Fantasy (more specifically high fantasy) is one of those genres that I can never have enough of. Whether it’s television, the big screen, or books, fantasy is the one thing I always return to when I’m feeling uninspired or slump-y. And because I’m such a big fan of such a vast genre, I obviously have favorite tropes that I always turn towards. I’m pretty much always looking for fantasy books with these tropes, and most of my favorite books utilize them brilliantly. So, let’s get into it.
Royals living away from their homes; whether it’s because they’re hiding, in exile, or leaving voluntarily, this trope results in fantastic development & characterization.
Whether it’s because of an arranged marriage they’re trying to flee, or because their parents died in suspicious circumstances so they’re running to save themselves, royals leaving their homes and luxuries behind is one of my favorite tropes. Mainly because there are a myriad of discussions that can be had if this is the case. For one, leaders living sheltered lives behind the walls of their castles can never truly be good leaders; more often than not, the trope uses the opportunity to disguise said royal as a commoner. The royal lives amongst laypeople, makes acquaintances, begins to understand the struggles that they never would have had they stayed holed up in their previous life. This trope directly results in a well-rounded character, who – if or when they take back their home – can be a leader for the people.
A good example here is Jon Snow from A Song of Ice & Fire. Despite not being a royal, he’s still lived his entire life as the child of one of the most powerful people in the kingdom. He has a nice room in a big castle, people who listen to him; he has luxuries, teachers, trainers, a family, a home. But he has a very skewed understanding of honor, responsibility and leadership until he joins the Night’s Watch and gets to know people from all over the Seven Kingdoms. He’d thought he would be surrounded by brave men full of honor, but is instead forced to call criminals his brothers. He learns about the conditions that lead poverty-stricken people to commit crimes, like stealing food or money, and comes to understand that there are different types of bravery, different types of honor. This genuine understanding of the plight of common folk, their wants, needs, and the things he saw while living away from luxury are what give him the upper hand in becoming a good ruler. He’s developed from the first book – from a kind, generous young man who was mostly sheltered and ignorant, to a kind, generous young man who knows more, who’s understood more, who can become the leader for the people instead of a leader because of blood.
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Schools. Give me all the schools in fantasy books. I don’t care if you’re studying about how fast horses decompose- just give it to me.
I love fantasy schools, and Hogwarts is obviously the greatest school of all-time, but its existence seems to be detrimental to other fantasy series with schools. Mainly because no matter how different the school is, every new fantasy series that contains one is automatically compared to Harry Potter. Which is awful, because fantasy leaves so much room for so many different types of schools.
There could be schools that teach magic, obviously, or there could be schools that teach history. What about schools that teach etiquette? Schools that teach royals how to behave royally? Law? Politics? What about assassin schools (those are always awesome, let’s be real).
A Song of Ice & Fire has the Citadel where maesters learn several crafts to become learned; The Seven Realms series has Oden’s Ford, that teaches etiquette, magic, and several other trades. Like I said, there is infinite wiggle room when it comes to schooling in fantasy. It doesn’t have to be a traditional school setting either – it could be training, or tournaments where lessons are taught, or tutoring in history. Just give me more schools in fantasy! And for the love of God – while you’re at it – stop comparing every book with a school to Harry Potter!
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Politics and civil war. Don’t know what side to root for? That’s a great fantasy.
World-building in its materialistic form is fantastic. I love maps as much as the next person; I enjoy reading about different continents, cultures, peoples, moral values, governing systems, etcetera. Magic building is wonderful, as well, but what makes a fantasy truly great? To me, it’s politics. For a fantasy to immediately capture my attention, it has to have people on all sides that I am rooting for, even if there is a clear good and bad dynamic. I want to see people lurking in the shadows, vying for power; I want to see nobles’ deceiving their lieges because they want more political influence. Politics has made and broken our world since the dawn of time, and fantasy books without a political system in place seem incomplete.
Civil war is an extension of this political aspect; when politics plays a huge role in a fantasy series, when the players of the game are well-developed and interesting, war is inevitable. But war is never pleasant. It’s confusing, and muddled, and very rarely is it as binary as “This side is good, this side is bad.” Well written war, and well-written politics has innocent people dying on both sides. There are people you can root for and understand on both sides, which is why the situation is so tense and gripping.
The series that does this best is obviously A Song of Ice & Fire. Despite there being lines within your mind about who the good guy is, and who the bad guy is, you’re still rooting for characters on both sides of the spectrum. The political aspect of hegemony, imperialism, revolution and rebellion, of monarchy, usurping, treaties and deceits and reward and punishment? That’s what makes the series so fantastic. Politics and complicated, grey dynamics are realistic and complex, and give storytelling a layer that nothing else possibly can.
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Tournaments and Competitions. Characters showcasing their skills in a fully competitive setting? Yes, please.
Tournaments have become a cliché now, but I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t the biggest sucker for tournaments. There’s so many things a writer can do while writing tournaments, from showcasing characters’ skillsets, their personalities under stress and pressure, seeing them learn from their mistakes, and get up after they’ve been pushed down, to showcasing magic systems, the cultures and practices of other peoples if it’s a nationwide tournament. The tournaments could serve as a backdrop for politics and scheming, or they could just be plain old fun.
Perhaps the most legendary tournament for me is the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter, because Rowling utilized it perfectly by mixing themes of first love and coming-of-age with Harry’s first real encounter of darkness, death, war and politics. But there was a lot more to it – the world-building was expanded greatly as we got to see what was under the waters around Hogwarts, we got to encounter different species (merpeople, dragons), as well as different plants. We got to see our characters use their skills under grueling conditions, but we were also given glimpses into the properties of fame, of celebrity. The tournament tested friendships, and loyalties, and it broke relationships while it made others. For me, tournaments – apart from being a hell of a fun time – are perfect backdrops to explore world-building, politics and characterization.
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The anti-hero. They do things that are morally ambiguous, and it’s sometimes difficult to root for them, but they’re some of the best characters you’ve ever read.
Anti-heroes and anti-villains are my favorite types of characters, in any genre, period. But in fantasy, they hold a special place in my heart, simply because there’s a lot more they can experiment with and get away with in fantasy stories (using magic, honor, war, etcetera). There’s nothing quite as satisfying as reading a good anti-hero. Heroes bore me; you already know you’re supposed to root for them, no matter what they do, because they’re ultimately the good guy.
Anti-heroes make you doubt yourself, they make you doubt the author’s intentions, the story, the other characters, what’s good and what’s evil, and this quality of thought-provoking characterization is my absolute favorite thing in writing. Morally complicated characters who don’t fit neatly into boxes are the fucking best, man. They keep you on your feet, and if they ever undergo a redemption arc, you’re left amazed at how meticulously the writer built up a certain character, naturally tore them down, and built them back up – better and stronger. There’s so much literary power in anti-heroes that I will devour most every book that has one as its main character.
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That’s all for my favorite fantasy tropes! I’m thinking of making another post that talks about tropes that are less fantasy-specific, so let me know if you’d be interested in that. Also tell me – do you enjoy these tropes? What other tropes do you like? And definitely give me recommendations!