3 Lessons Fantasy Writers Can Learn from the Classical Epic

July 27, 2020

You’ve probably heard the expression “That was epic!” thousands of times. But what does it actually mean? Epic is used to describe a myriad of experiences, but we typically treat it as a synonym for big, awe-inspiring, or just plain cool. Movies are full of epic clashes between good and evil. And if you’re hungry enough, hamburgers can be epic too.


The dictionary, however, defines epic slightly differently: “a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.” When a word or phrase is modified with epic, the implication is that it’s “heroic” or “grand in scale.” Epics are stories about heroes facing terrible odds. But epics can be about humans wrestling their inner demons just as much as knights slaying dragons. The scope of the battle depends on what inspired the writer (or speaker, as was traditional).


Novelists, especially those in the fantasy genre, can glean valuable lessons from epic poets. You might be skeptical of that assertion, but I’m going to share three truths that I hope will change your mind. (And if you’re interested in further study, I recommend checking out our article series on applying poetic techniques to prose.)


1. Heroes Must Be Human

Fantasy is famous for its wondrous settings and sweeping plots that boast world-threatening stakes. Yet, you’ll notice that the epics written in ancient times aren’t full of gorgeous landscapes but empty of people. The focus is on the characters more than the plot.


What do epics teach about developing characters? Think about your first task when creating a character. You need to choose a name for him because it’s a manifestation of who he is. From a scriptural standpoint, God’s multitude of names illuminate specific facets of His character. The key phrase here is “facets of character.” Epic poetry abides by the same concept. A hero’s name alludes to his identity, as well as his modus operandi. Another term for a name or title in the realm of the epic is epithet.


Once again, according to the trusty dictionary, an epithet is “an adjective or descriptive phrase expressing a quality characteristic of the person or thing mentioned.” You can find plenty of examples of epithets throughout literature. “Oz, the great and powerful” could easily be classified as one. Any combination of praises or insults that embellish a character serves this purpose. The audience reads (or hears) it and knows what kind of person has entered the scene.


As you approach the moment of breathing life into your characters, ask yourself what makes them human. The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Beowulf can help guide you in harnessing the power of epithets within the broader arena of storytelling. The Iliad opens with the rage of Achilles, while The Aeneid opens with the profound piety of Aeneas. Throughout Beowulf, the protagonist is referred to as “Lord of the Seamen” and “Geatish Hero.” Before the poets record any exploits, they establish the characters’ telltale traits.


As you follow these monikers through each poem, you’ll realize that they enrich your understanding of the characters and overall tone. The names not only clarify and elaborate on each of the characters but also anchor them to the overarching plots and themes. Characters come first, because through them, writers and readers alike gain access to the underlying messages.


A word of warning, though: characters come first, but don’t stop there! Heroes don’t stay rooted to one spot (obviously). They have to start somewhere, but then they surge forward to take on challenges. Human identities and journeys are intrinsically intertwined. Who they are flows into what they do. Assign your characters jobs or quests beyond the margins of the ordinary. Epics explore the brokenness of human nature in a variety of ways, and if you seek to imitate that, your stories can be deeply human too.


2. Heroes Must Have Flaws

Similar to epithets, archetypes are a hallmark of epics. They’re the patterns that make stories relatable. As I touched on in my previous point, somehow and somewhere, everyone goes on a journey, and good and evil are forever engaged in combat. These familiar, larger-than-life motifs form the spine of every epic, whether poem or novel. From the rage of Achilles to the fatal beauty of Helen, the images are timeless—you encounter them again and again, absorbing new layers of meaning each time.


But how does this translate from poetry to prose?


Continuing down the avenue of Achilles’ rage, characters have flaws that contribute to the conflicts you weave into your stories. Achilles’ rage drives him away from the battle lines yet ultimately brings him to his end. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus (known as the “man of twists and turns”) struggles to balance arrogance and clever wit as he strives to return home to his beloved wife. Both Achilles and Odysseus don’t travel far without running into their truest friends and enemies—themselves.


Often, speculative fiction writers neglect to instill their characters with flaws that make sense (like Superman and the funky green crystal). The flaws need to fit instead of being tacked on as an afterthought. Sometimes side characters show the heroes their weaknesses, as Sam does with Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Surrounding your hero with friends and nemeses is important, but his best ally or worst enemy usually lies within.


The hero’s goal is to comprehend and, to an extent, wage war on himself. That’s the advantage of an archetype. These battles endure the test of time—and thus are a formidable asset for fantasy writers. Place your characters in situations that will force them to confront their flaws, and don’t let them rush in alone. They’ll grow as a result.


3. Heroes Must Have a Legacy

So, you’ve given your hero an identity and imperfections. But where is his path leading? Endings are the bane of every writer in every genre. The culmination of all the hero’s adventures must be compelling and memorable. In an epic poem, the hero faces one last obstacle that proves his mettle—such as Beowulf and the dragon, or Odysseus and his wife’s wicked suitors. Implicit in the finale are two questions: 1) Why does victory matter? 2) What happens after?


To arrive at satisfactory answers, you first need to ensure that your hero is recognized or memorialized for the trials he’s undergone. One indication of an ineffective ending is an unchanged hero. If you look through a spiritual lens, you can see that Christ doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sins—He extends a hand to pull us out. Likewise, you need to offer your hero an opportunity for transformation. That doesn’t mean he’ll immediately pursue it, but with time and patience, he’ll stumble in that direction. This principle ties into my point that flaws must suit the character. You need to be open to your hero becoming a different person than you’d initially intended, which requires you to be vulnerable and release a little control.


In The Return of the King, Tolkien plunges Frodo and Sam into despair as they draw closer to Mount Doom. However, this sequence is impactful because of the events that transpire afterward—the fight to cleanse the Shire of evil and Frodo’s final voyage across the sea. His departure demonstrates that the weakest hands sometimes commit the greatest deeds and that certain wounds (i.e., flaws) never truly heal.


Secondly, after the hero has gone out of commission, you need to introduce another character to carry on his work. For Beowulf, the clear candidate is Wiglaf, whose duty is to lead the Danes into a brighter future. For Odysseus, the clear candidate is Telemachus, who will become the “man of the house” once his father slips into the Underworld. This sidekick doesn’t necessitate a prominent role in the beginning of the story, but he does need to be present so you can phase him in later.


To revisit Lord of the Rings yet again, over the course of the trilogy, Sam slowly develops from humble gardener to co-Ringbearer to the primary executor of Frodo’s legacy in the Shire. The famous Red Book still contains space for Sam to write in, and because of all he and Frodo went through together to defeat darkness, those blank pages are significant.


A hero doesn’t grow and shift in isolation. When he completes his arc, readers are left wondering: What now? To partially resolve that question, a secondary character (or even an entire group) steps in holding a banner of hope. Occasionally a lone hero will fade into retirement as the world moves on—and humbling revelations can be extracted from such endings. But, in most cases, a hero influences others around him, and this extends to readers. If your hero is not exemplary at heart (in one way or another), he’s failed his quest even if his foe lies destroyed at his feet. His unique capacity to be a role model—whether to a sidekick, community, or readers—enables him to live on through the years.


Tools of the Epic Trade

The phrase “through the years” circles back to the purpose behind this article. Some might argue that epics are storytelling distilled into its essential form. But why write according to “epic rules”? What makes such long and dramatic stories worth crafting?


I won’t claim to have a comprehensive answer. But here’s a start. Epics are one of the oldest types of literature, and in our contemporary era, we should continue paying heed to how the ancients conveyed their experiences so we can build upon that foundation when we recount our own. Whether through myth or history translated into lyrical verse, the fact remains that universal stories are infinitely beneficial to humankind, underscoring the value of community and assuring us that the battles we wage today have been fought before—and won. That, to me, is truly epic.

1 Comment

  1. Bethany

    As someone who has had to read these stories for school, I love this article! I found this list of common elements of an epic from my humanities notes:

    Epic Narrative: a larger than life journey
    Virtuous Hero: a character against circumstance
    Quest: a grand adventure
    Tested Virtue: values under constant assault
    Supernatural: gods toss men like dice
    Dramatic Irony: reader privy to what the hero is not
    Ultimate Victory: against all odds, the hero prevails


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