Notes on Epic Fantasy

Poster for the second Hobbit film

Poster for the second Hobbit film

I’m a huge fantasy fan. I love epic fantasy that sweeps me away into a vast tapestry of a different world with dozens of different characters who are so very human, despite their fantastical lives.

Other subgenres of fantasy are great too, but epic fantasy never ceases to capture my imagination. Of course, it does need to be well written with a fully realized, colorful world.

There’s lots of authors who try to write epic fantasy, but not many who pull it off well. Of those who do, even they sometimes struggle with the complexity of their world and the (often) hundreds of characters. Character arcs, continuity, pacing–these all cause problems for authors, especially those with visions that encompass entire worlds and fictional eras.

I’ve read a lot of fantasy and read a lot of critiques and tips about the genre. I think that there is no writing rule that cannot be broken successfully, but I’ve found that the most successful authors have similar patterns for their epic fantasy. This is not a formula or exhaustive list, but here are three traits of good epic fantasy.

1. A Slow Start

Good authors of any genre do not typically drop their readers into a complex situation at the start of the novel, but this is especially important for authors of epic fantasy. The reader knows that a big cast and plot are on the way, but if he or she is overwhelmed with details and names and world rules, it’s not likely the reader will go on to the next chapter.

A book that introduces me to a world slowly, character by character, feeding me information as I need it, is a book that will likely hold my attention into the wee hours of the morning. Many authors accomplish this with a main character who is exposed to much of the wider fantasy world with the reader. A farmboy whose world is overturned and who is forced to journey into the world beyond his farm. A street rat who finds herself kidnapped away from the tiny street world she knows and transported to a city she never dreamed of seeing. This technique tends to lead to another trait as well.

2. An Everyman Character Forced into Greatness

I’ve rarely read good fantasy that does not offer a character that the readers can connect on the basis of being completely ordinary. If a character is well drawn, readers can connect with almost anyone, but there’s something about that ordinary character propelled into the center of world shaping conflicts that draws us in every time.

Sometimes that character is chosen by dint of bloodline or magical ability. Sometimes it’s just chance that takes him or her into the spotlight.

Sometimes it ends well. Sometimes it ends very, very badly.

But I think that, secretly, all of us want to be special in some extraordinary way. That’s why heroes like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson appeal so strongly to so many people. Luke Skywalker. Rand Al’Thor.

There’s a reason the farmboy turned chosen one is a cliche.

3. A Cast of Hundreds with Hundreds of Lives

Obviously, epic fantasy needs a lot of characters just for the plot to function. But there’s a big difference between characters who exist just to fill a purpose and characters who fill a purpose while existing. The former are created when the author needs a government official or an evil minion. The latter might start out that way, but they take on a life of their own, with their own motivations and backstory.

The cast of thousands is filled with secondary and minor characters with lives and thoughts and stories that wander in and out of the main characters’ narrative. There’s a character to appeal to everyone, no matter how minor a part they play. Each character has people they care about, goals they want to reach, and disappointments they face.

I’m no bestselling author, but my goal is to someday take these observations and weave them into my own epic fantasy series. That might be a ways out, though. First I need to learn to juggle my subplots…