Ah, Fantasy tropes. They are the subject of much heated debate and are often proclaimed to be hated by many. There are dozens of them, and they are ridiculed profusely by lovers and haters of Fantasy alike. However, I contend that these tropes exist for a reason, and that reason is we secretly love them. Three of the most common tropes are The Dark Lord, The Wise Old Wizard, and The Chosen One.
The Dark Lord
The Dark Lord is one of the most prevalent fantasy tropes. The most obvious example is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, starring the infamous Sauron as the main villain, who sports the name “The Dark Lord.” You might also look at Rowling’s Harry Potter, where the evil Voldemort claims the same title for himself. The Dark Lord of a novel does not necessarily need to go by that name, however. What makes the Dark Lord what he or she is? It is, more or less, that the Dark Lord is an absolute evil, irredeemable, mostly flat character. Typically, he or she is a driving factor in the plot but is far-removed from the action, simply present as the ever-distant threat to the protagonists, though is occasionally more involved. He or she is also often portrayed as old if not ancient, having wreaked havoc on the world for anywhere from decades to centuries. There are several examples of the Dark Lord trope in fantasy literature and even in some science fiction: the White Witch from Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Lord Foul from Donaldson’s Covenant series, Galbatorix from Paolini’s Eragon, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, and President Snow from Collins’ Hunger Games books, just to name a few. As a matter of fact, there is even a Dark Lord character in my novels Charybda and Scylla.
Why do we love it?
While it’s not the cleverest writing in the world, there is a reason this trope has persisted. As it stands, we live in a world of grays with a lot of moral relativity. It is my observation that we as humans naturally crave the separations of absolute good and absolute evil, which is why so many people believe Donald Trump is pure evil while others believe he can do no wrong. In fantasy, we are able to escape the conundrum of sorting out the good from the bad and are presented with an easy choice. As long as people crave the idea of an absolute morality, this trope will stick around. Because really, who does not love to hate a vile villain such as President Snow? Who does not stand and cheer when Voldemort is finally vanquished, or when Darth Vader finishes off the evil Emperor Palpatine once and for all? Another reason I personally love the Dark Lord trope is because it allows the reader to focus more thoroughly on the protagonist(s). This is one of the reasons why my novels include this trope, as the true struggle is not against the villain, but against self and adversity.
Can the Dark Lord trope be done poorly? Absolutely. Is it overused? Probably. Do some people hate it because it reinforces the idea of polarized morality? Definitely. However, I think that deep down, most of us like it.
The Wise Old Wizard
Just as common as the Dark Lord trope is its inverse, the Wise Old Wizard. Whereas the Dark Lord is an absolute evil, the Wise Old Wizard represents an absolute good. Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings stands out in sharp contrast to Sauron’s evil, becoming even more pure and ‘holy’ once he is reborn as Gandalf the White. The Wise Old Wizard guides the protagonist on his journey throughout the story, dispensing wisdom, comfort, and other help. Now, in the best examples of these tropes, the Dark Lord turns out to be at least a little sympathetic, while the Wise Old Wizard has a few spots on his or her otherwise squeaky-clean record. But for the most part, the Wise Old Wizard is a magic-wielding, unstoppable force of good. In many (though not all) stories, he or she is untimely ripped away from the protagonist in some tragic or untimely fashion, leaving them to struggle on their own way. Like the Dark Lord, there are abundant examples of the Wise Old Wizard in Fantasy and Science Fiction: Dumbledore from Harry Potter, Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, Brom from Eragon, and if you stretch the definition of the trope a little, you could also include Lord Mhoram from the Thomas Covenant series.
Why Do We Love It?
I believe that we love the Wise Old Wizard much for the same reasons as the Dark Lord: we crave an absolute morality. Moreover, we all long to have a guide who will help us through our trials, give us answers when we need them, and inspire us to become greater than we are. I think most of us have had some person in our lives fill this role, and more often than not, something inevitably takes them away from us, whether it be death, relocation and falling out of touch, or simply falling out. The loss of that guidance is something to which we can all relate, or if not relate to, then fear. This is why the loss of the Wise Old Wizard is so prevalent in literature. In this case, we do as C.S. Lewis says: “We read to know we are not alone.” We find consolation in knowing others have suffered such a loss.
The Wise Old Wizard trope can also be done poorly, and it can also reinforce the concept of polarized morality, which can be a little boring. But done well, it can ask the readers to question themselves, and ultimately, grow as people.
The Chosen One
Ah, the Chosen One. Who could forget Anakin Skywalker’s loudly proclaimed title of the Chosen One in Lucas’s Star Wars Prequel trilogy? Or who could forget Harry Potter’s status of the Chosen One? Even if it is against her desires, Katniss is a Chosen One in the Hunger Games books due to the fact that the powers that be around her choose her for the task of challenging the Capitol. Frodo is chosen to carry the ring by the powers of fate, even though he tries to give up that horrendous responsibility on more than one occasion. Thomas Covenant becomes a Chosen One, quite against his will. The list goes on and on…and on and on. It has rapidly become one of the most jaded tropes out there, and is rapidly losing popularity.
Why we love it
Is the Chosen One trope really just lazy writing, or is there a reason it is so popular? I believe that it has persisted because we all secretly like the idea of being special, or set apart, or otherwise fated to carry out some grand task in our lifetime. In a way, it is the reader’s fantasy as much as it is the writer’s fantasy. Conversely, some people probably feel that they are a Chosen One—and not in a positive way. Some people are chosen to deal with tasks well beyond the scope of their desires or understanding, yet must carry out the task all the same. For these people, a similarly conflicted Chosen One character is something to which they can relate. For example, I have recently become Personal Representative of my parents’ estate, both of whom died in a tragic house fire. I have, by the courts, been chosen to settle their estate. It is a terrible burden. I admit I feel like Frodo a little bit, wishing to pass the task on to somebody more qualified. But just like the Chosen One must persevere to the end, so must I. This is why I personally have no quarrel with the Chosen One trope. For those who need the fantasy of being special, it is an escape. For those who face the burden of a choice made for them, it is much-needed companionship.
Like all tropes, the Chosen One can be done poorly or made to be extremely cheesy. However, done well, it shows the resilience of the human spirit when subjected to a choice they never wanted to make in the first place.
Fantasy lovers often both hate and love the tropes we stumble across in our entertainment, though when done poorly, there is a lot more hate than not. However, tropes are part of the human experience—a result of the collective cultural psyche, if you will. Sometimes, including a trope is a good thing. We all crave predictability, but we also like to have the rug pulled out from under us from time to time. When it comes down to it though, I think a lot of us secretly like these tropes, especially The Dark Lord, The Wise Old Wizard, and The Chosen one.
What do you think about these tropes? Sound off in the comments!
(Image courtesy of Venita Oberholster at PublicDomainPictures.net)
Check out my novel, Charybda, available for Nook, Kindle, and in Paperback. Follow the story of Nivin, a blind seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a land where all defects are punishable by death. When she is discovered and flees, she finds herself pulled into another world, where she is dragged into a centuries-long conflict between the Freemen and the wicked sorcerer Scyllorin and his dragon Bride, Scylla.