Fantasy tropes

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Richard Wagner's Die Walküre: the magic sword, such as Nothung, is a common fantasy trope.

There are many literary tropes that occur in fantasy fiction. Worldbuilding in particular has many common conventions, as do plot and characterization to a lesser extent.

Many works of fantasy operate with these tropes, while others use them in a revisionist manner, making the tropes over for various reasons including: for comic effect, to create something fresh (a method that often generates new clichés), and over objections to the effects of old tropes.[1]

Good vs. evil[edit]

The conflict of good against evil is a theme in the most popular forms of fantasy, such as high fantasy;normally, evil characters erupt from their lands to invade and disrupt the good characters' lands.[2] J. R. R. Tolkien delved into the nature of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings, but many of his imitators use the conflict as a plot device and often do not distinguish the sides by their actual behavior.[3] In some works, mostly notably in sword and sorcery, evil is not opposed by the unambiguously good but by the morally unreliable.[4]

The Damsel in Distress[edit]


Heroic characters are a mainstay of fantasy, particularly high fantasy and sword and sorcery.[citation needed] Such characters are capable of more than ordinary behavior, physically or morally, or both.[5] While they may at first be less than the role required, they grow into it.[6] This may take the form of maturation[7] which is often through Coming of Age.

Many protagonists are, unknown even to themselves, of royal blood.[citation needed] Even in so fanciful a tale as Through the Looking-Glass, Alice is made a queen in the end; this can serve as a symbolic recognition of the inner worth of the hero.[8] Commonly, these tales revolve around the maltreated hero coming into his or her own. This can reflect a wish-fulfillment dream or symbolically embody a profound transformation.[9]

Dark Lord[edit]

The forces of evil are often personified in a "Dark Lord". Besides usual magical abilities, the Dark Lord often controls great armies and can be portrayed as possessing devil-like qualities.[10] A Dark Lord is usually depicted as the ultimate personification of evil, often committing atrocities that make common people afraid to speak their very names, as with Sauron of The Lord of the Rings; Conan the Barbarian's archenemy Thulsa Doom; the Dark One (Shai'tan) of The Wheel of Time; and Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter.

Other notable Dark Lords include the Sith Lords from Star Wars, which include Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine; Darkseid from DC Comics; Dracula of the Castlevania series; Skeletor from Masters of the Universe; Brona the Warlock Lord from The Sword of Shannara; Morgoth from The Silmarillion; Arawn Death-Lord from The Chronicles of Prydain; Torak from The Belgariad; Nightmare from Soulcalibur; the Lich King from the Warcraft franchise; Ganon from The Legend of Zelda; Exdeath from Final Fantasy V, Zamorak, Lord Drakan and several of the mahjarrat from RuneScape and Galbatorix from The Inheritance Cycle. The villain of the Demon Sword video game is also literally called 'Dark Lord'.

In the Lone Wolf gamebooks, the Dark Lords are an entire race of powerful evil beings.[11]

The protagonists of the Overlord video game franchise are classic Dark Lords in the vein of Sauron. The Dark Lord is usually seen as unmarried, though there has been occasion when one has attempted to claim a beautiful maiden as his bride.


Quests, an immemorial trope in literature, are a common trope in fantasy. They can run from a quest to locate the MacGuffins necessary to save the world, to an internal quest of self-realization.[12]


In fantasy, magic is often overwhelming in presence, although its precise nature is delineated in the book in which it appears. It can appear in a fantasy world, or in a fantasy land that is part of reality but insulated from the mundane lands, or as a hidden element in real life.[13]

A common trope is that the ability to work magic is innate and rare. As a consequence the person who uses it, usually called a magician, wizard, sorcerer, warlock, mage, magus, or various other titles, is a common figure in fantasy.[14] Another feature is the magic item, which can endow characters with magical abilities that are not innate, or enhance the abilities of the innately powerful. Among the most common are magic swords and magic rings.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are amongst the most common forms of magic because they are an often used plot device. Often the very effort undertaken to avert them brings them about, thus driving the story. It is very rare for a prophecy in a fantasy to be simply false, although usually their significance is clear only with hindsight. Quibbles can undermine the clearest appearing prophecies.[15]

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien minimized use of the word magic; beings who use such abilities tend to be confused when they are described this way by others. In the Star Wars franchise, the Jedi employ the use of the Force, an essentially magical power that grants mystical abilities and heightened senses and skills to whomsoever wields it.


Many creatures seen in fantasy fiction are drawn from the folklore of Europe and the romances of medieval Europe. Dragons and unicorns are among the most popular creatures. Other monsters, such as griffins, giants, and goblins also appear. Races of intelligent beings such as elves and dwarves often draw their history from medieval or pre-Christian roots. Characteristics of the hero and heroine also frequently draw on these sources as well.

Perhaps even more important is setting. Writers from the beginnings of the fantasy genre, such as William Morris in The Well at the World's End and Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland's Daughter, set their tales in fantasy worlds clearly derived from medieval sources; though often filtered through later views. J. R. R. Tolkien set the type even more clearly for high fantasy which is normally based in such a "pseudo-medieval" setting. Other fantasy writers have emulated him, and role-playing and computer games have also taken up this tradition.

The full width and breadth of the medieval era is seldom drawn upon. Governments, for instance, tend to be feudalistic evil empires or oligarchies, and are usually corrupt, despite the greater variety of the actual Middle Ages.[16] Settings also tend to be medieval in economy, with many fantasy worlds disproportionately pastoral.[17]

These settings are typical of epic fantasy and, to a lesser extent, of sword and sorcery — which contains more urban settings — than of fantasy in general; the preponderance of epic fantasy in the genre has made them fantasy commonplaces. They are less typical of contemporary fantasy, especially urban fantasy.

Ancient world[edit]

A less common inspiration is the ancient world. A famous example is the Hyborian Age (the fictional world of Conan the Barbarian), which features analogues of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Roman Empire, among others. Two notable recent series with such settings are Bartimaeus by Jonathan Stroud, Camp Half-Blood and The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan, although they are both largely set in modern day.


Many fantasy stories and worlds refer to their main sapient humanoid species as "races" rather than as species.[18] J. R. R. Tolkien popularized the usage of the term in this context[citation needed] and the use of "races" in Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games further adapted and spread the label.[19] Many fantasy settings use the terms "race" and "species" interchangeably, such as the World of Warcraft video game.[20][better source needed]

In role-playing games, "race" typically refers to any species usable as a player character.[citation needed] Older editions of Dungeons & Dragons called the primary non-human player races (dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, and half-elf) "demi-humans".[citation needed] Later games such as Shadowrun use the term "metahuman",[citation needed] and define these humanoid races as subdivisions of Homo sapiens.[citation needed]

Other races include orcs, which J. R. R. Tolkien popularized in Lord of The Rings. As of 2014 they appear in many fantasy worlds, often depicted as large, green brutish creatures with more muscle than brains[citation needed] (although Tolkien's orcs, while savage, are cunning and probably as intelligent as a man).[citation needed]

Other "races" include various humanoid creatures that appear like animals such as wolves, bears, boars and other animal species.[citation needed]


  1. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Revisionist Fantasy", p. 810 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  2. ^ "Examples of High/Epic fantasy". 
  3. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Good and Evil", p. 422 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  4. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Evil", p. 323 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  5. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Heroes and Heroines", p. 464 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  6. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Brave Little Tailor", p. 136 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  7. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Ugly Duckling", p. 972 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  8. ^ Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy pp. 145-6 ISBN 0-253-17461-9
  9. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Hidden Monarch", p. 466 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  10. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Dark Lord", p. 250 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  11. ^ "The Darklords of Helgedad". The World of Magnamund Webring. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  12. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Quest", p. 796 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  13. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Magic ", pp. 615-6 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  14. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Magic", p. 616 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  15. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Prophecy", p. 789 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  16. ^ Alec Austin, "Quality in Epic Fantasy"
  17. ^ Jane Yolen, "Introduction" p. viii After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed, Martin H. Greenberg, ISBN 0-312-85175-8
  18. ^ Tresca, Michael J. (16 November 2010). The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. McFarland. p. 30. ISBN 9780786460090. 
  19. ^ Livingstone, Ian (1982). Dicing with Dragons. Routledge. p. 74. ISBN 0-7100-9466-3. 
  20. ^ "Race - WoWWiki - Your guide to the World of Warcraft". WoWWiki. Retrieved 2014-03-15.