Have you recently read a book where an orphan becomes the chosen one and saves the world? How about one where two characters fall in love with the same person and that person has to choose who to be with? Yes? Well, welcome to tropes.

 
A trope, as defined in the literature, is a ‘convention or device that establishes a predictable or stereotypical representation of a character, setting, or scenario in a creative work.’
 
Now while tropes have a lot of negative light shed upon them, they are not inherently bad. Tropes give readers a sense of familiarity with what they are reading, a connection. If you remove all tropes from your writing, while unique, will risk creating a space where your readers may be uncomfortable and they will disengage. The trick to using tropes is changing them enough and writing them well enough to maintain both the familiarity that will engage your readers and will still give them the feeling of something new.
 
Let’s look at some common tropes that can be found in modern literature and some ways to switch it up a little to give your readers something to hold on to.
 
Now, tropes can be split into three broad categories; character, plot, and worldbuilding.

Character tropes include:

THE CHOSEN ONE

Ah, the character who must stand alone to accomplish some vitally important task or purpose that acts as the pivotal moment in the story. Often to save the world. I will use Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example here because although it was an animated series there was a spin-off of stories as well.

Aang, or the Avatar, was the chosen one destined to save the world or resolve the conflicts that threatened the stability of the world. They were given a power reserved only for the chosen one and they must master it to achieve their goal.

Now the chosen one is not always given a power reserved just for them, but may be chosen based on prophecy or just sheer random selection, and they just to happen to be a completely normal person thrust into the middle of a conflict that they end up having to solve and defeat because only they can due to some characteristic they possess. And nine times out of ten they are orphans.

This often overlaps with another trope THE RELUCTANT HERO, where they don’t want to be the hero, but still continue moving forward to complete the mission out of obligation or necessity.

You most likely recognize this trope in everything from Harry Potter to the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix. It is one of the most utilized tropes in fantasy, but the reason it works is because there is a sense of comfort in it. One of the ways to twist it is to make a person the chosen one, not by birth, but by events that happen either before the story or during the story that manifests in them becoming the chosen one.

In Harry Potter, Harry becomes the chosen one because of the actions of Voldemort, he was chosen and marked by Voldemort in his lust for power where it could just as easily have been Neville, or not have happened at all. In the Garth Nix Old Kingdom Series, Sabriel becomes the chosen one when her father becomes trapped in death and the status is further reinforced when her father dies.
 
 
THE EVIL OVERLORD

A being that is pure evil in physical form, commanding legions of minions from their lair of darkness, reflecting their internal evil. A being bent on world domination and the destruction of the chosen one. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example, residing in Mordor, a land of fire and brimstone surrounded by his army of orcs and Uruk hai. His desire is power and domination of all through the power of the one ring. Oftentimes this character is male, though recently there has been progressing to more female evil overlords.

C.S. Lewis twists this trope in the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Snow Queen wears white, lives in relative beauty, whilst cold and reflective of her cold and cruel nature, it was unexpected for the time for the evil overlord to be female and to wear white, a color usually associated with good and purity.
 
 
THE MENTOR

Old and grey, a long beard usually tucked into a belt or stroked at regular intervals. Or stooped over a cane with a strict countenance and proclivity for wrapping the protagonist over the knuckles when teaching them. Whatever personality of the character, they are usually old. And have a nasty habit of disappearing (either to complete another very important task or by dying ) when the protagonist needs them the most, leaving the protagonist to find the path to success on their own.

There is nothing wrong with a young mentor, a mentor is a guide for the protagonist, someone who has more experience and can offer advice and steer the protagonist in the right direction. Even a peer can be a mentor, though bear in mind sometimes creating a very loveable older mentor and then leading them to their death can be very engaging to readers. Such as the death of Dumbledore or the initial death of Gandalf the Grey.
 

Plot Tropes

 
 
THE WAITING EVIL

Lying in wait after a defeat in battle long ago, sealed away (the intention being forever) released by accident or intention, or having spent the time sealed away gathering its strength to break free of its bindings to wreak havoc and take revenge for having been trapped and beaten.

Kerrigor in Garth Nix’s Sabriel is a good example, having been defeated many years before the events in Sabriel, he is sealed in death, but breaks free when an inexperienced necromancer opens a path. He then goes on a very destructive rampage in an attempt to complete his initial goal he was stopped from finishing in the past (I will not say too much, spoilers and all, but seriously, it’s a good series, read it if you have a moment.)
 
 

BLACK AND WHITE MORALITY

I don’t think I need to expand on this one too much, this is the fight between good and evil, a trope that exists in almost every fantasy book there is. Shades of grey are few and there are so many examples of this that if I were to list them, you would still be reading this for years to come.

The world is not black and white. Good is not always clear-cut saintly actions and evil is not always hellfire and pitch-black intention. Shades of grey exist.
 

WHEN ALL SEEMS OVER, THE CAVALRY SWOOPS IN

A huge battle is taking place, it is literally them great battle that will decide the fate of the world and the good guys are losing. They are outnumbered and surrounded. Just as all seems lost, a host of allies sweeps in to turn the tide of the battle and defeat the enemy.
I quite like this trope, if written well it can be a goosebumps moment for a reader. And Avengers Endgame (yes I know it is not a book but the feeling is the same) just as the heroes are flagging, everyone that was once lost returns in a stunning moment of triumph and although it does not immediately turn the tide of the battle, it is still a real fight, that moment when there is hope again will lift the reader’s spirit and turn a moment of despair into a heart-lifting, adrenaline-filled tide turner that your readers will love.
 

Worldbuilding Tropes

 

THE HOMOGENOUS SPECIES

Dwarves are greedy, gold-obsessed miners with a penchant for drink. Elves are superior, ageless, and beautiful creatures of nature. Orcs are big, brutish, and violent creatures that make the back end of an elephant look attractive. Some are inherently good and some bad. Those that differ in any way are outsiders and are either sidekicks or the Protagonist.
Lord of the Rings is probably one of the most iconic examples of this trope and since then it has become prevalent in most high fantasy.
 
 

A WORLD THAT DOES NOT PROGRESS

A world that is stuck in time, never progressing in technology or medicine, never moving forward. Cultures stay the same, political structures remain identical even thousands of years apart. High fantasy does this a lot as well, the world remains the same and only the characters change, the familiarity is great for the readers, it lets them reminisce, but don’t be afraid to make some progression.

Again I will use Avatar again here as an example of how you can progress a world but still retain familiarity. In the Legend of Korra, the different bender types exist, the Avatar still exists and the role remains largely unchanged, but the world has progressed drastically from a technology perspective as well as a political perspective.

From purely kings and Queens or lords through inheritance, you have the introduction of a democratic election. You have moved to a steampunk-inspired industrialised setting, but there is still mention and influence of the original characters and because there are still themes that run between the two series, there is still the sense of familiarity that keeps people engaged. Don’t be afraid to use the same device in your books.

 

AN ANCIENT ARTIFACT

Ah, the cursed amulet that makes its way through generations. The sword of heroes is passed to those worthy by an invisible force when it is most needed. The ancient artifact is an item that appears throughout different times in history, bringing with it either a corrupting influence that the world or its wielder needs to be saved from or a power that gives the protagonist the edge they need to defeat the great evil. More often the item is one of evil, but using the ancient artifact as an item of good is also a nice way of switching it up.
 

Now tropes do not always have to be obvious. You may write most of the book leading the reader to believe that a certain character is the chosen one, just to switch it up and reveal that the sidekick was the chosen one all along. Or the big evil was just a puppet of a character that was unassuming and in the shadows.

 
There are some tropes to be very careful of:
 
Killing off a minority character. Why is it always the person of colour or the LGBTQI+ character that dies? Don’t do this, unless it is to progress a very specific plot point to your story, it is not a good trope and even then should be avoided.
 
Glorifying abuse or mental illness. There is nothing glamourous about either. including it in your story is fine, but do not glorify it. If you do not know how to write about it without glorifying it then don’t do it.
 
Cliffhangers. They are useful, I like using them, but unless you are planning a sequel to your novel, reserve them for chapters or write them in a way that the reader will still get closure, but still want to read your next book, otherwise your book will be thrown across a room and you will have the fury of a very frustrated reader directed at you, even if you can’t hear it, it might make them reluctant to read more of your work.
 
At the end of the day, including tropes in your stories is inevitable. There are so many and in so many combinations that there is no avoiding it. Your job is finding the ways to combine them in a way that makes them unique and fulfilling to your readers.

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