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Illustration by Arthur Rackham to Richard Wagner's Die Walküre: the magic sword, such as Nothung, is a common fantasy trope.

Fantasy media

Genre studies


There are many elements that show up throughout the fantasy genre in different guises. Worldbuilding in particular has many common conventions, as do, to a lesser extent, plot and characterization.

Many works of fantasy operate with these tropes; many others use them in a revisionist manner, making the tropes over, for reasons from comic effect, to creating something fresh (a method that often generates new clichés), to objections to the effect of the old tropes.[1]


Good vs. evil

The conflict of good against evil is a theme in the most popular forms of fantasy, such as high fantasy; normally, evil characters erupt from their lands to invade and disrupt the good characters' lands. J. R. R. Tolkien delved into the nature of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings, but many of his imitators use the conflict as a plot device and often do not distinguish the sides by their actual behavior.[2]

In some works, mostly notable in sword and sorcery, evil is not opposed by the unambiguously good but by the morally unreliable.[3]

Dark Lord

The forces of evil often are personified in a Dark Lord. He is often depicted as a diabolical force, and may, indeed, be more a force than a personality. The effects of his rule often assert malign effects on the land as well as his subjects. Besides his usual magical abilities, he often controls great armies.[4] A Dark Lord is usually depicted as the ultimate personification of evil, and often commits atrocities that make common people afraid to speak their very names (as with Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter, Sauron of The Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian's archenemy Thulsa Doom, and Shai'tan of The Wheel of Time). Other notable Dark Lords include the Sith Lords from Star Wars, which include Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine; Lord Dracula of the Castlevania series; Skeletor from Masters of the Universe; Brona the Warlock Lord from The Sword of Shannara; Morgoth from The Silmarillion; Darkseid from the DC Universe; Apocalypse from the Marvel Universe, Torak from The Belgariad; Nightmare from Soulcalibur; the Lich King from World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and Ganon from The Legend of Zelda. The villain of the game Demon Sword is also literally called 'Dark Lord'. In the Lone Wolf gamebooks universe, the Darklords are an entire race of powerful evil beings[5]. The protagonists of the Overlord series of games are classic Dark Lords in the vein of Sauron.


Quests, an immemorial trope in literature, are a common trope in fantasy. They can run from the quest to locate the plot coupons necessary to save the world, to an internal quest of self-realization.[6]


Heroic characters are a mainstay of fantasy, particularly high fantasy and sword and sorcery. Such characters are capable of more than ordinary behavior, physically or morally, or both.[7] While they may at first be less than the role required, they grow into it.[8] This may take the form of maturation.[9]

Many protagonists are, unknown even to themselves, of royal blood. Even in so fanciful a tale as Through the Looking Glass, Alice is made a queen in the end; this can serve as a symbolic recognition of the inner worth of the hero.[10] Commonly, the tale revolves about the maltreated hero coming into his own. This can reflect a wish-fulfillment dream, or symbolically embody a profound transformation.[11]


In a fantasy, magic is often overwhelming in presence, although its precise nature is delineated in the book in which it appears. It can appear in a fantasy world, or in a fantasy land that is part of reality but insulated from the mundane lands, or as a hidden element in real life.[12]

A common trope is that the ability to work it is innate and rare. As a consequence, the person who work magic, who may be described as a magician, a wizard, a sorcerer, or many other titles, is a common figure in fantasy.[13]

Another feature is the magic item, which can endow characters with magical abilities not innate, or enhance the abilities of the innately powerful. Among the most common are magic swords and magic rings.

Prophecies are among the most common forms of magic, because they are an often used plot device. Often the very effort undertaken to avert them bring them about, thus driving the story. It is very rare for a prophecy in fantasy to be simply false, although usually their significance is clear only with hindsight. Quibbles can undermine the clearest appearing prophecies.[14]

In The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien deliberately avoided use of the word magic and his characters usually referred to it as "the Deeper Arts". In Star Wars, the Jedi employ the use of the Force, an essentially magical power that grants mystical abilities and heightened senses and skills to whomsoever wields it.


Many creatures seen in fantasy fiction are drawn from the folklore and romance of medieval Europe. Dragons and unicorns are among the most common monsters; rarer creatures, such as griffins, also appear. Races of beings such as elves and dwarves also often reflect medieval sources. Characteristics of the hero and/or heroine also frequently draw on medieval sources.

Perhaps even more important is setting. Such earlier writers as William Morris (in The Well at the World's End) and Lord Dunsany (in The King of Elfland's Daughter) set their tales in fantasy worlds clearly derived from medieval sources, though often filtered through later views. J. R. R. Tolkien set the type even more clearly for high fantasy, normally based in such a pseudo-medieval setting. Other fantasy writers have emulated him, and role-playing and computer games also took up this tradition.

The full width and breadth of the medieval era is seldom drawn upon. Governments, for instance, tend to be feudalism, evil empires, and oligarchies, usually corrupt, despite the greater variety of the actual Middle Ages.[15]

It also tends be medieval in economy; fantasy worlds are disproportionately pastoral.[16]

These settings are typically of epic fantasy and (to a lesser extent) sword and sorcery, which contains more urban settings, than of fantasy in general; the preponderance of epic fantasy in the genre has made them fantasy commonplaces. They are less typical of contemporary fantasy, especially urban fantasy.

The Ancient World

A less common inspiration is the ancient world. A famous example is the Hyborian Age (the fictional world of Conan the Barbarian), which features analogues of Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome, among others.

Sentient "races"

Many fantasy stories and worlds refer to their main sentient humanoid species as "races" rather than species. In most such worlds, these races are related and capable of producing viable offspring together, typically having derived from one root species - most often either elves or humans - by magical or divine influence, or by intelligent design. The usage of the term in this context was popularized by J. R. R. Tolkien and was further adapted and spread by the use of races in Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.[17] Many fantasy settings use the terms "race" and "species" interchangeably.

In role-playing games, "race" typically refers to any species that can be used as a player character. In older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the primary non-human player races (dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, and half-elf) were called "demi-humans". Later games such as Shadowrun use the term "metahuman", and define these humanoid races as subdivisions of Homo sapiens.


  1. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Revisionist Fantasy", p 810 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  2. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Good and Evil", p 422 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  3. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Evil", p 323 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  4. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Dark Lord", p 250 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  5. ^ "The Darklords of Helgedad". The World of Magnamund Webring. Retrieved 13 July 2009.  
  6. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Quest", p 796 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  7. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Heroes and Heroines", p 464 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  8. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Brave Little Tailor", p 136 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  9. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Ugly Duckling", p 972 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  10. ^ Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy p 145-6 ISBN 0-253-17461-9
  11. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Hidden Monarch", p 466 ISB 0-312-19869-8
  12. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Magic ", p 615-6 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  13. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Magic", p 616 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  14. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Prophecy", p 789 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  15. ^ Alec Austin, "Quality in Epic Fantasy"
  16. ^ Jane Yolen, "Introduction" p viii After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed, Martin H. Greenberg, ISBN 0-312-85175-8
  17. ^ Livingstone, Ian (1982). Dicing with Dragons. Routledge. p. 74. ISBN 0710094663.  

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