Epic Fantasy

Tripping The Light Fantastic

I'd like to start out by promoting a genre which was vastly popular in the days of my youth, but which seems to have fallen on hard times: Epic Fantasy.

Fantasy is an ancient literary form, dating back to the earliest verbal traditions. Classics such as 'Sinbad', 'The Odyssey' and 'Beowulf' were partly morality plays, partly heroic examples, and partly popular entertainment long before being set down in print. The fantastic charcters peopling these sagas have their roots in popular mythology: Dwarves, for example, were first found in 'The Ring Of The Nebulung', a Norse Saga, and carried over today in 'The Lord Of The Rings'. Fantasy and the people populating those alternate realities were well established long before 'Sci Fi' came on the scene.

Then came Dungeons & Dragons. Sigh. All of a sudden this ancient, revered literary form was inundated with the very crudest fur-covered-jock-strap action adventure, scenarios often penned by teenagers and even pre-teens with a total emphasis on smash-and-grab in an atmosphere ripe for cheating. And of course there followed an endless litany of rip-off games, comic books, pulp garbage, 'summer blockbusters', and even TV programs as the industry jumped to catch the gravy train.

The result was about what one would expect: the reading public, saturated with dreck, was turned off, and the taste for elves, dwarves and orcs faded away. About the only (somewhat) popular fantasy forms today are sparkly vampires and paranormal lovers - mainly, one assumes, since there is no easy way to weaponize 'The Ghost And Mrs Muir'.

Despite the present state of affairs, there is still potential for Epic Fantasy, provided you throw off the D & D blinders and concentrate on writing good material. (Thank you Professor Tolkien, and J K Rowling for keeping the art form alive and giving it a much needed legitimacy.)

Believe it or not, Epic Fantasy requires a rigidly disciplined world view (in some ways more rigid than general fiction) since you must make up everything, and this opens up all sorts of opportunities to get it wrong. It's bad enough if your worldbuilding is faulty: botch your Gods or your Magic System, and the readers will come down on you like a duck on a junebug. These people are, in many cases, invenerate gamers, are hungry for more, and know it all.

Moreover, your characters have to be mortally flawed and fallable. Peopling your story with 2 Dimensional Superheroes works just as badly here as anywhere else. This applies to the details of your worldbuilding as well. Keep it real. Give your characters weaknesses and vulnerabilities (other than you going out to collect the Magic Scroll, the Magic Cat, the Magic Pebble, etc. on a Quest to do that character in.) Give your world bad weather, treacherous tides, impassable mountain ranges, etc. Remember the old Monkey Wrench trueism: 'throw occasional monkey wrenches at your characters to keep them hopping'.

Remember, too, to avoid easy, oddly convenient solutions. Hidden passageways, invisibility cloaks, The Secret Shortcut Known To But A Few can mess up your dramatic buildup. A magic system which is too powerful (or too weak) can only get in the way. Gods which are too helpful (or too quarrelsome) are a real nuisance. As in all writing, you don't want your characters' path to be too easy, and you don't want the 'tech' to take over the story.

Above all, you must play fantasy absolutely straight. The tiniest bit of whimsy, the least sloppiness, will wreck the entire effort. Humor is all fine and good, but keep it real. Things you can get away with in regular Spec Fi (and you can't get away with much) will be the Kiss Of Death in fantasy. Still, this field has lain fallow for far too long. So by all means, look seriously at Epic Fantasy if that's your cup of tea. The need is there, the market is there, all we need now is a new generation of writers to breathe life into this ancient art form.

With respect to Andre Norton, for many hours of reading pleasure.

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