Stereotype: a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
Trope: A: a word or expression used in a figurative sense, B: a common or overused theme or device
In fantasy genre-fiction (I’m thinking Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire, The King killer Chronicles, and many others), you’re bound to find not only ‘fantasy stereotypes’ but actual ‘fantasy tropes’, ideas that seem to repeat themselves in this particular genre. People have something of a love-hate relationship with tropes. On the one hand, you don’t want them to be exactly the same every time, not only instantly recognizable but indistinguishable from earlier incarnations in other stories. Yet on the other hand, you don’t want them to be missing—we love most of the things that make fantasy stories (perhaps I should say ‘high-fantasy’ or ‘epic-fantasy’) what they are. If I go out to buy an apple, but attempt to locate an apple that isn’t round, juicy, crunchy, etc… I might end up with something either totally undesirable, or something that can’t be considered an apple at all. It’s the same with my endeavor to find new fantasy literature.
What really makes a fantasy trope wonderful is the way in which it is adapted, evolved, nuanced, developed, improved upon, re-contextualized, deployed, executed… and so on…. By the fantasy author. Let’s take a look at these wonderful fantasy tropes. I will commentate on them in the order that they appear and are described as per the lovely entry for them in Wikipedia.
Good vs. Evil
Obviously, the classical approach to this concept is to clearly define these two forces as opposing factions, showing the alignment to each for all relevant characters. In contemporary works, we see a breakdown and deconstruction of the trope, but without disposing of it entirely. By that I mean, there are factions and characters set up against each other, and they may be construed as either good or evil for the perception of the audience, but that colouring may change or even become ambiguous as the story progresses. Bad-guys may turn out to be good-guys and vice-versa, or the authors may even leave it up to us to decide who the good-guys and bad-guys actually are. We may argue these points with our peers in book-review sessions. But importantly, we’ll still be talking about the concepts of good and evil. And if we are still doing that, this trope is still a successful ‘keeper’ in the world of fantasy fiction.
Everyone loves a heroic figure, but like ‘Good vs Evil’, it’s easy to be predictable and boring with the trope. These days we also have the concept of the anti-hero, “a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” Audiences by-and-large identify more closely with heroes who also have meaningful flaws. Yet characters, especially protagonists, can’t be too mundane. We find something deeply agreeable about heroes who are capable of something we ourselves aren’t capable of. Fantasy is a genre that further enables that extension.
Ah, my all-time favourite without doubt. For the same reason that we like romanticized battles over real ones, we prefer romanticized villains over real ones. Perhaps you’ve felt as though you wanted to see more of Darth Vader during the story-telling process, compared with Luke Skywalker. Dark Lords are cool. They hang out in Dark Towers (another beautiful fantasy trope), wear dark clothes, have dark dialogue, exercise dark powers, have dark agendas, and so on. But it becomes rather one-dimensional unless you figure out realistic motives for them and subtleties that retain the attention of contemporary audiences.
The trope most popularized by Tolkien, it spawned countless computer/video-games and roleplaying games, not to mention works of fictional literature. It’s SUCH a good vehicle for a story. Just be wary of your quest starting in such stereotypical conditions, with such stereotypical ending conditions, and featuring such a stereotypical blend of ‘character classes’. Of course your story’s characters are going to need some kind of problem to solve, some kind of agenda to pursue. But there is plenty of room to carve out variation upon this trope.
This could go well beyond the scope of the present blog-post, since the concept of the ‘magic system’ is a bit of a thing. It’s such a malleable and variable thing though. You can keep your magic to something sourced ‘off-page’, a ‘black-box’, something like ‘magic-realism’ as in the genre, or you can systematize it and make it an integral part of the storytelling. Both approaches have worked historically. What’s important is that the magic present in the story should do something for the story or characters. It shouldn’t just be an obligatory nod to the genre.
This isn’t a must as far as fantasy-in-general is concerned, given that stories like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory count in the genre. But it IS a must for epic and high fantasy, in my opinion. Well perhaps not a must, but it’d be quite the unusual story that didn’t draw from the trope if it wasn’t from the high/epic fantasy sub-genre. There’s something romantic and yet brutal about this type of setting. It allows for society to be portrayed in terms that are superlatively easy to understand, and therefore the delivery of other tropes comes even easier. Perhaps it’s just a generation thing, but one can easily imagine what it would be like to have to confront medieval adversities without resorting to guns and telephones and the like.
Perhaps my least favorite trope. Yet in our society there is such an ‘us and them’ attitude ingrained in us that we can’t help but get behind struggles between the protagonist elves (they’re civilized and elegant) and the antagonistic orcs (they’re uncouth and disgusting) and similar opposing ‘racial’ factions. I actually don’t feel like high/epic fantasy needs this trope. You can tell the same story without it. Tolkien made it work because he characterized his races so well, even went to the length of designing whole languages for them to speak. When a contemporary author just invents a new race out of nowhere, deriving it from some pre-existing fantasy race idea, it just makes me somewhat skeptical, although I can and do appreciate the gesture
Ultimately we read stories for the sake of conflict and how the characters resolve it. But in fantasy we encounter tropes along the way. We identify them, pass judgement upon them, and potentially appreciate them. They can add, or detract from, a story. But what is a genre if not for its tropes?