What Makes Fantasy Epic?
Peter Orullian, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Steven Erikson
Moderator: Ellen Guon Beeman
The definition of epic fantasy, how it’s evolved, and how they create their worlds.
Would you say there are specific styles, plots, or characters that make it epic?
RH: It’s a story that is world-changing. But the author decides the size of that world.
PR: Everybody does it for a different reason. Ultimately, it’s about bigness. Bigness of book, bigness of story, bigness of world. He doesn’t think he belongs in epic fantasy – more heroic fantasy. His works are big in scope of character.
PB: These genres we cram works into to place in a bookstore are useful tools, but he knows no authors bound by the rules of specific subgenres. These labels are tacked onto the work after it’s done to sell it. Broad in scope, characters go on journeys.
PR: Likes the term BFF – Big Fat Fantasy is a clear, defining label.
PO: Different labels are attached by different readers, which frustrates the marketers too. It’s interesting to think about reader response defining category as well.
SE: Epic fantasy is the origins of literature. The trunk of the tree. Everything else has branched out from that. Yet it doesn’t get the critical acknowledgement that other epics do.
PR: It’s a weird inverted hierarchy – stories are classed by their props rather than their substance. If you think about it, Stranger in a Strange Land is sci-fi because there’s a Martian, when really if you think about it now, it’s more urban fantasy. Cowboys equal westerns. It’s not about substance but about scenery. Props of epic fantasy: Horses, nobleman, prophecy, etc.
PB: Magic is the defining part of fantasy, which is why there’s such a big argument over whether Star Wars is fantasy.
PR: Can’t agree that magic is a defining characteristic. It’s a sense of the wondrous, and magic’s an easy way to achieve that.
PO: Believes that magic is a vital part.
PB: Even if there’s no palpable evidence about it. Magic can be subtle.
PR: This may be a semantic discussion. Fantasy engages with the wondrous.
SE: It’s an extension of imagination.
PR: And science fiction is a subset of fantasy.
Specific characteristics that the hero has to display?
PR: You need a protagonist. Defining characteristics – we have tropes, but those are getting hammered into gravel to the better of the genre.
PB: The hero is *stubborn*.
PB: Sure, if you want to be nice about it. Bossy.
PR: We have done a better job of remembering what a hero is all about. A big person. Ancient Greek definition: A great man who falls from a height with a tragic flaw who screws up everything. A lot of genres have moved away from that, but fantasy has not. Superman is an adolescent power fantasy. He doesn’t have flaws.
SE: We have infantilized our heroes. Fantasy as a genre is not immune to it; but it’s more that action films reduce the notion of the hero to sociopathic vengeance. Issues with notion of hero. He tries to dismantle it.
PR: In Smallville, who was the interesting character as the show progressed? Lex Luthor. Superman’s so perfect, it’s the villain who’s more interesting. Like Herod. The one people show up to watch.
Are writers moving away from the flawed hero?
PR: We’re all about the flawed.
PB: We’ve even taken it to having the villain as the protagonist in different books. The idea of the cartoonish villain doesn’t exist so much – people have legitimate arguments about what they want and demonize the other side to justify their path of violence.
SE: Villains don’t think of themselves as villains.
PB: One trait that connects them is they solve their problems with violence. That’s what infantilizes them.
PR: There’s an SMBC cartoon – about Superman getting confronted by various “I’m not the villain,” and Superman doesn’t know who to punch. Terry Pratchett’s stories had characters on the edge of the stories that you get to know. Characters who initially are viewed culturally as the bad guys, you realize are just guys. And not a boring story because he showed a dozen times that the people you thought were bad are actually just people. It’s a lesson the world needs to hear a dozen times before it starts to soak in.
PO: It’s a powerful thing when you see the villains do something compassionate, when you get a chance to see that side. And when you see them do this, it throws the reader for a loop, deepens the story when you show the other sides. And when good characters make bad decisions in the interest of good – character building techniques. Done more often these days and it’s good.
In terms of techniques of where to start, do you have any advice? Where do you begin?
All: Draw a map!
RH: Never started out to write all the books she did in the same setting. Never sat down and said, “I’m going to do that.” It unfolds and unfolds and unfolds. You start to see connections. A lot of our writing happens in the subconscious. It’s a game you’re playing with your own mind.
PR: In terms of where you start, we’ve dug a deep groove in the genre because Tolkien had such a deep shadow. LOTR hit and suddenly there was a huge market demand for more like that. And that led to less-than-artistic books being wrote. And that begat a third gen of Tolkien-esque, and people decided to ask, “What is epic fantasy” and they defined it upon that. Tolkien didn’t define that. He was just a geek about languages and mythology. His passions informed his world and that’s what made it so cool and appealing. PR cares about history, sociology, dead religions and writes about that. You should write about what you dig. Do *that*.
PO: It’s interesting that there’s fantasy being written these days where something doesn’t need to be punched. It’s not necessarily all large scale wars.
PB: Violence can solve some of the problems.
PO: So much in PR's books that is written is cerebral. The hero doesn’t need to be scaling toward an epic grand scheme.
PR: Different characters approach things differently.
PB: Characters can find other ways to solve the problems.
PR: Classic quote: Fairy tales exist not to tell us there are dragons, but that dragons can be beat. That’s an oversimplification – we live in a scary world and it’s easy to feel powerless. In the folk tales someone disadvantaged used their cleverness to overcome a big problem. That metaphor is so appealing and gets repeated so often that it becomes the problem.
SE: It’s almost an oversimplification to simply just look at Tolkien as the progenitor. Stuff came out of pulp fiction and noir, too. Bear in mind that he’s not the only launching point. His legacy might be that he’s holding back Fantasy in terms of criticism. And when writing a series, you can screw up your editors by saying, “No, you can’t cut that because that comes back in Book #X.”
Audience Question: When you learn the rules of thumb and agreement that they can be broken, how much can you break them once you know them?
PB: That’s a big part of being a writer. We learn the rules and then we break them. Knowing where those rules are makes the work much stronger. Easier when you understand them before breaking.
PR: Successful criminals know what the law is. (Called lawyers usually)
SE: We all know the tropes. We’re taking on the subversion of those tropes now.
PR: Do whatever you want so long as it works. Best rule, but the most useless guidance.
RH: IF you’re breaking a rule solely for breaking, that’s not okay. “This is my story. My story breaks the rule, and that’s okay”.
PO: Rule avoidance is a problem, too.
Audience Question: How much can you make an epic fantasy mundane?
RH: Depends on how much you stretch it. If you’re writing anything mundane in your world you must be as accurate as possible in those mundane things in order for the reader to believe those fantastical things.
PO: Except for traveling.
PR: Shadowfax the horse is a big part of what made Gandalf cool.
Audience Question: When do you put themes of making fantasy more grounded in reality with themes you can relate to in the real world?
RH: When he has more questions than answers, he looks at something from several different angles, not to give the reader answers but to explain the world to herself.
PB: There are two parts of the story – what happens, and how the characters feel about something that happens. And the latter is more important. And what happens takes a back seat to the adventure. Emotions should resonate with the reader.
Audience Question: How do you name things?
PB: Big book of baby names. Changes the spelling.
PO: Finds consonants and vowels that sound good together.
RH: The obit page will take back to names that have become uncommon. Also play around with language. Take a Latin-based noun and turn it into somebody’s name. Eg. Verity sounds pretty but also means truth.
PR: Not enough time to talk about it right now – this needs its own panel.
Audience Question: When using legends and myths – are things to avoid? What do you do to avoid tropes?
Legends have been told and retold.
PR: Avoids prophecy. Such BS.
SE: You can have the prophecy so confused that no one can figure it out.
PR: Cheap tension, not developing story enough.
PB: One thing is consistent: There was a time gone by previous to another time for our heroes in almost every major story he can think of. A moral guide that seems inherent in most fantasies.
PR: Legend – something happened in the past; prophecy – something happened in the future. Legend is better because it’s a mystery you’re trying to uncover. He’s morally offended by prophecy.
PO: In world development, past events can influence your world as it is today. He’s not a fan of prophecy, either, but legends can be peppered into work.
SE: You can also use prophecy to mess with readers’ heads.