What’s in a Genre: Epic Fantasy

Continuing my series on defining genres, I’m switching from my dystopian WIP to my other work-in-progress, Games of Fire. This is a new epic fantasy trilogy and I’m in the first third of book 1, Spark of Defiance. But why do I call it and the Rise of the Fifth Order trilogy epic fantasy?

Well, I actually did look at definitions back in 2012 when I was set to release Born of Water. I was very much a newbie author (and still feel like one most days!!) and really wanted to be certain that what I thought was epic fantasy was really epic fantasy. Happily, that all worked out. lol. But considering I’m writing a new epic fantasy trilogy, I thought it was time for an update to what really makes a story worthy of being called epic fantasy.

Big landscape, big sky, guy wandering with big sword - got to be epic fantasy!

Big landscape, big sky, guy (or disguised girl) wandering with big sword – got to be epic fantasy!

I swear I found an easy and understandable definition on what comprised epic fantasy in 2012. Apparently, the waters have gotten murkier since then! Even Wikipedia isn’t touching this one, referring instead to high fantasy. However, in my mind there is a difference between epic and high fantasy. Though a story could certainly be both.

This is not meant to be a post on what constitutes high fantasy, but it is good place to start because I can say what my definition is without breaking a sweat. A story that is high fantasy means you are getting a story with all the traditional fantasy elements: swords, castles, magic, elves, dragons, dwarves, and it is all set in a fantasy world. That is my opinion though and I would happily entertain alternate definitions.

So what makes a fantasy story epic?

It has to be BIG.

I know that sounds simple, but I’m serious. Epic fantasy novels are usually long, often trilogies or a series, though they can be a single long novel, usually one topping 100,000 words. They deal with big battles and a big confrontation; not simply one kingdom having a skirmish with another, but world upsetting, political system changing wars. The cast of characters is usually quite a handful and often a challenge to remember, especially if some die and new ones join. There is usually a quest or some big task that feels nearly impossible, pushing events forward while a very powerful enemy thwarts the journey. And the journey… it is usually across vast landscapes. No one stays at home in epic fantasy! And for me, I’ll throw in a big emotional journey too. Love is gained and lost, friends are made and betrayed, the hero(es) evolve through the course of the story.

As I said BIG.

Lord of the Rings - the classic of epic fantasy

Lord of the Rings – the classic of epic fantasy

But if you don’t want to go with such a simple definition, after reading through many, many blog posts trying to define epic fantasy (the one agreement was LOTR is epic fantasy!), I recommend N.K. Jemison’s blog post. She quotes J.E. Johnson on an Amazon forum who came up with this compact definition:

  1. -A multiple book series
  2. -A quest of some sort that must be fulfilled
  3. -A main character who must face dangers, overcome foes and somehow change throughout the series (either become a better person or become the villain)
  4. -A great evil, often times one that uses its several minions to challenge the protagonist
  5. -A cast of supporting characters who offer our struggling hero friendship, support, laughter and sometimes sacrifice
  6. -(optional but highly recommended) A journey across a great landscape to take on earlier mentioned evil

I don’t think I can argue with that definition much beyond not having to be a series. And I still like the definition of BIG. 😉

What do you consider the characteristics of epic fantasy? Is it different from high fantasy?

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