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Subgenre Bingo – Sword and Sorcery

This shall be the first of a series of subgenre bingo cards for everyone’s amusement. Myself and a few of my friends have a running joke that some genres can so overwork certain tropes that we could almost play bingo with books that fall into that particular subgenre.

It should be noted, that this is not meant to denote how “good” or “bad” a particular specimen is, just how far it falls into the realm of cliché. Right now, I’m not really speculating on if clichés are awful or not. Usually they’re simply used as a cultural shortcut.

Anyway, it would probably be best to think of these as identification cards that one might use to catalog random books encountered out in the wild. To apply the bingo card aspect, keep track of how many “yes” answers you find with a particular literary specimen. This is by no means intended to be a definitive list as definitions of subgenres do vary depending on who’s writing them and I’ve probably forgotten a few recurring tropes (which you are certainly free to add, gentle reader).

– – –

Main Character Checks

1. Is the main character an orphan?

2. Is the main character a phenom at something?

3. Does one of the main characters’ pasts act as a trigger for the plot?

I’m sure we’ve all found main characters with no parents and are stunningly talented in at least one thing.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu candidates will frequently have no limits to what they are natural experts at. Frequently this implies that in order to do great things, one must already be great at something. But even with limits imposed, natural talent can only take one so far. At some point the wits should kick in…or they finally brute force a solution out…or they get help. In any case, something happens to break the stalemate.

Clearly in order to start doing great things, one must have no parents. There’s no way they have anything like advice or life experiences of their own that could possibly help their offspring later on. Nope! They are supposed to get killed by someone else to spur the main character into action. Benefiting from our predecessors’ experiences? Not repeating the past? Bah! Who needs that? We need everything on infinite loop!

Cast Checks

4. Is the cast of main characters pretty small (four to six characters)?

5. Do the main characters hail from very disparate backgrounds?

6. Are the main characters kept narratively isolated from non-adventuring friends and family?

I’m going to call this D&D syndrome. Each character has a very specific role to play in the narrative and while they may branch out a little, they generally don’t deviate from that role too much throughout the tale. By keeping all mention of outside social connections to a minimum they further become character tropes rather than individuals. No one wants to read about a person in a fantasy after all, because fantasy should be all about escapism, right? Anything real would just jar a reader out of it, right? RIGHT?

Having stock characters isn’t necessarily a terrible thing (if all you want is a story you’ve probably heard before) but if you want immersion, reality needs to make a cameo appearance. Preferably, several cameo appearances. Or even better, reality is the script editor.

Other Races

7. Are there elves or elf-like creatures?

8 . Could the elf or elf-like creatures be called “treehuggers”?

9. Do different races reflect one human trait very strongly?

Remember to keep things simple in sword and sorcery books, because we want escapism and entertainment first and foremost. Things like depth would only get in the way. Going back to such things like elves as both treehuggers and stealers of babies…too complicated for simple entertainment. Besides, we need to have symbolism in there somewhere. The big abstract “good versus evil” theme kind of runs roughshod over almost everything else. So obvious symbolism must be obvious. And yes, I could have used orcs or goblins or dwarves or something for the example, but elfy critters seem to get used more.

What could denote “the Other” better than pointed ears or piggy noses? Nonhumanoids? They’re too ugly and unpersonable and no one’s going to write fanfiction about those. They have to bring in the female demographic somehow. Heavens knows that making awesome and believable characters won’t do it.

(It should be noted that the author of this article is in fact an elf-fangirl herself, but A) knows it, B) admits it and C) isn’t picky between steal-your-baby or treehugging elves.)


10. Is the setting in Medieval stasis?

11. Is there magic in the setting?

12. Are all the monsters European in origin (except for Russia)?

This goes to making the strange familiar rather than letting it work itself out with its own social logic and gradually letting the reader discover it. And why would anyone want to venture outside of Europe? It isn’t as if India or China have rich cultures and mythologies to borrow from. It isn’t as if Russian folktales have anything so repeatable as ballets based off of them. Oh, wait…

Well, part of this mess is that a lot of us are taught that the word revolves around Europe and so European creatures of legend tend to get the most attention, even though Coyote could outsmart Loki and Hermes any day of the week and twice on Sunday or that African jungle monsters are scarier than anything in Hades’s abode. And I haven’t even gotten warmed up yet.

As for why Russia tends to be excluded, the protagonists lose half of the time, the creatures are as merciless as the Siberian winter and you only ever temporarily thwart the likes of Baba Yaga. Even the willis will kick the crap out of you (only if you are very, very lucky and the one who starts dancing with you likes you) when crossed. Standard sword and sorcery fare requires the good guys to definitively win out over the bad guys.

Vague Conflicts

13. Is there a dungeon crawl?

14. Does the plot remind you of a Dungeons and Dragons adventure?

15. Does it resemble “the journey of the hero?”

16. Is “teh fate ov teh wurld” at stake?

We really should not underestimate how much influence a dice rolling game has over the sword and sorcery subgenre. Granted it grew out of early epic fantasy (yes I am distinguishing by time period. Genres can and do change), but it’s kind of amazing how many first fantasy novels look and read like something I would see around the kitchen table waiting for my turn to roll saving throws.

The questing hero is such a constantly repeated trope with those orphaned phenoms that it is less a point that it’s a tried, tested and accepted narrative model than we seem to never get tired of hearing about someone overcome obstacles to do something awesome. It’s certainly why there are so many entries in history books dedicated to people who rose beyond their given circumstances. The Journey of the Hero is less a complaint on the sameness of the sword and sorcery subgenre and more a comment on how people in real life get themselves past almost insurmountable odds to do the incredible.

Also, seriously, when isn’t “teh fate ov the wurld” at stake? And of course one person can save the world and then walk home whistling. That’s totally feasible. NOT. Can’t they go a little smaller, like “The fate of my hometown is at stake” or something? Not like the protagonists need motives or anything, no. They are just “naturally good.”

The Bad Guys

17. Is there an evil overlord?

18. Does the evil overlord need to review the Evil Overlord’s handbook?

19. Is there a motivation for the evil overlord to be evil?

20. Does the antagonist want the destroy the world even though that would make continued living in it extremely difficult?

Ah villains… They really should have at least as much thought put into them as the main character and their supporting cast but sadly gaining a better understanding of how awesome the protagonist is through having a well thought out, smart villain seems to be considerably underrated by some. Apparently, we need to have Skeletor smacked around on a regular basis instead.

Other Stuff

21. Do the wizards wear snuggies?

What are a wizard’s mystical robes but a wearable blanket? This particular trope is so widespread that it exists in urban fantasy as well.

22. In order to possess the power, does the character have to go trouser-less?

I blame He-man, the old Hercules movies, Conan the Barbarian and all the evil wizards wearing sackdresses for this one. Clearly pants were for other, less powerful people. Maybe when the deities of the narrative universe were distributing power they got mob rushed by a bunch of really drunk guys shouting, “Toga! Toga!” and so handed them more power in order to make them go away.

23. Is there a spoony bard?

You know the kind of character who is completely useless at anything except getting into trouble and making someone else look good by comparison? Yeah, that character.

24. Is there a stunningly talented archer?

For some reason every hero with a sword is backed up by someone with a ranged weapon (no matter how ridiculous it is). Clearly, it isn’t as if lightly armored archers on horseback managed to do anything so grand as conquer nearly all of Asia or anything.

25. Is there a token female character who acts as a romantic interest in addition to whatever other role she might play in the story?

Sometimes it seems like an all boys club, and girls are only allowed if their boyfriend is with them. Of course, this is only ok as long as they aren’t married. Married women with an active role in a sword and sorcery tale are as rare as snow in the Mojave desert. Yes it happens sometimes but not very often.

– – –

For those of you who have been using this as an identification guideline, tally up the “yes” answers you found for the suspected sword and sorcery book.

1-5 “Yes” Answers: Probably not a part of this subgenre. You may want to use a different bingo card.

6-12 “Yes” Answers: Contains elements of the subgenre. Might be classified as a part of the subgenre by some, but it’s more likely a rather thorough mix of two or more different subgenres.

13-19 “Yes” Answers: Will generally be considered part of this subgenre although it deviates in some ways.

20-25 “Yes” Answers: Congratulations! You got subgenre bingo!

This article was originally published on March 1, 2011.

Title image by Julie Bell.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    LOL – I loved this, although now I am going to have to play it for pretty much every book I read 😉

  2. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    This is great! 😀 Can’t wait for another one! 🙂 Now I have to go back and read the Evil Overlord’s Handbook. I never saw that before. 🙂 Good job! 😀

  3. Oh, this is TRULY excellent.

    It also makes me happy that i applied this to the novel I just finished editing for publication, and it passes with flying colours. Teh faet of the heroine’s prep school is the only thing at stake, and even that’s questionable. And her parents are very much alive, and have a tendency to ground her. This works. 😀

    • Avatar Fellshot says:

      “Teh Faet ov teh wurld” trope always mystified me somewhat. It seems like starting on a smaller scale would make serious inroads into building character motivation.

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this and Lol’d more than once. Thanks!

  5. Avatar Jared says:

    Very funny!

    However, as a long-time advocate of internet drinking games, might I suggest that this is more of a purity test than a bingo card ;-)… can I suggest the following set of four downloadable cards for home use?

    • Avatar Fellshot says:

      LOL, This is why I’m calling it subgenre bingo rather than genre bingo. Those cards are pretty awesome, although not as specific as I’m shooting for. XD

      I may pester someone who has more spare time than I do to make actual bingo cards though… 😀

  6. Avatar Jared says:

    Definitely! Plus a bingo roller thing in the shape of a dragon! 🙂

  7. […] readers might notice some parallels and repeats from the sword and sorcery subgenre bingo. That is somewhat deliberate as both subgenres are generally regarded as “classical” or […]

  8. Wonderful explanation. So much more entertaining than the BISAC guides.

  9. This seem to have been writen by someone who doesn’t actually know what Sword & Sorcery is or not read much of it. There are some items on the list that practically never show up in the genre at all.
    Treehugger elves, european monsters, heroes journey, and the end of the world are things you’ll probably never get to see in any Sword & Sorcery story.

  10. Hm, I’d say some of this relates more to High Fantasy than S&S, which tends not to have world-threatening Evil Overlords or the “standard” races. S&S is usually more a personal adventure than an epic one. Also, most typically (Conan, for instance) it tends to have an ancient-world setting rather than a mediaeval one (how many knights in full armour do you ever see in S&S?)

    Still, it’s a fun exercise.

    • Avatar Madfox11 says:

      Which only shows how peoples’ ideas on what defines specific subgenres change over time and generations (as the author alluded to in her comment on epic fantasy).

  11. Avatar Thedarkman says:

    I see ‘real’ S&S as the noir, gritty brother of fantasy. Generally a small cast of characters, lower stakes, and heavy on the swordplay. Also, S&S reads best in the short story to novella length; Howard’s Red Nails is a good example. Don’t bad-mouth my old-school S&S…

  12. I agree, Thedarkman – I have read good S&S novels (Howard even wrote a Conan novel) but they’re the exception. Obviously genre are going to evolve, but if they evolve into something totally different, they’re not the same genre. Even so, I can’t think of an example of anything normally recognised as S&S that includes elves or dwarves.

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