Epic Fantasy Characters: What does it mean?

I had great fun this past week talking with fantasy authors about meanings of the phrase “epic fantasy characters.” I contacted 25 writers. All took part in a newsletter promotion called “Epic fantasy characters.” I asked, “In your mind, what makes epic fantasy characters?” I really wanted to know what is in writers’ minds in this regard.

Two wrote that they’re epic fantasy characters because they’re in epic fantasy novels. That’s problematic because epic fantasy is defined as having epic fantasy characters, setting and challenges; it becomes circular.

But here’s what I found most interesting. Pretty much all said their characters are epic because of their personal qualities and growth. They “have abilities that set them apart” (Jack Adkins). Ross Kingston wrote that even though his main character wields great powers, she faces huge challenges alone and shows herself to be just human at times. Wendy Anderson listed “personal growth, high integrity” and mentioned that sometimes they battle with their own nature (which is a trope I really appreciate, like Anne Rice’s Lestat, or Lucifer).

Yet these attributes (foibles, what have you) could all be found in most types of literature, couldn’t they? Well, yes. Some said they’re epic and happen to be in fantasy.

Suzanna Linton defined facing “big stakes in a secondary world setting.” However, she added a twist: “characters are facing a problem bigger than any one of them but which they can face together.” We don’t typically love a main character who doesn’t, at least eventually, acknowledge needing others.

David Dobson said he fits the standard definition: “a second-world medieval fantasy with magic and sword fights and potentially cataclysmic events.” To me, this is the classic underlying definition defining famous high or epic fantasy series. What makes medieval? Castles, swords, royalty. But he goes on to say his characters are “struggling to help people and to save their world and their friends.” He mentions caring about others, though they may not need others’ help. He points out that their dedication against great odds “helps make the story epic and the characters worthy of following.” My first thought was that he meant worthy of other characters following the main character(s). But he might have meant worthy of keeping readers reading!

I appreciated that JM Paquette mentioned the meaning of the word epic itself. It carries two meanings, a long poem of heroism or the hero’s journey, and “extending beyond the usual or ordinary, especially in size or scope.” I think that gives good insight, both historical and allowing broadening from medieval realms and kingdoms to a host of possibilities. Paquette captures a lot with this: “defending new friends and allies, discovering truths about themselves, fighting for what they want in life.” Again, that in itself would not have to be fantasy.

One writer wrote to me, “I think keeping the original meaning to genres is vital, otherwise it just ends up a chaotic mess. Just because we adjust meanings doesn’t mean we need to re write the specific genre meanings.” I never said I wanted to re-write the meaning, but I think it’s important to take account of what authors and readers have in mind and whether that’s changing, as a natural evolution. Can a story be epic and not have characters that travel through kingdoms to destroy something deadly (a ring, for instance)?

L.A. Buck wrote me that she doesn’t think of her characters themselves as “epic”. She interprets “epic fantasy characters” as epic fantasy that emphasizes character development over world-building or magic systems. 

Dune Nielsen also emphasizes the authenticity of his characters in his fantasy novels: “they act with intellect, have goals that are relatable.” He spends a great deal of time building out his characters’ backstories and day-to-day lives as his way of powering his books into epic stories.

I’ve given a lot of thought to why authors find their way to medieval tropes. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover is an example. What did it do for her that after landing, colonizers who lost contact with the universe chose castles and royal families for building a new society from scratch, even though they were settlers who’d been modern. As in Game of Thrones, codes of chivalry and the trappings of royalty carry great weight; they flood the field with networks of meaning ingrained in our psyches.

So I’m fascinated to see that writers and informational websites are attributing epicness to characters based on their personal qualities and the growth they go through—as might be the case in any genre. To me, this emphasis allows epic fantasy to expand, with exciting potential. But the question remains: if a reader picked up a book or series described as epic fantasy, would they be disappointed not to find knights, swords, or heraldic banners waving? Would they call it epic when finished reading?

What new kinds of valor are possible? What mystique is still contained in the medieval, and what surprising blends might intrigue our questing minds?

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