Thursday, February 21, 2013

Guest Post by Ian Isaro: What Makes Epic Fantasy Tick

Welcome to today's guest blogger, Ian Isaro! I asked Ian to write a post about what makes epic fantasy work because he's read more of it than anyone else I know. Pretty good qualifications. Ian is the author of the Sorcery and Scholarships series. You can find him writing about fantasy on his blog.
Thanks again, Ian, for letting me put you on the spot. And here he is:

"Grand Prelate! The Sylvans are fording the Turvlebip River! The Thoris Mage has the Staff of Ghrblgk and is bringing down the Great Wall!"

"By the curly beard of Bupkis the Terrible!" Al'thir'evaeael cursed.

At least some of you think of this kind of thing when you think about epic fantasy. That example is somewhat over the top, but only somewhat. These are the doorstopper novels that have thousands of characters with a few dozen invented languages and can span decades.

I was asked to write about what makes epic fantasy tick, so I'm not going to worry too much about an exact definition of epic fantasy. A proper definition wouldn't necessarily match the above stereotypes and there's variety even within the subgenre. Instead, I'm going to focus on the five factors that I think make epic fantasy work: scope, immersion, depth, stakes, and earned endings.


I realized how much scope matters to me while reading Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Ten books totaling over three million words - what matters isn't the length, but what that many words allows the series to do.

In the last book, there's a conversation where two characters discuss the state of reality, and there are even more names dropped than in my example. Except by that point, you know every single name - not only that, you've read entire novels about each one. The dozen different conflicts mentioned aren't just some throwaway world building, each is a place you know with characters you've walked with throughout the series. It brought home that this is truly a conflict for reality.

Scope also gives us variety and diversity. Some series pretend to be about a "world" but it's really just medieval Europe spread across a larger area. Scope isn't a million league kingdoms or billion soldier armies, it's all the details that give a better sense of size than simple numbers can. Good epic fantasy gives multiple continents, races, cultures, or conflicts. It doesn't shy away from personal problems and smaller issues, but it includes them as part of a living, breathing world.


This brings us to immersion, which is one of the central appeals of epic fantasy. Others have already written about how it brings readers back, so I'll try to focus on other aspects. Immersion is when the setting isn't just a vehicle for the author's ideas, but a fully-realized entity that has more to offer than what's on the surface. This perhaps more than anything is what draws readers into worlds and keeps them there.

It's Tolkien's complete languages. Wheel of Time's two thousand characters. The edges of Robin Hobb's maps. It's the promise that "Grand Prelate" isn't just a random title for yet another interchangeable authority figure, but reflects a culture and system that will continue strengthen to the story.

Immersion also allows for very satisfying payoffs. Because epic fantasy typically has more worldbuilding, you can afford to place all kinds of Chekov's guns on many different mantles. By the end of even the first book of an epic, readers are familiar with a wide variety of characters, places, forces, and all manner of elements that can be thrown together without the need for any more setup. Sanderson always does this, putting pieces in place for 75% of a book and then setting off a cascade of events that sweeps through the ending.

Epics stand far away from the problem of too-tidy stories, where absolutely everything seems to exist only to serve a role in the plot and tie things up with a neat little bow. Most of them err in the opposite direction, but it's the breadth of the world that gets readers to commit, since it reflects the messiness of reality and hence has the feel of a "real" story instead of a parable or fable.


Not to imply that other kinds of fiction don't have depth, but the size of epic fantasy allows it to do different things. The beauty of a short story is that it focuses entirely on one thing. By contrast, the strength of epic fantasy is that it can be about many things, and weave different themes together over a long period of time.

Length allows for subtlety, themes sneaking up on you, getting beneath your defenses against obvious Messages and Morals. Instead of characters dramatically turning from good to evil, they can slide slowly, reflecting all the shades of grey in the real world and forcing you to think seriously about the issues at hand.

The length of epic fantasy lets characters breathe, experiencing a wide variety of emotions and life circumstances. No one has to be the Coward or the Hero, but can display both heroism and cowardice at different times, closer to the diversity seen in human beings.


Perhaps the most important difference between epic fantasy and other subgenres is that in epics something critical must be at stake. All too often this is the fate of the world, but it goes deeper than that. Epic fantasy is about the world changing.

Lord of the Rings is a good example. It's about the passing of an age, old powers fading, technology gaining strength. It isn't a story where the villain is defeated and the status quo is restored, but one where nothing will ever be the same. Deeper, it's a story about the rejection of dominance as the only path to peace - several characters could have taken the Ring and won, but at the cost of their souls.

The Earthsea series reflects another important side of epic fantasy. All of it could fit into one novel of many other series, but the stakes are no less important. It's about the shifting of paradigms, first personal realities and eventually spiritual realities that profoundly affect everything.

Earned Endings

This awkwardly-named section is one that I don't see mentioned often, but I think is an underappreciated strength of epic fantasy. There are many things that might feel hollow or false in a shorter story that can be accomplished in a longer series.

Let's take a simple example of power: a naive farmboy becoming a mighty swordsman. In fairy tales, he gets a magic sword and that's the end of it. Some short fantasy has the equivalent of a training montage and then he's a master. Epic fantasy lets you see him grow and develop over time, so that when he does become a swordsman, it isn't arbitrarily granted power that doesn't matter.

This is a better match to reality than stories where doing something significant takes minimal time and effort. You cannot become a doctor after a week training with a wise old master dispensing cryptic sayings. A successful business doesn't follow a simple rising action, climax, denouement pattern. And as all the writers reading this know, you don't become abruptly published after a sad flashback to your childhood unlocks the author within your soul.

Stories that offer easy paths to the top may appeal to us, but only as fantasies because we know the real world doesn't work that way. Either the successes in those stories ring false, or we absorb a harmfully inaccurate view of work and success. Epic fantasy has the opportunity to model a more realistic path to anything meaningful.

Skills are the clearest example, but there are other things that can be earned as well. A short story can capture the feeling of the horror of war, but getting across the grinding devastation takes more time (Deadhouse Gates, anyone?). Politics don't have to be over-simplified and more complex solutions can be included. Relationships are more authentic when we see the characters grow over time. Not everything needs to be earned, but in the categories where that' s necessary, epics have additional weight.

Looking back, this post is a little scattered. Perhaps that's appropriate: epic fantasy isn't about just one thing, it's vignettes and character studies and detours that together form stories that can truly be called epic.

Many of you may be thinking of epic fantasy that doesn't meet these ideals, and that's true. There have been series that are just the Armies of Good defeating the Armies of Evil - merely taking a long time to do it. But those are imitations, capturing the form of an epic but not the substance. It's the series that take advantage of the strengths of epic fantasy that will be remembered.


  1. LOVE this post. It is fantastic. Should be read by all those who write fantasy, even nonepic. Thank you so much! I love how you took advantage of the extended length of the genre - I wrote an epic (I think) and I've been trying to pare it down. Now, I'm not sure that is a good thing.

  2. I'm going through your post like a check list, Ian.
    Scope? Hmm. I believe so.
    Stakes? Yes. Check.
    Immersion? Hopefully. Will let the readers judge.

    Really helpful post and hits at the heart of epic.

  3. Thanks, guys.

    It can be hard to judge when to pare down. My rule of thumb is that epic fantasy is allowed to have a lot of things, but no unnecessary things. It should all tie together, it just doesn't have to all tie into a single theme.