29 January 2017

A Question of Quests

A little more than a year ago, I set out on a quest, pushed by fellow writers who encouraged me to try my hand at writing an epic fantasy. Well, good folks, I did that. I typed every day of the year with a story firmly in mind. On good days in the summer I wrote for a full eight hours. I actually wrote a novel following a hero's quest. Then I wrote a novella about a little princess in another part of the realm. Then I merged the two stories. The result is a 235,000 word tale of daring-do chocked full of all the epic wisdom I could stuff into it--which, I am learning, may be relevant in our heated political season.*

By "quest" I mean a journey of some kind--a hero's journey, in Joseph Campbell parlance. However, in writing an epic fantasy, a quest could be a hero going in search of something of value, or a hero simply trying to travel home from far away, perhaps from a place of tribulation. A quest could mean a bubbly travelogue, much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Or, a quest could be a hero going to a particular place where he intends to do something important. This last option is the pattern I adopted for my epic fantasy. (e.g., A man with a plan, out getting a tan, and learning to pan the jokes of his sidekick Tam.) My model for a quest was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, although I bent over backwards to avoid borrowing anything from it. Likewise, I started reading George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, but I deliberately avoided any dragon references which my readers might tease were similar to Martin's use of dragons.

Then, much to my chagrin, I discovered a problem. A fatal flaw. An underlying faux pas. A fundamental error. So...what to do with a 235,000-word tale of rousing adventure that falls short of being an epic fantasy? Maybe call it epic sci-fi? That just might be crazy enough to work! You see, there are some rules....

Rule #1. The setting of the epic fantasy must be a world of non-existence to the world of both author and reader; hence, a totally fabricated landscape. If we dare suggest it is here on Earth, we lose. 

The "present" of my epic fantasy is about A.D. 8000.
I beg a waiver. Initially, I invented a world, true, but as I laid out the plot, the series of happenings our hero would experience, I marked them out on a map of a known location here on Earth. By then I had decided this epic would be a behemoth comprising five separate interweaving story lines and one of them would be from a novel I had started long ago in my youth. That early novel idea was set in a futuristic America. As I started writing my epic fantasy, that futuristic America was slated to be the mythological history underlying the present story. As the manuscript grew tremendously, I scaled back that "backstory" to only the mentions my cast of characters would speak once in a while. However, I kept the setting of a future America.

My waiver is because the setting is so different from the world we know today that it might as well be some other place purely of my imagination.

Rule #2. An epic fantasy must have a large cast of characters which includes certain ones in stereotype roles. 

I deliberately tried to achieve that large cast but, going on a quest, our hero and his sidekick are not likely to come upon very many people. In fact, after a couple chapters of just traveling down the valley, I thought I better introduce some new quirky character to liven up the story. Hence, the magus appears. More people to talk. And the magus, being old, can impart some of the backstory. Also, a trek down a valley can only entertain for so long. At some point they would come upon a city, and what would they find there? More people.

My eyes fell upon an infographic, not long after I started writing my epic fantasy, which stated that an epic fantasy needed I needed 20 characters. Besides my hero and sidekick, there would be others playing important roles: the evil prince, the jealous rivals, ordinary townsfolk with devious agendas, warrior tribes in the wilderness, corrupt judges, executioners, crowds of biased citizens, trinket dealers, stable boys, and so on. There would be a love interest for our hero, of course, and maybe temptations down the road. The one character I did not have was a clear antagonist. 

In English teacher lingo, the protagonist is the character that moves the story forward, no matter if that person is good or evil. Usually, moving the story is what causes us to set the story on that character's shoulders, as narrator or our main focus. The antagonist is not necessarily the villain, though he/she may be. Rather, the antagonist is that character (or force of nature) which seeks to thwart the advance of the protagonist, preventing the achievement of his/her goals. In the case of my epic fantasy, the antagonist is chiefly all the dragons of the world and assorted rogues along the way.

So, in the end, I have 20 characters that play some significant role in the plot--not just walk-on roles for color but say or do something that pushes the plot forward, regardless how much "screen" time they get. I'm particularly fond of the hunchback and the river pilots.

Rule #3. The average "bestselling" novel (at least in the fantasy and sci-fi genre) have 15 obstacles to achieving the goals of the quest. 

No problem, I thought. I had a map and I knew how to use it. Something would happen about every half-inch on the trail I had drawn on the map. I pretty much kept to that plan. Later in the story, as new ideas developed from the current writing, I switched out some of the events happening. However, making sure our hero had to deal with 15 (or more) episodes, each a danger, distraction, or detour to overcome, was the reason this epic fantasy reached 235,000 words.

Rule #4. The epic fantasy requires lavish description, flowery language, quirks of speech (including made-up words for things), to better envelope the reader in a strange world far from our own here on Earth. 

Well, I did write a science fiction trilogy involving interdimensional travel to another world, so I did invent other languages for that world. However, in our present day and time, when my college students have such aversion to reading even the shortest, simplest texts, I find myself skipping over large paragraphs of description. All right, it's a room in a castle, and there are pieces of furniture. I don't see how the colors or textures matter unless it somehow influences the plot. Becoming jaded, I suppose; I have read some of the longest novels ever written (e.g., War and Peace, Shogun, The Well at the World's End) and did not skip any portions of them--but that was then.

Therefore, I swore to keep it lean, to concentrate on action, dialog, and offer enough description to paint the scene. I swore to keep scenes manageable in length and chapters at the size to read in an hour or less. I promised myself to get to the core of the action or present information or backstory in colorful ways (usually through dialog) that were fun to read in themselves. I was aiming for an epic fantasy length story, of course, so the leanness of the initial writing was not a concern. I knew I could flesh in a scene where needed after I'd finished the draft. And I did. 

Rule #5. Things happen in fantasy places, both impossibly wonderful and just as likely amazingly cruel. Unconstrained by modern law or sensibilities, an epic fantasy can be quite open with regard to the particular incidents that occur.

I also had in mind to keep this book clean; that is, morally sound, suitable for at least the New Adult category. I accepted that I could not keep it at a Young Adult level because there would be dragon slaying about every chapter. There got to be more violence, and some sexual episodes downstream but I had the camera turn to the window so we could watch the sunset. I feel good about keeping it less graphic than my other novels. As it turned out, I would even let my mother read it. My father, however, is a different case.

I think I can save my book by calling it an epic science fiction fantasy adventure and leave it at that. Hard to put all that on a title page, of course, but then I have maps this time--maps of a place not quite our own landscape. After all, our hero was born only 4800 years from now, give or take a few days. A lot happens between now and then.

NEXT: I shall further explicate the amazing episodes that comprise the greatest epic fantasy (or similar genre) that I have ever written on a computer! 

*"political season": I started to believe from my "inhabiting" wise characters that I could be a fair alternative to the presidential candidate options and so I began the Bunny Party. Unfortunately, we only achieved 12 votes, half of them from my relatives.

(C) Copyright 2010-2017 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. You do have an epic in your hands, as a story and as an author. Keeping your focus on a plot has to be difficult when intriguing ideas keep popping up. By the way, you should be proud of the hunchback and the river pirates.