What’s epic fantasy?
Let’s first define what epic fantasy is. Epic fantasy is one aspect of the fantasy genre, focused on large-scale events that usually start with small heroes that rise to face large struggles. Themes in epic fantasy often revolve around the battle between good and evil, and the development of characters as they grow and evolve throughout their adventures.
The reason we say “epic” fantasy is due to the old epic poems, which are long narrative poems in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical figure—a hero. But even if it’s about historical figures, it’s still larger than life, so you have heroes making deals with gods and stuff like that (such as in Beowulf and the Odyssey). Many people say Tolkien is the father of fantasy, but he also pulled from previous works, like Beowulf and Norse mythology. The birth of modern epic fantasy coincided with the era of globalization, as the world got so much bigger, which made the scope of stories bigger too.
What are some classic examples of epic fantasy?
To gain a better understanding, let’s look at some classic examples of epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings is arguably the modern standard, as it has certainly set the tone. In recent years, however, even that has changed, since some of the techniques Tolkien used no longer work for modern readers. After Lord of the Rings, came series like Dragonlance and Wheel of Time, which are both getting a resurgence, as new people are discovering them. There are great modern series too, like The Broken Earth by N.K. Jemisin or Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. We of course can’t forget about Game of Thrones, a prime example of modern epic fantasy. The TV series was probably one of the main things that rekindled interest in fantasy in general.
Defining traits of epic fantasy
So what are the defining traits that make fantasy, epic? An important trope has to do with characters and the way they grow. The stories typically start with one or multiple characters who don’t have the resources they need to fight the huge evil or problem they have to resolve. So there needs to be a lot of change in the characters in order to overcome it. The story is about their evolution and character development.
Another trait is that there needs to be an all-powerful evil force, which not only antagonizes the main characters but also threatens the entire world, continent, or a large group of people. The stakes are very high and the villain is unquestionably evil rather than having grey morality. Since it affects everyone, you’ll need to feature characters from different groups of society, like nobility and commoners.
We can also see that there are a lot of different locations, as the characters travel and see how the evil affects different people. For example, in the first episode of Game of Thrones, there are already many different locations all around the continent that show different perspectives. This already shows a very large scope to the viewer before the plot picks up.
Lastly, epic fantasy is usually second-world fantasy (i.e. doesn’t happen on Earth), but it doesn’t need to be a high-magic world. Sometimes it’s very similar to our world, but it definitely doesn’t have to be a medieval fantasy setting.
Epic fantasy tropes
Besides the traits that we have discussed, there are also certain common tropes you can observe in epic fantasy:
- Travel: In epic stories, between the beginning and the end there are additional problems that the characters need to solve. Travel is one of these problems, as typically they can only fight the evil in a specific place, so they need to get there. Make sure that the travel makes sense, and if there is an easier way to go there, explain why they don’t take it (need I mention the eagles in Lord of the Rings?).
- Dungeons: They allow you to explore the history of a world in a way that makes sense. You’ve reached a new area, and exploring the dungeon is a great way to explain stuff without info-dumping.
- History: This is part of the “epic = big thing” formula in epic fantasy. Large-scope geography, large-scope power, and large-scope in terms of time. For example, there can be ancient mysteries that allow uncovering powers or something similar.
- “The Answers Lie in the Past”. A very common trope too, when the evil is ancient, the answers can often be found in ancient history too. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf finds out that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring after reading ancient tomes in Minas Tirith.
- Battles: To defeat the evil, you need a lot of help. The main characters need to get in contact with allies to get large-scale help. That’s why the big battles happen, and they represent that you need to work together to win.
- Heroes: It’s a heroic genre, so we focus on one or multiple people who are heroes. Generally, epic fantasy is noble-bright, although dark epic fantasy exists too.
Mistakes in epic fantasy
There are some common mistakes that Celeste and Janet recommend you avoid. Of course, some of these can work in certain cases—you might be the exception to the rule. Typically, however, here’s what you should avoid in epic fantasy:
- Front-ending all of the history. History is important in epic fantasy worldbuilding, but we need to start small with the heroes, we can’t start with an exposition dump about history. It’s so much better for characters to learn about the history as the story goes on.
- Same with names. They’re hard to remember so don’t introduce new names when they’re not relevant.
- Similar character names. It can be really confusing to have many characters with the same or similar names. Characters with multiple names, titles, and nicknames are also a problem, so keep things simple whenever possible.
- Unrelatable characters. We want to see them grow and change, so they need to be relatable. We have to understand them in order to empathize and care about them.
- Killing loved characters. It’s dangerous, as it makes the reader lose trust in you. Character deaths should happen for a very good reason, and in epic fantasy the hero should never die.
- Not going epic enough. Epic fantasy is not small-scale, the stakes should be massive to be impactful. This is especially important for villains. In contrast to characters, villains should not be relatable, they need to be alien to us.
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Who is Celeste Conowitch?
Celeste Conowitch is a game designer based out of Seattle. She is the producer, DM, and editor of the actual play podcast Venture Maidens. When not plotting behind the screen, she works as a full-time Senior Game Designer at Kobold Press. Currently leading the Tales of the Valiant RPG project. Check out her Twitter as well as her website!
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