I recently wrote about science fiction tropes and how to include them in your writing. I thought today I would do the same for fantasy. When you think of fantasy, you probably picture certain characteristics that are typical for the genre. Dragons and medieval settings and magic are incredibly commonplace in fantasy, to name some examples. Luckily there are plenty of hybrid genres in speculative fiction as a whole, giving you the chance to take fantasy tropes and examine them from different angles. By understanding what tropes are common in this genre, you can better observe how to subvert them.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that you should completely avoid tropes. Just be sure not to rely on them too much. Stories that take tropes common in a specific genre and include them in new and unique ways keep things interesting. Your readers are left surprised at what you have done with the tropes because you subverted their expectations. So in the end, it’s fine to have some tropes in your story, but take the time to examine how you can include them in a way that isn’t typical. Find a way to upend them and leave your readers looking from a different angle. What fantasy tropes can you subvert? Check below to find out!
I kept this one separate from mythical creatures in general because if fantasy includes any creature at all, it’s likely a dragon. Dragons are prevalent in all kinds of different myths and cultures, so it’s not surprising to see them in all kinds of fantasy works. This is especially true if a fantasy setting is based on an already-existing culture. Even early works that the fantasy genre has been influenced by include dragons, including the Beowulf manuscript and the book St. George and the Dragon.
Want to learn more about dragons? Check out this article on dragons from around the world!
You might think how dragons can be a trope when they’re almost like a character. Types of characters and their roles can also become tropes when used so often (think of the wise old mentor and mentorship trope too). Dragons and other creatures are no different, but it’s perfectly possible to utilize dragons for different purposes, rather than just the antagonist. Say you want to include a dragon in your fantasy story. What if your protagonist was friends with a dragon, or even was a dragon? What if dragons themselves played a different role in your world? As long as the dragon’s role makes sense when connected to how your world works, you can subvert what your readers may expect of them.
It feels like lots of fantasy has at least some form of magic. Of course, not all fantasy does, but it’s a pretty standard aspect of the genre. Additionally, authors often include protagonists and antagonists who either practice magic, teach magic, or suddenly gain magic powers. The trope comes into play here. Often, protagonists come into contact with magic in an unexpected way, such as realizing they have magic. Or they come across someone who possesses magic, and (because they are a protagonist) they fall under that person’s mentorship. Usually, protagonists are also really good at magic because, hey, they’re important to the story. So ask yourself:
1) How does magic work in my world? Does everyone know about it? Who practices it? Is magic accepted or rare in any way? Knowing how you want magic to function in the world you create allows you to play with tropes. Because once you have the answers to these questions, you can start shifting away from the typical. Maybe magic is rare, but so rare it only appears in one person per generation. Maybe every wizard who has ever practiced magic suddenly disappeared one day.
2) What is my magic system? The magic trope becomes more unique with each unique aspect of your magic system. If you aren’t familiar, a magic system details how magic works in a world. One great example is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. In this book, characters gain their powers from different types of metals. Not only does the system make sense in the world, but it also explores how metal and magic work together. It’s different from the innate, mysterious power that’s often generalized in fantasy. So create the ins and outs of your magic system, then go from there.
Obviously, you’re the writer, so it’s up to you. It might even be a good idea to lean into these tropes a little bit. However, feel free to get creative with how you want your magic system to work and how it relates to your world. That way, the entire world feels new.
One of the biggest fantasy tropes might be the medieval setting, mainly because high fantasy generally exists in that realm. But when it comes to why high fantasy and medieval conflate, there are two big reasons fantasy worlds stem from this general time period. For one, the legend of King Arthur is a huge influence on how the world views the Middle Ages today, and the often fantastical elements in the work contribute to the medieval fantasy prevalent in the genre. Second, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings draws heavily on Anglo-Saxon and other forms of Proto-Germanic myth, so a lot of fantasy draws from that as well.
The best way to subvert this trope is to examine new time periods and cultures in your own world. For example, Andrzej Sapkowski is often called the “Polish Tolkien” because his works, though broad in scope like Tolkien’s works, focus on Polish culture and myth instead of a medieval setting. So ask yourself: what cultures influence you? What do you enjoy reading or studying, or how might you draw from your own culture and experiences? Fantasy isn’t limited to one culture or setting. You might easily escape medieval tropes by delving into cultures and myths not often seen in fantasy.
Probably two of the best-known tropes, I put these two together for a reason. The Chosen One, often the main protagonist, works to fulfill what’s been projected to happen in the fantasy story, or the prophecy, after being chosen by something, typically a higher power. Both of these tropes construct the core of a majority of fantasy stories, and while they might seem like a tired cliche, they don’t have to be. In fact, including them doesn’t make your story bad or mean a story has lazy writing. When you rely on how the Chosen One or prophecy typically works, then things become predictable. So what do you do?
1) Work to change how both tropes function in a story. Both the Chosen One and the prophecy fulfill certain obligations in a fantasy story. It sets up the protagonist’s main purpose while also establishing their main goal and motivation. However, both tropes might go beyond that. Think about how your Chosen One might be chosen, or how your prophecy came about. Maybe your story doesn’t have either! Either way, break the rules fantasy gives you. Think of new ways to include the trope, or don’t include it at all.
2) Do the opposite of their initial purpose. Sometimes the answer involves doing the opposite. Maybe the prophecy failed in some way, wasn’t real from the beginning, or was completely untrue the entire time. Maybe the Chosen One becomes the antagonist. Both ideas carry out the opposite of what they should, or at least what your reader expects. Just make sure your choices keep your readers engaged and don’t throw them off.
A special object could be a good thing, like an ancient sword meant to help save the world, or a bad thing (think like the ring from The Lord of the Rings or the Horcruxes from Harry Potter). Typically, these also play an important role in a fantasy story because the plot revolves around them. Like any trope where the plot revolves around them,
Like the prophecy and Chosen One tropes, you can always change how a bad or good magical object that’s important to the story functions in the story. I always like to think of the Series of Unfortunate Events books (though this might be a bit of a cop-out answer). In the later books, the sugar bowl supposedly plays an important part in the story. Now, what that purpose is, we don’t really know. But it’s there. In a way, this is a subversion of the magical object trope because it subverts readers’ expectations regarding how the trope works. So get creative and come up with your own ideas. Maybe the magical sword meant to save the world is misplaced or stolen. Maybe the magical artifact important to the story doesn’t exist BUT it can be made.
Like dragons, various mythical creatures from around the world have also been used in different kinds of fantasy works for a long time. These range from animals such as unicorns and the majestic phoenix to creatures that would be considered humanoid, partly human but also different from humans. Creatures like mermaids, werewolves, fairies, vampires, and more are staples in fantasy and other speculative genres. But when it comes to fantasy tropes, how can you use these creatures in new ways?
For one, like character archetypes, creatures tend to share specific roles and functions in a story. For example, you might think of ruined castles, coffins, and figures prowling through the night when you think of vampires. Now if you are in fact writing about vampires, what could you do to subvert readers’ expectations about them? Taking a creature’s role and reworking it into something new will open up new doors for your readers, and in turn, you stay away from the typical stereotypes that readers may see all the time and be tired of.
Want a list of mythical creatures? Check out this article here!
There are plenty of other fantasy tropes out there, but tackling the major ones does loads for your fantasy story. Just remember that tropes can’t completely be avoided. Take the time to recognize them but then find a way to make them unique to your story. Happy writing!
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