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In Defense of Common Tropes


Are classic fantasy tropes truly passé? It’s time to debunk some myths. As part of doing research for my YouTube channel on fantasy world building (Just In Time Worlds), I ran a survey to gather data on what readers love and hate about the fantasy genre. I asked readers to rate how they feel about the common tropes of prophecy, the chosen one, and the dark lord. Despite the buzz on forums like r/fantasy suggesting these tropes are overdone, the real story is much more nuanced and fascinating.

Let’s explore the responses from real readers those hoary old fantasy tropes.


Prophecy in Fantasy

Prophecy in fantasy (especially the epic fantasy genre) refers to foretelling future events which guide the characters and plot towards an epic conclusion.

Survey respondents yielded the following results (expressed as a percentage):




My interpretation of this data is:

Positive or slightly positive: a whopping 67% (I always love this and if done well, I like this)

Neutral: 10%

Negative or slightly negative: 23% (I always hate this and unless amazing, I dislike this)

Therefore, a majority appreciates well-executed prophecies, though some skepticism exists. That being the case, let’s talk about what prophecy offers the fantasy author.


Prophecies as a Driving Force Behind Characters’ Quests:

Prophecy can drive plot or characters, compelling behavior that would otherwise seem out of place through:

Adding a layer of mysticism and intrigue: Prophecies can introduce a mystical element that hints at destiny or a greater purpose. This can elevate the stakes of the story by suggesting that the characters are part of a larger, often cosmic, plan.

And:

Creating inescapable plot engagement: Prophecies can compel characters to engage with the plot by giving them a goal that feels both inevitable and urgent. It’s not just a quest; it’s a destiny that they can’t easily discard without consequences.


For Example: In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the prophecy that “no man can kill the Witch-king of Angmar” adds an element of mysticism and shapes the narrative in significant ways. It not only establishes the Witch-king as a formidable foe but also propels characters like Eowyn and Merry into roles that defy expectations. Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch-king is driven by her desire to protect her people and defy her prescribed gender role, ultimately fulfilling the prophecy in an unexpected way (”I am no man!”). This is a pivotal moment in both the book and the movie and wouldn’t have had the same impact without the prophecy.


Structured Narrative Arc Enhancing Dramatic Tension:

Prophecy can also heighten tension through driving enhanced dramatic tension and reader engagement. Knowing parts of the prophecy in advance can create suspense and dramatic tension. Readers are engaged, looking for how the prophecy will unfold and how characters will respond to their foretold destinies.


For Example: In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the prophecy concerning the Prince That Was Promised sparks various quests and conflicts. Readers and characters alike speculate about who might fulfill this role, interpreting signs and omens throughout the series. This prophecy shapes the motivations and actions of several key characters, including Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, each believed by different factions to be the prophesied hero. The anticipation of its fulfillment (or subversion) keeps readers deeply engaged, trying to piece together clues scattered throughout the narrative. (Don’t talk to me about the TV series, I have no comment on the stupidity of how they fulfilled the prophecy there there).


But the survey results also highlight the pitfalls, so make sure you understand those before including prophecy in your stable of tropes:


Pitfalls of Prophecy

1. Predictability: Too clear prophecies can make the plot feel predetermined and rob the story of suspense.

2. Complexity: Overly convoluted prophecies can confuse readers, detracting from the enjoyment of the story.

3. Cliché: When used excessively, prophecies can feel clichéd and tiresome. Ideally, you want to subvert the expectations of the reader, fulfilling the prophecy in a novel (but still exciting) way. (And not by having Arya just stab the Night King in the back with hardly any effort at all. That’s not novel. It’s dumb. Okay, maybe I do have a comment on the TV series.)


The Chosen One in Fantasy

This trope involves a character, often seemingly ordinary, who is destined or selected to achieve great things and often SAVE THE WORLD™. Your typical farm boy destined for greatness fits in here.



As you can see from the graph, opinions are divided, with a notable portion finding it clichéd unless done exceptionally well. My breakdown is:

Positive or slightly positive: 37% (I always love this and if done well, I like this)

Neutral: 24%

Negative or slightly negative: 39% (I always hate this and unless amazing, I dislike this)


This trope therefore merits caution in its use, since there is a far greater chance of readers feeling it is overdone or trite. That being said, it still offers some solid merits.


Clarity of Focus

It is easy in epic fantasy to get distracted with multiple points of view characters and storylines. The chosen one trope helps combat this by focusing the narrative and the ultimate overcome of the story by providing a narrative anchor that drives the plot and the reader’s attention.

Further, the chosen one typically starts out underpowered or unaware of their potential, making them relatable to readers. Over the course of the story, they grow significantly in power, skill, and moral character, mirroring personal growth and the hero’s journey archetype.


For example: In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, Vin is initially a street urchin with unrecognized magical abilities. As she discovers her powers as a Mistborn—a rare type of Allomancer who can use all types of metal to enhance abilities—her growth in power and character becomes central to the plot. Vin’s journey from a cautious and mistrustful girl to a powerful and decisive leader offers a clear focus and narrative drive, showcasing her personal growth alongside the unfolding of the broader conflict against the oppressive Lord Ruler.


Clarity of Theme

The Chosen One trope can provide a great vehicle to explore some of the most enduring themes in stories, giving the writer a focused lens through which to view the following philosophical questions:

• Destiny: The Chosen One is often tied to a destiny that involves facing significant challenges or evils. This introduces questions about fate versus free will and can be a central theme of the novel.

• Self-Discovery: The journey of the Chosen One is frequently a path of self-discovery, where the character learns more about their own strengths, weaknesses, and true identity. This creates a thematic element of the importance of understanding our true selves.

• Battle between Good and Evil: The trope often sets up a clear conflict between good and evil forces, with the Chosen One playing a pivotal role in this struggle, embodying the values and hopes of the ‘good’ side. This opens up the potential of exploring what goodness means and how one can fight for it without becoming evil.


For Example: In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, Rand al’Thor is discovered to be the Dragon Reborn, prophesied to fight the Dark One and possibly break the world again in the process. His story is deeply entwined with the themes of destiny and self-discovery as he comes to terms with his identity and powers. Throughout the series, Rand’s internal struggle and his battle against the embodiments of evil are central themes, highlighting the moral and physical confrontations that define the epic fantasy genre.

But, as the survey reveals, the path of the Chosen One is littered with authors who have used this trope poorly.


Pitfalls of the Chosen One

1. Overuse: This trope can become predictable and uninteresting if not handled with originality. Consider twisting the trope by having the Chosen One fail or reject their destiny and then exploring the fallout of such decisions. Or any other subversion of the standard trope.

2. Lack of Agency: The Chosen One often has a path laid out, which can undermine their decision-making and development. To counter this, give the Chosen One genuine choices and consequences to enhance their agency. Maybe the end of the world is not all it’s cracked up to be…

3. Exclusivity: One of the big problems with this trope is overshadowing other characters and reducing their importance or development. This one is easy(ish) to prevent, simply develop the other characters, especially the other point of view characters, fully to enrich the world and its dynamics.


The Dark Lord in Fantasy

This trope goes hand-in-glove with the Chosen One and the Prophecy and normally involves a powerful antagonist, often with vast dark powers, whose motives and actions oppose the protagonist’s, presenting the ultimate challenge. This is the typical BBEG.

Like with the Chosen One, the survey results were somewhat of a mixed bag:



My breakdown is:

Positive or slightly positive: 49% (I always love this and if done well I like this)

Neutral: 29%

Negative or slightly negative: 22% (I always hate this and unless amazing, I dislike this)


So again, this is a trope to be cautious of, but one that is actually less fraught than the Chosen One. (I blame sympathetic dark lords like Castlevania’s Dracula). But clearly a well executed Dark Lord is still popular (heh, see what I did there?), so let’s explore the merits this trope offers:


Up the Stakes

The dark lord can serve as a formidable foe that adds instant conflict and stakes to the narrative. Unless they are stopped, all humanity will be enslaved or the like. This provides an obvious reason for the protagonists to keep acting, striving to Save the World™ from the Dark Lord.


For Example: Dracula from Netflix’s Castlevania, who is portrayed not just as a powerful vampire but as a grieving father whose wrath upon humanity is both terrifying and deeply personal. His wife is murdered by a corrupt priest and his reaction is to declare war on humanity. This adds immense stakes to the narrative, creating a conflict that spans two amazing seasons. Dracula’s power and command over creatures of the night make him a formidable opponent, forcing the protagonists to find extraordinary means to challenge him. His presence and actions drive the entire plot, as each character’s path is directly influenced by Dracula’s apocalyptic crusade against humanity.


Clarity of Theme (again)

As with the Chosen One, the Dark Lord provides a great vehicle to explore certain thematic elements. For this trope, the following themes are a natural fit:

• Power,

• Corruption, and

• Morality.


For Example: In Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, The Lord Ruler serves as the central antagonist in this initial book of the Mistborn series. The Lord Ruler’s backstory, revealed gradually through one of the best uses of flavor text I have ever seen, delves into themes of power and corruption. Initially, he was a hero who saved the world according to ancient prophecies. However, through his long reign, he turns into a tyrant who sustains his power through brutal oppression and the systematic exploitation of the Skaa (the underclass). His transformation from savior to oppressor explores how power can corrupt even the most noble intentions, raising questions about the morality of his methods and the true nature of leadership and governance in a world where power is obtained and maintained through supernatural means.


So those are good reasons for exploring this trope, however, be wary! Dragons lurk in the depths…


Pitfalls of the Dark Lord

1. Dimensionality: Too often, the dark lord is portrayed as purely evil, lacking depth or relatable motives. Combat this by giving them a good reason for their dark and evil actions, providing a backstory that humanizes them, at least a little. (Though not too much. It’s a fine line.)

2. Overshadowing: The dark lord can be set up as too powerful, making conflicts seem insurmountable or, if the good guys win with barely an inconvenience, it can make resolutions feel unearned. Counter this by balancing power with vulnerabilities that the heroes can discover and exploit.

3. Repetition: As with the Chosen One… (look, they are the dark and light side of the same coin. Inside every author there is a dark lord and chosen one, battling to reach the page). Anyway! As with the Chosen One, the dark lord trope can become repetitive and predictable if not given a unique twist. To prevent this, innovate the trope by blending characteristics with other archetypes or shifting the role unexpectedly within the narrative.


And that is my defense of the classic tropes of fantasy. Thank you for coming to my TED-talk, check out the full results of the survey in this YouTube video:

(Sorry the sound is really soft, it was a livestream and I didn’t realize how low the gain was set on my mic).


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