Fantasy as a genre has the potential for great versatility. Sure, familiarity can be comforting, but when it comes to fantasy fiction there are certain tropes that have been overused to the point of being cliché. If you recognize these fantasy tropes in your own writing, you don’t have to discard them, but you might want to try to add an original twist to them or subvert them in one way or another in order to ensure that your writing feels fresh and original.
1. The Chosen One
The hero has been specifically chosen by powers greater than himself to carry out an important mission – usually, there is a prophecy involved too. This trope has been popularized by the Harry Potter books, and it has become very predictable in the fantasy genre as a result.
There are many ways in which this cliché can be given an original spin – maybe your hero has been chosen for evil but we don’t find out until much later in the story, maybe the wrong hero has been chosen, maybe the prophecy was simply made up and holds no actual power, and so on. Another powerful take on this trope is having the hero choose to undergo their fight against evil on their own accord, as was the case with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, for example.
2. The Medieval English Setting
The English countryside is gorgeous indeed, but at this point, the Tolkien-esque landscape is painfully cliché in the fantasy genre. There are plenty of rich and interesting cultures in the world that have been too little explored in writing to choose as sources of inspiration. How many fantasy stories can you name where the action takes place in a world based on Ancient Mesopotamia? What about stories incorporating Slavic mythology into their lore?
These are just two examples of a plethora; no matter what culture you choose to draw inspiration from, keep in mind that fantasy worlds that read like medieval British kingdoms will need time to feel fresh and enchanting again due to how often they have appeared in pop culture.
3. The Evil Overlord
He has no redeeming qualities or humanizing traits, his sole existence is centered around being evil, maintaining power, and causing destruction everywhere, relishing in the pain and hurt he inflicts on others. This isn’t a very credible portrayal of a person you might call evil – in fact, people who habitually hurt those around them tend to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories, and they are usually capable of feeling remorse and empathy to a greater or lesser extent.
Bad people are still people, no matter how despicable they may be. Why not show your otherwise terrifying villain doting lovingly on his wife, reminiscing about his idyllic childhood, or taking his three-headed hellhound on a walk? Instead of making evil your big bad’s entire personality, consider endowing him with a shred of humanity to make him (or her) a very complex and compelling character.
4. The Cookie-Cutter Hero
We are all familiar with this guy – he sets out on an adventure, receives a magical object from a wise old man to aid him on his quest, kills the dragon that has been terrorizing his kingdom, comes back unscathed, and gets the girl he likes as a reward for his heroic deeds. This trope is very common in fairy tales, but much like the Evil Overlord trope, it lacks flavor and individuality.
Naturally, people get emotionally invested in heroes who read like real people – they have flaws, insecurities, quirks, fears and they battle personal demons. Your readers will definitely be more drawn to, say, a hero who used to be a bad guy, a hero who is a bad guy, an eccentric hero with strange beliefs, or a hero who displays symptoms of depression that prevent him from achieving his goals than a hero who is nothing more than a perfectly functional means of driving a perfectly predictable plot forward. In general, the rule of thumb when it comes to character creation is to make your characters people first and archetypes second.
If you’re ready to put your imagination to good use, check out this post about writing challenges and start your own fantasy journey!