Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What Makes Fantasy Epic?


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


First of all... The contest.


The Go Teen Writers #WeWriteBooks contest is open for submissions between now and Wednesday, September 28th OR until we receive 300 entries.

Click here to read the full rules and find out how to enter.

THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED.





What Makes Epic Fantasy Epic?


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “epic” stems from the Greek “epos,” which meant a “word; a tale, story; promise; prophecy, proverb; poetry in heroic verse.” And from 1706, as a noun it referred to an epic poem or “a long narrative told on a grand scale of time and place, featuring a larger-than-life protagonist and heroic actions.”

Epics were a type of poetry that often dealt with action and grandeur of traditional or historical interest. Most focused on the deeds of a specific hero. Epic poetry was recited aloud, to entertain an audience with the exploits of the hero and the nation that hero represented. It’s not so much about the individual as it was about how the heroic traits of that individual reflected national pride.

Epic fantasy, therefore, is not simply about a hero and his quest. That type of a story often falls under the subgenre of heroic fantasy. Epic fantasy is about more than one person. It’s about a world, the people in it, and a conflict that is rising up to forever change that world.

One of the most famous epic fantasies is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That story is not just about Frodo’s quest. It goes much deeper than that and is quite complex. Here is a list of elements that I believe every epic fantasy should have.


10 Must Haves in Any Epic Fantasy

1. Incredible Worldbuilding
An intriguing world that’s different from our own. Worldbuilding is a huge part of epic fantasy. The world should feel so real that it is like a character. I wanted my Five Realms to be different from anything else I’d written, so I made it a desert land with a high elevation. All freshwater is underground and frequent earthquakes have created dangerous cracks and fissures throughout the land. I also spent a lot of time developing five different nations, a complicated history between them, and a magic that is a major source of strife.


2. A Map
Most epic fantasy stories have an incredible map in the front of the book that readers will continue to flip back to as they read. Here is my map of the Five Realms from The Kinsman Chronicles. I love drawing maps. And with this one, I really worked hard to try and make the map look old school by purposely drawing the proportions off for my cliffs and to include the most interesting elements of my world. I think if you click on it, you can zoom in.





3. Massive Scope
In epic fantasy, the storyworld is big and the story takes place all over that epic map. Take the Lord of the Rings, for example. The story doesn’t take place in Hobbitton alone. The characters move all over Middle Earth. A massive scope also means a lot of pages and/or a lot of books to tell that massive story.


4. Massive Stakes
The story cannot be simple. And while it might involve a quest or revenge or a chase, the stakes have to be bigger than one person’s life. In epic fantasy, the world is at stake. Often this involves a great evil sweeping through the land or an invading kingdom. Epic fantasy usually involves some politics and some ruling characters be they kings, emperors, senators. The point is, the world as the characters know it is at stake. Their way of life is being threatened.


5. A Complex Plot and Subplots
There is a lot going on in an epic fantasy. I’m talking soap opera complexity here. Yes, there should be one major plot that is threatening the world, but that should also involve many characters and their individual storylines.


6. A Large Cast
To go with that complex plot, an epic fantasy needs a large cast of deep characters that the reader can root for. This often means many points of view, but not always. The point is, readers should grow to love many of the characters, as is often the case with the Lord of the Rings.


7. Magic
Oh yes. There should be magic in an epic fantasy novel. And if at all possible it should be intricately woven into the plot somehow. There have been epic fantasy novels without magic, but I can't think of one at the moment. If you can, share in the comments.


8. A Showdown
An epic fantasy usually ends with an epic battle or a major showdown between two or more characters. The entire book often leads to this clash of morals. And oftentimes, the hero doesn’t go it alone. One or more side characters come in to help in the main battle or a side battle.


9. The Feel of History
An epic fantasy should, in the same way epic poetry once did, feel like the telling of a major part of history for that storyworld. This is a story of history. Of when a threat came upon the world and a group of individuals fought back and defeated that threat. Someday a hundred years in the future from the time of the story, kids will be learning about these stories at school and there might even be a museum of sorts where people come to see the weapons of those great heroes who saved the land.


10. Breaks the Mold
Epic fantasy should attempt to break the mold in some way. For years Tolkien was the mold and everyone copied him. People still do. But part of writing epic fantasy is to try and do something different. Something no other author has tried. It’s a chance for an author to take a risk—just like the heroes he or she creates.

I tried to do that with The Kinsman Chronicles. I wanted to write a true epic fantasy in which a world was ending. It was a plot I felt hadn't been done before. A "Battlestar Galactica at Sea," if you will, and how those survivors moved on and eventually began again.

Have you ever read epic fantasy? If so, what are some of your favorites? Share in the comments.

Also, if you're building your own storyworld and need some inspiration, the Kindle version of my book Storyworld First is on a .99 sale until this Sunday night, September 25. If you haven't grabbed your copy yet, now is a great chance to save. Click here to see the book on Amazon.com.




45 comments:

  1. Oooo, you've got to love epic fantasy... The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien is the best book I've ever read, simply because of the imagination, scale, and foresight that comes with the story. Of course, George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice is amazing, as well as many other fantasy novels like the Throne of Glass series, but I still don't think any of them come close to what Tolkien achieved. Yeah I'm a bit of a fangirl XD

    Thanks for the post, Mrs Williamson!

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    1. I absolutely love *The Silmarillion* as well!

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  2. My epic fantasy story *The Justice War* has all the abovementioned elements except for magic. An occasional special dream, a mirage in the mist, fabulous legends from ages gone . . . just a little such "shimmer" here and there to give an aura of magic that may be, but is not for certain.

    And I like it that way. I feel it fits the storyworld and the story's theme of seeking the extraordinary in the ordinary--great magic is not so ordinary as the magic of a humble soul, if you understand. Besides, the message of the story wouldn't be quite the same if there were great magic . . .

    I still regard *The Justice War* as epic fantasy, but you are free to disagree.

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    1. I like the idea of magic only being a "shimmer" in a story, especially if it serves the theme. :)

      -Deborah

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    2. Sounds pretty epic to me, Hanan. I think "shimmers" of magic is an excellent idea. :)

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    3. It sounds wonderful, Hanan. Always trust your gut. It's your story, so you know best.

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  3. How many entries are left on the We Write Books contest?

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    1. Not sure. We are planning to be open until next Wednesday. Last time I checked we were still under 100, so you likely don't need to hurry, though lots of time people wait until the last minute, so...?

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    2. Thanks for the reply :) Good to know I still have time.

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  4. I've always loved the idea of epic fantasy, but my stories usually come to me with a smaller scope, or fewer characters than a lot of epic fantasy offers. But this list is still important for me to remember. A sense of history in that world, and a plot that is bigger than just the main character are some of the things that still feel essential to me when writing. :)

    -Deborah

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    1. Too true, Deborah! We all serve a purpose in this world, although we may not always know what that purpose be; likewise, characters should serve a purpose in their worlds, besides just a purpose in their personal lives/families/etc. It's nice to find a like-minded individual.

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    2. Stories with a smaller scope, overall, tend to be more popular because they appeal to a wider audience. Not every reader is overjoyed by a 1000 page book. Ha ha. And smaller stories can be just as deep and layered and complex as long ones. What's important to you is likely important to the readers you write for, so trust your instincts.

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  5. Hi, Mrs. Williamson! I had a question that is kinda sorta related to the contest. When going back through my manuscript and creating an automatic indent, I ran into a problem. My centered text, such as chapter headings and scene breaks, were indented too and became off-center. Do you know of a way to fix this without adding a tab at the end of each one just to return it to center? I use Microsoft Office Word 2007.

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    1. Yes, that does happen, Olivia. I always have to scroll through the document and take out the indentations on lines that are centered. It can be a pain, but that's the only way I know how to do it.

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    2. Okay. Thank you, Mrs. Williamson!

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  6. Thank you! This actually helps a lot! I've always been terrified of writing an epic fantasy (even though I've really wanted to), because I had absolutely no idea where to start. Well, now this is giving me an idea. Thanks!

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  7. Thanks for this post! I really needed tonread this. The more I think about my wip the more I realize it is going to have to be an epic fantasy.

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  8. I love the idea of writing an epic fantasy one day, since I have always loved to write with a large cast. In some ways, my current WIP has a lot of the elements of an epic fantasy, though I consider it High Fantasy (there can be a pretty thin line there).

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    1. That's very true, James. It's a very thin line.

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  9. Wow, great post. Reading through it, I realized that I accidentally plotted an epic fantasy... This year's NaNoWriMo novel fits all of the points you mentioned! Never thought I'd write an epic fantasy, but I suppose that's what happens when you have seven main characters, an intensely developed story world, and a complex plot running on three different timelines: it becomes "epic."
    Thanks for the post!

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    1. LOL! Sounds pretty cool, I would think trying to write something so complex would be lethal during NaNo. Congrats on the seven MCs, I only have five and its been crazy hard. Fun and worth it on all accounts, but hard. How do you have things running on the different timelines? Just curious, it sounds intriguing.

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    2. Thanks, James! It'll definitely be interesting to write... I'm outlining like crazy (starting now, actually) so that hopefully it's not too confusing come November. Multiple MCs are crazy hard, aren't they? I've never done more than three before, so this is quite a stretch!

      For the timelines, I basically have three different plots. One takes place about 100 years before the "main plot," one only 30 years before, and then the main plot, which takes up most of the story. I had started out with just a few well-timed backstory moments, but it turned out that those backstories were so complex and necessary to the story that they needed to be worked into the narrative as subplots themselves. So I'll have a few chapters of the main plot, then a chapter from subplot A, back to main plot, subplot B, etc. The narrative style changes a bit from plot to plot as well, which should hopefully keep readers from getting too confused.
      Does that make sense? I mean, I'm kind of given up on anything about this story making much sense, but still... ;-)

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    3. I see! That's really cool. You explained it very well:) I like complex stuff (AND GOOD BACKSTORY STUFF IS LIKE MY FAVORITE (My character backstories tend to be 2 to 3K cause I apparently don't have anything better to do with my life)). Good luck with NaNo, it'll be a challenge, but my current MCs are my favorite children even though they're all together. It'll be well worth it.

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    4. Sounds very cool, Catsi. Good luck with it. We're all going to do NaNo this year on GTW, so we will be cheering you on.

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    5. Catsi--your accidentally extensive backstory, born from a few "well-timed backstory moments," sounds a lot like my situation with *The Justice War* (my epic fantasy novel-in-planning)! I ended up having to extend the backstory from those moments to support the story better and enhance the plot. It was actually fun, and undeniably interesting! Now I have a whole lot of new legends and folktales for the people in the present of the story, whether or not all of those legends and folktales will truly come into play during the course of the present plot.

      It's nice to be able to share experiences like this. Good luck, Catsi.

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  10. Brandon Sanderson writes epic fantasy and his worldbuidling is incredible. Also, his magic is super creative and yet is scientifically real (at least I think so). I highly recommend his Mistborn series.

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  11. I love epic fantasy! (And I can't wait to read Part 5 of the Kinsman Chronicles!)
    One of my WiPs, titled Blades of Glass and Obsidian, is an epic fantasy. It has a large world, high stakes, an awesome final showdown, many characters, a complex-ish magic system that has often been the cause of war . . . but it lacks a general plot. So far I just know what happens at the end and where the characters go but not how they get there or what happens there. It also has no beginning. I blame the fact that I started this story with a map. Normally I make a map to go along with a story (like my entry for the contest. The map came after I had a general idea for the plot. I love drawing maps.) but not for one. I have no idea where to start. One day, though, I'll come back to it finally figure out the beginning.

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    1. OH! Allow me to jump in with possibly-unwanted but well-meant advice. LOL.
      Okay, so since you have a map, I'd think that if it involves a journey, you could simply map out their route from beginning to end, and then by developing your world along that path, you'd probably uncover some cool conflicts to throw at the characters. (A dragon cave, if that's a thing in your story, a dangerous cliff, bandit hideouts, maybe even a lost ruin... just throwing out ideas.)
      Although I suppose that's not too helpful if you don't have a beginning... Hmm. Maps are cool, though! XD

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    2. Oooh! The map idea sounds really cool ... Starting stories with complex story worlds can be challenging. My current WIP started with a map and complex story world, but since the story was centered around the characters I was able to use them to shape the plot. I have found writing down a list of what is going to happen, and then rearranging/playing with the events/scenes can really help get the plot rolling.

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    3. I love maps, too, Julia. I totally understand. When the time is right, the inspiration will hit you and you'll be like, "Oh! I'm ready to work on that story again. I know what I need to do."

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    4. Thanks so much for the advice! I'm looking forward to coming back to this story and finally writing it. Most of the story takes place in one area but there is still some traveling for a few characters. (Now I feel like I'm not taking advantage of this huge story world . . . )

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  12. I loved your epic fantasy King's Folly! I'm writing a sort of fantasy, but I'm not sure I would say it's epic. On a side note, I just finished reading To Darkness Fled. I cannot wait to read the next one! Alas, reading has been distracting me from my own storyworld, so I'm forcing myself to wait. Curses, why must your books be so good!! DX ;P

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    1. I know, right??? I had to read them really quickly so as to minimize the interruption in my writing life. ;)

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    2. Aww, you guys are very kind. I'm so glad you liked them! Reading the right kind of books can inspire me, sometimes, but other time, I read a random genre, like historical romance, just to clear out my brain and take a vacation of sorts. And if it's a really thick book, I sometimes get in trouble for the very reasons you stated. I should be writing! Put that down, Jill! I have, at times, bribed myself with reading. If I write or edit one chapter, then I get to read one chapter. That keeps me working a little, anyway... :-)

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  13. MAPS, YES. I love looking at maps and thinking about what's beyond the edges. I also love drawing them (and then promptly losing them on account of my immense disorganization.)

    I definitely agree with all of these! Large casts of main characters is maybe my very favorite - though despite the fact that they're amazing to read, they're much harder to write.

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. It is interesting to think about what is beyond your map. Lots of stories tend to leave that out. And, I totally agree. After I wrote the Safe Lands trilogy, which had four POVs, I swore I'd never do that again, and then I wrote the Kinsman Chronicles, which has ten or more POVs! They're not all main characters like in Safe Lands, but it was really hard work. I'm just itching to write a one-POV book after this. :-)

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  14. I bought Storyworld First today and I've already made so much progress on my fantasy!

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    1. Oh, I'm so glad it inspired you, Josie! Hooray!

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    2. Storyworld First is so great - it definitely helped me with my fantasy stories.

      ~ Savannah
      scattered-scribblings.blogspot.com

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  15. Epic Fantasy is totally my favorite genre. I myself am trying to write one. The worldbuilding there actually takes place across three different realms of the same universe (basically, the story's version of Earth, Heaven and Hell).

    Although, I am confused about having a large cast, because I keep hearing that having a lot of characters is a bad idea (one of my favorite book series, Warriors, was criticized for having a lot of characters.)

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    1. Sounds like an interesting idea. It's difficult to do a lot of characters well. And there are differences between a lot of POV characters and a lot of characters. A Name in the Wind is a popular epic fantasy with one POV character, but there are hundreds of characters in the book. It just depends on the story you're trying to tell and what is the best way to execute that story. Sometimes it takes trial and error to find what's best, sometimes you know right away.

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