Drawing Wire, Wikis, and Smiting: Epic Fantasy War at SDCC

The panel was called “Epic Fantasy War,” but it ended up being more about epic fantasy worldbuilding in general. Editor Betsy Mitchell led a discussion with a veritable who’s who of fantasy authors, including Brandon Sanderson, Raymond E. Feist, Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin, Christopher Paolini, Rachel Hartman, Patrick Rothfuss, Heather Brewer, and Lynn Flewelling.

The conversation started with a discussion about the value of research—Mitchell observed that there’s often a misconception that fantasy is “easier” to write than science fiction, because less scientific research is involved. Rothfuss pointed out that this is untrue; historical research is still necessary, because even though you’re not writing about “the way it was,” you have to learn “the realistic way it could have been.” Rothfuss himself recently spent some time learning how wire would be drawn in a medieval culture: “It was a huge pain in the ass for them to do and me to research.”

In contrast to panelists like Paolini, who has gone so far as to build a forge, Feist chimed in with a moderately dissenting opinion—”You don’t have to be an expert; you just have to convince.” The craft of writing, he argued, is understanding exactly what information you need for your narrative—working smarter rather than working harder. Sanderson’s approach is similar—learn enough to fake it, and then find an expert.

And most of the panelists described tricks of research that fall outside the usual notion of sitting down with a pile of books. Hobb praised the value of primary sources, like a medical examiner friend you could call in the middle of the night to ask questions about bullet wounds; Hartman and Jemisin talked about the “passive research” that you do simply by living your day job or learning things for other aspects of your life—the slow accrual of information that will eventually inform your fiction and help you build a believable world.

Mitchell then asked the panelists about their methods for keeping track of characters and story elements in sweeping, epic stories. Feist talked about the “writer’s muscle memory” that you develop over time, where you learn to think about characters in a certain way and let your subconscious do a lot of the work. A number of authors have resorted to Google to search for what fans have written about their own material, and Sanderson and Jemisin spoke of the value of maintaining a personal wiki for their fictional worlds. The danger, as Jemisin pointed out, is that the wiki can be a time sink—you can work on it for hours and feel like you’ve been productive, when you actually haven’t.

The discussion then turned to the types of characters each writer enjoyed writing. The general consensus seemed to be in favor of those with greater complexity, particularly villains—”there’s nothing like getting into someone’s head who’s going to do something absolutely vile, and justifying it,” said Hobb. Rothfuss spoke of the challenges of writing a character who is a mature woman and a mother—something he said that was “as enjoyable as it is hard.”

When the floor was opened to audience questions, the first questioner decided to call back to the panel’s title and asked why so much epic fantasy involved universe-ending wars. “When in doubt, up the stakes,” Feist said, quoting Stephen King. Rothfuss added that you also can’t discount the influence of Tolkien and the War of the Ring. In response to a question about writing LGBT characters that were neither marginalized nor villainous, there was a general sense from the panel that all of them were determined to actively include complex and positive characters that bend gender norms in a positive way. N.K. Jemisin, echoing her comments in the Racebending panel, talked eloquently of her desire to write a fantasy world that reflects the diversity of the world in which she lives. The only discordant note was struck by Paolini, with what seemed like a badly judged joke about gay elves.

The discussion closed with a question on rules-heavy magic versus rules-light, and why the authors chose their particular methods. Sanderson said that his systems were informed by his fascination with the age of discovery, “an era in our history where science was this wonderful magical thing that people were just discovering.” Of course, as Rothfuss pointed out, the idea of “scientific magic” is just one approach; there is also “poetic” magic that is numinous and intuitive. The question, ultimately, is of what serves your story the best. Jemisin agreed—some of her books have rules-based magic—but when you’re writing a story about gods doing god stuff, “why should there be any rules to smiting? It’s fricking smiting!

Karin Kross is attending her fifth San Diego Comic Con and is filing this report from the line for Hall H—she has been in this line long enough to write and file two whole blog posts. She and her co-conspirators are blogging SDCC at nerdpromnomnom.


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