About Writers, inspiration, Magic and Science, mythology, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op

Non-Epic Fantasy

 – by Peter Thomson

I have been reading fantasy for over fifty years (and writing it for two), and I still do not know what  defines the genre. After all, there’s the magical realism (it has magic!) pioneered by Miguel Asturias (Nobel Prize winner) and made a best seller by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (also Nobel Prize winner), epic fantasy, Gothic fantasy (Mervyn Peake), urban fantasy, fantasy whodunnits (Glen Cook’s Garret PI series) … I could go on, and on. My own effort currently ranks something like #115,751 in the fantasy category at Amazon, so it’s obviously enormously popular to write as well as read.

Browsing through the on-line slush piles (did I mention I’m a fast reader?), the great bulk of fantasy  seems to fall towards the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum. The fate of the world, or at the very least a substantial kingdom, hinges on our hero’s or heroine’s efforts. The advice to writers is that the creation of dramatic tension is essential and most writers seem to have decided that nothing beats tense like the possibility of an an unending reign of darkness.

But do readers really read the Lord of the Rings to find out if Sauron is defeated? If the derivative art (pictures and music as well as imitations) Tolkien has spawned are an indication, probably not. They read to walk the streets of Minas Tirith, talk with ents, linger in Lothlorien as elvish harps play through the night. Or, as it might be, fight tyrannosaurs and dark magics. In  a word, escape.

One way to give the reader this escape – to show them a world they would like to visit, is to lower the stakes. This has several advantages. It allows for a slower pace if desired, gives more scope to explore the scenery and for whimsy, grace-notes and interesting diversions. After all, a world with dragons surely has a lot of other interesting things. The mission is still there, still central, but not so dominant. It more easily allows sequels that are not just re-hashes (hello Belgariad follow-ons) and generates side-stories and spin-offs. If you save the world in book 1, what’s left to do?

Examples might be Jack Vance’s stories of the Dying Earth and Lawrence Watt-Evans’  Ethshar series. Vance evokes a world of melancholy, caprice, the accumulation at the end of time of all sorts of oddities. The stakes are there, but are not of enormous consequence. Will Cugel the Clever obtain his revenge? Will Liane the Wayfarer evade Chun the Unavoidable? (Spoiler: no in both cases). In Ethshar, will Valder find a way to rid himself of a misenchanted sword? Will Emmis have a better future as native guide to the Vondish ambassador?

This works best if the background is evoked rather than described, and if it fits together. Avoiding a data dump is standard good advice. Fitting together – having a reasonably coherent picture that the reader can build up in her mind over the course of the plot from a series of passing remarks – is harder. Maybe this is why so many writers go for the epic – it’s easier to charge straight over the holes and inconsistencies. If the world is to be truly interesting, the characters shouldn’t think like modern westerners nor like medieval stereotypes. They should reflect the world they live in. Magic (or active gods or dragons or whatever) surely alters a lot of things.

In my case I could draw on a few decades of role-playing with inventive, over-argumentative people and a lifetime of reading history. Historians tend to assume that people had a good (to them) reason for whatever they did and the job is to explain that. Believe me, it helps to have a lot of case studies of the reasonable (to them) but totally weird (to us) to draw on.

In Tales of the Wild magic is a universal force, used for cooking and lighting and keeping the bank secure, drawn on by humans, animals, plants and the land itself. People go about their business, take a gap year, connive, plot, seek to evade taxes. Some themes I want to explore fit naturally: the land rejects – forcefully – exploitation; equality between men and women is easy to envisage and portray, the bad guys can be more nuanced and their motivations more comprehensible. Above all, I can take the time to entertain. Non-epic fantasy is an under-rated sub-genre and writing it a good way to stand out from the crowd of worlds that need saving on a daily basis.


16 thoughts on “Non-Epic Fantasy

  1. Perry Palin says:

    Fantasy. Hmmm. . . .

    Good reading in the June 24 New Yorker: Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/06/24/liu-cixins-war-of-the-worlds Cixin is a Chinese writer who some people believe uses geopolital events to frame his stories. But when asked by a reporter to identify the meaning and central themes of his stories he said “I’m a writer, . . . I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.”

    I read fantasy and sci-fi sometimes, and when I do, I like it.

    I suppose I write fantasy too, but it’s mostly when the male first person narrator believes the pretty girl is interested in him when she smiles, or when he says he catches a big fish, or when he wins a nice prize in a raffle. I’m not ready yet to save the world in my stories.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    I don’t read fantasy (not since Lord of the Rings, fifty years ago), but I write it. Well, I write it and I don’t write it. I have a talking cat, period. I spend the whole of the story explaining why that is a genuine possibility, nothing to marvel at.

    Do I write fantasy? I say no. I certainly don’t write non-epic fantasy. My style of fantastic is as epic as it can be.

    Liked by 1 person

      • mimispeike says:

        OK, book one is complete on my website. The art is not yet mine, and the final design will have the text snaked around the images on the background. Right now it may be a teensy bit hard to read some of it but you’re welcome to try. go to: MyGuySly.com and select the items in the menu and then the links to the next location.

        I have created seven linked sites, each will show one or more episodes of my multi-novella opus. Some are up and final. Some are up but in progress. Some are not yet up at all.

        This is a story about a cat. I call it epic for the reason that I have done a ton of world-building. I have an epically twisted sixteenth-century Europe.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah I’m not a big fan of everyone shoehorning themselves into epic, world-ending stakes. The reason I love fantasy & sci-fi as genres is because the possibility for creative world building is endless – and that’s true as a reader, and a writer. Older fantasy written for children & young adults often seemed like it was better about telling stories that didn’t involve the end of the world, and were more about the fun of the setting and the characters. While I really enjoyed the epic, mythological feel of Tolkien’s writing, what made me fall in love with his books were the characters. If I care about a character, I’m going to care if the stakes are a relationship, a treasure hunt, the removal of a curse, or what-have-you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Peter Thomson says:

      Yes. It’s a pity that so many writers seem to feel they have to go big. I also often find it makes for an unconvincing story, too, in that the kingdom/world has to teeter on some narrow ledge, always in danger of falling off.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. GD Deckard says:

    I write hard sci-fi because I like the fantasy of a world where life’s big questions get answered. My idea of escapism is to get lost creating a world that is believable. The more believable the story, the stronger the fantasy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for that clear and detailed explanation, Peter. Like Mimi, my fantasy reference goes back to Tolkien, decades ago. I remember being engrossed, but although the high stakes add suspense, a well-written story (like yours) doesn’t necessarily need that. When will we be able to read the final version?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The final e-book versions are on Amazon (‘A Walk in the Wild’ and ‘The Servant’s Story’, author Peter Thomson). Interested to know what people think.

      I could have used Jim Webster’s stories as an example – lovely vignettes where the stakes are entirely personal.

      The point about publishers is well-taken, but it seems there is an undertow pulling writers towards upping the stakes. I’ve seen quite a few urban fantasies where the first one starts with romance and by the third the werewolves are going to end civilisation as we know it unless the heroine rescues the pack leader….

      Liked by 3 people

      • And I am going to quote from my one review because the reader – as so often – captures the idea better than the author does:

        “Chaste romance! Bureaucratic intrigues! Passive-aggressive class warfare! Tax evasion!
        The heroes of this story aren’t covetous Venturers, but humble servants and staff of a very unusual castle magically hidden in the Wild.
        The intersecting plot lines were entertaining, the characters compelling and the ending had me cheering out loud.”

        Liked by 2 people

        • The joy of chronicling the lives of the little people 🙂
          In reality I suspect that the reader can identify more with them than with the hero. Indeed it can be quite fun to see the hero through the eyes of the little people. So the Great Prince who does amazing deeds is seen through the eyes of the merchant fiddling taxes and the maid who cleans his chamber pot 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          • If I ever write historical fiction, it will be about the little people who did marvellous things but no-one noticed (Sprague did Camp veered in this direction). Like the person from east Siberia who ended up in a Scottish island a few centuries back (so the dna tells us), or the two blonde women on the middle Niger in the C15.

            Liked by 2 people

            • My Lady Wife has an interest in genealogy and as churchwardens in our local Parish church we are trying to fill the gaps in the burial book due to sloppy bookkeeping in the 1970s
              So one way of doing this is tracing the story of the person in the grave (to discover why Mrs Jones is married with Mr Smith and Mrs Adams. An invented example but we have a case where a father, daughter and grand daughter ended up in the same grave)
              Some of the tales that have come out, ordinary working men who in the 19th century were born in one part of England, travelled to the opposite end (before railways) to find work and then with their families worked in South Africa, North America, Canada, and back to England again.
              They have children born on three continents
              Even the grandchildren of these children no longer know what their great grandparents did and think they’re cosmopolitan because they go to Spain for a holiday 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

      • I found myself nodding away and agreeing as you wrote. I especially agreed with your comments about Jack Vance whom I regard as one of the exemplars of our craft. (As an aside I love the way he does SF and Fantasy and the fuzzy borderland between)

        Liked by 1 person

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