Writing Fantasy: Using Tropes

Ah, trope me this: use them or avoid them (like the plague)? Is that terrible to start a blog post with a terrible trope (also known as a cliche)? Yes, probably. But it stays. 

In my writing and researching about writing journey, I’ve seen lots of discussion on this particular topic and, after reading dozens of articles, I’ve come to the conclusion that the general consensus is…

…there is none!

Yeah, totally frustrating, I get it. Some people argue vehemently against using tropes and creating ALL original material, actively working opposite of tropes (though if enough people started doing that, it would become a trope in itself) and others say that tropes exist for a reason, therefore we ought to use them.

So who’s right?

They both are. Or at least that’s what I think.

One thread I have seen consistently is this piece of advice: if you’re going to use a trope, make it uniquely yours. Give that trope a little twist. For example, make your dwarves seafarers (I’ve seen this in a friend’s novel) instead of a race that lives entirely underground. Or start your novel in medieval world but have one of the progressions be industrialization. Or make the wise, old mentor an annoyed gnome – call him The Reluctant Mentor.

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back for a moment and define ‘trope’. What is that anyway?

In literary terms, a trope is commonly used phrase, character, theme, or plot element. For example, in fantasy, there are some AMAZING literary tropes: The Wise, Old Mentor; The Hero’s Journey; The Epic Quest; The Evil, Villainous Overlord; The Reluctant Hero; The Thing That Hasn’t Happened for 1,000 Years Is Now Happening; Medieval Setting; Dwarves, gnomes, elves, wizards, etc; and so on.

Any of these sound familiar to you?

If you read any fantasy, they should. The reason these are called tropes is because they’re commonly used. There is nothing wrong with using tropes.

In fact, I’d argue that tropes are highly useful in helping readers understand your world and to help them make sense of what is going on.

For example, in my novel, I have the Wise, Old Mentor in there, it’s a Hero’s Journey, and I’ve got the Evil, Powerful Villain. All three. And probably more! BUT, I also have completely made up races, I’ll be exploring industrialization and technology, and a few other things that aren’t as trope-ish.

To be clear, we shouldn’t hold our reader’s hand too tightly, but we need to remember that a confused reader is one who won’t be your reader for long. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t challenge them and make them think, but what we do needs to make sense.

In literature, every story has a learning curve. Some have gentle curves (it doesn’t take much effort to understand the world of the book) and others have steep learning curves (you spend an awful lot of time feeling like you don’t know what’s going on before everything finally clicks). What books have you read that have either gentle or steep curves?

Tropes can help to ease the steepness of the learning curve.

Since my novel is The Hero’s Journey (or even The Reluctant Hero, because she is thrust into a situation that she now must resolve), my readers don’t have to spend a lot of effort understanding the overall arc, and instead can focus on the setting or understanding how time works or understanding the characters’ physical features because they have no race trope to rely on.

Tropes can be highly useful, so I don’t think that all tropes need to be eliminated altogether.

Even so, I still think that tropes need to be used with caution and great care. Remember, LoTR and Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time have already been done, so we don’t want to simply rewrite these stories. I’m sure that MANY wizard school books were submitted to agents and publishers during the Harry Potter release years (and probably ever since), but I’m also betting that most of them were some sort of rewrite of HP and not a totally new twist on the idea.

Like I said before, the key with using tropes is giving the novel twist on the trope. Even if it is a Hero’s Journey, what can you or I do to give a fresh twist on that journey? How can the Hero’s Journey be something different?

In my novel, my main character is part of a race that lives 5,000 years, so this Journey will last centuries (at least). The rest of my races? I have one that can live up to 500 years, but most don’t. This means that I’m going to be losing characters to old age, bringing in new characters, revisiting old settings (perhaps centuries later), and seeing change over time. I think this is an unusual way to handle the Hero’s Journey and I’m excited for the challenge of trying to get it to work. So not only will I have the overarching Hero’s Journey, but I’ll have to deal with character deaths and new characters coming in. When one races lives so much longer than everyone else, that is something that can’t be ignored or swept to the side. It has to be treated and dealt with and given the honor it deserves.

So, while tropes CAN cause eyerolls or bore readers to death with predictability, treated correctly within a nest of new and interesting things, tropes can go a long way to helping a story stay cohesive and understandable. Being a little bit predictable can be a good thing.

And who knows? Maybe you could write a hilarious comedy using all kinds of fantasy tropes. You know, if someone hasn’t already gotten to it…


What tropes do you see around? Which ones makes you eyeroll hardest?




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5 thoughts on “Writing Fantasy: Using Tropes

  1. I think that the biggest trope would have to be good versus Evil. That doesn’t necessarily stick to the fantasy genre, it finds a home in most stories. But you can have a twist where the bad guy isn’t really as bad as you thought. That has been growing into a trope in itself lately though.


  2. I’m generally not a huge fan of the whole “chosen one” trope. It’s been done to death. That said…if it’s done well and done with an interesting twist, then it’s much easy for me to overlook.


    1. It has, and I think part of the reason why is people aren’t sure how else to justify an MC. That will be interesting to look into.


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