Book Recipes: How to Write an Epic Fantasy

Time for another book recipe! This time I’ll be looking at epic fantasy. Put on your questing helmet and let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • An assorted mix of noble adventurers. Choose your own flavours from any of the following:
    • The long-lost heir to the throne
    • The wise elf-mage
    • A drunk, angry guide
    • A spunky warrior-princess
    • A charming but slightly morally dodgy rogue
    • Dwarves
  • The Sacred MacGuffin
  • One Evil Overlord
  • One slightly less evil overlord, for target practice
  • Expendable armies
  • A magic sword
giphy lightsaber
OK, you know that’s not what I meant. (image: giphy.com)
  • A series of oddly-named kingdoms
  • A handful of magical creatures, for set dressing

 

Method:

  1. An Evil Overlord has risen and the kingdom is in peril! Only one thing can stop him: the Sacred MacGuffin.
  2. Assemble your heroes! It’s questing time. Pack your magic sword and we’re off!
  3. Have your heroes amble along towards the MacGuffin. It’s a race against time, but no-one’s really going to care about that until after the halfway point.
  4. Time for group banter. If the warrior-princess is in your band of heroes, it’s also time to start setting up the romance. It doesn’t matter if there’s no chemistry at all. Of course she can’t be single!
  5. Have an amusing tavern scene to pass the time. Make sure to include a bumbling, fat innkeeper.
  6. First encounter with the hordes of the Evil Overlord! The heroes win, and it’s all very exciting.
  7. Keep on questing. Remember that the questing decisions don’t have to make logical sense. They just have to lead your heroes into exciting and difficult situations. Logic is for losers.
  8. A thing has happened which makes questing so much harder! Maybe someone forgot to take their horse in for a service or something. It doesn’t matter as long as the reader knows that now Things Are Serious.
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Put on your serious face, it’s about to go down. (image: giphy.com)
  1. The slightly less evil overlord pursues the heroes. Kill one of them off if you want to show how serious things are now.
  2. The heroes are having doubts. Now is an excellent point to mope about the lovers/families/favourite pizza joints they left behind.
  3. A trap!
  4. The heroes are saved with the help of some magic stuff. Elves, swords, unicorns, take your pick.
  5. The group is fractured! The noblest and most attractive ones decide to continue the quest, while the others go and do something else.
  6. Have a deep and meaningful conversation about duty, honour, sacrifice, and other things that must be discussed with a very straight face.
  7. Our heroes have found a magic sword, or a secret prophecy, or a helpful dragon – the point is, they’ve levelled up for some reason! Hooray!
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I mean, I guess you’re on the right track. (image: picquery.com)
  1. The slightly less evil overlord is defeated! Make sure to take notes, as that was only the warm-up.
  2. The MacGuffin is recovered! Time to limber up for the final battle – and for the group to be re-united, because they clearly overheard the conversation in step 14.
  3. EPIC BATTLE. SWORDS. MAGIC. DRAGONS, PROBABLY. THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN.
  4. The MacGuffin does its thing and the Evil Overlord is defeated! Give your armies the day off.
  5. Peace is restored to the kingdom! The rightful heir is back on the throne, the warrior-princess has got married, and the dwarves are drinking themselves into a stupor.

THE END. Serve dusted in a fine layer of magical background creatures.

 

Tips:

  • Language is super important – it’s got to sound epic as well as look epic. People don’t ‘look for’ stuff, they ‘seek’ it. Never, ever use contractions. It’s not ‘because’, it’s ‘for’. Basically, if it doesn’t sound like it’s written on parchment, go back and start again.
  • Make sure you give your characters the right names. Barbarians need names with lots of consonants in. Elves need names with lots of soft sounds in. Evil Overlords should have names made up of all the difficult bits of the alphabet. If in doubt, spell a normal name badly and stick ‘Brightblade’ at the end of it.
  • Stuck on what magical creatures to use? Anything that could be airbrushed onto the side of a van is fine.
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That wasn’t quite what I had in mind… (image: pinterest.com)
  • Horses are basically happy, furry cars with four legs. Don’t worry about making sure they’ve got enough food, water, rest etc. – that would just get in the way of the plot!
  • Kingdoms are good. Simple country villages are good. Councils are almost always bad or inefficient, and Republics should be treated with suspicion. Empires are stone-cold evil.
  • Never trust a Grand Vizier.
  • Fantasy races are a must, but you really only need two or three. Elves are wise but kind of girly. Dwarves are silly. Orcs are bad, stupid and ugly. Goblins are the worst. For anything else use this rule of thumb: if they’re attractive, you can trust them.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Alyss Brightblade tugged her hooded cloak a little closer and hammered on the tavern door. Behind her, her companions shivered in the rain. Apart from Wolf. The barbarian, who had come from the wastes of the frozen north, had stripped down to his fur-lined underpants again.

A wooden panel slid open. Alyss caught a glimpse of a jowly face. “What d’you want?”

“We seek shelter from the storm and a hot meal for our bellies, innkeep.”

The innkeeper opened the door. He was a fat man with sideburns and a large white apron. “Come in, then. And tell your barbarian to put a shirt on.”

Alyss glanced back at Wolf. The rain glistened on his chest. She wouldn’t tell him to put a shirt on just yet.

They filed into the inn and huddled around the fire. Durdon, the dwarfish axe-master, made straight for the bar, tucking his beard into his belt and rolling up his sleeves as he went. The rest of them found a table in the corner.

Lorrolarriel looked around the inn with barely-concealed distate, his elfish nose wrinkling. “Must we really seek shelter in such rude accommodations?”

Wolf grunted. Alyss blushed. He was so strong and silent. And stoic. And tall. And –

Lorrolarriel leaned forward. Behind him, Durdon tossed aside an empty horn of mead and called for another. “It pains me to allow you to travel in such squalor, Princess.”

Alyss shushed him. “I thank you for your courtesy, wise elf-mage, but it is necessary. If I am ever to reclaim my father’s throne, I must seek the Grail of Antioch in secret. Lord Kraegorn can never know of my plans.”

“You are wise beyond your years, my lady. But still, this place is so…sweaty.”

The innkeeper came over with a tray of bread and cheese and three flagons of ale. He slapped them down on the table and bumbled back to the bar, tripping over a table as he went. At the bar, Durdon finished his second horn of mead and laughed.

Alyss picked at her bread and cheese. “I would walk into a thousand sweaty taverns if it meant restoring my birthright, Lorrolarriel.”

Wolf grunted. Alyss smiled a secret smile. She knew he’d understand.

Durdon slumped onto the bench, a drink in each hand. One of them had a twirly straw. Alyss beckoned her companions closer and spread her map across the table.

“We are here, at the tavern of –” she checked the menu “– the Monkey’s Wineskin. Lord Kraegorn and his forces hold the Pass of Antigorr, here.” She pointed. “That way is barred to us. To the west is the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh – impassable at this time of year. To the east are the Mountains of Prigwyth, but I fear we will be too late. Winter is coming, and the snows will make crossing the mountains impossible.”

Durdon hiccupped and moved onto his second drink. Wolf nodded at the map and grunted.

Lorrolarriel gave a disdainful sniff. “We do not all have the constitution of Northmen, barbarian.”

Wolf growled and reached for his warhammer. Durdon slurped his drink through a straw. Alyss raised a hand.

“Good sirs, please. We have foes enough without fighting amongst ourselves. Now, as I see it we have but two choices. We can travel to the Republic of Syssyss and request an audience with Grand Vizier Qrix. He could grant us safe passage through the Pass of Antigorr. Disguised as Syssyssian emissaries, Lord Kraegorn would not attack us.”

Lorrolarriel frowned. “Can he be trusted?”

Wolf snorted. Alyss flushed. She’d made herself look so foolish in front of him. He must think she was nothing more than a child. He’d probably put his shirt back on now, just to spite her.

“I fear not,” she said. “But our other choice is far more dangerous. If we hired a guide, we might be able to skirt around the edges of the Bog of Kra’ka’harrgh and pass through the Very Dangerous Desert.”

Durdon wandered off to the bar to get some shots. Lorrolarriel leaned forward and peered at the map. “But my lady, that is marked with a skull and crossbones. And if you look here, in the margins, the cartographer has added a little note. It says ‘don’t go here, ever’.”

Alyss rolled up the map. “I fear we have no choice.”

“Yes, well,” Lorrolarriel muttered, “I cannot help but muse on our quest ahead, my lady. Might we not be better placed to seek the help of the Griffins of the Tiny Forest? With their aid, we could fly straight to the Holy Citadel of Ka’bathor, retrieve the Grail and avoid spending six months camping in the woods.”

Alyss blinked at him.

“Well of course we can’t do that, Lorrolarriel,” she explained, “it wouldn’t count.”

 

Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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Mary Sue: What the Hell are you talking about, Jo

It’s time for me to talk about Mary Sues.

giphy aragorn tom
Hold me, Aragorn! Or Tom. You know, whoever’s free. (image: giphy.com)

I’ve mentioned them on the blog before, mainly when I was doing my Strong Female Characters series. The term ‘Mary Sue’ has become a great piece of critical shorthand, so it often came in handy. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out whether certain characters were Mary Sues, but often didn’t really have the time to go into a huge amount of detail.

GET READY FOR HUGE AMOUNTS OF DETAIL, GUYS!

Briefly put, a Mary Sue is a certain type of poorly-written character. Often (but not exclusively) seen in fanfiction, what really makes these characters stand out is that they’re just so perfect. They never have any flaws – or if they do, their flaws only make them more appealing, and never actually cause any real problems for them. They’re often physically attractive. They’re usually teenage girls, often with more than one love interest (or villain) passionately declaring their love before the story’s over. They’ll have a dark and tragic past, but the consequences of this are never fully explored – it’s just a secret our Sue can reveal when she wants sympathy. She never fails. She’s always an expert in everything she does, whether it’s speaking alien languages or mastering ancient martial arts. All the good guys love her, all the bad guys want her to give in and join the dark side, and she always saves the day.

captain-hammer-is-here
Seems the day needs some saving expertise. (image: uproxx.wordpress.com)

Essentially, they’re really, really annoying.

When you get right down to it, Mary Sues aren’t really proper characters. Most fictional characters (and yes, I am about to make a sweeping generalisation here) are intended to reflect real people. A well-written character should seem human, with all the messiness that being human entails. Mary Sues don’t have that messiness.

This isn’t all that uncommon in characters, though. Mary Sue is a pretty modern term, but the flawless and ideal character the term describes goes back centuries. If you look at most classic fairy tales – such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White – most of these characters could be described as Mary Sues. The original stories just don’t focus on the mechanics of their characters, so they’re often described in very broad strokes. They are kind, and good, and meek, and that’s all they are. A lot of this comes down to the purpose that fairy tales fulfilled. While on some level, they are told for sheer enjoyment of the story, a lot of them were also told as a way of showing people how to behave. Charles Perrault, in his seminal collection of fairy tales, made this explicit by adding a few lines to the end of each story that explained the moral in no uncertain terms.

The invention of the novel as a story-telling format didn’t kill off Mary Sues, either. (You can’t kill off a Sue, they’re too perfect.) The moralising Sue is a staple of nineteenth-century literature, particularly literature aimed at children and young girls. Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, Heidi – all of these books are children’s classics, but all of them are based around characters that are so perfect that they don’t seem like real children. This is because they were never meant to. Heidi, Sara and Cedric are ideals, not accurate portrayals of children. Every flaw has been ironed out. They’re good, obedient, cheerful, resilient, and say their prayers every night, just as the ideal nineteenth-century child was supposed to. Overworked governesses probably found them very useful.

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Along with a few other things. (image: pinterest.com)

The other form a Mary Sue can take is a self-insert. This is exactly what it sounds like: an author living out an adventure by writing themselves an avatar in the story. This is the form more modern Mary Sues take, and this too has its roots in nineteenth-century literature. It carried on all the way up to the 1970s, when Paula Smith first coined the term in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’, a short parody about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, youngest officer in the star fleet, that was published in a fanzine.

Since then, the term has blossomed, like a beautiful and perfect sparkle-flower. Readers have become much sharper when it comes to spotting Sues, so now the term ‘Mary Sue’ is more like a big sparkly umbrella that encompasses lots of smaller categories. Here are some of them:

  • Classic Sue: practically perfect in every way. Beautiful, cheerful and sickeningly sweet.
  • Marty Stu: the same, but a guy. Surprisingly rare, for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
  • Jerk Sue: angry, sometimes violent, always wearing a ton of black eyeliner. For some reason everyone loves her.
  • Twagic Sue: basically exists to have terrible things happen to her and then die meaningfully. The definition of a lost little lamb.
  • Villain Sue: the most successful cape-wearing villain ever. Also she’s really hot.
  • Relationship Sue: exists only to date the author’s character of choice.

There are more. Thousands more. Fortunately, I found this handy-dandy chart.

Chances are you’ve come across some of these characters before, and hopefully at least got a good laugh out of them. Who can forget Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the most goffik student Hogwarts has ever known? What about Jenna Silverblade, Link’s one true love, secret elemental, and tireless nymphomaniac? Or how about Atlantiana “Tia” Rebekah Loren, Edward Cullen’s infinitely more gothic soulmate? They’re overpowered, they’re ridiculous, and they’ve got all the boys wrapped around their finger – but you could probably sneak off in the time it takes for them to say their full name. And that’s not even counting the Mary Sues who are in books that were actually published.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

I’ve got a lot to say, so here’s what I’m going to do. This post will be the first of a short mini-series where I talk about Sues until I’m blue in the face. Why are Mary Sues so reviled (apart from the fact that they’re really annoying)? Where does gender come into all of this? Is there a way that Mary Sues can be a good thing? These are some of the questions I will try and answer, before I get sidetracked and start laughing about their stupid names.

So choose a ten-syllable name, grab your pet unicorn and prepare your tragic backstory. It’s about to get perfect up in here.