If you read enough contemporary literature, you’ll inevitably start to notice patterns. Character archetypes, situations, and motifs will appear again and again throughout a given genre, giving readers an idea of what to expect when they pull a book off the shelf.

These recurring motifs are called “tropes,” and they’re something of a double-edged sword for writers. We’ll guide you through everything you need to know about literary tropes, with some of the most common tropes across seven popular fiction genres.

What is a “trope” in writing?

A trope is a recurring plot device, incident, or character type that we see over and over again in storytelling mediums. These recurring motifs can be comfortably familiar, though they can grow tiresome when overused too often in the same way. A group of friends renting a party cabin in the woods is an example of a common horror trope.

Literary tropes are polarizing because they represent what readers love most about a given genre, but they can also signify a lack of originality. The best tropes are subverted in some way or examined through a fresh new lens.

What’s the difference between a trope and a cliché?

Tropes and clichés both represent recurring patterns in storytelling. However, clichés are tropes that have been used too many times and have become overly predictable or simplistic. At this point, the recognizable pattern is no longer effective; at its worst, it can even be derogatory or offensive.

For example, creating a stock character who is a ditzy blonde or a dumb jock is a cliché, because it represents a very narrow and harmful view of what people can be.

Tropes are recurring plot devices or motifs that define certain genres.

What’s the difference between a trope and an archetype?

Tropes are situations or patterns that are born out of archetypes. An archetype is a broad image or idea that exists across cultures and generations, representing a universal human experience.

For example, heroes, villains, and mentor figures are all character archetypes; these sorts of characters exist across storytelling, no matter how far back in time or how far across the globe you travel. Likewise, the quest, the hero’s journey, and the journey from rags to riches are examples of story archetypes—you can find these sorts of stories everywhere.

These archetypes form the basis of tropes and clichés. While archetypes are recognizable manifestations of our universal hopes, needs, and experiences, tropes and clichés are targeted ways in which these archetypes have been explored.

The ultimate list of book tropes by genre

Now, let’s look at some of the familiar tropes that readers have come to expect across their favorite genres.

Fantasy book tropes

Here are some of the most common tropes you’ll see across classic and contemporary fantasy literature.

The “chosen one” trope

This literary trope was once very effective, but it’s become so widespread that it tends to raise a red flag—or at least an eyebrow—with readers and publishers. These stories feature protagonists who are, by chance, elevated above everyone else in some way. Furthermore, this usually comes as a surprise to the protagonist. They might be the subject of a contentious prophecy, or discover a secret lineage of supernatural beings.

The reason why this trope is less loved today is likely because it can be a little bit lazy. If you want to put your main character in the center of a widespread magical war, the easiest way to do it is just to stick a “Chosen One™” badge on their jacket and call it a day.

It’s still possible to use this trope in a satisfying way, but it takes a little more imagination and some thorough characterization to make it fresh and new.

The quest

The most famous quest story in literary history is that of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. Since then, this plot trope has made its way into a high proportion of fantasy stories. The main characters need something that will determine the fate of their families/community/world, and so they go on a dangerous and thrilling jaunt to retrieve it.

The supernatural romance

There’s a reason “romantasy” novels are some of the rising stars of the literary world. Readers—particularly those of a certain, ahem, demographic—swoon over blooming romance between a human and the other.

Vampires, werewolves, gargoyles, gorgons, centaurs, fairies, merpeople, ghosts, zombies, zombie-ghosts, fallen stars, demons, angels, and just about any other vaguely humanoid magical creatures you can think of are fair game.

The supernatural love triangle

Okay, but what if your wilting violet has not one, but two supernatural hotties panting for her affections? And what if they belong to warring clans which have secretly ruled [insert gritty urban location here] for centuries? The three of them look so great together on the cover, you can’t help but wish they could all just get along.

The MacGuffin

A “MacGuffin” is a literary term which refers to a tangible plot device which pushes the main characters into motion. This could be a secret letter, an amulet, a sacred book, a key, and so forth. A MacGuffin is a useful way to get your plot moving.

The mentor archetype

While mentor figures are archetypal, rather than strictly trope-typal, there’s a particular incarnation of the mentor that tends to arise a lot in fantasy literature. He was first introduced to use via Merlin, further popularized via Gandalf the Grey, and firmly rooted in collective consciousness by Albus Dumbledore.

This character is one of the most popular tropes in fantasy writing, and they create defined reader expectations for the sort of story they’re about to experience. However, like the “chosen one,” they can sometimes be a symptom of taking the easiest path forward.

The reluctant ruler

Managing a kingdom is hard, writers. Despite the luxury bedding and imported wine, rulers can sometimes experience the call of simple living and the unknown. This is especially true of young rulers who have inherited their position and would really rather just go camping with their friends.

The great thing about this trope is that it creates a lot of potential to create conflict, and can go in a lot of different ways.

The reluctant hero

Often paired with the “chosen one” trope, this literary trope sees a character—often a protagonist, but sometimes a supporting character—who’s thrown into a position of heroism despite their better judgement.

They may begin as someone cowardly or selfish who doesn’t want to put themselves in the line of fire, or who’s unable to see the world as being something bigger than themselves. Later, they’ll come to embody more noble values and become a symbol of hope.

The secret society

Is there anything more thrilling than discovering a centuries-old elitist organization which may or may not sacrifice unwitting virgins in exchange for shadowy power? Or, perhaps, a centuries-old elitist organization which protects unwitting humans from forces beyond their comprehension?

This is a fan-favorite trope which offers the potential to explore powerful themes like segregation, classism, and identity.

The hidden world

Secret societies are often the “tip of the iceberg” of a much deeper and more sinister secret world. These stories see the main characters exposed to a hidden layer beneath their own, filled with beautiful and seductive dangers.

This might be a literal secondary world, or it may be an element of our own world that the characters weren’t able to see before.

Inconvenient prophecies

Don’t you just hate it when your destiny is determined for you before you’re even born? And then, to make matters worse, people start trying to off you because of what they fear you may become?

Prophecies can be a useful way to get a story moving (that’s a “MacGuffin,” remember?), and often cause characters to become their own worst enemies, ultimately bringing about their own undoing.

Ye Olde Taverne

The idealized medieval historical setting is a mainstay of classic fantasy, and there’s often a pub where people gather to drink, dance, knife each other in the back, trade mystical objects, and pick up local gossip. For this reason, it can be a helpful setting to use when you need your characters to acquire new information.

However, be mindful of limiting your fantastical historical fiction to this one very specific, very saturated motif. It’s worth exploring other cultural traditions and seeing what they have to offer the canon of storytelling.

The ultimate evil

One common recurring trope in fantasy stories is this idea of an ultimate, all-encompassing evil power. The heroes need to defeat the ultimate evil in order to ensure the survival of the human race. This figure might be a human threat that’s risen to astronomical power, or it might be something ancient and eldritch.

Science fiction book tropes

Adjacent on the spectrum of genre fiction, here are some of the most popular storytelling tropes you’ll see in sci-fi writing.

The dystopian society

Dystopian fiction is big business. We may have greats like George Orwell and HG Wells to thank for that, but more and more novels are released every year which use speculation as a lens through which to explore real social, political, and cultural problems in the world today.

Dystopias represent the worst possible course our world can take if it doesn’t address these problems. You can use this type of writing to communicate powerful social messages and themes.

The questionable utopia

On the opposite end of sci-fi genre tropes, there’s the world where everything is perfect… or is it? Utopian fiction presents a world in which the world’s problems have all gone away—except in removing them, the world has often created something much worse.

Dystopias and utopias can be effective ways to communicate social messages.

Newfound superpowers

Superheroes (and villains) have been a mainstay of the sci-fi genre since the comic strips of the 1930s. However, the most enduring and resonant heroes seem to be the ones who discover their powers by chance, rather than coming into the world already outfitted with them. For example, being bitten by a radioactive [insert creepy animal here], being exposed to unidentified planetary rays in space, or coming into an unexpected heritage via physical change, such as puberty or menstruation.

The training montage

It may be horrendously overused, but most audiences still have a soft spot for the classic training montage. The hero learns to use their newfound powers, weapons, or skills. In film mediums, this is almost invariably accompanied by uplifting ’80s power chords.

Time travel

Although time travel can exist in fantasy literature as well, it’s largely associated with science fiction. This trope sees the central characters jumping backwards and/or forwards in time, inevitably causing trouble for themselves or the wider world.

Interstellar politics

In these stories, the plot revolves around the contentious communication between planets or solar systems.

Alternate universes

Could there be a parallel universe in which you made a different choice or took a different path? Or one in which your high school bully was eaten by land-roaming sharks? The only limit is your imagination.

Creepy robots

From Rosie the Robot to the more pressing threat of AI, science fiction is loaded with humanoid machines that can do anything from your laundry to unseating world leaders.

Genetic engineering

What if you could design the perfect baby? The perfect husband? Or maybe upgrade yourself when you needed a post-divorce refresh. At what point do designer humans stop being human at all? Asking the big questions.

The impending apocalypse

“If the apocalypse comes, beep me.” —A simpler time when world-saving teens still communicated by pager.

Science fiction is riddled with end-of-the-world-level catastrophes, whether from otherworldly forces or basic human avarice.

Romance book tropes

Next, let’s look at one of the most deeply trope-laden literary genres: the love story.

The meet-cute

The “meet-cute” is the sort of story you’d love to tell your future grandchildren and/or wedding guests about how you and your SO first crossed paths. By a chance strike of destiny, two people end up coming into each other’s lives and bonding over something small—wayward pets, renaissance art, artisan bread, and so forth.

The meet-cringe

The sort of story you hope your future grandchildren and/or wedding guests will never find out about. One character experiences something mortifying and the other character witnesses it.

Love at first sight

A mainstay of fairy tales and YA paranormal romances, these stories have their main characters discovering “the one” within moments of meeting each other. Sometimes, there may be a supernatural destiny involved. Other times, it’s just hormones.

Enemies to lovers

No matter how overdone it gets, readers never tire of yelling “JUST KISS ALREADY” at two in the morning at characters who think they can’t stand each other. These stories see protagonists who start off at odds and grow increasingly attracted to each other as time goes on.

Friends to lovers

On the opposite end, this story involves two close childhood friends growing up and learning to see each other in a new way. These relationships often work well because they’ve already seen the best and worst in each other.

Lovers to enemies and back again

These “second chance” stories see a relationship fall apart due to a world-shattering betrayal. And yet, they can’t seem to keep their minds (or hands) off each other.

Love triangles

One of the oldest romance tropes of all time (if you’re not sure, just ask Eve, Adam, and Lilith), these stories follow a protagonist who’s caught between two opposing love interests. Each love interest has something very different to offer, and are often used as foil characters to each other. One might be dangerous and sultry, while the other is comforting and domestic, and so forth.

While this trope is unlikely to die anytime soon, it has been done over and over (and over), so you’ll want to try and use it to bring something new to your story.

Readers love stories that create tension between three characters.

Forced proximity

The “forced proximity” trope means coercing two characters into a finite space such as a creepy mansion, an elevator, or a bed. With nowhere to hide, latent feelings start bubbling up. You’ll often see this used with the “enemies to lovers” trope.

Imbalanced dynamics

There’s something cathartically seductive about couples reaching across the gulf of status in some way—whether that’s a divide in age, class, or economic standing. “Billionaire romances” and many supernatural romances fall into this category.

The off-limits crush

The allure of the forbidden is real. This trope follows a character’s attraction to someone they know they shouldn’t want: a friend’s ex, a friend’s parent, a co-worker, a teacher, and so forth. These stories can be engaging, but their messages need to be handled with care.

The fake relationship

This popular trope sees two characters pretending to date or marry in order to fulfill some pressing external need. Maybe one needs a date to their cousin’s wedding so their well-meaning aunt will stop trying to set them up with their accountant’s son. Maybe the other needs a socially acceptable relationship to hide a more contentious love.

These relationships of convenience begin as a business arrangement and grow into something deeper—whether that’s real love, or a fast friendship.

Second-chance love

These stories see two people who missed their window take another shot at a happy ending. They might be a couple who broke off because one of them made a stupid mistake, or they might be two college friends who were never brave enough to take the next step. Readers enjoy seeing them learn from their pasts and fight for real love.

Want to take an even deeper dive into the landscape of romance novels? Be sure to check out our detailed lesson on romance tropes!

Mystery book tropes

As one of the most structural literary genres, mysteries have a wide range of instantly recognizable, comforting, and indulgent character tropes and plot devices. Here are some fast favorites.

The grizzled detective

Made famous by Humphrey Bogart, often imitated, this character trope has nerves of steel and a heart of gold. He (it’s always a he) wears shiny shoes, drinks too much, doesn’t trust a pretty face, and has a nose for the truth (and trouble).

The amateur sleuth

A favorite of the cozy mystery genre, this character is an ordinary person who finds themselves inescapably caught up in a case. They can be anything from a cupcake baker to a struggling musician to a fashion designer, but one thing they have in common is that they’re not grizzled, tough, or particularly capable. Instead they have to learn fast along the way as the stakes get higher and higher.

The relatable “amateur sleuth” always draws readers into a story.

The all-night diner

Much like “ye olde taverne” in high fantasy literature, the greasy spoon that’s always open gives the sleuth and their client, informant, or suspect a neutral place to touch base and blow off steam. The coffee’s cheap and not very good, and you can run into just about anyone if you hang out there long enough.

The small town with secrets

Did you think New York City had a high crime rate? Wait until you meet the inhabitants of the sweet Midwestern town with the annual harvest fair, or the Yorkshire village bursting with cottagecore charm. Eat nothing you didn’t bake yourself. Trust no one.

The bloodstained family

Can murderous instincts be a hereditary disease? What do you do when the “family business” involves “taking care” of other people’s “problems”? Just when you think you’ve found the killer, you learn that the roots of the blackened family tree extend further than you could have imagined.

The ticking clock

Introducing a time constraint is always a great way to ramp up the tension, and nowhere is this more true than in mysteries and thrillers. This might be a bomb that’s set to go off, pivotal information that’s about to be released or destroyed, or the entrance or exit of an essential character.

The unreliable narrator

Unreliable narrators are point-of-view characters who, intentionally or unintentionally, withhold information from the reader. They might be hiding something from their past, or they might be confused about what’s really happening. This is a useful plot device to keep your readers guessing.

The hidden affair

In mysteries and thriller novels, someone’s almost always messing around with someone else. This is often used as a “red herring,” or a device that intentionally misleads the reader. Did you think the sketchy hardware shop owner with no alibi for the murder was the killer? He actually spent that night in bed with his neighbor’s wife.

Action and adventure book tropes

Closely related to thrillers are the adventure stories! A favorite of readers of all ages since the days of Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines, these books often contain multiple tropes.

The treasure hunt

Is there anything more thrilling than the search for buried treasure? Or if not buried treasure, a priceless rare manuscript, a cursed object, or a lost world? In another classic use of the MacGuffin, these stories see the main characters go off in pursuit of life-changing riches.

Puzzles and riddles

Often seen hand in hand with the treasure hunt, this brilliantly satisfying trope encourages the heroes to use their wits. If they solve the puzzle, they can continue along their journey. If they fail, they may be trapped in a cursed tomb forever or crushed by falling rubble.

Exotic locales

While everywhere is “exotic” to somebody, many adventure stories that come from Western culture often involve characters who travel to far-off lands. This helps readers armchair-travel to places they may never see in real life, as well as conveying a sense that the characters are in unfamiliar, unpredictable territory.

The double agent

In a world where everyone has an agenda, your best friend can become a turncoat… or your enemy can become a friend.

Double agents are a great way to create a shocking twist ending.

The everyman-turned-hero

All he wanted was to run to the shop to pick up some milk, and suddenly he’s found himself at the center of international espionage and a centuries-old curse.

The villain monologue

To be totally fair to them, I do get it. You just want someone to appreciate how brilliant you were, and the hero tied to a chair is the perfect captive audience.

The secret high-stakes battle

You’d be amazed at how many times the fate of the world has been determined right under our noses. Whether it takes place in an airship above the earth, in caverns below the ground, or in some hidden parallel dream world, these stories see epic battles happening just out of society’s view.

The mandatory chase scene

Don’t try this at home (unless it’s with your Hot Wheels).

The outfit upgrade

You can tell things are getting real when the hero is given a fresh new look, complete with useful gadgets.

Horror book tropes

Ah, the horror genre. Comfortingly predictable, and we love every moment of it.

Cursed objects (aka spooky MacGuffins)

It will give you everything you ever wanted… for a price. (Death. The price is death.)


Vicious, bloodthirsty, or woefully misunderstood? Maybe all of the above? As long as there has been storytelling, there have been things that go bump in the night. Revisit old favorites, subvert old favorites in fresh new ways, or make your own.

Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are just a few of the timeless classics, but it’s worth examining regional folklore and alternative world myths for inspiration, too.

Deals at the crossroads

A rare trope that never gets old, this folkloric horror motif sees someone make a deal with the devil (or other nefarious baddie, sometimes a demon) in exchange for their immortal soul. Traditionally, this story is associated with musicians selling their soul in exchange for skill and/or fame, but you can use this trope in limitless ways.

The drunken summoning spell

Afterparty in the library and everyone’s invited. Hey guys, check out this weird book I found!

Creepy old houses

They’re either derelict and holding themselves up with nothing but pure rage, or they’re suspiciously immune to the ravages of time and still look like they did in 1712. There’s a high likelihood they were built on the bones of orphans.

Creepy old swamps

Like “creepy old houses” but make it Louisiana.

The inheritance with strings

In today’s economy, inheriting the family manor/business/fortune might seem like a godsend. Turns out, there’s a reason Great Aunt Edna locked herself away and never spoke to anyone (see “creepy old houses,” above).

Broken down vehicles

Do not: a.) get out of the car under any circumstances, b.) go around behind the car to see what the problem is, or c.) leave one person in the car alone while the other hoofs it to the nearest town. Instead: stay in the car until daybreak and say your last rites.

The party in the woods

No parents, no neighbors, and no inhibitions. Some things seem like a good idea at the time until people start killing each other.

“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

“If only there was a big, strong man around to save me—oh no wait, I’m dead.”

Stock characters

Classic horror, especially visual horror (ie. film and comic books), is often filled with archetypal stock characters. This gives readers an idea of what to expect, since these characters fit comfortably into narrative norms. However, stock characters can also slide into stigma and cliché. As a writer, challenge yourself to subvert these norms or use them to surprise your reader with something they didn’t expect.

Death by karma

Were you a bully to that nerdy kid in the letter sweater? I hope you enjoyed peaking in high school, because that’s all you’re going to get.

Life by virginity

If a generation of horror flicks have taught us anything, it’s that virgins have the best shot at getting out alive.

YA book tropes

While young adult fiction can fall into any genre, there are certain tropes that we see arise over and over again in stories for young people at the threshold of life.

Really crappy parents

YA fiction, especially sci-fi and fantasy, seems to have a dearth of healthy adult role models. Parents might be abusive, distant, or just wildly incompetent. Often this is necessary to move along the plot so that the teens can step up and take center stage.

There are exceptions to this trope, however, like the strong mother-daughter relationships in Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones or Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries.

Really crappy authority figures in general

Willful ignorance in the face of imminent peril seems to be a mainstay of many adults in YA fiction, including teachers, babysitters, and employers. When the authority figures in charge won’t take responsibility, it’s up to the next generation to set things right.

Found family (see above)

What this often means is that the main characters of YA fiction, unable to rely on their own blood families, build new found families around them of allies and friends. The protagonist seeks the family loyalty that had been lacking in their own lives and finds it in an unlikely motley group of other wayward souls.

YA fiction is about discovering things for the first time.

First love

Is anything more intrinsic to the teenage experience than first love? Whether it’s an aching secret crush on their best friend, or a first-flush summer romance, YA characters are coming into a new state of being where a rush of hormones is painting the world in living color.

First everything

You can try to stick an age range on YA fiction, but the truth is the genre isn’t really defined by the age of its characters or readers at all. YA fiction is about growing up and learning to inhabit the world in a whole new way. This means first love, first concert, first all-nighter, first road trip, first heartbreak, first betrayal, first time using a new skill or facing a particular fear.

The celebrity romance

There seem to be a lot of celebrity romances in YA fiction. That heartthrob rising moving star has enrolled in a typical American high school as research for his next role (British actor Tom Holland actually did this to prepare for starring as Marvel’s Spiderman). The heir to a small island kingdom has been sent to high school as punishment for some high-profile drunken scandal. Pretty soon sparks are flying across the gaping social divide.

Underdog or outsider protagonists

It’s common for the protagonists of YA fiction to be kids that are “uncool,” underprivileged, or outside societal norms. These characters are effective for resonating with readers who also feel like outsiders in some way.


YA fiction teens have one thing going for them: their superhuman nobility. They’re constantly putting themselves in the line of fire for their loved ones, or for the world at large.

The dark family secret

Teen reads often follow a protagonist who discovers a shocking hidden truth about their family—whether this is a magical lineage, a hidden trust fund of dubious origins, or ghosts of the past (figurative or literal) coming back to haunt them.

How to use book tropes effectively

Feeling inspired yet? Readers expect to see certain recurring tropes and motifs in their favorite genres, but you need to get creative in order to craft a story that’s meaningful and memorable. Here are the key things to keep in mind.

Subvert expectations

Book tropes come with preconceived expectations. When the story begins, you can use these familiar genre tropes to give the reader a sense of familiarity and immerse them in your world. However, try to think of ways you can use these tropes to surprise your readers as they continue moving through the story.

For example, consider the timeless horror trope of the creepy old haunted house—a sinister, semi-conscious beast who infects all those who step inside it until no one is left. It’s a story we’ve all heard before, or at least heard of before. But what if the house turns out to be a protective entity trying to guard against something much worse? What if your heroes suddenly learn that the house is the thing that’s keeping them safe? Now you’ve taken a trope which might otherwise feel stale and turned it on its head.

You can do this with character tropes or other plot points that we looked at above. See what happens if you tell a classic story with its opposite, inverted trope, or take a well-loved trope in an unexpected direction.

With many of these tropes being traditionally dominated by majority identities—generally Caucasian, cisgender, middle- to upper-middle-class men and soft, polished, heterosexual women—subversion can be a great approach to bringing more diversity to your writing. It helps to consider why we have certain visual associations with certain story or character types, and why these stereotypes have existed for so long.

Develop fully-realized characters

Because literary tropes can be a bit two-dimensional, it’s essential to create characters that are lifelike, multifaceted, and human. Even if they find themselves in familiar, well-trod situations, your story will be unique because the people who populate it are unique. They’ll bring their own hopes, fears, beliefs, judgements, and formative experiences to the story, and these elements will inform how they act and react across the events of the plot.

This means taking your time with character development, exploring your protagonist’s backstory, and approaching them from a place of authenticity. Also pay attention to the other characters your protagonist interacts with. Avoid the easy clichés and stock characters, and remember that each and every person in your story world has hopes, fears, beliefs, judgements, and formative experiences of their own. (This is also where you get subplots, which you can use to impress your writer friends.)

Consider adding nuanced subplots at the edges of your main storyline.

If your characters are engaging and effective enough, your readers won’t notice that you’re using a tired old trope; they’ll just see that you’ve created a thrilling, readable story set in the storytelling parameters they know and love.

Use old tropes to explore new ideas

Tropes may get a bad rap in contemporary literature, but that’s only because so many writers use them as a crutch rather than a launching pad. Literary tropes are the building blocks of classic genre fiction, and so using them as a starting point for a story or scene shows readers that you “speak the language” of a chosen genre. The trick is to turn them just slightly on an angle and bring your own personal approach, so that your writing still feels innovative and alive.