I have mentioned in past posts that I am seeking to differentiate my novel from other epic fantasy series. I am being continually told by those insiders that every descent agent and publisher has five hundred manuscripts on their groaning desks about swords and quests and good .v. evil. Apparently these agents groan whenever an elf is mentioned (especially if s/he is tall, thin, loves nature etc.).
At the Berkeley Writers critique group, visitors often ask: what differentiates this from Lord of the Rings?
All this begs the question: what is the future of epic fantasy?
Is it okay to accept that there are certain conventions that are timeless? Are dwarfs small and stout, brave and ready for a rumble? Is it okay that they are miners and love to live underground?
Here are 10 basic ingredients that need to be questioned:
1) There is the good guy (or gal) and the bad one. The goods is the underdog, the bad is all-powerful, though hopefully will fall in the end.
2) Magic – the hero/heroine has something special about them that gives them a chance to win.
3) There is a teacher who mentors the hero/heroine.
4) The dwarfs are stereotypical – see above.
5) The elves are tall, beautiful, healers, wicked with the bow and arrows and…
7) Everything takes place in New Zealand-type environment.
8) There is a lot of walking about.
9) Swords, bows and arrows, lots of insignificant people dying.
10) Long novels, preferably in series form, with huge potential for movies.
I have mentioned the high-concept challenge in earlier posts. The idea is to have something that is unique, that separates your fantasy novel from the rest. Enter Harry Potter and Hunger Games.
And yet, we come back for more. A new novel from Terry Brooks or R.A Salvatore has us salivating. Christopher Paolini’s final book of the Inheritance series was eagerly awaited, and we all know when we are going to see the Hobbit movie even if we haven’t booked our summer vacations or filed our taxes.
When I mentioned the higher concept to a woman who has been reading my manuscript, she baulked. As long as there is a strong plot, a few twists, memorable characters, and a high level of writing, she said, a novel will always stand out from the rest.
The question is: Are the essential epic fantasy novel ingredients timeless? When Tolkien first created Middle Earth, did he set in motion a genre that will endure into the 21st Century?
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first has been entered into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in January 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).
This is a very good question and one I am struggling with as well. When I read book like Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” series, I have hope for the fantasy genre taking a new direction.
It’s difficult to think outside the “epic fantasy box,” but it is possible to do. I think fantasy readers are hungry for new and different. With the ever increasing popularity of self-publishing, it’s become easier for non-epic fantasy to be put out there.
So true, Eric. An agent I have started working with talks about the higher concept, having something that goes beyond the common frameworks or key ingredients that we all (love and) and expect.
My current project is a fantasy that came about when I read an old blog about all the stereotypical cliches of the genre.
So I have no elves or dwarves. I have a mage’s apprentice who almost destroys himself when his magic slips. He is the antagonist. everything he does is to heal himself. There are several protagonists who either A. know too much about him and need to be eliminated or B. are his guinea pigs and finally figure it out.
He is not out to take over the world. He just wants his body restored from its charred state and he leaves these people behind like discarded bits of lunch. He is completely unaware of how much these other characters hate him.
I have tried to keep the overdone stereotypes to the barest minimum and have given every character moments where they face their own darkest self. (Some prevail, some give in but each character has their ‘long dark teatime of the soul’)
And ye, gods…no stew!