Have you ever heard of the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam, of RinkWorks fame? If not, take a moment to read through it. It points out a lot of the most annoyingly persistent tropes in the genre, and even if I disagree with a few of its points being deal-breakers, I do agree that a good many of these things are red flags. Plus, when you get down to it, it’s just a funny commentary on the kinds of devices that show up endlessly in the ever-growing library of fantasy novels.
On a whim, I decided I might as well put my current novel-in-progress through it, and this is what I got.
WARNING: THIS POST IS REALLY LONG.
Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
At the time of this posting, I’ve written about fifteen pages, and although a lot of it is worldbuilding and character establishment, the main character has already set out on her adventure and is making her way toward the initial goal. I’d call that something happening.
Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
Not quite. She’s young and has a Missing Mom, but she’s certainly not a farmhand.
Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
No; I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that both of her parents are of completely common birth.
Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
There is an element of coming-of-age, but gaining great power is debatable, and defeating a supreme badguy is a no. It’s much less a “good versus evil” story and much more a “struggle against adversity” story.
Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
No. Ancient magical implements are generally considered outdated and kept as curiosities and status symbols rather than actually being useful. A few ancient spell formulae are worth study and adaptation to modern methods, but for the most part, ancient magic is obsolete magic.
How about one that will destroy it?
As implied by the above answer, magical artifacts in this world generally aren’t up-to-date; hence, most aren’t anywhere near powerful enough to destroy a city, let alone the whole world. Heck, they probably couldn’t even knock down a stone wall without exhausting the item’s entire supply of magical residue… if there’s even enough magic left in the thing.
Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
No. There’s an elaborate system of astrology based on the multiple moons, but like real-life astrology these only give general predictions. Plus, as stated above, it’s not really the kind of “good versus evil” story that you usually see in the fantasy genre.
Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
No, and if I ever write a character like that, please slap me round the face.
Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
None of the characters in my novel are gods, disguised or otherwise. I don’t really touch on religion much, though I might make a separate post about this world’s development in that regard. Functional magic can have interesting implications for that sort of thing.
Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
The main character’s father is a loving single dad who plays the role of mentor. So, pretty much the opposite of that.
Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
There is no one king of the entire world in this setting, and none of the kings I’ve created so far are that kindly. Most are reasonable to a degree, and there aren’t many outright tyrants, but any shady or misguided actions are there without the influence of evil magicians.
Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?
In this world, the word “wizard” refers to an ancient class of people who practiced a highly outdated form of magic and kept their lofty position by hoarding their secrets. Essentially, wizards are historical figures, and not very well-liked ones at that. So no, there are no forgetful wizards. Calling a magic user a wizard would be like calling a real-world, modern-day scientist an alchemist.
How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?
There isn’t really much focus on warriors in this novel, so no. Those who do show up aren’t really portrayed as this kind of archetype as much as they are, you know, soldiers; that is, they’re more likely to act like Haymitch Abernathy than Lennie Small. (Yes, I know neither of those characters are soldiers per se, but the difference I’m illustrating is between “near-textbook case of PTSD” and “misunderstood Gentle Giant archetype.”)
How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
The story is pretty low on mystical sages. In a world with functional, documented magic with a variety of tried-and-true uses, the closest you get are the astrologers. See above for why they don’t actually know crap about the plot.
Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?
Moot point: the main character is female.
Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
Capture-and-rescue plots are another thing my novel is fairly low on.
Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
I like to think that, as a woman, I can write female characters as fully-functional, fleshed-out people. It’s kind of my default. If a character in my novel ends up embodying feminist ideals to the reader, then good for them, but that would not be my sole intention in creating them. I create my characters for the sake of the story.
Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?
Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?
Closer, but still no cigar. The main character kind of fits the latter description, but she’s never actually been in a battle and has a marked tendency toward self-doubt. One of the major characters fits the former description to some degree, but is less a “warrioress” than a huntress, and would not take kindly to the insult to her cooking. Things made in a frying pan may not be her forte, but she makes a mean rotisserie.
Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?
Moot point: there are no dwarves.
How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?
Moot point: there are no elves.
Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
See above responses for why this, too, is a moot point.
Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
No, they’re extras. I don’t really focus on child characters unless the main character is one, and the story starts when my main character is sixteen.
Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
The first chapter of my novel features transport barges. That’s how the main character’s hometown exports its lumber. It’s also the most convenient way to travel from said hometown to literally anywhere, seeing as it’s surrounded by thick forest.
Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
The 1870’s, if I recall correctly.
Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?
I have a map, but it’s more a representation of a map that’s actually in the novel, and I like to think that my naming skills are much, much better than that. The named places so far are called things like “Northwood,” “Afenhold,” “Rivermeet,” and “Lake Freith.”
Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?
I’ve actually been going back and forth on whether to include a prologue. I would kind of like to, but I feel like I should get the actual story done first, or at least significantly started. I don’t want the reader to have to read the whole book to understand it, but I do want there to be a bit of mystery, so that they can put things together as they go along.
Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
This is the point at which, by the rules of the test, I fail. I’ll admit it: trilogies are totally overdone. However, I really do think it fits the story, so I’m going ahead with it anyway. Tropes Are Tools, after all.
How about a quintet or a decalogue?
I think this is covered by the above. For what it’s worth, I promise not to succumb to Trilogy Creep. I will not have my books be the next Inheritance
Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
Don’t know yet! We’ll have to see when it gets published.
Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?
Moot point: this is my first novel.
Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
Isn’t Robert Jordan dead?
Yeah, he’s been dead for ten years at this point, though he was alive at the time of this test’s writing. Considering that I am alive, I am obviously not Robert Jordan. Some friends of mine have been fans of The Wheel of Time, but I could never really get into it. A lot of the gender stuff struck me as seriously problematic.
Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
If I wrote a novel based on the adventures of any roleplaying group I’ve been a part of, it would be the most ridiculous thing I ever put to paper. Well, except the Mary-Sue cat aliens I created when I was seven years old, but those are a discussion for another day. Needless to say, no, my novel is not based on a roleplaying campaign.
Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
Nope. C.S. Lewis did it better than I ever could.
Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
No. Their names are fantasy-ish, but they’re all fully pronounceable. They range from actual Celtic and Anglo-Saxon names to similarly-sounding but entirely made up names. The main character, for example, is named Andreva, and her father’s name is Garron.
Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
Not unless you include bynames and/or titles. The first names of the main cast are all either two or three syllables.
Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?
Asclepius help me, that name makes my eyes bleed. That is a very specific level of bad commonly known as “only works in a parody.”
Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
Nope! It’s just humans.
How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?
Please, if I wanted to disguise a fantasy race, I’d be a hell of a lot more creative than that. I’d call elves “huldren” and give them a hollow in their backs. No, wait, I’d just write actual huldren. They’re interesting.
Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?
Again, it’s just humans, so there aren’t any various humanoid species to hybridize in strange and unusual ways. I’m not writing in Faerûn.
At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
Refer back to “no dwarves.” Hey, did you know that “dwerrows,” mentioned earlier, is the correct plural of Tolkien’s dwarves, according to the Professor himself? Just a little fun fact there.
Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
Oh Hermes, no. RPGs are fun, but they’re not exactly great at simulating actual combat.
Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
I honestly have no idea how I would stat Andreva alone. I mean, I guess she’d be a Ranger, probably, but there’s no way to make the class features work with the world. This is largely due to the aforementioned “it’s just humans” thing, plus the fact that the variety of monsters is rather limited, which makes the “favored enemy” class feature difficult. There are a lot of nasty animals, some of which are somewhat fantastic, but this isn’t a world where dragons, trolls, and chimerae roam the land. It’s a world where big, scary birds swoop out of the sky and grab your cattle, and ocean fishing carries the risk of something eating your boat.
Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?
I think I would have to be an established writer before they would make a deal with me, and I’m not sure I would really go for that. When I was thirteen, I would have eagerly said yes, but decisions made when one was thirteen are not generally good decisions. Now that I’ve matured a bit as a writer, I’ve found that I really like writing in my own worlds. If I use someone else’s world, it’s almost always just a side project. I’ve never even had a fanfiction.net account, and I was a teenage girl in its heyday.
Then again, my lack of interaction with fanfiction in my teen years stemmed largely from my ridiculous innocence and the general impression that almost all of it was yaoi slashfic.
Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
My characters use inns for sleeping.
Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?
The inner workings of feudalism have been branded into my mind by the red-hot iron of childhood obsession. They’re not quite as ingrained as classical mythology, but they are definitely there.
Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
I must admit, there are a lot of travel scenes in this book. The main characters’ profession pretty much requires them to move around, and when you live in a world with roughly late medieval technology, you’re pretty much stuck with slow travel even if you do have functional magic. Attempts at magical travel in this world have been few and far between, and those that did happen were, without exception, disastrous. They also used a disgustingly impractical amount of resources. Much better to just stick runes on existing methods of transportation to make them safer and/or more efficient.
So, the answer to this question really depends on what you mean by “inordinate.” I suppose that when I go on about semantics, I should just put in a “yes,” but I honestly think this is a subjective thing.
For what it’s worth, I do hit fast-forward on the travel when nothing else is happening.
Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?
I am taking great pains to avoid this. Thankfully, most of the plot revolves around things that the characters really, really don’t understand, so that makes it a little easier.
Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?
This kind of goes with the “wizards.” Fireballs and lightning bolts were things people who used staves did. Nowadays, they’re considered clumsy, “blunt instrument” spells. They only see use for stage pyrotechnics, because the people who work with magic have found much better, more precise ways to use it.
So, yes, but they’re party tricks, not badass combat spells.
Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?
No, because the tech level is far too low for MMORPG’s to exist in this universe.
Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?
No. The main characters wear leather armor (when they wear any), and the soldiers mostly wear chain mail, though it does depend on which country they’re from. If you have better mines, you get better armor.
Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?
Zeus’s balls, is that something that people actually do? Seriously, the only time that could EVER work in a fantasy novel is if it’s urban fantasy and the main character plays MMORPG’s. Or if it’s about a magical MMORPG where hit points are a thing. I mean, there are circumstances… but they are very far-fetched and would be incredibly hard to do right. Plus, didn’t Sword Art Online already do that? This is verging on that “only in a parody” sphere.
Then again, I live in a world where Twilight, Eragon and Fifty Shades of Grey made their authors rich and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, so perhaps I should curb my optimism.
Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
When I was in middle school, we didn’t have lockers. The school was too small. As a result, I brought all my books to and from school with me. My dad would regularly make the same old joke about how my bag must be full of gold bars.
So yes, I do know how heavy gold is. It’s fucking heavy. If I have back problems later in life, I am blaming them on that book bag.
Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
This was actually something I called bullshit on Christopher Paolini for back when I liked the Inheritance Cycle. Don’t judge me; I was barely double-digits in age.
Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?
There is a bit in the second chapter draft where the main character gets a mild case of sunstroke from taking a slightly-too-long nap outdoors at high noon. She spends the rest of the day feeling ill and delirious, and has to take several hours to sleep it off. This also gives her a nasty sunburn, because she is a pale kindling-person.
My point? Nobody in this novel avoids the ill effects of things that should tire them out or make them sick, and if they ever do, there is always an explanation.
Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
Remember what I said earlier about how transportation magic is virtually impossible to do? Yeah, that applies to weapons. It’s not expensive like actual personal transport, but it really doesn’t work.
Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
Definitely not. They’re made for slashing. Plus, I got the Drizz’t ripoff out of my system back in my middle school D&D club.
Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
Possibly, but it’s a Justified Trope in this instance. Starmetal blades on normal earth-metals are like knives through softened butter. You certainly couldn’t do it with a normal blade, but if you’ve got a high-quality starmetal alloy and a good arm, and your opponent’s armor doesn’t have warding runes on it? Yeah, you could do it.
Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more?
It’s more in the neighborhood of five pounds, and that’s only for the big ones. Starmetal alloys might mess with the figure a bit, but probably in the other direction.
Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
Ignoring the assumption that my hero is male, which she isn’t, my hero is not exactly focused on romance. She’s an ambitious, socially-awkward teenager with high career goals that involve a lot of travel; not exactly the kind of girl who moons after unattainable people. The first book doesn’t even have a romance subplot.
In the latter two books, Andreva will develop feelings for another major character, but I would hardly call the recipient of her affections “unattainable,” and I haven’t decided yet whether the feelings are reciprocated.
Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
Puns? What’s wrong with puns? I think they’re punderful!
Joking aside, no, I don’t think I’ve written in any puns. Yet. Humorous moments are largely found in awkward actions by the characters and Garron’s dad humor, which is far less punny than your average dad humor.
Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
My hero is only able to withstand a little more punishment than you’d expect of a scrawny teenage girl. She’s stubborn and tough, but a well-placed blow from a sword would definitely kill her outright, and a small woman with a dagger would still be a plausible threat to her.
Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
Not by a longshot. Most arrows to the chest are going to be fatal within a minute because of the blood loss; that is, if they don’t kill you outright. Heck, if you assume medieval-level medicine, even a guy who survives the initial blow to the chest and the resulting blood loss will probably drop dead of blood poisoning within the week.
And yes, that “longshot” pun was intentional.
Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?
Believe it or not, I have some skill in the kitchen, so I do know that stew is annoying as hell to make.
Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
The tundra is largely uninhabited in this world, so no.
Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?
I don’t really know much about alcohol, but I’ve never pictured mead as beer. Mead never really comes up in this story, so I don’t see how it has an impact on my writing skills in this case.
Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
Again: just humans. No monolithic species here. Honestly, the Species of Hats is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.
Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?
Nah, it’s probably the Arathi military. Their organization is almost on Ancient Rome levels.
Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
The series as a whole doesn’t really have a single main villain, though I suppose there is a character whom I could call the main villain of the first book. He doesn’t do this. My antagonists all vary in nastiness levels, but none of them are cartoonishly evil.
Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?
My story is about a teenager trying to prove herself and ending up in a big pile of world-changing shit. It’s about uncertain futures and trying to live up to the expectations of yourself and others. It’s about making mistakes and trying to fix them. It’s about the misuse of things that could have been great advances, and how everyone tries to do the best they can with what they have.
So no, it’s not about a D&D-style adventuring party.
Is “common” the official language of your world?
There really isn’t an official language of the whole world. Andreva, her dad, and people from her town speak Freithan, the language of the region surrounding and north of Lake Freith. In the neighboring kingdoms, they switch to the regional language if they know it, or the eastern trade tongue if they don’t. The people of Arath, the larger country west of the mountains, speak Arathi, which is highly standardized a la Classical Latin (though grammatically, it is definitely not Latin).
Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
No. Ruins are few and far between, and the ones that haven’t been plundered are the ones that haven’t been discovered. Plus, as I’ve said before, ancient magical items are weak little party favors compared to modern ones.
Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
It really doesn’t have that much in common with The Lord of the Rings.
Read that question again and answer truthfully.
I guess that’s my cue to go into detail.
Yes, I do draw a significant amount of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m pretty much a fangirl. I can conjugate Quenya verbs, and sometimes greet my friends “mae govannen, mellon nin!” I would never deny that The Lord of the Rings was a significant influence on my desire to write, my choice of genre, and my style.
Here, it is important to note the difference between inspiration and rip-off. The plots of Tolkien’s trilogy and mine do have some elements in common, though I can’t go into too much detail on that if I want to avoid spoilers. Heck, there are even some meta elements in common: Tolkien originally intended for The Lord of the Rings to be a single book, the sequel to The Hobbit; he’s quoted as saying that “the tale grew in the telling.” Yet, these are either coincidence or inspiration rather than a rip-off. Inspiration is also using a medieval-esque setting. Ripping off would be naming the main character “Freuda” and giving her the quest to destroy a magical necklace used by the Evil Empress of Arath, and having Arath just be Mordor but in the west instead of the east.
However, my opinion that I’m not ripping off The Lord of the Rings goes much deeper than the difference between being inspired by someone and ripping them off. I would argue that once you get down to the bare bones of the story and themes, past all the tropes and assumptions, what I have planned is very different from what the Professor wrote.
The Lord of the Rings, along with Tolkien’s other works, is the Ur-Example of high fantasy. At its core, we have that familiar theme that permeates so much of our literary canon, particularly the post-Christian portion: the struggle of good versus evil. The central quest is to defeat the dark lord Sauron, whose former master Morgoth was essentially Middle-Earth’s Satanic Archetype. The secondary quest is to restore the monarchy of Gondor and Arnor, which strikes me as rather conservative. Above all, though, there is a persistent theme throughout the books that everything that happens is meant to be. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and Frodo in turn was meant to carry it into Mordor. The world of Middle-Earth is one of fate and myth, a legendary history for a world much like ours.
I want no part in fate.
I suppose it’s somewhat ironic to say that, since I’m basically controlling the fate of all my characters. What I mean is that I want no part in suggesting that fate is the driving force behind anything that happens in my novel. My novel is a story about a young woman making her way in the world I’ve created, and how she both contributes to and deals with the major world-changing events of her lifetime. While her story does put her into conflict with people who could be considered evil, she does not do this because she is some destined instrument of good, but because she is in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time, and because her own moral sense compels her to act. There is no Good with a capital G and Evil with a capital E, and there is no divine plan for how the former is to defeat the latter. There are people.
That, ultimately, is the biggest difference between my novel and The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t involve the destruction of a ring or any other powerful artifact, it doesn’t contain elves and dwarves and hobbits, and it doesn’t have the elaborate mythology of Middle-Earth… but those are window-dressing. My story differs from Tolkien’s not just in plot and setting, but in themes. It’s not about the same things with regards to plot… and it isn’t about the same things with regards to theme and message, either.
So, to conclude? No. I can honestly say that my book is not a ripoff of The Lord of the Rings.