What’s up storytellers?
In this article, we’re talking all about magic system tropes and archetypes. We’re digging into what they are, why they can be both good and bad for your magic system, and to make them your own.
You ready? Let’s get into it.
What is a trope?
It’s best to think of tropes these as conceptual figures of speech. They aren’t actually idioms or turns of phrase or anything like that, but they are ideas and patterns that occur frequently inside our stories. Different tropes exist for every story type, story genre, story medium game, or virtually any story element imaginable.
Tropes can be a particular setup for your story, such as having two warring nations or even a civil war occurring. It might be a common twist for the genre or even a popular character even. Literally, anything that exists in your story can be a trope or have a trope attached.
It’s exactly the same for our magic systems. The system’s core concept might be a trope. We may have particular effects, limitations, and patterns that match existing tropes. Virtually anything that people have seen many times before and are already familiar with is a magic system trope.
Example: Mashed Potatoes & Gravy
Where I came from, if you were serving mashed potatoes, people instantly start looking for the gravy. It’s expected. It’s anticipated. It’s what we always see going together. We assume that, if you’re giving me turkey and mashed potatoes, there’s going to be gravy. This is especially in certain contexts, such as Thanksgiving. The two together are a trope of food.
This trope is so ingrained in us we might even consider it cliche. We’re going to get into the differences between tropes and clichés because it’s a fine line. Personally, I don’t know anybody that would complain about having mashed potatoes and gravy, so if that’s what you’ve got planned for dinner, you’re probably fine.
If we wanted to change things up and subvert the trope of mashed potatoes and gravy, we could. We could change the context in which we serve it or mix up the pairing. If you just did mashed potatoes, but no gravy or gravy and no mashed potatoes, that would be a small subversion.
We could further subvert the trope by changing a fundamental characteristic of the dish. For example, if I added green lentils to my mashed potatoes, which is delicious by the way, the pale green color might startle you. You were expecting something creamy white and got something different instead. It surprised you because I broke the trope and that’s.
That moment of surprise is exactly what we want from changing a trope. But we should only do this when we really want or need to because tropes aren’t always bad.
How do Tropes Fit Into Magic Systems?
Like I said, it’s the same as how it works with our stories. Anything in our magic system can have a trope in it. Your core concept may actually focus on or pivot around a cluster of tropes, which is what I call a magic system archetype.
We’re talking things like Necromancy, Elemental Magic, Divine Magic, Alchemy. All of those come with a broad set of assumptions, tonal tropes, and kinds of elements we expect to be there.
For example, you might decide on a familiar magic system trope as a limitation. You decide that magical energy is renewable. Once people run out of energy, they can’t do magic anymore, but it will come back naturally over time.
That’s a Mana Pool, which is a classic magic system trope in books and games.
But that’s just one example. The idea that magic and armor can’t really go together so that you can’t have a heavily armored mage is a standard magic system trope. The concept of objects made purely from magic, anti-magic abilities, and shields of force are all tropes.
Tropes can and will embed themselves in every nook and cranny of our magic systems and our stories. But again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Yes, if done poorly, tropes can disrupt the experience and the structure of your magic system and your story. Sometimes, what you put in your story is the most obvious answer to a question your audience has. This can be disappointing.
If the trope disrupts your audience’s experience, the tension, or causes their attention to lapse because they’ve seen this all a million times before, then it has shifted from being a trope to a cliché.
Fear not, for there are some benefits to tropes.
At their core, tropes are simply patterns, patterns that your audience has seen before and therefore can recognize and anticipate. When wielded with care, magic system tropes are a wonderful tool for you to manage and manipulate some of the experiences of your audience. So any time you’re building a story or working on your magic system if you stumble on a trope or you accidentally put in there, don’t panic. You might not need to change anything.
So before you get in there fiddling with the guts in the innards, stop and think about it for a second. I feel there’s a lot of pressure that creatives put on themselves to make everything that they create unique and new and inspiring and amazing. And that’s simply unnecessary.
Sometimes you want those familiar patterns, and in fact, if you find a trope and you play it straight, that can be an incredible tool to speed up your audience’s understanding of what’s going on in a story. This is why magic system tropes can be an enormous benefit to you, the storyteller. The magic system might not be the most important thing going on.
Heretic! Purge the Non-Believer!
I know, I know, but hear me out.
In these cases, having tropes and familiar patterns to accelerate your audience’s understanding lets you get into the guts of the story without delay. With magic system tropes in play, there’s no need to spend pages and pages to communicate the fundamental concepts behind your system.
Even if you decide you don’t like that trope in your magic system. That doesn’t mean it needs to be removed entirely. Tropes can be subverted, parodied, exaggerated, or twisted in all different ways to control and delight your audience.
So don’t throw out this tool just because we have seen it before.
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Now, on with the scheduled program.
Twist Your Trope: Step 1 - Identify the Trope
Before you can change your magic system trope, you need to understand what it is.
If you’re very familiar with the tropes and you know the name, you can likely just go to TV tropes and search for it there. They have articles on hundreds if not thousands of different tropes, how they appear, ways to subvert them, and a bunch of examples of from anime, movies, books, games, and more.
So if you have never been to TV tropes, you’re welcome and I’m sorry because you are likely about to lose several days of your life. It will be a fun several days at least.
What if you don’t know the name of your trope and haven’t spent days of your life crawling through TVtropes? Well, then you might be a well-adjusted human with better impulse management than me. Also, it’s okay if you don’t have a name. The important thing is understanding.
Spend some time with your magic system trope. Dig into the details, analyzing what your automatic reactions are and your automatic assumptions are based on what you’ve put on the page. That’s going to tell you so much about what the trope is. Once you have that, then you can move forward.
An example of a trope that you can find on TV tropes is anti-magic, which is the concept of a person, object, special place, ritual, or something that disrupts and completely negates magic within a certain area around it.
Twist Your Trope: Step 2 - Question the Trope
Well, don’t question the trope itself, because that would be a little strange. Do question the existence of the trope within your story. Fortunately, we already dug into this a lot in the first part of the article, so just look at it, ask yourself some of those questions we talked about.
If you can play the trope straight without disrupting your story, that’s all you need to do.
Twist Your Trope: Step 3 - Change the Trope
Once you know what the trope is and how it’s supposed to play out, that’s when you can start twisting things around.
Consider the anti-magic trope. We could change it in any number of ways.
For one, we could change it so that it doesn’t actually negate all magic, only beneficial buffs. That could create an interesting scenario where an assassin might want to use an anti-magic object to prevent their target from implementing any kind of magical defenses.
Alternatively, we could say that the anti-magic works fine and it negates the magic normally, but it also inflicts nasty side effects on everyone in the area, including the user.
We could also change things so it doesn’t negate the magic at all, but inverts it instead. Every spell and every magical effect suddenly does the exact opposite of what’s intended. That would really mess with some people.
As you can see, it’s all about understanding the expectations that you have set, or even hinted at, in your story and your magic system and then sidestep, twist, or otherwise change them.
That’s All For Now
That said, I feel this has been an awful lot of setup for a fairly minimal explanation, and I’m really not happy with that. So this is actually going to be the start of a series looking at different magic system archetypes and exploring how we can turn them on their head and make them fresh again.
Don’t forget, if you want to know more than you could ever possibly hope to learn or use about tropes, check out TVtropes.
This series will focus on the magic system archetypes, which carry many tropes inside them. We’re talking about things like Necromancy, Elemental Magic, and superheroes. That’s the stuff that I’m really going to dig into in the series. I’m really excited to get into it because it’s fun to experiment with the innards of these magic systems and turn them into my own unholy abominations.
But in the meantime, if there is a trope or a magic system archetype that you would like me to explore, send me an email and let me know. I will definitely add it into the queue. And if you want to hear from me more regularly talking about magic systems, mental health, and writing craft, consider joining my newsletter.
Until next time, keep telling those stories and stay awesome.