One of the great things about fantasy writing is that it feels comfortable and familiar, while at the same time offering worlds of untapped potential. We often come across the same distinctive character archetypes and greet them like old friends. But what happens when these archetypes appear too many times wearing exactly the same outfit? They turn into tropes and clichés, and that cosy familiarity suddenly feels uninspiring and tired.

Let’s look at why old tropes can be harmful to your writing, and how to give them a fresh spin so that these ancient patterns are working for your story instead of against it.

Why are tropes detrimental to storytelling?

Character tropes appear over and over in literature because at one point they were effective – they showed the reader a world they needed to live in, and to believe in, in order to face the chaos of the world outside. This includes things like the brave, stalwart hero; the frail, effervescent damsel in distress; and the wise, encouraging mentor figure. After all, who doesn’t want to believe in a world where the women are always flawlessly chic and the good guys always wear distinctive white hats?

The problem, of course, is that life isn’t always like this – which means that these tropes began creating false expectations and propagating harmful stereotypes about what certain people were ‘supposed’ to be. Plus, readers have grown so accustomed to these particular literary figures that when you offer them again through your work, you’re not giving the reader anything new.

A reader comes to your book because they want something that’s familiar (this is why they’re drawn to your genre in particular), but also something fresh and unexpected. This means that the trick is to use these archetypal patterns to create a connection, but to use them in a way the reader has never seen before.

How can we use these tropes in new ways?

It’s easy for emerging writers – and even experienced writers – to fall back on the imagery they’ve absorbed through their favourite stories. Some of these figures are so intrinsic that it can be challenging to put some space between them and your own work. The oral storyteller Sorcha Hegarty often includes female druids in her live narratives, but forgets to specify that they’re women. When she gets to a pronoun like ‘she’ or ‘her,’ she can see a visible change come over the audience as they fight to recalibrate the image they had in their mind.

Even though we cognitively understand that a druid (or hero, or damsel, or mentor) can take any form, we’re essentially caught in an ingrained cultural memory. The first step to evading this cultural web is to ask yourself: why does this trope exist in the first place? Why do we automatically attach this image to this type of person? And am I subconsciously bringing any of these internalised preconceptions into my own writing?

Next, consider: What function is this character actually serving in my story? Why have I introduced them at this stage? And through them, what message am I trying to convey to the reader?

For example, the purpose of the damsel is to motivate the hero into action. If you can isolate this core purpose, you can apply it to anything. Maybe the ‘damsel’ of your story is an ageing father who can no longer afford medication, and so the hero has to join a dubious gang of ruffians for a job with a big payoff.

We’ll take a closer look at how to break down and upcycle these tropes below.


We all know somebody like him. He’s tall, handsome, and dripping with charisma. He’d have a different tavern wench in his bed every night, if only he wasn’t so noble and pure. He can dispatch ogres and hit an archery target from fifty paces, while still displaying tasteful moments of vulnerability that make him that much more endearing.

If you want to smack this bro in the face, you’re not alone. But ask yourself: what purpose does this character serve in a story?

The reason these types of heroes have been so effective for so long is that they’re inspiring. They encourage people to be better, and to find that strength and nobility within themselves. They’re symbols of hope. Now, think about how you can apply these elements to your main character. Whoever they are, the events of your plot will take them on a journey in which they discover the strength they need to inspire others.


You can recognise the damsel in a story by her flowing golden hair, her porcelain skin, her wide and innocent doe eyes, and a voice that sounds like Marilyn Monroe. She attracts danger like a day-old soda can attracts wasps, and she constantly requires the services of a hero to rescue her.


She might be a best friend, a preteen son, a grandparent, a beloved pet, or even an item like a piece of heirloom jewellery. When you isolate the purpose of this archetypal figure, you learn that they’re in a story in order to give the hero something to fight for. Something precious is at the brink of being lost forever, unless the protagonist pulls up their bootstraps and does something about it. What does this look like?


A mentor is never late; neither is he early. He can rock a beard like nobody’s business and has a vast mental archive of Very Important™ worldly wisdom to dispense when, and only when, he feels the inclination to do so.  When he’s not guiding heroes on their journeys towards almost-certain death, he can be found smoking a pipe by a roaring fire and reading ancient Sumerian spellbooks for fun.

Once again, ask yourself what purpose this character serves in a narrative. The role of a mentor is to guide the hero on their way and equip them with tools – literal or figurative – that aid them on their path. This might be someone in the protagonist’s career field who’s faced all the same challenges once before, a gossipy innkeeper who furnishes the hero with a pivotal piece of information, or an authority figure like a teacher.

Consider what tools and accommodations your hero needs to move forward, and how you can manoeuvre another character into providing them.

A few examples of inverted fantasy tropes

More and more writers are finding ways to upend these old clichés all the time. For instance, Travis Baldree’s novel Legends & Lattes takes the classic image of the brutal, war-ravaging orc and transposes them into an urban setting. To create his protagonist, he took one of fantasy’s least human archetypes and got to know them through a human lens.

One of the great literary works of our age, Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, takes a classic fantasy lineup – handsome prince, blushing princess, hungry dragon – and asks, ‘Okay, but what if the prince was taken instead?’ Suddenly the hero and damsel roles are reversed, and each is forced to reckon with their unexpected new place in the story.

Remember – you don’t have to do away with your favourite fantasy tropes entirely. We’ve come to love them for a reason, and meeting them again will always feel like coming home. But with these tips in mind, you can give them a fresh spin and carve out a unique place in the storytelling world.

Fija Callaghan is an author, poet, and unapologetic daydreamer. Her work has been shortlisted and longlisted for a number of short story prizes, and you can find her writing in publications like Gingerbread House, Crow & Cross Keys, Corvid Queen, and Mythic Magazine. When not writing or helping other writers get the best out of their work, she can be found haunting her local bookshops or watching the tide come in.

Do you write fantasy or science fiction?

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