Tropes appear in all genres of course. We couldn’t get to the year 2020 without a few things getting repeated over the years.
Tropes in fantasy and cliches aren’t necessarily a bad thing in themselves. Things are repeated and become cliche because a lot of people tend to agree they’re a good idea in the first place. Unfortunately, a cliche becomes less effective the more it’s used.
If you want to avoid cliches and tropes in your own fiction, this is probably a good move. Cliches and tropes in fantasy have a tendency to hit the reader in the face, pulling their attention out of the world you’ve spent so long trying to build for them. Once they’re snapped out of the spell you want to create with your fiction, you have to work extra hard to pull them back into your book.
If you’re a fantasy writer, I’ve listed some of the most used tropes in fantasy. While you’re not banned from writing any of these into your work of course, if you’re trying to avoid being predictable, it’s a good idea to avoid some of these.
I’ve got nothing against orphans obviously, that would be horrible. I’m not Count Olaf.
However, orphans are so common in fiction, particularly fantasy, that I’ve become a bit tired.
Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Kingkiller Chronicles,… all have major characters who have lost their stable homes and have now been thrust into the unknown. Why?
It’s a really easy way to build sympathy for characters. Who doesn’t feel sad when they read about an innocent kid’s parents getting killed off? It also separates them from the other characters and makes their problems more magnified and get the character to stand out.
If you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey method of storytelling, killing off the parents is also a good disruption or call to action moment that throws the protagonist into a quest of some kind.
It’s not a bad idea in itself, but it is overused now.
Unnamed dead wife and/or daughter
Similar to the orphan trope, another way some writers try to get you to sympathise with a male character is to kill his wife.
This isn’t just in fantasy of course. It’s everywhere, probably more so in crime fiction to be honest.
The setup is that the wife is either killed in front of the man, killed off-screen or before the film or book starts and the rest is about revenge. It’s often a good way to justify having a violent character. I mean, his wife just died, of course he’s going to shoot everyone.
The thing that annoys me about this is that in some stories it just feels like the wife is a placemat or a picture in a frame. Half the time we don’t even learn her name, only that she was important, but not important enough to characterise. It just seems a bit lazy to me.
The same goes for kids, kids are usually killed off with the wife for the same reason. Interestingly enough, they’re usually female too…but I guess that’s a whole other debate for another time.
And to be fair, it does work. You feel bad for them, right? But how many stories feature an anti-hero protagonist with a dead wife and kid? So so many.
For the YA genre, this might be a bit difficult to avoid. I loved Harry Potter as a kid as much as the next person but sometimes when I look at school plotlines now it feels a bit too familiar.
I personally don’t mind the school trope because it’s a good way for you to learn more about the world while the character is.
However, sometimes it feels like a Rocky montage. Your characters learn things in the beginning that they need to use to fight the bad guys at the end.
Harry Potter did this a lot in most of the books. For example, they would always learn a seemingly insignificant spell in class and they’d need that very spell at the end of the book. They’re lucky the curriculum kept up with their annual threats.
It was a pretty simple framework but it became a bit repetitive. It’s a fantasy version of Chekhov’s Gun, I suppose.
It’s very common for the hero to be an underdog. Something about them just makes us root for them all the more.
One way to extract sympathy and also paint this underdog story is to give young characters evil parents, step-parents or guardians. Think Cinderella or A Series of Unfortunate Events. This also ties in with the orphan trope.
I am pretty guilty of using this one a lot to be honest… That’s one bad habit I should probably break.
This is probably one of the most common setups in fantasy books – they all feel like medieval-style worlds.
It’s understandable, the medieval period was pretty cool (not to live in but to read about). They had castles, horses, knights, swords, kings and so on. There’s plenty of opportunity to paint a fascinating world in a medieval-style backdrop.
However, it’s very, very familiar. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you MUST avoid at all costs. I can still happily read many more medieval-style fantasy books. However, if you are looking to build a world that feels different and unique, then perhaps choose another time period to base your world on.
I personally opted for an ancient-style world, taking some inspiration from Egypt and Rome. However, if you do something similar, make sure you’re not building a caricature of these civilisations. You still need to build your own world.
The Chosen One
Lots of fantasy stories have a Chosen One character. They’re usually male protagonists, although times are changing now to be fair…They are now called Mary Sues.
However, one problem I have with this is that the character doesn’t really get where they are based on merit necessarily. They’re good at sword fighting “because”. They come top of the class “because”. They survive “because”.
Having “they’re special” as an answer to everything feels like a missed opportunity to really build a character and watch them grow.
Good vs evil (and nothing in between)
Of course, there’s probably going to be good guys and bad guys in some form in your novel. It’s key to building conflict. However, a common trope you see is the whole good vs evil thing like in Lord of the Rings.
When characters are just good…I get so bored. I don’t know if it’s just me but I like my characters grey because that’s what people are really like. When bad guys are just bad, want to take over the world etc, this is also a wasted opportunity.
I love antagonists who are multi-layered. I think with a good antagonist, you need to understand (and maybe even sympathise a bit with) what their goals are. It could just be down to personal preference of course, but with more layers and dimensions to all your characters, you’re going to create a world and a character that feels more solid and real.
To trope or not to trope
At the end of the day, it’s your book. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to do any of the above. You can have a whole cast of orphans and evil stepmothers in there and still create an amazing story.
However, using tropes in fantasy or any other genre runs the risk of the reader sighing and putting the book down. If your story has all the recognisable tropes of a fantasy book written 30 years ago, your readers could be a little tired of all that.
I probably wouldn’t throw a book into a fire on reading that the story takes place in a school with an orphan protagonist. I’d give it a chance. But most of the time, I’m looking for something a little different that I haven’t read before 100 times.
What cliches or tropes in fantasy do you hate? Which ones do you love and would defend to the death? Let me know your thoughts on tropes in the comments, I’d love to hear them!