10 January 2016

How I got stuck writing an epic fantasy with dragons

And so it begins, not with a bang but with a whimper. 

Yes, I'm sneaking into the new year, the one we will call 2016. (To my credit, I have already written a check with 2016 correctly included.) And like other such openings, many of us are goaded into choosing a set of goals for the coming year, the ones we call "resolutions"--the ones we drop like hot yams by the second month.

Not me, of course: I shall press on to the end of the year, fully and impressively engaged!

For me, however, nothing can be so straightforward or simple: I resolve to meet the challenge put to me by fellow authors: to write an "epic fantasy" (often called "high fantasy" or "heroic fantasy" or pejoratively "sword and sorcery")! And to further challenge me, they insist it must include dragons. Why this challenge? Why this stipulation? Pure cussedness, I suspect. (I have written a vampire novel which successfully explained the desperate condition in medical terms, after all, thus metaphorically cutting the wind behind their blood-sucking sails. So it must be pay-back time.)

You see, it was recently discussed among those in my circle of authors that "they" have as their "signature genre" the Epic Fantasy. Yes, I've always kinda accepted that fact as an on-going source of irritation--not the sort of irritation which leads to a rabid scratching all over one's body until hardly any skin cells remain but as a nagging truth constantly drilling into one's brain, a truth one wishes were not quite so true.... 

In all honesty, I have nothing against the epic fantasy genre. In fact, I grew up reading the Amber Chronicles of Roger Zelazny (the first two volumes were life-changing for me) and the novels of Michael Moorcock, beginning with The Eternal Champion (another life-altering read) and continuing through the Corum books. I began but did not finish the Elric series. I read several other sci-fi and fantasy authors, as well, but skipped Tolkien. That omission was purely because my mother said, when I was about 12, that a story I had written was "like" The Hobbit. From then on, I staunchly refused to read Tolkien just so I'd be able to say I did not get my idea from his book! (I still have not read, nor seen the film version, of it.) I even read the William Morris tome The Well at the World's End, dense enough for two paperback volumes! Because of these stories, I dabbled at writing my own fantastic tales and planned others, but I always eventually ran into serious roadblocks: What happens next?

Everyone has favorites: favorite authors, favorite genre, favorite story locations, favorite "book boyfriends" or "book girlfriends", favorite styles, favorite book lengths, favorite cover artists. I do, too. However, what I read has little to do with what I write. Beginning back in the mists of time, I wrote the stories I wanted to read. This situation likely developed because I could not find the kind of story I wanted to read and thus I endeavored to create my own. Along that line, I often found myself reading a science-fiction or fantasy book and think to myself: I could write something like this and maybe it would be better. "Better" meant closer to the story as I would tell it.

That was the start of what has become the start of this new year.

And so I have accepted the challenge, just to better fit in with my literary relations, to compose a so-called "Epic Fantasy" with dragons in it. Thus, I am led to consider what an epic fantasy truly is. Furthermore, I must also consider the nature of dragons. To begin this project, I have assigned it a working title:


(*with dragons)

To the first order, we understand "epic" to come from the Greeks, the best examples being the Iliad and the Odyssey by the blind poet Homer. It was simply a poetic form: a dramatic tale told in 12 portions (or 24 chapters) which matched the hours of the day. To call it dramatic is a bit of a misnomer for whence comes drama but in the actions and reactions of mortals? And the constant interference of the gods! Nothing more, although that would seem to be enough. Whenever the gods get involved.... Today, however, "epic" means something grand in scale, vast in scope, mind-blowing in computer graphics, heroic in action, and featuring only the best of the best in all facets of production. Even a teenager's Friday night party could be described as "epic" while having none of those traits. 

In the genre called "epic fantasy" we have certain traits: grand in scale, vast in scope, and so on, as expected. Furthermore, in modern iterations such as those of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, not to mention George R.R. Martin, the worlds which hold the setting are out of this world; that is, they exist separate from the world we know as Earth. As such, those new worlds abound in strange beings, eternal conflicts between good and evil, and histories we can only guess at. The chief feature, to my understanding, is the invention of a whole new world upon which to lay our story.

That is nothing new, of course. Science-fiction does that, as well. And I have written a science-fiction trilogy set on a highly-detailed world of my invention (At least, I say I invented it; it could be a case of imparted wisdom from an ancient alien civilization, who knows?). That invention began in childhood and expanded through my youth, then was set aside for more adult amusements. Finally, I crafted the books containing those stories set upon that "invented" world. The difference here between science-fiction and fantasy, between which I must make distinction, is that I went full science nerd and made sure that I completely understood all of the astronomical, geological, and anthropological properties of this world, that is, of this planet I was inventing. If I had been writing fantasy, I need not have dealt with the mass of the planet or where it sits within its solar system, and so on; I would have laid out the story on a landscape as it suited the story regardless of scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I've also been told that "fantasy" must necessarily include examples of the use of magic. To this aspect, I must confess I'm a bit of a *realist. Magic? I subscribe to the notion that magic is simply science which none has yet explained. Even the Star Wars "Force" was described in scientific terms in Episode I--which I believe to be an altogether likely cause of the particular abilities the Jedi use. It appears as magic to the ordinary folks. I see no reason not to follow that model. So let there be magic, and let the folks in my story call it magic, but let us understand that it will actually be certain kinds of science--unless...unless I find I've written myself into a corner. Then, and only then, shall I resort to "magic" in its most esoteric incarnation. 

(*I have written "magical realism" also, which is a genre of realistic and decidedly unmagic stories which nevertheless rely on one key magical element upon which the entire story relies; in one case, for example, it is a story about tiger hunting where the hunter and the cat can read each other's mind.) 

So there you have it! Not so challenging. After all, most stories are the same: one of the dozen or so universal plots unfold and characters who bear uncanny resemblances to the author and/or his/her various relations seek to solve the problem, big or small, and ultimately win the day. Isn't it the same in every genre? Only the landscape and the problems change for the genre. I'm still going to gravitate toward the big, eternal questions of humanity and try to encapsulate them into small everyday disruptions of menial tasks of ordinary people. Let them be caught up in things they know nothing about. Let them find within themselves the strength, the courage, the wisdom to proceed in combating the trials facing them, even at the risk of sacrificing themselves, even for the sordid cause of a reader's entertainment.

But with dragons. 

I shall deal with dragons next time....

In the interim, allow me to thank everyone for the successful launch of my contemporary "memoir" novel ("inspired by a real life") A GIRL CALLED WOLF. After you have enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you very much and keep on reading! 

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I suspect you'll impart your own twist on the genre. It will be fun to read to results. Will there be bunnies?

    You appear to be a man caught in the middle. You've already written a check--very old school, but you haven't read The Hobbit--very not old school.

  2. Intriguing, Professor Swartz. I have always approached magic from this angles:

    1. it is either an organic feature of the environment
    2. like the ability to create and understand music, it is an ability some are born with and others are not.
    3. it has strict, inviolable limitations.

    I'm going to quite interested in seeing where your talent for mayhem takes us in this project!

    1. I accept your three stipulations and raise you a fourth: it can backfire on the user.