|How to Write Epic Fantasy
Author: KaelIstari PM
Tired of looking around and not seeing any new stories? Now you can with this not strictly fanfic thingymajig. Written by David Eddings, compiled by Kael IstariRated: Fiction K - English - Words: 4,065 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 4 - Published: 07-10-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8304943
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I really didn't know exactly where to post this, so I will post it here in the almost dead Belgariad/Mallorean section and not on FictionPress. It was written by Big Dave Eddings in the foreward (and afterward) of the Rivan Codex. I am working on a whole new Garion story, but I want it firmly off the ground before I start posting it. Well, Enjoy...
How to Write Epic Fantasy
Let me stress one thing at the outset. This is how we did it. This is not the only way to do it. Our way worked out fairly well, but others, done differently, have worked just as well. If you don't like our way, we won't be offended.
. . .
Then there are those other letters, the ones which rather bashfully confide an intention to 'try writing fantasy myself'. I don't worry too much about those correspondents. They'll get over that notion rather quickly once they discover what's involved. I'm sure that most of them will eventually decide to take up something simpler - brain surgery or rocket science, perhaps.
. . .
This book may help others to avoid some of the missteps we made . . . and it may give the student of our genre some insights into the creative process - something on the order of 'connect Wire A to Wire B. WARNING! Do not connect Wire A to Wire C, because that will cause the whole thing to blow up in your face.'
. . .
Operating by trial and error mostly, we've evolved a tacitly agreed upon list of the elements that make for a good fantasy. The first decision the aspiring fantasist must make is theological. King Arthur and Charlemagne were Christians. Siegfried and Sigurd the Volsung were pagans. My personal view is that pagans write better stories. When a writer is having fun, it shows, and pagans have more fun than Christians. Let's scrape Horace's Dulche et utile off the plate before we even start the banquet. We're writing for fun, not to provide moral instruction.
All right, then, for item number one, I chose paganism. (Note that [J. R. R.] Tolkien, a devout Anglo-Catholic took the same route.)
Item number two on our interim list is 'The Quest'. If you don't have a quest, you don't have a story. The quest gives you an excuse to dash around and meet new people. Otherwise, you stay home and grow turnips or something.
Item number three is 'The Magical Thingamajig' - The Holy Grail, the Ring of Power, the Magic Sword, The Sacred Book, or (surprise, surprise) THE JEWEL. Everybody knows where I came down on that one. The Magic Thingamajig is usually, though not always, the object of the quest.
Item four is 'Our Hero' - Sir Galahad, Sir Gawaine, Sir Launcelot, or Sir Perceval. Galahad is saintly; Gawaine is loyal; Launcelot is the heavyweight champion of the world; and Perceval is dumb - at least right at first. I went with Perceval, because he's more fun. A dumb hero is the perfect hero, because he hasn't the faintest idea of what's going on, and in explaining things to him, the writer explains them to his reader. Don't get excited. I'm not putting Garion [hero of the Belgariad/Mallorean] down. He's innocent more than stupid, in the same way Perceval was. Actually, he's fairly clever, but he's a country boy, so he hasn't been exposed to very much of the world. His Aunt Pol[gara] wanted him to be that way, and Polgara has ways to get what she wants.
Item number five is the resident 'Wizard' - Merlin, usually, or Gandalf - mighty, powerful, and mysterious. I scratched that one right away and went with Belgarath instead, and I think it was the right choice. I've got a seedy old tramp with bad habits - who just incidentally can rip the tops off mountains if he wants to. I chose to counter him with his daughter, Polgara, who doesn't really approve of him. That sorcerer/sorceress (and father/daughter) pairing broke some new ground, I think.
Item six is our heroine - usually a wispy blonde girl who spends most of her time mooning around in a tower. I chose not to go that route, obviously. Ce'Nedra is a spoiled brat, there's no question about that, but she is a little tiger when the chips are down. She turned out even better than I expected.
Item seven is a villain with diabolical connections. I invented Torak, and he served our purpose rather well. I even managed to give him a fairly believable motivation. Milton helped on that one. Torak isn't exactly Lucifer, but he comes close. As usual, he has a number of evil underlings to do his dirty-work for him.
(Stay with me. We're almost done.) Item eight is the obligatory group of 'companions', that supporting cast of assorted muscular types from various cultures who handle most of the killing and mayhem until the hero grows up to the point where he can do his own violence on the bad guys.
Item nine is the group of ladies who are attached to the bully-boys in item eight. Each of these ladies also needs to be well defined, with idiosyncrasies and passions of her own.
And finally we come to item ten. Those are the kings, queens, emperors, courtiers, bureaucrats, et al who are the governments of the kingdoms of the world.
OK. End of list. If you've got those ten items, you're on your way toward a contemporary fantasy. (You're also on your way to a cast of thousands.)
All right then, now for a test: 'write an epic fantasy in no less than three and no more than twelve volumes. Then sell it to a publisher. You have twenty years.' . . .
STOP! Do not uncover your typewriter, uncap your pen, or plug in your computer just yet. A certain amount of preparation might help. It's a good idea to learn how to drive an automobile before you hop into the family car and take off for Los Angeles, and it's probably an equally good idea to browse through a couple of medical texts before you saw off the top of Uncle Charlie's head in preparation for brain surgery.
. . .
I was convinced that I was a 'serious novelist', and I labored long and hard over several unpublished (and unpublishable) novels that moped around the edges of mawkish contemporary tragedy. In the mid 1970s I was grinding out 'Hunsecker's Ascent', a story about mountain-climbing which was a piece of tripe so bad that it even bored me. (No, you can't see it. I burned it.) Then one morning before I went off to my day-job, I was so bored that I started doodling. My doodles produced a map of a place that never was (and is probably a geological impossibility.) Then, feeling the call of duty, I put it away and went back to the tripe table.
Some years later I was in a bookstore going in the general direction of the 'serious fiction'. I passed the science-fiction rack and spotted one of the volumes of The Lord of the Rings. I muttered, 'Is this old turkey still floating around?' Then I picked it up and noticed that it was in its seventy-eighth printing! That got my immediate attention, and I went back home and dug out the aforementioned doodle. It seemed to have some possibilities. Then, methodical as always, I ticked off the above-listed necessities for a good medieval romance. ['Romance' in most languages still means 'novel'] I'd taken those courses in Middle English authors in graduate school, so I had a fair grip on the genre.
I realized that since I'd created this world, I was going to have to populate it, and that meant that I'd have to create the assorted 'ologies' as well before I could even begin to put together an outline. The Rivan Codex was the result. I reasoned that each culture had to have different class-structure, a different mythology, different national costumes, different forms of address, different national character, and even different coinage and slightly different weights and measures. I might never come right out and use them in the books, but they had to be there. 'The Belgariad Preliminaries' took me most of 1978 and 1979. (I was still doing honest work in those days, so my time was limited.)
One of the major problems when you're dealing with wizards is the 'Superman Syndrome'. You've got this fellow who's faster than a speeding bullet and all that stuff. He can uproot mountains and stop the sun. Bullets bounce off him, and he can read you mind. Who's going to climb into the ring with this terror? I suppose I could have gone with incantations and spells, but to make that sort of thing believable you've got to invent at least part of the incantation, and sooner or later some nut is going to take you seriously, and, absolutely convinced that he can fly if he says the magic words, he'll jump off a building somewhere. Or, if he believes that the sacrifice of a virgin will make him Lord of the Universe, and some Girl-Scout knocks on his door - ? I think it was a sense of social responsibility that steered me away from the 'hocus-pocus' routine.
. . .
When I first tackled [The Belgariad Preliminaries], I began with The Holy Books . . . When you get down to it, they contain the germ of the whole story.
. . .
Once The Holy Books were out of the way, I was ready to tackle The Histories, and that's where all the 'ologies ' started showing up - along with a chronology. When you've got a story that lasts for seven thousand years, you'd better have a chronology and pay close attention to it, or you're going to get lost somewhere in the 39th century.
. . .
. . . The point . . . is the importance of the sound of names in High Fantasy. Would Launcelot impress you very much if his name were 'Charlie' or 'Wilbur'? . . .
All right, 'Time Out' For those of you who intend to follow my path, here's what you should do. Get an education fist. You're not qualified to write epic fantasy until you've been exposed to medieval romance. As I said earlier, there are all kinds of medieval literature. Look at the Norse stuff. Try the German stories. (If you don't want to read them, go see them on stage in Wagnerian operas.) Look at Finland, Russia, Ireland, Iceland, Arabia - even China or India. The urge to write and read High Fantasy seems to be fairly universal.
Next comes the practice writing. I started on contemporary novels - High Hunt and The Losers. (The publication date of The Losers is June 1992, but I wrote it back in the 1970s. It's not strictly speaking a novel, but rather is an allegory, the one-eyed Indian is God, and Jake Flood is the Devil. Notice that I wrote it before we started the Belgariad.) If you're serious about this, you have to write every day, even if it's only for an hour. Scratch the words 'weekend' and 'holiday' out of your vocabulary. (If you've been very good, I might let you take a half-day off at Christmas.) Write a million or so words. Then burn them. Now you're almost ready to start.
This is what I was talking about earlier when I suggested that most aspiring fantasists will lose heart fairly early on. I was in my mid-teens when I discovered that I was a writer. Notice that I didn't say 'wanted to be a writer'. 'Want' has almost nothing to do with it. It's either there or it isn't. If you happen to be one, you're stuck with it. You'll write whether you get paid for it or not. You won't be able to help yourself. When it's going well, it's like reaching up into heaven and pulling down fire. It's better than any dope you can buy. When it's not going well, it's much like giving birth to a baby elephant. You'll probably notice the time lapse. I was forty before I wrote a publishable book. A twenty-five year long apprenticeship doesn't appeal to very many people.
The first thing a fantasist needs to do is to invent a world and draw a map. Do the map first. If you don't you'll get lost, and picky readers with nothing better to do will gleefully point out your blunders.
. . .
[J. R. R.] Tolkien once wrote, 'I wisely started with a map.' I'm not sure how wise my doodle was, but my inadvertent following of the same path also dictated much of our story. People who live on a rocky seacoast usually become sailors (translation: pirates). People who live on large open grasslands usually need horses, and usually get involved with cattle. People who live in natural converging points - river fords, mountain passes, and the like - usually become traders or merchants. Geography is very important in a story.
. . .
Then do your preliminary studies and character sketches in great detail. Give yourself at least a year for this. Two would be better. Your 'Quest', your 'Hero', your form of magic, and your 'races' will probably grow out of these studies at some point. If you're worried about how much this will interfere with a normal life, take up something else. If you decide to be a writer, your life involves sitting at your desk. This is what you do to the exclusion of all else, and there aren't any guarantees. You can work on this religiously for fifty years and never get into print, so don't quit your day job.
. . .
To counter the 'Gee Whiz! Look at that!' sort of thing that contaminates fantasy, that fantasist should probably grind his reader's face in grubby realism. Go ride a horse for a day or two so you know what it feels like. Saddle sores show up on both sides of the saddle. Go to an archery range and shoot off a couple hundred arrows. Try it without the arm-guard a few times. The bow-string will act much like a salami-slicer on the inside of your left forearm, and it'll raise blisters on the fingertips of your right hand. Pick up a broadsword, swing it for ten minutes, and your arms will feel as if they're falling off. Those things were built to chop through steel. They're very heavy. Go out and take a walk. Start at daybreak and step right along. Mark the spot where you are at sunset. Then measure the distance. That's as far as your characters will be able to walk in one day. I use twenty miles, but I've got long legs. Ask a friend not to bathe for a month. Then go sniff him. (Yuk!) When you write dialogue, read it aloud - preferably to someone else. Ask if it sound like the speech of a real live human being. The spoken word is different from the written word. Try to narrow that difference.
Next, learn how to compress time gracefully. You can't record your hero's every breath. 'Several days later it started to snow' is good. It skips time and gives a weather report simultaneously. 'The following spring' isn't bad. 'Ten years later' is OK if you're not right in the middle of something important. 'After several generations' or 'About the middle of the next century' skip of big chunks of time.
I've devised a personal approach which I call 'authorial distance'. I us it to describe just how close I am to what's happening. 'Long Distance' is when I'm standing back quite a ways. 'After Charlie got out of prison, he moved to Chicago and joined the Mafia', suggests that I'm not standing in Charlie's hip pocket. 'Middle distance', obviously, is closer. 'The doors of Sing-Sing prison clanged shut behind Charlie, and a great wave of exultation ran through him. He was free!' That's sort of 'middle', wouldn't you say? I refer to the last as 'in your face'. 'Charlie spit on the closing gate. "All right, you dirty rats, you'd better watch out now," he muttered under his breath. "Someday I'm gonna come back here with a tommy-gun an' riddle the bunch of youse guys." Then he swaggered off toward the long, black limo where Don Pastrami was waiting for him.' 'In your face' means that your inside the character's head. Be advised, though, that it uses up a lot of paper. (See Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. First person is always in your face.)
I try, not always successfully, to keep chapters withing certain parameters as to length - no less than fourteen pages, or more than twenty-two - in typescript. I try to maintain the particular length largely because I think that's about the right length for a chapter. It feels right. Trust your gut-feel. Your guts know what they're doing even if you don't.
Don't write down to your readers. Don't do a re-write of Run, Spot, Run! Belittle your readers and you belittle your work and yourself. Epic fantasy is genre fiction; so are mysteries, westerns, spy books, adventure novels and bodice-rippers. This does not mean that we can ever afford to say 'Aw, hell, that's good enough,' because it won't be. Write anything you put on paper as good as you can possibly make it. 'Good enough' stinks to high heaven, and 'It's only a fantasy, after all,' will immediately enroll you in that very large group known as 'unpublished writers.'.
All right, that should be enough for students, and it's probably enough to send those who'd like to try it for themselves screaming off into the woods in stark terror. I doubt that it'll satisfy those who are interested in an in-depth biography of their favorite author, but you can't win them all, I guess.
Epic fantasy can be set in this world. You don't have to create a new universe just to write one. My original 'doodle', however, put us off-world immediately. It's probably that 'off-world' business in Tolkein that causes us to be lumped together with science fiction, and we have no business on the same rack with SF. SF writers are technology freaks who blithely ignore that footnote in Einstein's theory of relativity which clearly states that when an object approaches the speed of light, its mass becomes infinite. (So much for warp-drive.) If old Buck Rogers hits the gas-pedal a little too hard, he'll suddenly become the universe. Fantasists are magic and shining armor freaks who posit equally absurd notions with incantations, 'the Will and the Word', or other mumbo-jumbo. They want to build a better screwdriver, and we want to come up with a better incantation. They want to go into the future, and we want to go into the past. We write better stories than they do, though. They get all bogged down in telling you how the watch works; we just tell you what time it is and go on with the story. SF and fantasy shouldn't even speak to each other, but try explaining that to a book-store manager. Try explaining it to a publisher. Forget it.
One last gloomy note. If something doesn't work, dump it - even if it means that you have to rip up several hundred pages and a half-year's work. More stories are ruined by the writer's stubborn attachment to his own overwrought prose than by almost anything else. Let your stuff cool off for a month and then read it critically, Forget that you wrote it, and read it as if you didn't really like the guy who put it down in the first place. Then take a meat-axe to it. Let it cool down some more, and read it again. If it still doesn't work, get rid of it. Revision is the soul of good writing. It's the story that counts, not your fondness for your own gushy prose. Accept your losses and move on.
Everybody in the world probably believes that his own language is the native tongue of God and the angels, so I'll offend people all over the globe when I assert that English is the richest language in human history. Its richness doesn't derive from its innate beauty or elegance of expression. It structure is Germanic (Frisian, basically, with strong overlays of other Scandinavian tongues). West Saxon, the language of King Alfred, wasn't really all that pretty to listen to, and it'll sprain your tongue while you're learning to speak it. English is a rich language because the English were the greatest pirates in history. They stole about one fifth of the world, and they stole words and phrases from most of the languages of the world as they went along - French, Latin, Greek, Hindi, Zulu, Spanish, Apache - you name it; the English stole from it. My eight years of exposure to college English gave me an extended vocabulary (My cut of the loot, you might say), and when it's appropriate, I'll use it. The youthful, marginally educated reader is going to have trouble with such sentences as 'Silk's depredations were broadly ecumenical.' That might seem a little heavy, but it said exactly what I wanted it to say, and I chose not to rephrase it to make it more accessible to the linguistically challenged. If you want simple, easy books, go read 'The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore'. How's that for towering arrogance?
In line with that thought, I'll take one last pass at that 'I get letters' business. Some I've received have candidly admitted, 'I didn't really like to read before I got into your stories, but now I read all the time.' Let television tremble. Big Dave and Little Leigh are coming to black out those screens. Maybe that's our purpose in life. We're here to teach whole generation how to read - not everybody, perhaps, but enough to possibly make a difference. 'They left the world better than they found it,' sounds like a tombstone, but there are worse things you can say about people, wouldn't you say? Egomaniacal, huh? But egomania is a requirement for any writer. You have to believe that you're good and that people will want to read your stuff. Otherwise, you'll give it up after your first rejection slip. Always remember that Gone with the Wind was rejected by thirty-seven publishers before it was finally accepted, and short of the Bible, there are probably more copies of that book in print than any other in publishing history - or so I've been told.
I'll close with a recommendation. My personal favorite fantasy author is Lord Dunsany. He teaches me humility, since he does more in four pages than I can do in four hundred. Read The Book of Wonder. Get to know Slith, Thagobrind the Jeweler, Pombo the Idolater, and Nuth. Ponder the fate of people who jump off the edge of the world. Consider the folly of messing with Hlo-Hlo, the Spider Idol. Journey across the Plains of Zid, through the cities of Mursk and Tlun, around the shoulder of the Peak of Mluna that overlooks the Dubious Land, and cross the bridge from Bad to Worse.
Go ahead. I dare you.
Now that was stimulating, wasn't it? Big Dave and Little Leigh may have already blacked out the television screens wherever you live. Maybe this will spur some stories from you authors.
This is Kael Istari signing out