fantasy, epics, and genre blends

Macro world-building is to epic storylines what micro world-building is to…?

It’s occurred to me more than once that epic fantasy quests tend to be the standard cliche. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’. I might even accuse Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ of being an epic urban fantasy. There’s no shortage of untried boys off to save the land from the evil overlord in this genre or hard-hearted antiheroes stumbling into wicked schemes that demand their reluctant action. Our writers have a tenancy and a reputation to dream BIG. … Myself included. The siren call of royalty and massive catastrophes is hard to resist.

But what happens if we shy away from epic? What if the story is told on a smaller scale?

This isn’t a new idea, really. If contemporary novels used the same scale that fantasy novels used, the world would be overrun by Tom Clancy wannabes. We have mysteries of all different flavors, low-key romances, social dramas. An abundance of ideas and subjects to choose from. A multitude of things to work with, corporations, cultures, attitudes, ideas…

Maybe the real world just has more to work with. Maybe, when we go to draw out our world maps, we’re doing ourselves a disservice and cutting out ideas that don’t need maps to sketch out. Fantasy is a setting, not a genre. Perhaps an expectation of flavor… the same way science fiction, westerns, and historical fiction are all ‘setting genres’, where a content genre can be (and maybe should) be added.

Are there any really good fantasy stories that ‘write small’? Have they escaped notice? Or are they just not that interesting?

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8 thoughts on “fantasy, epics, and genre blends

  1. I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head about the idea of “writing small”. I’m assuming you’re meaning fantasy stories that aren’t urban fantasy like Kim Harrison or Charlaine Harris write (mystery plotline, magical world), and that are self-contained within a single volume, without maps, made-up languages, and so on. If I’m wrong, I’d be glad to be corrected. It’s an interesting idea. (I wish there were fewer epics, personally. I can’t get into them.)

    The only book I can think of at the moment that would fit the idea of “fantasy writ small” is Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s definitely got an epic fantasy feel to it, but is set in modern Provence and ends without a single hint to a sequel. It’s somewhat known, somewhat not. (I think it depends on which country you live in.) It’s certainly interesting.

    • Well, when I mean ‘write small’, I’m more talking about something far removed from epic fantasy. … So, yes, one volume, something without world-changing events… maybe even a romance or an adventure set in a single town. Maybe if you have a map, it’s the village road map, the butchers and local orchard drawn in instead of countries and volcanoes. Made up languages would be allowed, as would fantasy races, sure… but does it really need to be the end of the world? … Again?

      I think my point is that we’ve been writing fantasy with the metaphorical volume turned way up, and no one has any idea (or seems to, from what I can see) of how to turn it down again.

  2. I can only think of a few fantasy novels that have written small-scale: Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is about a young woman piecing her life back together after being raped, and Vonda McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, which is a historical fantasy about a mermaid caught and kept for Louis XIV’s entertainment. I found both to be a lot more powerful than many of those epic, “must save the world!” series that flood the genre.

    I have to wonder if so many writers take the mass destruction route because they feel it lends more gravitas to their world of talking swords and telepathic animals.

    • I’m really not sure. Tolkien wrote big, Lovecraft wrote big… Lewis Carroll did not, but then, he’s not your typical fantasy writer. Even C.S. Lewis wrote big (if you really think about how old Narnia is, I think the work deserves at least a little credit as a fantasy forefather). Even the classics after went huge– Dune (can we count that?), Wheel of Time…

      In some ways, I think the genre gravitates to large-scale because it can. You can get away with anything (supposedly) in fantasy, and when given so much freedom, things tend to expand. Maybe it’s because most fantasy is really action/adventure, and you need dire consequences for action/adventure to pull through. Or maybe it’s because something small-scale doesn’t need to be fantasy to work and it’s easier just leaving out the element of the fantastic… which is a shame. I’m in fantasy because I love the freedom.

      I’ll have to check out those titles, that said– they both sound interesting. It’s just occurred to me that I know of another one– Angela Carter, “The Bloody Tower”. Interestingly, Angela Carter is considered to be ‘literary fantasy’. I wonder if there’s a relation between ‘literary’ and story proportion.

      • I think that’s a good point about large-scale fantasy also generally being adventure/action stories, and it kind of ties in to your other point about literary fantasy. When you think about it, the end result is often the most important part of a large-scale fantasy — will the good guys win and save the world? The sort of teasing and suspense needed for a satisfying ending works well with a large-scale setting (You must go here, and then find this, and oh no twenty of these are here to stop you!). While with literary works, it’s often theme, symbolization, etc. that becomes the focus.

        Using an Angela Carter example (who I *adore*, by the way), many people have heard of the Bluebeard tale. We know how it ends. But with her retelling, it doesn’t matter that we know what will happen; what matters is how she injects the old tale with fresh symbolism and setting. That type of focus seems to result in small-scale stories. It’s an interesting correlation, anyway.

        Oh dear, I’ve blathered on, haven’t I? 🙂

      • Heh. Not so much… and I know what you mean, about Bluebeard. I read that in college (four years ago?) and I still have vivid memories of his pornography collection, the way the heroine used the piano after Bluebeard left, the golden dolphins with turquoise eyes, the bloody key, the armfuls of white lilies. I’d think it’s strange that those details stick so vividly in my mind, but Angela Carter has a gift for imagery and description that even my description-hating heart can’t oppose.

        And while we’re bringing her up, I just noted that Neil Gaiman’s short stories in “Smoke and Mirrors” often had a ‘small’ tone to them. The story-gift at a wedding that wrote down the bad life they would have had and let the family live peacefully, the old woman who had found the holy grail in the local thrift shop, the troll under the bridge…

  3. You’re absolutely right about epic fantasy becoming the norm. In all my research, I’ve discovered that epic battles and plotlines fall under three categories:

    1. Overdone.
    2. Unrealistic.
    3. Completely unnecessary.

    That third point helped me realize something about this kind of fantasy (and any other writing in general): Unless everything in your story justifies a massive battle or epic plot, size it down. It’s much easier and more worthwhile to do. (Even if a big battle is justified, I still try to downscale it by getting rid of all unnecessary details.

    BTW, I like your writing a lot, and your art is great. Keep creating! It’s refreshing to read some original fantasy.

    • A lot of epic fantasy can be like that. On the other hand, that’s not to say that epic battles are necessarily bad… but they require a great deal of skill to pull off correctly. When war and politics are done right (GRRM, Joe Abercrombie, Tolkein) they’re probably my favorite topic. Would it be cliche to say that it’s a double-edged sword? 😀

      This is something that I think I’d like to explore later– seeing if I can’t lay out a good, moving fantasy story set in one village, or have something else at stake besides the grandeur. I love fantasy for its blank canvas; there must be a whole world of possibilities that haven’t been done yet.

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