Tag Archives: fantasy

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.
giphy serious face
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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Fantasy Fiction – A Closed Book?

I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.

giphy book baby
Mmm-mmm, tasty words. (image: giphy.com)

But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.

And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:

  • Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
  • Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
  • Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
  • Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
  • Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
  • Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.

Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.

Cthulhu_by_disse86-d9tq84i
I mean. (image: vsbattles.wikia.com)

But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.

I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.

But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.

When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?

giphy snigger
Heh heh heh. Boobs. (image: giphy.com)

As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.

The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:

…it’s fantasy.

Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.

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In reality they would just crawl about like big spiders. (image: bt.com)

And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.

It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.

All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.

But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.

bYggEeT
Apart from this little hell-angel. (image: imgur.com)