Readers' Corner

Fantasy Tropes: From the Big Evil to the Chosen One

One of the most uncomfortable experiences for a writer is taking a visit to the TV Tropes website. It has a fantasy literature section that will pick apart your favorite novels, pointing out numerous examples of the use of cliché and two-dimensional tropes. It can be disheartening to read, making you feel like no thought or idea you’ve had has any originality. Certain genres of literature, particularly fantasy, get special treatment, with the authors at pains to point out that the idea has been done before.

Of course, there is a commonality to all literature, and one cannot escape the fact that we would get entangled in a philosophical web if we kept pursuing the idea of original thought. Yet, fantasy tends to be the most, let’s say, codified of all genres, although crime fiction might give it a run for its money. Nonetheless, there are tropes that appear again and again. We should be clear, however, that a trope is not always negative, nor should we be derisory about it. Literature, and in the case of fantasy, world-building, most follow some rules, and it is natural that tropes appear.

Big Evil must be defeated

Perhaps the best place to start is with the antagonist or arch-villain in fantasy, which has earned the moniker “Big Evil”. While Tolkien, the creator of the most famous example, cleverly tantalized the reader by never fully revealing Sauron, many of the traits of The Enemy in The Lord of the Rings became the standard for Big Evil to follow. There would be no Voldemort without Sauron, and even works that try to subvert fantasy, such as Game of Thrones, will inevitably base their antagonists on Tolkien’s creation.

Writers are, of course, faced with a dilemma. The fantasy work must have an antagonist, and in a world of myth and magic, they are going to inevitably lean into “Big Evil”. Yet, that certainly doesn’t mean they have to be one-dimensional. As we said, tropes are necessary, but you can still make your antagonist interesting and multi-faceted. The danger is that you fall into another trope by, for example, choosing to push the idea of conflict in Big Evil, this Darth Vaderesque “I know there is still some good inside of you” has been done to death, and it feels tired and uninspired.

Aside from Big Evil, the often-entangled concepts of The Orphan and The Chosen One appears with regularity. There is a good logic to it, as the reader can learn ‘with’ the character in real-time as the story unfolds. There are too many examples of The Orphan to count in fantasy literature, but the starkest might be Belgarion in David Eddings’ Belgariad series, which charts the quest of a young orphan farmhand who is secretly a king and must defeat the series’ Big Evil, the mad god Torak.

Prophecy, too, comes along in this trope, providing a spoiler for the reader about what is going to happen to The Chosen One. It does not hark back directly to Tolkien, although the writer did allude to some areas of the hand of providence (Eru Ilúvatar in Tolkien’s world) by claiming Frodo was meant to destroy The Ring.

Prophecy plays a huge role in the Belgariad, although Eddings has some clever twists. It is most notable in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, where the protagonist Richard Rahl (a commoner who is secretly a king, of course) has his life mapped out by prophecy. Eddings did try to subvert the prophecy trope in another series, the Tamuli, where his protagonist, Sir Sparhawk, is special for the very fact he lives outside of the world of prophecy, i.e., he is a man with no fate.

The high priestess as a dramatic prop

While those are some of the most common tropes, they are also the most overarching ones. Fantasy literature is full of less notable ones that reoccur frequently. A typical example is the idea of the high priestess. Priests (of the male form) can come in any shape or size, but the high priestess is almost always sultry and zealous to the point of obsession. We see the figure come up in a lot of fantasy literature, including the Red Woman in Game of Thrones, and the imagery has made its way into comic books and even popular gaming products like Book of the Priestess. Rarely the main character, the high priestess tends to fulfill the role of submission to a higher power, often in an overly-sensual manner.

Perhaps unfairly, the idea of a quest is also considered a trope. But as we said earlier, your fantasy characters need to have a purpose, so one should not deem this a criticism. Again, though, the writer can make it more interesting by attempting to do something different with the linear plot quest. A good example is David Gemmel’s Quest for Lost Heroes, which introduces the reader to a rag-tag bunch of (former) heroes who embark on one last adventure. That may sound like a cliché in itself – ‘one last heist’ – but Gemmel has a bit of fun taking the reader in directions they would not expect.

The avuncular wizard is here to help

Some elements of fantasy have become so ingrained in popular culture that it feels almost impossible to escape them. The old bearded wizard – Gandalf, Dumbledore, Belgarath, Kulgan, and countless others – owe much to the depictions of Merlin in Arthurian legend, and it is rare to see writers veer away from that; it almost feels canonical. Again, there is nothing wrong with it, and there are positives to be gained from meeting the readers’ expectations of an avuncular wizard.

It is desirable for fantasy writers to have fresh ideas, but those new ideas can co-exist peacefully with the tropes that have been followed before. Again, take the idea of The Orphan as The Chosen One. While some, like Goodkind’s Richard Rahl, follow ridiculous cliché, writers can still follow the trope but with interesting twists. We’d point to the orphan protagonists in Cecilla Dart-Thornton’s Bitterbynde series, which follows the fortunes of “The Ill-Made Mute”, a sick, deformed, and deaf child (later called Imrhien) whose life unfolds before her in Dart-Thornton’s rich fantasy world.

The point of all of this is not to say that fantasy is full of tropes. It is. But it is not necessarily blighted by tropes. The difference is important. The architecture of the genre inevitably means characters will quest and face some kind of powerful antagonist. They don’t always have to be orphans or bereaved, of course, and they don’t always need the help of a bearded wizard. Yet, even if you do dip into the canonical tropes of high fantasy, there are always ways to make your story interesting. Fantasy – at its best – allows authors to use their imaginations to provide rich worlds for their readers to escape to. Often the reader will see the familiar and be content with it, but the writer can also dazzle them with new elements, those that subvert the tropes and take them in new directions.


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