Do I Pass David J. Parker’s “Fantasy Novelist’s Exam”?

There and Draft Again BlogI follow There and Draft Again: A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers. As is clear by their title, they are writers who draw from stream of fantasy literature that Tolkien and a few of his friends carved out of the rocky terrain of the imagination. One of the reasons I read fantasy writer’s blogs is that I am concerned about being authentic as I work through my current project, The Curse of Téarian. As I discuss below, I don’t pretend to be original. But I also don’t want to be a hack, unconsciously pouring all my years of reading into Word with little new to add to the literary world.

Recently, EM Castellan posted “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” written by David J. Parker, with help by Samuel Stoddard. You can find the original Exam here, as well as some other resources. The Exam has a fairly rigorous standard:

“Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created the worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, it seems like every windbag off the street thinks he can write great, original fantasy, too. The problem is that most of this “great, original fantasy” is actually poor, derivative fantasy. Frankly, we’re sick of it, so we’ve compiled a list of rip-off tip-offs in the form of an exam. We think anybody considering writing a fantasy novel should be required to take this exam first. Answering “yes” to any one question results in failure and means that the prospective novel should be abandoned at once.”

Middle Earth mapI get this. There a many, many books in print–even more in eBooks–and I toss half of the YA or Fantasy books I pick up as soon as they smack of copycats. As a writer (and writing teacher), this is a funny and important test to take. It is also self-revealing, so when my comment on There and Draft Again grew to George R.R. Martin length, I thought I would post this potentially painful Exam and then see how I did.

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam by David J. Parker

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
  8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
  9. Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
  10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
  11. Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
  12. Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?
  13. How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?
  14. How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
  15. 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?
  16. Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
  17. Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
  18. Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?
  19. Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?
  20. Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?
  21. How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?
  22. Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
  23. Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
  24. Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
  25. Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
  26. 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”?
  27. Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?
  28. Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
  29. How about a quintet or a decalogue?
  30. Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
  31. Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?
  32. Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
  33. Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
  34. Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
  35. Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
  36. Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
  37. Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
  38. Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?
  39. Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
  40. How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?
  41. Do you have a race prefixed by “half-”?
  42. At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
  43. Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
  44. Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
  45. Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?
  46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
  47. Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?
  48. Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
  49. 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?
  50. Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?
  51. Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?
  52. Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?
  53. Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?
  54. Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
  55. Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
  56. 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?
  57. Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
  58. Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
  59. Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
  60. Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more? [info]
  61. Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
  62. Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
  63. 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?
  64. Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
  65. Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?
  66. Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
  67. Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?
  68. Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
  69. Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?
  70. Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
  71. 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?
  72. Is “common” the official language of your world?
  73. Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
  74. Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
  75. Read that question again and answer truthfully.

What I Love

This is a pretty funny list, and is a kind of work of art itself. I like how #s 16 & 17 sit together, this tension of how writers “use” women in print. Little people–in the contemporary sense, are also targets for special use (or redemption), as we see in #23.

#47 Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t? — This one draws out a bigger point: we should know the world we are writing about inside and out. I’m not sure we need to know our medieval or alien or fairy world like we know a place we’ve grown up. But we should know it like we know a block, city, community, or subculture we’ve adopted. And what details we don’t know, we should research well. All the 50s questions draw out questions of authenticity, so sheath your scimitars! (oh, do you sheath a scimitar?)

There are some funny RPG digs (Role-Playing Games), and I quite like #s 28-32, which are all about the length of fantasy books (not all of us are Stephen King–sometimes not even him) and the trilogy effect–why not write a quintet or a decalogue, after all? Sometimes we sketch out a world well that takes several books, and sometimes what we plan takes longer–like the Inheritance Cycle. But I think it is good to poke fun at prequels and quadrilogies so that any that approach print are well done.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienFunny, But…

The list is meant to be humorous, but I think it is also a good check for us as writers. However, there are some Exam questions here that, if you answered “yes” to them, shouldn’t necessarily mean the recycle bin for your 1500 page novella.

#39 Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings? — Dwarves and elves, if pre-Tolkien, are part of a genre of writing that should continue, I believe. I think this one should be, “Has anyone ripped off Tolkien’s _____?” That’s the key question–what have we taken that was peculiar to Tolkien’s world.

It is hard, though, not to imagine Tolkien’s elves (or Peter Jackson’s) when we write. For example, see Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. The elves are clearly influenced by Tolkien’s elves. But their dwarves, ogres, giants, and trolls are imaginatively different, and all their characters fit well in their Spiderwick world. Perhaps we should acknowledge that Tolkien’s elves and hobbits are now part of the fantastical library permanently, and then write good stories.

Likewise, #35 Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm? — This is, of course, an actual genre beyond Lewis-Tolkien. Hopefully no one takes this prohibition seriously.

#s 2 & 3 are orphan tales, which I think are absolutely essential to literature and should continue through this age when most of us grow up in orphan spectrum, whether it is through the HIV-AIDS pandemic or the malaise and antipathy of Euro-American marriages. I just hope the orphan stories are well done. Both my child characters have lost a parent, but neither are secret kings or queens. Both have peculiar abilities, but that comes out of my belief that children have abilities that, drawn out, could save the world. Similarly, #4 Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy? — I hope people don’t stop writing these books. What kind of world will it be if children aren’t trained to slay dragons? It could be a world where the powerful dominate the weak. Imagine.

What #s 2-4 remind us is the difference between picking up a trope and filling it in with unimaginative detail, and taking an essential human experience and transforming it imaginatively on the page.

My Writing JournalNow, the Self-Test

#70 Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death? — I’m struggling with this very thing right now, though I won’t give away all the details. I’ve seen people die for the things I’m describing in every generation of humanity. I worry, though, it will look contrived to a generation that has abolished capital punishment, or decided whatever illegal war we’ve begun is just too hard to finish properly. I, myself, have trouble imagining why anyone would take another person’s life at all. So this Exam reminds me that I have good work to do.

#9 Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise? — In a sense, all my characters are gods in disguise; each of them is magical. But that has to do with the anthropological logic of the novel, which I hope is part of a consistent fictional worldview. We’ll see if people think it is realistic–that’s the real test. Perhaps the one most “rip-off-ish” character in the #9 Exam question is that Death appears in my novel in many guises. But that is true to Death, I think.

woodelf from spiderwick field guideThe Crunch

I’m not sure if I pass. I mostly pass. I hope I pass.

But even if I do pass technically, I have intentionally drawn from the motifs, figures, symbols, mythic elements, and even character tropes of other traditions and writers. I’m writing High Fantasy, so if I pretended I wasn’t doing that, I’d be fooling myself (though no one else). I am writing a faery tale–how could I do that “originally?” Perhaps there are some that would argue that we should never have another literary dragon, ogre, giant, faerie, sprite, boggart, brownie, goblin, banshee, god, nymph, or unicorn. People who believe these things should stop reading and never return to my blog. To me, to take these things away–even when they are done badly–is to suck the life out of literature. It would leave, for me, only a cubicle world.

How does one balance writing within a tradition and ripping off a story? After all I have elves (faeries), gods, dwarves (sort of), and children who do heroic things. Have I failed? If I interpret The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam properly, it is meant to be a humorous attempt to root out hacks and rip-offs, and shouldn’t necessarily be the pass-fail standard for serious fantasy writers. For my part, I hope I have done the former, that I have written a unique and engaging story within a tradition, and in a way that honours that tradition. but we’ll see what readers think–if I can ever finish writing it!

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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28 Responses to Do I Pass David J. Parker’s “Fantasy Novelist’s Exam”?

  1. Jeremy Scott says:

    As an avid reader of fantasy literature, I agree very much with your assesment of the exam. Many of my favorites have included many things found on it, but then so have many of my least favorite. I think what the author is trying to convey, and the overall point of the story, is more what makes a novel enjoyable. Creativity for creativity’s sake will dull a story far more than Tolkien-style orcs would. This opinion of mine, though, could be very influenced by my reading of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

    Like

    • Gaiman is a genius, I believe. And he takes many of these Exam things and uses them well.
      I’ve avoided reading him for a year or two since I started writing this fantasy–he can creep in.

      Like

      • Jeremy Scott says:

        Oh yes, I’d agree. I have read where several authors, such as Raymond Feist, refuse to read any fantasy, lest it influence their story. I think if I ever summon the courage to write, I would not read it while I wrote as well.

        Like

  2. jubilare says:

    I take a somewhat slanted perspective to this whole question.
    The problem is Not tropes, influences or even cliches. The problem is how they are used.
    If someone where to write an entirely original story, no one would read it. It simply wouldn’t resonate with any of us. All effective stories are, in some way, derivative. After all, it is our shared experiences and lexicons that allow for communication.
    The problems usually arise when a writer writes with cliches on a subconscious level, or simply because they think that copying a form will create the same resonance as the original and well-thought-out story they are copying.
    I took this quiz blithely, and relatively unafraid. I answered some of the questions “yes” and I am not bothered by the fact. The “test” is really just a tool, I think, that can help writers stop and think about the story they are constructing, and catch potential problems. I use http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HomePage in the same way, to spot-check.
    If a story is emotionally and intellectually honest, and has interesting events and interactions, then its trappings don’t really matter.

    Like

    • I agree totally, Jubilare. There is an authenticity that works throughout a good novel, whatever the staging or plotline or colour. The best work has elements of these.
      I do find, though, that the worst work does too. That’s where my fear trickles in.

      Like

      • jubilare says:

        So long as the fear keeps you wary, but doesn’t derail you, they all is well. Just look for those rare and valuable people who are willing to hold the surgeon’s knife and tell you when something in your story doesn’t work.

        Like

        • Fear does all kinds of things. Right now I’m fleeing demons, to use Stephen King’s phrase. It’s a hard time, but I fight.
          I have trouble finding people to tell me the truth about my work. I have local fans, and while I love the encouragement, it is hard to improve. I have been working on expanding that scalpel-wielding community.

          Like

          • jubilare says:

            Do you have something you are fleeing towards? Because, in my experience, simply fleeing from does more harm than good to a story.

            Encouragement is important, but easier to come by. Getting truly honest feedback is always a struggle. May we both succeed in getting the input we need!

            Like

            • The story is good. it is my sense of inadequacy that draws me into self-doubt. So I have to finish the story, then I can battle the demons head on, so to speak.
              May your knife be sharp.

              Like

              • jubilare says:

                We’re all inadequate. I struggle with the same feelings all the time. For years, those feelings kept me from writing at all.
                I hope it is. 🙂

                Like

              • Write on! Write through. I had lots of excuses to give into fear. But I believe that it is when we are faced with the impossible that God works best. And in fantasy writing, we are faced with the impossible–sometimes within our stories, but especially when we think of publication. I hope, I dream, I may be crushed, but now I write.

                Like

              • jubilare says:

                I write! And I pray it has some worth, and some purpose to some one other than myself.

                Like

  3. LOL – A mostly pass is a good thing. Where would we be without elves, unsuspecting heirs, mages that bear more than a passing resemblance to Gandalf and my personal favourite – stew as a roadside meal…

    Like

  4. kathils says:

    Excellent post, and thanks for following There and Draft Again. I mostly passed as well when I took the test. It would be an interesting expirement to write a story breaking every one of those rules. Or are they merely guidelines? I think the list is a good way to make sure we haven’t gone overboard, to get us to think about our writing, the story we’re telling, and make us aware of any cliche pits we may have fallen into. But fantasy wouldn’t be fantasy without some of these elements, it’s what the fans read it for.

    Like

    • “It would be an interesting experiment to write a story breaking every one of those rules”
      I totally agree. I have a story that I need to finish (http://princessmadisonjayne.com/) for my niece that breaks the rules intentionally–a farce. Terry Pratchett, to some extent Gaiman, etc. But ALL of the rules? That’s a challenge.
      I think these are neither guidelines nor rules, but canaries in the literary mine.

      Like

  5. Pingback: C.S. Lewis’s Faerie Lecture, and a Prince Edward Island Folktale | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. Don Peterson says:

    And yet, whatever we think of Tolkien’s epigones, his own work remains a magnificent achievement simply by virtue of being the first. For all that he was influenced by a number of previous writers of fantasy, nobody had ever had the guts to do what he did: to write a counterfeit epic in a clear, contemporary language, accessible to all; to unite the timeless appeal of the fairy tale with the giddy delight of the adventure story; to create an imaginary world which, no matter how heavily colonized since then, still has the power to evoke the thrill of exploration. For that achievement no praise is too extravagant; and the love his fans lavish on him is well-deserved. Perhaps we should honor Tolkien not by endlessly rewriting The Lord of the Rings but by emulating the Oxford don’s courage in opening up for ourselves new realms of Fairy which will be as fresh and unexpected as Middle-earth was at the hour of its making.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This slipped into my spam! Sorry I missed it–I think you have the right perspective.
      “Guts,” perhaps, or it could be simply the imagination needed and the commitment to the project.
      I happen to think “being influenced” is a good thing. Yet something original, something of me still comes out.

      Like

  7. Tigerlily87 says:

    Nice to hear the input and ideas of a fellow Lewis fan! I discovered this test some years back, and took it quite seriously. Back then (2009), I only scored one I think. I recently retook it today and found that I was forced to answer “yes” to five of them — #7, #9, #25, #35, & #48. I read another burgeoning writer’s blog where one individual claimed that scoring more than 10 was a far better marker for revising and re-imagining potential work than the preposterous “one-and-done” deal. Looking at the ones you dissected and the ones that I hit, I have to agree with you–some of these cliches are staples of a “fantasy-type” of work, without some of them, a regular of the fantasy diet would second-guess their selection and wonder if the work they picked up was mis-shelved. I confess that my inspiration/education in the world of fantasy has been strictly confined to the famous works of our beloved C.S. Lewis and his good friend Mr. Tolkein. None of the more contemporary “additions” to their ranks–if we can truly call them that–have ever appealed to me. The dons of Oxford simply set a standard for others to aim for both in the spirit of their literary works, as well as in regards to their intentions toward their (intended) audience. Simply put: There is nothing new under the sun! Good stories with good characters are the formula for providing the reader with an enjoyably complex experience of simple principles derived from truth. Great stories with great characters, though fewer and far between, are the formula for providing readers with an unforgettable experience of it. Lewis did the latter for children like me and set their feet on a path of wisdom and sound moral teaching, which Tolkein then continued for them as they got older and brought them through, what they found in hindsight to be, an exhilarating triumph over the most dire of conditions. I think for any writer, regardless of genre or background, the key to writing is truth. There is a quote from a movie which declares that “artists use lies to tell the truth, whereas politicians use lies to cover the truth up”. I wish you strength and courage in your endeavor from one writer to another. May all those who pick up the pen to share their ideas with the world seek to present truth above all else. Godspeed!

    Like

    • If by “truth” you mean authenticity, I’m totally with you. I have trouble seeing how a completely derivative book can be authentic, so I think the test of authenticity will weed out much of the fan fiction and poorer lit.
      Have you read Ursula K. LeGuin. Her Earthsea Cycle is lovely, and I just found 5 or 6 more of her books at a Habitat for Humanity store. I’ve very excited.
      And thank you for the blessing. I fI can return one: May you have an incontrovertible sense of humour shot through with artistic authenticity!

      Like

  8. I think it is almost impossible to completely pass this test as there are something that makes fantasy genre identifiable. Things that bring the fans together. That being said it is true that the lower the score the better because you don’t want the story to be predictable. I think the main reason this test was even made so that people don’t make redundant stories and stay original. and by original I don’t mean not having an inspiration but having multiple inspirations that all come to an original idea as a whole. As a matter of fact having roots in already existing stuff might actually make the story more charming. So i agree that you mostly passed the test and thats whats important.

    Like

    • Good comments. “Mostly passed” is the best one can do. It is always heartbreaking when I sketch out a story idea and find out “it’s been done.” Imagine writing a whole novel like that! It is probably worth poking around and asking these questions, imperfect as they are.

      Like

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