Like many readers, I like to look for “Epic” fantasy, but what precisely does that mean? I guess some of us who grew up and read Tolkien have this idea of characters going on a long journey that may forever change them and impact the world they live in. More recent authors who fit this trend include George R R Martin, Robert Jordan, and Terry Goodkind. I suppose you could say that Harry Potter goes on an epic quest over the course of his youth.
Recently I read an article on fantasy genres and sub genres here, which tries to better define the differences. The problem is, you can have quite a bit of overlay between them. Epic fantasy seems more focused on a broad setting and scope, while high fantasy more on the decisions and growth of an individual or small, focused group, on their journey. Sometimes the descriptions limit reader’s perception. For instance, high fantasy typically offers black-and-white morality of characters, but if you want someone morally ambiguous, like Conan, that’s sword & sorcery. Some people who favor or avoid fantasy may only be exposed to one type of it. Growing up, I liked fantasy in general, but it took awhile to realize the subtle differences in which people categorized them. No you also have variations like dark fantasy, urban fantasy, alternate history, etc. This makes fantasy a wildly diverse field.
I’ve seen some differences in my own work. I always put maximum effort into creating my characters and their motivations, emotions, and feelings. If a reader isn’t invested in a character, the rest falls apart. Even an action-ride series such as Pilgrims with Blades, which favors a tabletop RPG feel of the adventure, would advance nowhere without the strong personalities of its protagonists.
Yet at the same, if you read one of my books, that wouldn’t necessarily introduce you to the style of all my books. And even when I write, I don’t have any particular “sub-genre” in mind. Such thoughts restrict a writer and his story.
Duli’s experiences in “The Widow Brigade” are more drama than adventure. There are battle scenes and action sequences, but it’s more about the personal struggle of a character in an unsupportive society. it also involves a personal battle against depression. Duli’s motives start out selfish, and through her depression she is focused on her own wants. Once she begins making the changes she desires in her society, she forges her own chains of responsibility and leadership in a natural way, without intending it. I know I succeeded in developing this character when readers, some of whom weren’t very attracted to fantasy, hailed it as a unique look into the genre.
I’ve introduced shorter journeys and experiences, such as the freebie on my home page, “The Wooden Maiden”. More fairy-tale than my other works, it was a story designed to be told within a brief narrative.
Trestan and his friends were my first written answer to my definition of epic fantasy. The Earthrin Stones trilogy covers a storyline over three continents and five years. Many characters played a hand in the story, and I had a large job as a first-time author in giving everyone a voice. I must have did something good. One review said that every reader would find a character with whom they could relate. It’s no doubt that my first protagonist, Trestan, would have to grow and develop. He starts out as a village boy hitting trees, pretending his stick is a sword and they are his enemies. He ends the series in a rather terrifying duel with an otherworldly creature in it’s home plane of existence. Trestan was built with many of my own weaknesses and failures, and he had to work to overcome them. Along the way, his many companions had their own share of fears, motivations, quirks, insecurities that had to be addressed as well. All in all, I looked back on the project and thought I did an excellent job giving multiple characters their share of the spotlight and pulling it all together.
There is the world itself, Dhea Loral. The Earthrin Stones books introduced readers to the politics and effects of a “cold war” between fantasy gods, an element that I hoped would being something new to the genre. Even in high fantasy, I didn’t want the gods interfering and siphoning away the characters’ victories. it’s a trap that sucks the heroics of your mortal protagonist and makes their efforts look trivial. I designed a world system which only granted the gods influence but put the power in the hands of the mortals struggling in the world. It is a system and a history that causes some of my characters reflection. In the Earthrin Stones books, it gave me a world platform I could use to really drive in the importance of mortal actions.
Both Boxer Earns His Wings and Pilgrims with Blades are books that follow an action-packed journey. Although the Pilgrims series was inspired by Conan books, (and thus, the swords and sorcery style of morally ambiguous characters), I planted a huge backstory behind all the characters in order to support the series. Even in an adventure-ride narrative, you need characters with the potential to grow, disagree, share ideas, and drive emotions. All of the main characters of that book have a personal quest, or for that matter, a shameful part of their past, which will need to be overcome by all.
By making sure you have characters with voices with which different readers can relate, you can build a narrative that draws and entertains them, rather than writing something which may flow but lacks substance. As much as I liked many cheesy action movies of the 80s, some did better than others because of how they built the characters and how they affected the world. If it rang hollow, it didn’t survive the test of time. And regardless of how the fantasy subject might be classified, concentrate on your characters and let them tell their story. Classifications are restrictions. Write and read unrestricted by them.