A Formula for Epic Fantasy


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The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee
The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a 3-part formula for epic fantasy. It focuses on broad plotting in fantasy series versus micro plotting. Here’s the formula:

  1. Individual
  2. Community
  3. Globe

Book 1, or the beginning of the fantasy series, focuses on the individual hero(ine) and their conflict. The hero(ine) discovers they’re different, or they’re given a task, or they’re suddenly alone (or all of the above). They must learn something about themselves, be trained, leave the only home they’ve ever known. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo leaves Hobbiton and chooses to be the ring-bearer. In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe discovers he’s a genius, loses his family, and goes to the university to train in magic. In the Valdemar trilogies by Mercedes Lackey, book one often if not always begins with a teenager discovering they have magic, their horse appearing, and leaving home to train in magic. In The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Rand leaves home and discovers he’s special; the same happens to both Kaladin and Shallan in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I could name many more examples, but that’s probably enough.

Books 2+ explore community conflicts. This isn’t to say individual conflicts are no longer explored, but that by helping communities overcome conflict, the hero(ine) learns something about themselves. In The Two Towers, the hero(in)es face community conflicts in Rohan, Helms Deep, Isengard, and more. I haven’t read The Wise Man’s Fear yet, but I bet Kvothe leaves the university and travels into the wider world, visits communities that are undergoing conflicts, and helps (or fails to help) those communities. In the Valdemar trilogies, book 2 has the newly trained Herald being given an assignment that requires them to travel to outlying communities, and of course everything isn’t as it should be in those communities. These community-level conflicts can take up more than 1 book. The Wheel of Time series, for instance, has many community-level conflicts happening over many books. Words of Radiance is interesting because it focuses on a single area/community of conflict, but Sanderson gives the reader brief glimpses into community conflicts happening around the world, though the main characters are centrally located.

Finally, the fantasy series explores global-level conflict. Often, the possibility for global conflict has been there the entire time, and the smaller, individual and community conflicts have been a product or leading towards the larger, global conflict. The stakes are much higher in these conflicts. The world might end, humanity be destroyed, evil overtake the world, etc. The hero(ine) faces the ultimate villain(s) that threaten to destroy everything, not just the hero(ine). In The Return of the King, Sauron’s defeated, the ring thrown into the aptly named Fires of Mount Doom. If the heroes had failed, evil would’ve ruled the land. Though unfinished, I’m betting in The Kingkiller Chronicle a threat that imperils everything Kvothe knows and loves and the fabric of magic itself occurs to bring him out of exile (or, he tells about this conflict which then forced him into exile). For Valdemar, in book 3 the country itself is imperiled, and the Herald must save the day or else the entire country be destroyed. I haven’t finished The Wheel of Time series (stopped at book 10 about a decade ago and I don’t want to reread the entire thing to finally finish it), but the global conflict is apparent early on: The Dragon Reborn must face the Dark One, as the prophecy foretells. This is both an individual conflict and a global conflict, as many final books are. Unless the hero(ine) can conquer their inner demons and fears, the world will end, or everything good will be destroyed.

Many epic fantasies follow this formula. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin moves through the formula slowly, focusing on different hero(in)es at different times, and often the hero(in)es fail at saving a community, which is what makes the series a dark fantasy. And while all these communities face danger, Westeros itself is threatened to be destroyed by the white walkers (global). The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin masterfully uses the formula to show that individual, community, and global conflict are all one and the same. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series moves in and out of all 3 parts simultaneously in both the books published so far — The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate — though it still seems to follow the basic formula, and is also obviously leading to a larger, global conflict. I could go on and on.

The formula is intuitively logical. It plays a part even in the real world, often in education and morality. First, an individual learns how to be a good human being (ideally), then they take their skills and help those around them in the community, and by helping those around them, the world improves. Individual-Community-Globe. The formula also aligns with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, though more simplified and broader in scope — focusing less on the individual and more on overarching plot structure. But if I were to map out the possible plot points in each of these 3 parts, I bet it would look very similar to Campbell’s hero’s journey.

I can think of several science fiction series that follow this formula as well, but it doesn’t seem as consistent as in epic fantasy. My theory is that global-level conflict can be addressed in fantasy in ways that seem forced or trite in other genres, but individual and community-level conflict is often seen regardless of genre. Also, the idea of ‘training’ seems to hold more importance in fantasy than other genres, though again, I can think of exceptions, especially in science fiction.

And not all fantasy series follow this formula. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy stands out as an exception. Conflict is thrown upon the characters with no training, the characters are not ‘special’ in any unique way, the city faces conflict but often the hero is a byproduct of the conflict. The world is never imperiled. I’m sure there are other epic fantasies that do not follow the formula.

I may explore this idea more at some point. It seems that fantasy offers a unique way of looking at how individuals can affect the world, but that idea is nothing new to anyone who’s already obsessed with the genre. Nonetheless, I’m always fascinated by how the craft of writing aids in message and theme.

2 thoughts on “A Formula for Epic Fantasy

  1. Zelazny’s Amber series fits quite nicely into the 3-part formula as well as Pierce Brown’s book Red Rising. My best guess is that the vast majority of the Science Fiction and Fantasy novels would fit into the formula.

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