A close second to epic fantasy in popularity would be the sword-and-sorcery sub-genre. The term was originally coined by author Fritz Leiber in response to Michael Moorcock’s demand to classify the fantasy adventure stories written by Robert E. Howard. As such, Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser came to typify sword-and-sorcery.
The genre suffered some bad PR in the 1980s, when the release of cheaply made knock-offs of the successful Conan the Barbarian film combined with poor quality of shared world novels to turn “sword-and-sorcery” into a derisive term. However, the 80s also saw the emergence of strong female protagonists where they previously served as damsels-in-distress.
Both my novel Maiden of Pain and short story “How Burlmarr Saved the Unseen Protector” fall into the sword-and-sorcery category. If you’re interested in writing a sword-and-sorcery story, here are four defining concepts that you’ll want to include:
- Keep it personal. Unlike epic fantasy, where the fate of the world often hangs in the balance, the stakes in sword-and-sorcery are high for the individual, and the danger is limited in scope. Keeping it personal also means limiting the point of view to the protagonists. It’s their story, they should be telling it.
- Men fight monsters with swords and spells. Phil Athans, former managing editor for the Forgotten Realms fiction line, used this phrase to sum up the central and dominant theme of the type of stories they were looking for. Sword-and-sorcery fiction is action-oriented and fast-paced. There are definite beginnings, middles and ends; conflicts and resolutions. While characterization certainly has a place in all good stories, Conan isn’t known for his angst and inner monologues.
- Magic, magic everywhere, but not a spell to cast. The worlds of sword-and-sorcery fiction are not just fantastical, they’re often exotic. Magic is much more common than in epic fantasy, but that isn’t necessarily good for the heroes. Most often, magic comes in the form of an obstacle, wielded by the villain or represented as a supernatural monster. If magic is usable by the hero, its results can be unpredictable, and the hero is better served relying upon their brawn, brains and steel.
- The protagonists are rebels with a cause. The heroes in sword-and-sorcery fiction are often rogues, barbarians, outcasts or rebels. They are not the darlings of high society, and are often more comfortable in the wilds (both urban and rural) than a royal court. That said, they’re still the “good guys.”
Sword-and-sorcery continues its climb back to the status it enjoyed during the pulp era of the 1920s and 30s. Have you read any good S&S recently? Let me know in the comments.