What is high fantasy? What are the conventions of high fantasy? And, most importantly, how do you get published in high fantasy?
When most people think fantasy, they think high fantasy. Series like Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wheel of Time series are some of the subgenres most famous works.
Good high fantasy is set in fully-developed fictional words that will have similarities to the real world but ultimately function by unique laws and standards. The books in this genre tend to follow similar themes of good vs evil, long journeys, and “coming into” stories where the underdog becomes a hero in the end. Although, by no means, are the presence of these required to make something high fantasy. However, most revolve around some form of moralism—opposing moral forces.
Sometimes you will see high fantasy and epic fantasy as two separate subgenres. But the definitions are so close, and in most cases they end up being one in the same, so I will speak of them both interchangeably.
The only real convention of high fantasy is internal consistency. If your world is poorly developed or is a minor part of your story, then you probably haven’t written a high fantasy. And, as the name implies, books written in this genre are EPIC. They are just fully and completely awesome! With intricate storylines, archetypal (but not cliche) characters, great heroes, kingdoms, action-packed adventure, terribly evil antagonists, magic, fun new races, peoples, and cultures to explore, high/epic fantasy is, in my opinion, the reigning ruler of the fantasy kingdom.
Though things have been changing. Traditionally, the antagonists in these books were truly evil, and the hero was commonly a “pure” polar opposite. Nowadays, the genre has seen a definite turn. Heroes and villains are now often hard to tell apart, the magic and adventure focused genre is leaning more and more toward character centred stories, with realistic, internally struggling protagonists.
Some people will also tell you that epic fantasy needs to span multiple books but that is simply not true. Yes much epic fantasy does come in series, but you can write an epic fantasy in a single book. Epic does not mean long.
Now that we know what high/epic fantasy is, lets get into some of the bigger do’s and don’ts that you will want to take into consideration before writing your own epic.
- Create a fully developed and unique world.
What does this mean, exactly?
Well, a fully developed world has a number of requirements: Societies, economies, environments, technologies (usually including magic). All of these things function together to make a cohesive whole. And in high fantasy, it is your job to develop each of these from—if not scratch—uniquely.
Societies are made up of traditional and emergent social institutions like family, religion, military, education, government. They also prescribe statuses, roles, and social groups. And, most importantly where there is people, there is history. Your characters cannot live in a vacuum. Things have happened in the past to put them where they are. In high fantasy, this history can be very important.
There are numerous economic perspectives that have a huge impact on everything they touch from business to finance, to education, and regulation.
Above all environments in many ways dictate the outcomes of both industry and social life.
I will get into all these topics in more detail in others series down the road. Just keep in mind if you are writing high fantasy you will want to consider all these things. Even if you are not planning to make everything up from scratch.
- Write dynamic and complex characters. Play with archetypes to create something fresh.
Archetypal characters are great. You have your heroes, and mentors, and sidekicks, and whatnots, and utilizing them is a good plan. However, you need to be careful not to fall into common cliches when developing them.
I don’t believe that using archetypes limits your creativity at all. There is a ton of room within them to play, and plenty that has yet to be done. What archetypes do give you, is a cast of supporting characters that will automatically deepen your main characters. They will give you the much needed interpersonal interaction so you can showcase your protagonist’s flaws and virtues.
Can you do this with non-archetypal characters? Sure. But 9 times out of 10 those characters are going to turn out to follow one or more the archetypes pretty closely anyway. There is a reason they exist; they come naturally in most stories.
So take advantage of the strong foundations already developed for you and build up from there to create something unique and dynamic that resonates with readers.
- Incorporate a strong theme
A theme is not the same thing as a moral at the end of a children’s book. Rather, it is a central idea that is explored through your novel. It is not your chance to spout off political opinion or alienate a certain group of people.
A theme is more of a question. It asks the reader to follow along with you as you present the various sides of an issue and make their own decision, based on the evidence you’ve provided. You will most likely answer this question by the end of the book but it is important that you (the author) do not take any specific stance.
I know this sounds contradictory—how can you answer the question but not take a stance?—but let me explain.
I’m going to use The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas as an example because the thematic question in it is more blatantly expressed than some.
Dumas’s thematic question could be: Is revenge worth the cost?
This question is even discussed at length in the book by the many characters. In the end Dantés decides that yes, revenge is very much worth the cost and follows through on his plans. Notice that I said Dantés (the protagonist), not Dumas (the author). Dumas’s stance on the issue is unclear. That’s good.
We don’t really know what he feels about the question because he did his job in presenting all the sides objectively. Some characters argue against revenge, others for, others in between. The character’s decision in the end wasn’t really important and wouldn’t change the minds of readers either, because they would have already made their choice. He chose revenge, and where I see that outcome as positive, others do not. Dumas isn’t telling readers that revenge is the right answer, merely one of the answers.
Themes done in this way make stories strong and compelling. Themes that try to force an ideal on readers will quickly distance authors from their consumers. People don’t appreciate being preached to.
Do you have to have a theme? No. But in fantasy (actually, all books) it is a very good idea. A good theme will hold your book together, lend to internal consistency, solidify your character’s motivations and reactions, and just make reading your story a better experience all around.
However, don’t force your theme either. It should be organic and inherent to your plot and characters. One cannot be given precedence over the other or it will feel awkward.
And that’s it.
Some of you might be surprised I didn’t add more to this list of do’s like magic systems, languages, creatures/races, and what not. But I have a hard time believing that just because something has worked in the past, means that it needs to be incorporated into the future.
I believe whole heartedly that someone out there can make a high fantasy novel, without magic, or dragons, or humanoid races, etc. By definition, high fantasy is a story that takes place in an alternative and fictional world. About the only rule, is internal consistency (sick of that term yet?). There is plenty of room in the genre for . . . well . . . basically anything. Don’t limit yourself to mages, knights, and dwarves. Create something complete and new (and written well) and you can successfully contribute to the genre of epics.
Oh. And, I guess I should make it clear that generic mages, knights, and dwarves are also fine, if that’s what you want to do. But, your task will be difficult because of what we are going to talk about next.
- Ignore physics and basic sciences.
There is nothing worse than a fantasy book that forgets there are basic rules to existence. Just because you can have someone leap from a 100 ft. cliff and land gently on their feet, doesn’t mean you should.
When someone gets gutted and their viscera is lying on the floor, they do not keep talking. A man with a broken leg and and knife in his chest probably isn’t going to drag himself 20 miles across the sandy desert. And a horse cannot run for a whole day without dropping dead . . .
This happens in all kinds of books, but even more so in high fantasy. Sometimes authors forget that their fantasy creatures (faeries and elves, etc.) need to live in the physical world as well. This all has to do with the internal consistency we discussed before. If an agent finds even 1 mistake like this , you can say goodbye to a deal.
- Ignore psychology, social mechanisms, and political sciences.
Often times fantasy characters lack basic human psychology. Usually in the form of character motivation. They start off on journeys and dive into extremely dangerous situations just because they have “the heart of a hero” or are the “chosen one” and therefore . . . inclined to it?
Make sure your characters have sufficient motivation for killing, saving, giving up their lives, etc. Not many people will jump off a sword for the greater good alone.
Some goes for social mechanisms, and political sciences. Just because you are making up your own societies and governments doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want within them. Just like your characters need to have believable motivation to act, so do your governments and societies. Societies almost never change unless there is a pressure to do so. Whether economic or social, and there are always consequences to change, and parts of society that will reject that change. Government policy needs a similar pressure to exist.
Like I mentioned before: No vacuums. Everything is connected—inputs and outputs, and all that.
- Exhausting dialogue
Do not—I repeat—DO NOT write your character’s accent into the dialogue. Inflections and some slang terms are just fine. But reading “Ye con’t goo that weey. Thou must heed aroond the beend to git to the oootside,” every few paragraphs? . . .
. . . It’s exhausting and most readers gloss right over it. There are plenty of ways to get dialect across without writing it word for word.
While you are at it, never write another ye, thee, thy, thine, thou ever again in your life.
- Insane or non-existent naming conventions
Here is that internal consistency again. Below, are some names from a book I have recently read. All from the same race of peoples, living in the same time and place. (This was a serious book by the way.)
Kalyn Gillbane, Apostle the Apostle, Blackfeather, Colonel Divorce, Abu’Bali, Zane, Danzeal, Devilekay.
People come from places with a common history. Come on guys, make it at least sound like your characters speak the same language. Nuff said.
- Load your book up with cliches, and ignore genre trends.
So many things in the high fantasy genre have been played out. Make sure you are always reading and researching so you know what to avoid. For instance, Tor won’t even look at any books set in Eurpoean-esque worlds anymore. People aren’t buying them, they are sick of them. There is no point in making something that readers aren’t interested in. There are plenty of lists out there detailing the many cliches of fantasy, make sure you are informed.
- Fall victim to the many holes in magic systems
Magic is awesome. It’s why we write fantasy, right?
The things is, it can be a lot tougher to do successfully that most people think. Amateur magic systems are fraught with holes, while I’ll be going into more detail in later series, I will quickly outline a few of the major ones.
The magic system with no system. In this one characters use magic willy nilly, for everything, and anything they need it for. There are no constraints on magic, no limits, and no real basis for it. Mages can simply think of something and find a way to do that thing. All magic systems need limitations of some kind that work within the laws of your physical world. Otherwise it gets pretty boring, pretty fast. Moreover, magic works best if there is some kind of limit as to who can use it. Magic available to everyone in every way would be chaos.
The magic antagonist that is way too powerful. Many authors write themselves into this issue unknowingly. I just had to rewrite one of me own antagonists because he was just too powerful. There was no logical way my protagonists could defeat him. Many other authors though, never bother to start from scratch but apply inconsistent patches instead that make the ending unbelievable and choppy. Don’t do that. If you run into a problem in any area of your book don’t settle for patches. Go through and make it consistent from the beginning.
Magic with a system but no source. Magic needs to make sense in a physical world with laws, even if they differ from the real world’s. Therefore magic needs a source. It can be from the gods, a well of some kind like Staveley’s leaches, life energy, elemental energy, etc.
Magic without consequences. This one is where magic users can do a ton of amazing things but there never seems to be any consequences to doing those things. Rules usually mean consequences if broken. Everything needs to come from somewhere, if your magic is life energy based for example, then a great big use of magic would make the user very tired, yes?
Convenient magic. Ah convenient magic. This is probably the most common pit fall. Writers will find they write a character into a corner and, instead of just rewriting the scene or scenes, they decide he will just suddenly be able to do this new fun magical thing that saves the day. Yay! . . . please don’t do that.
Poorly researched or plagiarized magic. I think this one needs very little explanation. Don’t ever steal someone’s magic system, or even use it and change it to fit your needs. For instance, too many authors steal Tolkien’s magic system thinking that it’s the only way to do magic. They don’t bother to do the research and find out how that system works in Tolkien’s world. It never ends well for them. The magic feels flat and lifeless, inconsistent and ofttimes just plain confusing.
- Base races off of real and offensive stereotypes
This no-no was particularly popular in the 80’s and 90’s and even to some extent today. Let’s just say, if you are making a desert race of whatevers, don’t make them beat their women and force them to cover their faces (except the belly dancing whores, or course), are run by evil dictators, are naturally violent, yell out “death to the infidels!” in battle and basically any other horrible stereotype of real live peoples you can think of.
Do your research and make sure that if you base a culture on anything related to real life, you are doing so objectively with plenty of research—even better, interview some real life desert dwellers . . . there’s an idea.
- Race/creature diarrhea
When a fantasy writer fills their world with creatures from mythology from every corner of the earth, make some of their own, and take something from every book they have ever read. The whole world makes no ecological sense, and because their are way to many societies to count, none are developed fully. It turns into creature feature and no more.
Finding an Agent and Publishing in High Fantasy
If you explore the great, wide, blue Inter-ocean, then you can easily find what publishers and literary agents are searching for. Most agents will express right in their profiles what your epic fantasy should include if you want them to take you on. For instance, the first agent I came across was looking for fantasy that approaches the genre with a “weird eye,” and stories that can be “clearly explained in the title”. Another, “seeks Tolkien fantasy, diverse characters,” and another asks for “no medievalism, please.”
It’s important to find an agent (or non-solicited publisher) that is looking for what you have. But also, discover what agents are looking for before you begin and take notice of common threads. Preferences are always changing and agents will be the first to let you know if the style of your book has become uninteresting to the public.
Here’re a few current trends that you might consider before writing your epic.
- There is a big push against medieval-setting epic fantasies. People are sick of them; it’s played out. Stop it.
- Another trend is toward feminist friendly fantasy, showing strong female protagonists with a unique take on power and sexuality.
- Similar to that, there is a growing desire and need for LGBT fantasy, catering to a more diverse crowd.
- Third person POV.
- Focus on strong world building and atmosphere.
- Dark, psychological, character’s exploring deeper issues.
Do your research; there is a ton of information at your fingertips, you only need to take the time and find it.
I suggest you gather about the names of 50 or so agents while you write your book. Make sure that they are appropriate and want your kind of novel. Organize them by name, contact info, other clients, average advance amounts (if you can get it), and preferences for query and styles. Write a personalized query letter for each, but make sure you do not send them away until you have finished writing and editing your manuscript. We will discuss effective query letters in the future. For now just get to know your prospective agents.
If you are self-publishing than you do not need to gather a list of potential agents. However, you should still be researching the market and learning what agents are looking for is a good way to discover some current trends.
Epic Fantasy Reading List to Get You Started.
- For the best example of the genre, you must read Steven Erikson, the guy has captured epic perfectly. His 10-part series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is NOT an effortless read but it is so intricate and creative that you must persevere!
- The First Law, Joe Abercrombie. I’m an admitted die-hard fan of Abercrombie, but I’m also a staunch advocate for the dark-side of writing. The more mayhem the better, I say. If that’s your thing too, you will love this trilogy!
- Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams. I will be the first to admit that this series is a little more Tolkien-esque than I prefer, moving a bit too slowly. But, I do also really love it. The world building that Williams does is top-notch and beautifully consistent down to the tone of his character’s speech.
- The Farseer, Robin Hobb. This series is unique and addicting. If you want to see how to write amazing epic fantasy characters then you have to read Robin Hobb.
- Lightbringer, Brent Weeks. People have mixed opinions of this series. But if you’re looking for a book with a ton of action, and high entertainment value, then this is for you. It doesn’t have the most complex story but it does have one of the most unique magic systems ever developed and that alone makes this an important read for fantasy writers.
- Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson. This series is great for beginning fantasy writers. His writing style is fresh (even for a now aging series) his characters are complex, his magic system is unique, and the story is moving and gratifying. Although there are things about Sanderson that I do not love—just like any other author—he is a great role model for fantasy writers in every subgenre.
- Kingkiller Chronicles, Patrick Rothfuss. Another staple of the genre, told in unique form. Rothfuss is a master at world building, and likes frequent changes of scenery for his characters. A great study tool for developing setting.
Then of course the ones mentioned at the beginning of this post as well by George R. R. Martin, J. R. R Tolkien, and Robert Jordan respectively.
Thats the end of this subgenre post. Next month we will get into Dark/Horror Fantasy.