What Makes Epic Fantasy “Epic”?

A panel of five incredible authors got together for San Diego [email protected] to discuss the genre of Epic Fantasy and just what makes it tick. Spend the better part of an hour listening to the likes of R.A. Salvatore, Rena Barron, S.A. Chakraborty, Peter V. Brett, and R. F. Kuang about a beloved genre.

If you’re looking for an answer to their panel before you dive in, the authors were each asked how they might define Epic Fantasy, and the answers were wonderfully wide-ranging, as you can see below.

[Note: Some quotes have been edited due to length and video gaps.]

What makes Epic Fantasy “epic”?

R.A. Salvatore: If I remember my ancient history […] ‘epic’ comes from the fireside tales. It’s usually a long poem, a heroic poem about the adventures of some notable figure. […] I’ve been doing this guy since 1987, the dark elf character. I’ve done thirty-something books on the character so I guess that qualifies as epic.

Rena Barron: I think over the years it has evolved and changed. When I think about epic for a book, I’m thinking about the reader… thinks of themselves as a small piece of a huge story. Something that’s greater than an individual. So when I think of epic in books, I think about this kind of all-sweeping plot and these stakes that are both personal as well as far-reaching.

S.A. Chakraborty: When I first looked at this question, my idea was it was a world that it felt like the reader could step in, it was something all-encompassing and this alternative reality where you could almost imagine innumerable stories. That the books and the stories set in them are just like this little slice of life, and it lets the reader fill out the imagination of just an entire realm of different characters and worlds and places and histories. You know, very much similar to ours.

Peter V. Brett: It’s worth pointing out that genre subdivisions are a construct like everything else, and they don’t really have hard and fast rules, and for a writer looking to break into the industry you don’t have to play by any of those rules. I think Rena really made a good point, and it’s one that in my notes I’ve built on as well, that when I think of epic fantasy, I kind of think of something where there’s a big problem that’s really wide in scope, that attracts a lot of people over a big area, and it sort of filters down into their personal lives in different ways because everyone is different and the way they solve problems is different. And so you have the ability to do deep dives into different characters who are all sort of struggling with the same problem, but it effects them in different ways and they respond to it in different ways and they all need to work together in order to solve it. Sometimes that’s done by having a lot of POV characters in different places so you can get a sense of how the problem effects everyone, and sometimes it’s done with one POV character who travels from place to place. But it’s all ways of getting to the same end.

R.F. Kuang: I think question of genre and literary history are really interesting. As Rob pointed out we get the term epic fantasy from the literary genre of the epic, which is usually epic poetry, which is a long narrative poem detailing heroic deeds, of a person of unusual courage or bravery, and the key here in literary discourse is that epic means it’s a single extraordinary moment of mankind and it’s a testimony to […] their critical space in the historical record. […] So they’re living in a difficult time. But I think the problem with the framework is like most histories are centered on the victors, which is certain forms of power and certain forms of historical causalities, it the sort of narrative that thinks about Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, but doesn’t think about the slaves who freed themselves. […] The cool thing about modern fantasy is that it questions the priorities of the epic.

For the rest of the panel, click on the video above!

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