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For me, before literature came horror, but before horror was fantasy (first qualifier — yes, both horror and fantasy can be ‘literary’):  Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydian, the Christian propaganda that is Narnia, Alan Garner’s Wierdstone of Brisingamen, various iterations of the Sword in the Stone — British and American young adult fantasy fiction, and craploads of it.  I’m talking hundreds of novels, and except for those devoured by fire or insect, not a single book ever thrown away.  My bookshelf could be catalogued by the colour of the paper — white (literature), ivory (sci fi), cream (horror) and beige (fantasy) — their antiquity denoting all the baby-steps in my budding literary consciousness.

I started writing stories, like everybody else, when I was a stupid kid.  You write what you read, so I wrote thinly-veiled Hobbit rip-offs, with the usual motley crew of dwarves, elves, dragons and impressively hirsute men in hooded cloaks blasting evil-doers with liberal doses of ‘magic’ — splashing happily in the turgid slurry of fantasy tropes curdling inevitably towards cliche — Tolkien fanboy that I became, even though he was dead by the time I was five, I’m sure he felt the love.  Subsequent authors like Philip Pullman, Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, etc. introduced me to the elf-free zone that is adult fantasy fiction, and that is where I live now.  But, holy shit, how hard is it not to throw in a dwarf-by-any-other-name, or two!  Cynical bastards that we are, give a squat muscular bloke a beard and an axe and all you motherf*ckers immediately scream “Gimli!”

The modern fantasist need a checklist or some other mechanism by which to control our natural inclinations, to fend the beast of unwitting intertextuality aside.  In addition to a very salutary post from the inimitable Chuck Wendig (here), here’s a borrowed anti-trope checklist for keeping my epic high fantasy honest.  As the author instructs, answer yes to any of these, throw that shit away and start again:

  1. Does nothing much 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. Did it not occur to anyone in your world to invent basic devices like hay balers, water pumps, or winches?
  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 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”, “fae” 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 Role Playing Game?
  44. Do your female characters inexplicably wear a lot less clothing than your males characters?
  45. Have you every typed the words ‘comely wench’?
  46. Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls or hire henchmen?
  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 useful 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 dying?
  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 ‘comely wench’ 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. Is there a talking bloody tree in your novel?
  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 a battleaxe yet feels seriously threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
  64. Do you really think it 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 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. Did you draw the complete map of your fantasy world before you wrote the first word of your novel?
  74. Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
  75. Is your book basically a rip-off of of LOTR?
  76. Read that question again and answer truthfully this time.