Epic fantasy, also referred to as high fantasy, is often the sub-genre most people identify as fantasy fiction, thanks to the popular work of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Robert Jordan. Many fantasy fiction authors were first inspired by reading titles from these creators, and aspire to have their own similar visions see publication. It can be easy, however, to cross the line into another sub-genre of fantasy fiction if the writer is not aware of the characteristics that define epic fantasy. I tend to keep these things in mind as I work on Shattered Amulet, the first novel in my epic fantasy series, Chronicles of Jord:
- Good and evil are clearly defined. If I were to pick any one theme that separates epic fantasy from all other fantasy fiction, it would be the concept of Good versus Evil. There is no confusion or ambiguity with regard to moral issues in epic fantasy. That is the realm of sword-and-sorcery. That doesn’t mean that you can’t create a complex villain, but the reader should not be lead to develop sympathy for him, or question whether the hero’s success is really the good outcome.
- It’s more about the journey than the destination. The “epic” in epic fantasy refers to the scope of the story. This includes not just deciding the fate of the world, but a long quest that takes the hero all across the realm. Geographic features become integral plot points and may even be personified as an enemy in some cases. This point also includes the hero’s internal journey. The protagonists of epic fantasy often begin with unrealized potential, slowly growing into their own over the course of the story. In either case, the focus needs to be on the steps taken to reach the final conflict, not the climatic end-battle itself.
- Always split-up the party. A good epic fantasy takes the old roleplaying game axiom of “never split-up the party” and flips it on its head. Multiple point-of-view characters strewn across the realm doing different things in the battle against Evil goes a long way toward achieving that epic feel I mentioned in the previous point.
- Magic is represented primarily through unique objects and people of power, rather than flashy spellflinging. Magic in epic fantasy is not something available to the common person, or something they even think about on a daily basis. It is forbidden knowledge, tied up in ancient and rare artifacts, or the purview of a select few who wield it with restraint, or embodied in fantastical races and monsters that inhabit the world.
Have I missed something? Do you have a different opinion on the characteristics of epic fantasy? Let me know in the comments.