List of Fairytale Tropes and Cliches
This list exists for no other reason than I was reading a book of Brothers Grimm fairytales and decided that the cliches and recurrent tropes needed put on a list. :P
Many fairytales are comprised of two plots that, while the first always leads to the second, either one is a complete adventure on its own. Sometimes, the first plot may be virtually irrelevant to the second.
In the heat of a stressful moment, a character will make a ridiculous and ill-thought-out wish that immediately takes effect.
Characters will frequently break out into prose and rhymes. It's almost as if 10% of all fairytale characters are rappers or something.
Not So Long Ago, Just Next Door
"Long ago and far away" appears to be a fairly modern convention. Old fairytales, on the other hand, frequently contain references to items and places that set it close to the time the author lived (eg, guns and bullets), and the story may refer to the author's native country (eg, Germany or England). Some outright state that the protagonists "are still alive, if they haven't died yet," indicating that the story is supposed to have been set in the fairly recent past.
Names? Who Needs names?
Most fairytale characters are nameless, including the protagonists.
Hans and Gretel
On the rare occasion when the protagonists do have names, they'll commonly be some variation of Hans or Gretel, depending on the gender of the character.
Peculiar Wished-For Child
A childless couple will wish for a child, and they'll get one. However, the child will be odd in some way, such as ridiculously tiny, or will be some kind of animal.
Child As Payment
The protagonist will find xirself in a desperate situation, and will be offered a way out through the exchange of a child. The protagonist doesn't usually realize that the child will be the payment, as they are frequently asked to deliver the first thing they meet upon returning home (which they assume will be a pet), or the "thing standing behind your house" (assumed to be a tree).
Probably one of the most well-known fairytale cliches. The evil stepmother tends to favor her (usually) spoiled child or children over the good and virtuous protagonist, whom she abuses, if not tries to murder.
Another well-known cliche. Evil queens are often evil stepmothers, but just as often they're evil mother-in-laws or evil wives.
Pretty = Good, Ugly = Bad
The protagonists of the story will frequently be described as attractive. If a character is ugly, however, you can be fairly sure that this character is completely unsympathetic and deserves to die as quickly as possible.
Test For Heir Quality
A king with multiple sons will send them off on quests to prove their worthiness, which usually involves fetching the best macguffin of some kind - eg, whoever can find the king the prettiest ring will become heir.
Frequently taking the form of the protagonist's two older brothers, the fail questers try to take on the quest but end up cursed, trapped, or killed, usually because they didn't follow they advice they were given or behaved in a selfish manner.
An animal character shows up to help the character with assistance or advice, usually saving them from an otherwise-hopeless situation.
Helpful Old Woman
This character shows up to give the protagonist a bit of advice or assistance in a situation which he or she would otherwise have no hope.
Usually an old woman, the wicked witch is a malicious character who only exists to cause harm and trouble to others.
In many stories, actual honest-to-goodness angels show up to aid the protagonists.
Heroes In Disguise
Protagonists (often nobility) disguise themselves for a time, often to work in the castle without having their identity discovered.
A princess weeds out unsuitable suitors by requiring her future husband to complete a test of some kind, which usually involves three tasks. May overlap with Three Impossible Tasks.
Three Impossible Tasks
The main character is intentionally given three "impossible" tasks to complete. Sometimes the main character has to solve them via xir own wits (eg, The Brave Little Tailor); othertimes, the main character is aided by animals xe helped earlier in the story. In the latter case, you can generally expect picking up an absurd amount of grain or seeds to be one of the tasks.
Surprise Character Test
Find an old begger or gnome who asks you to share the teensy-weensy amount of food you have? Better do it, because you're so getting graded on it and it will determine whether you're getting any help to overcome your obstacles or not.
Don't Touch The Cool Thing
Characters will frequently be warned not to touch the golden whatsit or open the last door in a sequence of doors. They usually do. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the story.
Devil In name Only
An antagonist will be referred to as "the Devil," even though he's obviously a local ogre or trickster character with no Judeo-Christian origins at all, eg, the "Devil" lives in a cave with his grandmother.
Deity Behavior Confusion
A story will occasionally feature someone like Saint Peter or the Christian god mucking about mankind in disguise ala Odin.
Eat The Murdered Child
Villains who succeed in murdering a child will frequently try to cover up the act by having them cooked and eaten. This tends not to work out, though - if a kind-hearted cook doesn't spare the child's life, the child will eventually be resurrected.
Everything Is Sentient
Up to and including inanimate objects like pins and needles. What's more, they might attack you.
Reward for Basic Human Decency
Stop your brothers from crushing an anthill just for fun, and the ants will save your life.
Protagonists Cannot Keep Promises
If the protagonist makes a promise during the course of the story, you can be pretty sure that xe will end up breaking it.
Animal Evidence Substitute
Someone will order the death the protagonist and will ask for the a part of the person's body such as the heart or the eyes and tongue as proof. The would-be killers take pity on the protagonist and substitute parts from a deer or boar instead.
Bling, Bling Everywhere
Stuff will be covered with gold or made out of gold, even if it's normally not. For example, the protagonist might enter a golden castle and find a golden horse. Occasionally, the protagonist might even be made of gold.
The Magic Table
An enchanted table which will produce a feast when a key phrase is uttered. Sometimes it's not even a table, but just the cloth. Usually tends to appear with at least two other magical items, which vary depending on the story.
The Invisibility Cloak
You already know what this one does, and yes, it appears in fairytales.
The Endless Loaf
A magical loaf of bread that never runs out.
The Magic Wish-Fish
Someone (usually a fisherman) catches a magic fish who grants the catcher wishes for releasing it. This trope frequently ends up with all wishes being reversed when the fisherman's wife eventually wishes to have the power to control the sun and the moon.
Number 3 and Number 7
True Love At First Sight
Marry a princess you've known for maybe a few hours and expect her to love you and remain faithful to you for the rest of your lives? It's perfectly reasonable in Fairytale Land.
Sons Transformed Into Birds
Who, in general, must be saved by their younger sister. A fairly frequent method of rescue is for the sister remain silent for seven years.
Fairytales are rife with these. Sometimes, the transformations are punishment for some crime or done out of malice. Sometimes, the protagonists transform themselves to hide from the villains, or for personal gain.
Wed The Royal
The main character at some point is likely to get married to a royal. The marriage rarely ends the story, but generally takes place in the middle of it, ususally at the end of the first plot.
Trials For The New Royal
After a main character of common birth manages to become royal through marriage, someone will try to depose xir. If she is female, it may be through an Imposter Queen ploy. Either gender may face some other scheme. Either way, the hero must use xir wits and/or connections to secure xir position.
The Imposter Queen
After the female hero is married to the king and all seems to be going well, some nasty woman (often the wicked stepmother) comes along and replaces the real queen with her daughter, either through illusory magic or bumping off the real queen (don't worry, she'll come back) and legally wedding her daughter to the king.
The King's Evil Mother
If the protagonist is a woman who marries the king, she often has to face the wrath of her own mother-in-law who wants to kill her for undisclosed reasons.
A character will be given three wishes, and the first two will be so ridiculous that the third must be used to undo the damages.
Birds in fairytales frequently talk in order to give advice to the protagonists, or to reveal the guilt of the antagonists.
Villain Declares Own Death Sentence
Rather frequent in Imposter Queen stories. Once the protagonist reveals the villain's crimes to the king, the king will ask the villain how xe would punish someone who had committed the villain's own crimes. Unaware that the king knows of the villain's guilt, the villain will describe a brutal death sentence, to which xe will be sentenced.
The Shallow Imitator
After the protagonist from xir adventure bearing the fruits of xir journey, someone (usually the protagonist's sibling or step-sibling) will attempt to re-create the protagonist's journey to claim the same reward. However, the imitator behaves rudely and/or does not perform the task up to par, which results in punishment rather than reward.
Back From The Dead
Characters in old fairy tales might be somewhat prone to dying in particularly gruesome fashions, but it doesn't mean they'll stay dead. Innocent victims are frequently restored by the end of the story.
Burn That Critter's Skin!
Someone (usually a prince) will have the form of an animal (sometimes through a curse, sometimes they were just born that way). It turns out that this character is in fact a gorgeous specimen of man/womanhood, but just goes around wearing the animal skin for the heck of it. All that nonsense ends when the pesky thing is finally burned.
Other things you might like:
Common Fairy Tale Myths Debunked
Fairy Tale Plot Generator