Epic fantasy comes in many shapes and forms. Take for instance Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Sara Douglass's Axis Trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption series. Tolkien is a household name, while only those really into fantasy seem to have really read Douglass. But they share the title of being epic. In both, there's adventure, traveling, magic (of course), major conflict from a major evil, a hero/heroine born, and unlikely connections made.
But let's break it down into what I believe makes a story truly epic:
- Adventure -- In most epics I've ever read, the main characters and a group of supporters in the fight for good travel against fear of capture or death to fight the good fight, retrieve some magical heirloom, or free a loved one from danger. There's some walking, running, riding, character conflict, and definitely fights to the death.
- Fight Scenes -- I'm not an expert in combat, but when I was writing my own epic I knew the fight scenes were important and had to be written with precision and grace. Beloved characters often die during these scenes and an author must treat this with as much compassion and love as they can. And they usually do, because the author is the one crying while killing the character.
- Length -- What can I say, epic is long. The reason these stories are so long is because they are such big tales. There's so much mythology, world-building, and cast of characters to account for that 200 pages would never be enough to contain the absolute epic-ness of it.
- Characters -- There's usually a few faces to remember, but it's really the names that count. A name key is usually nice while reading.
- Romance -- In my opinion, great love is usually a part of an epic tale. It might not be the main focus, but it's often there pulling strings, inspiring ballads and bravery, and destroying relationships (oh, Camelot, my Camelot).
- Overcoming and self discovery -- Growth is a staple of any good character who has the chops to be the hero. Maybe the heroine (or hero) start off as weak, resistant, scared and discovers her inner strength. Maybe the character doesn't know how to open up and finally lets someone in as the story wears on. There's many ways for self discovery to take place, but truly epic stories make you heave sighs of relief and remorse at the decisions made by the main character. I can't say how many times my heart has swelled, my chest has tightened, and I've struggled to choke back tears when a hero (or heroine) comes into his own. It's one of my favorite parts in any book or movie—when that heroine (or hero) is no longer taking shit anymore. That's right, Tarod, you reclaim that chaos, it only makes you hotter.
- Good world building can create more magic for the reader than any wizard or dragon. It is within the world that magic seeps, that a culture, a universe, a book, a timeless, epic tale is born.
I could go on with more thoughts about what makes a story epic, but I'd love to hear from others about your thoughts. Also, if you do like epic fantasy, be sure to check out Epic Wednesday on Facebook during the first ever Virtual Fantasy-Con.