Bestselling authors explain how to put the "epic" in epic fantasy

A gathering of giants took place this morning at San Diego Comic-Con. Michael Spradlin (author of the Youngest Templar series) moderated a panel discussion between George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Christopher Paolini, Peter Orullian, K. J. Taylor, and Kevin J. Anderson about the nature of epic stories, why we are attracted to these types of tales, and the methods they use to construct them. Here are some high points from the panel.

Michael Spradlin: Why do you feel humans are attracted to epics? What makes something an epic?

George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones): I think the term epic fantasy is a misnomer. It is a marketing strategy that entails stories with castles, swords, and sometimes a dwarf in my case. Lots of these tales involve the fate of the world, but I don't think the fate of the world should be necessary. I don't think the epic scale should be a requirement of epic fantasy.

Brandon Sanderson (The Way of Kings): Not length, but immersion. The world becomes real - you enter a new place.

Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind): No id ea. I'm struggling with what is epic. People decided I was epic – if by epic, do you mean a big, heavy book? David Copperfield is a big book – is it epic? Amount of time covered, length, drama, or story – that's the real appeal – if the story is long you have a better chance of becoming more connected.

Michael Spradlin: This is the chicken or the egg question – when you are writing, is it the world that is then populated, or the character that populates the world?

George R. R. Martin: Both are valid. Tolkein began with world building, but his characters are what we remember as much as anything else; Strider, Gandalf, and Samwise will always be with us. The story begins and ends with the character. I try the world building, but I don't think I'm as good. I got a letter about the languages in my books once, with one person asking if I could send him the syntax and vocabulary for the Dothraki language. I've invented seven words of the language, and I'll make an eighth when I need to (the language was fleshed out for the HBO series). The world isn't as fleshed out as Tolkein's world.

With A Song of Ice and Fire, I started with a vision of a scene of wolf pups with their mother dying in the snow. I didn't know where it was going, but when I finished writing that chapter I had an idea for the second for the second chapter, and at the end of 50-60 pages I figured I needed to start drawings maps.

Kevin J. Anderson (Terra Incognita): When I write, I'm building a world, developing the cultures and the economics and the religions and so on. You need people to do the interesting parts of the cultures, so you get the characters and they move the plot forward.

Peter Orullian (The Unremembered): Both. I start with characters. I love drawing maps and world building, but I take away characters. That's where most of my energy lies. Having a large scale is one of the best ways to define epic fantasy – it is not a bar brawl, but nations warring against each other. It resonates when a father holds his dead son on a battlefield though. The battle is great, but when I can write down what is heartbreaking for the individual is what matters most to me.

Michael Spradlin: In regards to process, do you start with a character and let the character tell you where to go? Do you outline or figure you out as you go?


K. J. Taylor (The Fallen Moon series): No outline. I like to write through a chain of inspiration – I get the big idea, then a series of smaller ones as you have other ones, and you are continually inspired by other scenes and things. I keep it in my head, not writing things down, because if I do, I ramble.

Christopher Paolini (Eragon): Once I have the key idea - with The Inheritance Cycle, it was a young man finding a dragon egg in the wilderness – everything else was done just to get there. When I first started I plotted out a three book fantasy series from start to finish. I tended to write the first book in order to practice, and then I would write a real book. Eragon was the practice book.

Each of my books start out as an outline that is twelve to fourteen pages single spaced, and each paragraph is a chapter. You have to have the courage to see, however, when the outline is killing your story. You have a minor panic attack and then you figure out what to do. I'm a believer in outlining, but you have to throw it away when the story demands it.

Patrick Rothfuss: I used to come down hard on outliners. If I had to, I would make a list of bullet points, and those would have some sub-bullets, and then one day, I'm like "Damn, I'm an outliner." I don't do it for the full story. I write as discovery – I sit down to write for a day and I don't know where I'm going, but I discover as I write. A lot of new writers assume you have to know the where the story is going and that it flows out as molten gold. But really, sometimes you think you are going to one place, but then you decide that is dumb idea. Then you go somewhere else and it is a worse idea. But then you switch again and you might have a beautiful accident.

Kevin J. Anderson: I have a physics and astronomy degree, so I do things mathematically and logically. If a contractor is building a skyscraper he needs blueprints. The giant epic novels I'm writing are complicated and choreographed with dozens of main characters. I can't imagine doing the discovery method and just seeing what happens each day. And since I co-write with Brian Herbert a lot, so I need to have a solid outline or else it turns out to be a demolition derby. The outline for the new Dune book was ninety pages long – essentially a first draft. The beautiful accidents still happen for me, but just before I write the words. They happen in my head as I construct the story prior to the outline.

Image courtesy of Bantam Books.