Writers of fantasy fiction can use this list of 101 fantasy tropes to add some magic to their books.
Fantasy is the wide-eyed child of the speculative fiction genre. Like science fiction, it is also filled with tropes.
What is a trope?
A trope is a commonly-used literary device. It can be a cliché and it can be used well.
Fantasy tropes are everywhere. For example, summoning a devil to make a contract for the small price of your soul. People like this image. How would you feel if the devil emailed you a contract with a space to put in your digital signature?
Suggested reading: A Complete Glossary Of Terms For Fantasy Writers
How is it used?
Tropes are used as shorthand to explain complicated things. For example, The Dark Lord is used to explain to your reader that it’s okay for your Hero not to worry too much about how many henchmen they had to kill to right a ‘great evil’. If you do this, you don’t have to waste words trying to educate your reader when you want to get on with the plot.
This list is not a comment on whether the tropes are good or bad.
101 Fantasy Tropes For Writers
- The Dark Lord. An ancient evil from the elder days is once again threatening the world.
- The Chosen One (protagonist) whose job it is to defeat the Dark Lord (antagonist) and restore the natural order of the world. Often a sword is involved.
- The Chosen One or Hero has been orphaned. It doesn’t matter how they were orphaned, only that family members are a liability to your protagonist and a headache to fit into the plot. (See any Disney cartoon for more information.)
- The Hero needs a mysterious parental figure. But, never an actual parent. They are there to guide them on their journey and offer advice.
- It helps if their mysterious parental figure is a wizard with contacts in the magic sword business. Either way, they usually like long flowing robes.
- Your Hero must to go on a quest to find or destroy the magic item giving the Dark Lord his power.
- They will need a landscape to trudge through. Remember it has to resemble Medieval Europe or everyone will make fun of you.
- Unless of course it resembles Ancient Rome or Japan, because that’s just as cool, man.
- Maybe, look up China while you’re at it. After all who doesn’t like Kung Fu?
- Nobody cares about peasants! Treat them like props, but if they speak out of turn mow them down like the cannon fodder they are.
- Your character must be a peasant.
- Of course, secretly they are also the descendent of the long lost king with a birth mark to prove it.
- For some reason everyone except the Dark Lord’s evil advisor will like your secretly noble Hero. It must be their royal grace shining through, right?
- The advisor must have a black goatee beard.
- They will need friends. Maybe a party or a fellowship?
- They will help your Hero along the journey, supporting the Hero whenever the Hero has lost all hope. This happens around scene 45.
- They should all be improbably, overly capable. Your elf should not just a good archer, but the best there ever was.
- They should also be princes, nobles, wizards, clerics and even the rulers of entire nations. Nobody delegates in Middle Earth. King Arthur sends his best men on pointless errands all the time. Probably, to get Lancelot away from his wife, but still.
- Your Hero will need to be trained by a master swordsman/magician who is secretly their…
- Your Hero will need to be descended from a master.
- Your Hero will need to be the best fighter in the whole realm.
- They are never allowed to use a helmet or a shield. That is for nameless support characters without exception – except if they only hunt goblins.
- Real Heroes use two swords.
- Real Heroes have magic swords.
- Real Heroes don’t cast spells. That’s the wizard’s job.
- Your Hero can out-think the wizard who is the smartest person in the world.
- This means they can beat any spell-caster with just their wits and cunning.
- You Hero must be a nerdy kid who likes magic. Sure they get beaten up at first but soon they become the greatest mage of all time. Then they get even with the bullies…
- Your wizard Hero is the best of all time and keeps getting better.
- Your wizard Hero is just okay, but through hard work comes out on top.
- Your “wizzard” Hero is just the worst spell-caster of all time but they have personality and people just like them. Give them an endearing spell like “Cause Mild Discomfort” or “Summon Milk”
- Your Hero is bored with their life and wants to make a name for themselves in the wide world.
- Your Hero loves their home town and never wants to leave but those damn orcs/trolls/goblins/wizards/invaders destroy this idyllic life and they are forced to right this injustice.
- Your Hero gets caught up in circumstances that soon take over their life and makes them believe in a greater cause.
- Your Hero falls in love with a princess who needs to be rescued from the Dark Lord.
- Turns out the princess was the real Dark Lord all along.
- She killed her whole family just to rule the kingdom.
- She was actually good after all, and just pretending to be bad to learn the Dark Lord’s secrets. Her family were all secretly monsters, though.
- Your Hero needs to rescue her from the Dark Lord’s Castle.
- Oh, no. Your Hero got captured while freeing the princess.
- Now, she needs to mount a rescue for the Hero.
- For some reason, her farther, the king, won’t help her so she needs to gather allies and infiltrate the castle on her own.
- Your Hero has found the magic item they need to save the world while locked up at the Dark Lord’s Castle.
- They insist that they steal it before they leave the castle.
- Conveniently, the Dark Lord, or maybe a dragon, is asleep and they can retrieve it.
- But, the Dark Lord wakes up just as they are making their escape.
- The Dark Lord, or their minions, chase the Heroes until they are saved by a secret magical kingdom – usually in a forest populated by elves.
- Or they are forced underground into dangerous caves – sometimes populated with elves.
- But, not the nice elves Dark Elves. These are evil creatures worshipping demonic gods. They are a foul and irredeemable lot.
- Except, of course, there is one good dark elf who is wandering the world making up for his race’s evil ways.
- Perhaps, this dark elf paladin helps lead your Hero back into the light – even though it hurts his beautiful lavender eyes just to see the sun. He probably writes poetry while crying.
- In the dark under the world, the Under Dark, there are as many fabulous creatures as anywhere else in the world. Even though, I mean, what would they eat?
- They live in magical cities.
- They live as savage beasts or wild tribes.
- They prey on wary travellers not used to the blinding darkness.
- Glowing red eyes follow your Hero on their journey.
- They turn out to be an ally who guides them to safety.
- They turn out to be a stealthy assassin come to collect the bounty on your Hero’s head.
- They are a swarm of monsters that dog your Hero’s every move.
- But, your Hero makes it back to the surface to find much has changed.
- They have been under a spell, and it is a hundred years too late to save the kingdom from the Dark Lord’s rule.
- All hope is lost and the world lies in ruin.
- Your Hero cries out in despair. When the darkness is at its fullest a light answers their call.
- Your Hero has gained the notice of a god/dess who wants to help them right the wrongs of the world.
- Your Hero finds an impossibly old ally still fighting the good fight.
- This ally has gained ancient knowledge and needs to pass it on to your Hero.
- This knowledge comes at a price.
- The price is a part of your Hero’s soul is lost each time they use this black magic. Oh, the tragedy.
- Your Hero defeats the Dark Lord, spending all of their soul, and becomes the next Dark Lord, completing the cycle, as foretold in an ancient prophecy.
- Your Hero refuses to give into this dark magic and instead ascends to a new level of power. This may change their hair colour.
- This power gives them a chance at victory and a better tomorrow.
- This power comes from the last magic of an elder race, and using it means that they will fade from the earth and the world will be a less magical place. A forced relocation into the west often happens simultaneously.
- Your Hero wins, but dies in the process.
- Your Hero dies, but that goddess from earlier has plans for them and brings them back to life.
- That god/dess reincarnates them as a small child with all the memories of their past life.
- Your Hero does not die, but gets to retire and have a good life and maybe raise a child.
- This child inherits the powers of your Hero and must learn to live with this responsibility.
- They are easy prey for an evil organisation that wants to hurt your Hero.
- They steal your Hero’s little girl and try to kill your Hero.
- But, they survive and if it is the last thing the Hero does, they will rescue their little girl.
- They are old now and past their prime. But, with age comes skill and they are deadlier than ever.
- The task is long and hard but they are tough and will see it though even if it kills them.
- Standing over the smoking ruins of the organisation that stole their little girl, the Hero has won.
- They have won, but it is just too much for them. They have seen their child freed and safe and at long last is allowed to rest – you know in a sad way.
- Perhaps, they have served their god/dess well and they are allowed a day to say goodbye to their friends.
- Maybe, their spirit is so strong it becomes a magical beast that prowls the woods keeping evil at bay.
- You Hero is allowed to ascend to heaven as a reward for their service.
- The war is won and everyone returns home. Many farewells occur.
- But, have they changed, or has the world they left moved on without them?
- It’s time they settled down, but they are haunted by the call to adventure.
- They seek a new adventure at every turn, but are never satisfied. Ships and golden fleeces are often involved.
- Eventually, they bite off more than they can chew and end up dead.
- They die nobly protecting the next generation.
- They pass on what they have learnt so that the story can continue with someone else.
- They find they have become the crazy old person in the tavern who all the kids make fun of.
- But, every now and then, wizards, dwarves, and elves are seen talking to the crazy old person.
- One day the old person gives a gift to their nephew.
- They give them a magic clock or wardrobe that leads to another world.
- They give them a magic sword that leads them on a quest to be king
- They give them a book of magic spells. Which will conveniently solve every obstacle in the narrative.
- And of course, the One Ring to rule them all.
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Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
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