists they do what they can to get out of a dangerous situation if the opportunity presents itself, and completely ignoring that instinct will hit wrong for many people in your audience, ruining their immersion in the story.
How to make tropes your own
Knowing what a trope is is only half the battle; you have to know how to use them in order to write a great story around them. So, here are some of my best tips for making fantasy tropes work for you and your story.
Read, read, read
This is my go-to advice for writing in general, but for genre writing specifically, it’s an essential first step. Every genre has its own set of conventions that you can use to your advantage when structuring and writing your story, but you have to know what those conventions are before you can manipulate them. Reading a lot of fantasy will let you know what you can expect readers to be expecting when they open your book. It’s also super fun.
Read some of the classics, like The Wheel of Time or The Chronicles of Narnia, but explore various subgenres you haven’t tried before. If you’re used to high fantasy, check out urban fantasy for a fresh perspective on how authors use fantasy elements to tell a captivating story.
Sometimes, looking outside fantasy can provide fresh ideas too. For example, the videogame Deep Rock Galactic puts dwarves in a science fiction setting, taking the common trope of dwarves as miners and turning it into a sci-fi shooter with mining elements.
Here are some (but definitely not all) of my favorite fantasy novels to give you some additional options for your research.
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a great introduction to the Middle Earth setting. It’s significantly easier to read than his Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I still highly recommend reading when you’ve got the time and energy), and makes for a masterclass in worldbuilding, establishing in-universe rules, and the classic hero’s quest setup. This should probably be one of the first fantasy stories you read; it’ll set up the rest of the genre for you.
- Piers Anthony’s Xanth series is perfect for people who like silly, wacky, extremely satirical books. It’s basically a spoof on fantasy in general - the setting is literally Magical Florida and the magic system canonically runs on puns. Anthony is great at establishing and re-establishing canon within a single book in a series; though the land of Xanth changes often and can be confusing, you don’t need to read the books in any particular order to feel like you understand the general gist of what’s going on and what the rules are. Plus, the satirical nature of it means you get to see lots of common tropes lampooned and lampshaded (more on these techniques below), which can help you decide how to do that with the tropes in your stories.
- VE Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy (which has a sequel trilogy in the works!) is a brilliant fantasy world with clear rules from page one. It’s full of compelling, complex characters on both sides of the fight whom you can sympathize with even when they’re making terrible decisions. On top of that, it twists a familiar setting - London - in such a unique way that it’s part of the main focus of the stories. Schwab is who you turn to for character and setting creation inspiration; her stories are so rich and dynamic that you can’t help but love them.
- Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a perfect example of modern fantasy. It’s hilarious and insightful at the same time, making great commentary on religion, politics, and the general human spirit through the lens of celestial beings who are watching (and, frequently, interfering) from the sidelines. This book is great for observing what you can do by incorporating modern references into your fantasy world. It also has a fantastic video adaptation you can enjoy after reading.
Build the trope into something more
A trope is a fantastic framework on which to build your story, but that’s just it: it’s a framework. Tropes are generalized plot points, characters, and scenarios that are popular because they resonate with people; you can improve them by adding your own personal interpretation and allowing them to resonate with specific people who have had similar experiences.
Take for instance the Disney adaptation of Aladdin. In this version of the classic Middle Eastern folktale, our titular hero and the cruel vizier Jafar are vying for the hand of the beautiful princess Jasmine. Jafar eventually takes her captive, and Aladdin scrambles to rescue her. When he does, they marry and live happily ever after. On the surface, this sounds like a classic Damsel in Distress setup.
However, the closer you look, the more you’ll find differences that make the story more interesting. Jasmine outright says that she’s “not a prize to be won,” and refuses to be simply an object for her father to give away. She has agency from the first few minutes of the film when she sneaks away to the market in disguise. It’s Jasmine who eventually saves herself by distracting Jafar long enough to get the lamp away from him, and Jasmine who decides that she wants to marry Aladdin because he proved himself to be more than the liar he pretended to be.
This story, though still definitely not perfect, took the idea of the helpless princess and questioned it, making our “damsel” interesting to watch and easy to root for while still giving our hero motivation to continue his quest.
Tropes can be very fun when you use them to explore a question. Why would the character go here? Why would they fight together? What happens when everything is said and done, and the quest ends? Who said the hero needs to solve every problem? What if a classic fairy tale was retold with more nuance than a simple good vs. evil plot? By deconstructing the trope and examining its different elements, you can make your story more realistic, interesting, and engaging.
You can also use this method to completely subvert your audience’s expectations. Say for instance that you’ve chosen an old man mentor. What if he’s only mentoring the hero to make sure he has all the wrong information, and he’s actually the villain? This leaves you lots of room for foreshadowing and hint-dropping and makes for a great third-act reveal. If you follow a trope then take a sudden turn, you can shock and astound your audience with an unexpected twist; just make sure that, if you go this route, you’re weaving that plot twist into the story from very early on and leaving a subtle breadcrumb trail that readers can enjoy on their second pass of the book.
Acknowledge the trope
For comical books, in particular, straight up telling your audience what trope they’re looking at can be a great way to use them. You can do this in a couple of different ways, but one of the most common is lampshading.
Lampshading, or hanging a lampshade, is when your characters acknowledge a trope out loud. For instance, if your book is narrated in the first person and a chapter is labeled “This is the one where I die,” your audience immediately has both expectations (that the character is going to die) and lots of questions (how are they going to die when there are five chapters left?). If your heroes stop and ask your mentor, “Hey, wait, if you’re so powerful why don’t you go save the princess?,” you have an opening to expand on the world-building and this specific character’s limitations.
Lampshading reassures your reader that you’re using a trope on purpose and that yes, their logical assumptions make sense and the characters have thought about it. It’s a way of touching against the fourth wall without properly breaking it so that you can stay in the story while answering obvious questions about its integrity. Alternatively, lampshading can be a great way to break the fourth wall and add some hilarity to the situation by allowing your characters to stop a trope midway through and either go with it because they’re supposed to or completely derail it to do something more entertaining.
You can try lampshading by writing an extremely stereotypical story, then letting your characters question why they’re doing what they’re doing. Let your hero ask why he has to be the chosen one when there’s someone else just as good or communal effort could work, let your bad guy realize that they’ve picked the worst possible henchmen and throw a fit about it, let your dragon pull out a book of “People I’m Allowed To Torch” and look up the hero’s name. A good exercise here could be to take a classic trope story and rewrite it to make logical sense - or to read fanfiction that does exactly that.
Fantasy as a genre is made to do exactly what it says on the tin; it lets us dream impossible things, go to far-off places, witness daring sword fights, cast magic spells, and rescue a prince in disguise. To do that, though, it helps to have at least a toe dipped back into the world we know, and tropes can help us do that. They provide the sense of familiarity that’s sorely lacking in a setting so wildly different from our own lives, which can help us relate to a story we otherwise would be watching from the outside.
I’ve said it so many times now, but it’s true: tropes become tropes for a reason. We tell stories with similar themes because those themes have meaning and value, and appeal to us on a basic human level in a way that completely unique stories (if they exist at all) might not be able to. The shared knowledge that the hero will probably make it back home, that the princess will be rescued, that the reluctant ally will pull through in the end, can give us just enough of an expectation to root for the characters and drive through the end of the story to see it through.