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22 April 2013 @ 10:03 am

I just finished reading Carol Berg’s THE DAEMON PRISM (which, like nearly everything Carol writes, is on my list of Favorite Books), and it got me to thinking about what makes epic work and what makes it work on a huge, international bestseller level.

Carol’s epic fantasy usually focuses on a handful of people, rather than a cast of thousands, like (for example) GRRM. They’re very different storytelling styles and obviously bring different things to the table, both of which I find appealing in different ways.

I wonder if one or the other has a more general appeal. Do people *prefer* to have the cast of thousands, or the more narrow handful of viewpoints? If the latter, is it driven partly by the fear that the author is going to keel over before finishing that epic with a thousand viewpoints, or is it just that actually we’d all be perfectly happy if the story was told from Arya, Tyrion, and the Hound’s PsOV? (Uh, my bias may be showing there. Move along.)

If the former, though–if we really do love all those viewpoint characters, then what is it about that particular style that catches people up so dramatically? Part of it must be the agonizing wait, right? The fact that it’s really not all that unreasonable for a book of that magnitude to take several years to write. We clearly enjoy that kind of torture to some degree.

But what else is it that catapults a series into GRRM territory? *Is* it the cast of thousands, the fact that we have so many characters to love and hate and cheer and curse? Part of it’s certainly the “holy shit, I can’t believe he did that” aspect, which is a bit hard to repeat at this stage because no matter what you do somebody’s going to say GRRM did it first, but pfft, nothing new under the sun, there.

Some of it is the so-called gritty realism portrayed in GRRM’s books, although heaven knows Carol Berg’s, Judith Tarr’s, Kate Elliott’s, Michelle Sagara’s, Juliet E McKenna’s also contain plenty of gritty realism (dear god, go read Kate’s Crossroads Trilogy if you don’t think they do, or Juliet’s Hadrumal Crisis, for fantastically realistic characters in extremely real-feeling situations). And yes, I am calling out female epic fantasy writers deliberately here, partly because I *read* a lot more of them than I do male epic fantasy writers, and partly because I still don’t see them in the same eschelons as GRRM, despite feeling they’re equally good writers.

But I wonder if a part of it isn’t the overt magic. ASOIAF opens with a promise of magic: the first chapter/prologue/whatever takes place beyond the Wall, and it’s clear the Magic Is Coming. But on this side of the Wall, for a long goddamned time, it’s all about politics and manuevering. Daenerys, who is the most overtly magic-controlling character for a long, long time, still takes what, at least one full book, before she even touches that territory. But in all the authors I’ve listed above, the magic is considerably more *there*, right from the start.

I can’t help thinking that’s part of it. That it’s a question of massaging the magic in, as much as skill in storytelling or cast size. And there is invariably the question author gender, which on one hand is perhaps impossible to truly account for and on the other, well, I know I have a bias and I know *why* I have that bias. (OTOH, I /know/ I have a bias, which appears to also be an important factor.)

I know there aren’t simple or straight answers to any of this. In the end it’s all in what serves the story. But if I was going to write epic fantasy, I wonder what would be considered the more appealing style, cast of thousands or a handful of protagonists, and where/when the magic should really come into the story.

These are the questions that keep me awake at night. :)

(x-posted from The Essential Kit)

pgwfolcpgwfolc on April 22nd, 2013 10:01 am (UTC)
I think it depends on the way you want to tell the story.

Focusing on just a few characters makes it easier to keep track of what's going on and to relate to the characters and build a relationship with them so that what happens to them actually matters to you.

The cast of thousands approach trades that in for a broader picture and greater complexity.

Personally... I'm equally appreciative of Wheel of Time and Mistborn. Two very different styles and approaches. I appreciate different aspects of both.

Same with magic. The magic should be a part of the story. The story shouldn't be about the magic. (Except when it should.) So the magic should be introduced when and as the story calls for it. Generally, at least some aspects of it should come in early. Just as part of getting readers used to the world. But even that's not always true, because sometimes it's a more hidden and/or subtle magic.

In short: Storytelling is an art. I think it suffers when it becomes too much a science. When it's bound too much by formulas and rules.

Write what works for the story. In my limited and highly amateurish experience, the story (and the characters) know(s) better than you do.
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on April 22nd, 2013 11:37 am (UTC)
I think it's an emphasis thing, too -- there's a perception that GRRM-style fantasy is less emotional (it isn't, but it's marketed that way). I've noted for years that male writers can get away with levels of romance that would get women writers yelled at. But Kate and Judy get covers with women on them, looking, well, female; GRRM and co get swords and tough-looking warriors.
kitmizkit on April 22nd, 2013 02:43 pm (UTC)
This is very true. It's another one of those things that makes me want to run a Social Experiment and write two projects of the same type, and try to sell one under a male name and one under, well, presumably CE Murphy, though it's technically gender neutral, but it's known and anybody with five seconds and the internet could determine my gender. A theoretical agent would have to be in on it, but I would want no one else--not even the editor for the male psuedonym--to be aware of The Real Writer. The experimental part would be seeing what kinds of money, covers, promotion, reviews, etc, the two projects got.

I may be one of the few people I know who might be able to write fast enough to pull an experiment like that off, but I'm not sure even *I* write *that* fast. I'd need an unbelieveable amount of rope to hang myself with, financially speaking, to be able to try it. And also a second epic fantasy idea, though at the end of the day, ideas are cheap...
silkiemom on April 22nd, 2013 04:09 pm (UTC)
This would be an incredibly hard project to kickstart. "Help fund a Social Experiment and help Catie write two books at the same time so we can compare their sale and marketing!" would probably undermine the experiment, at least on the CE Murphy side of the sale.
kitmizkit on April 22nd, 2013 05:48 pm (UTC)
*laughs* Yeah. I actually spent a few seconds thinking about it and then was like "No, really can't. "Kickstart this Social Experiment! I'll give you all the details and a bunch of books in ten years!", like. :)"
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on April 22nd, 2013 04:46 pm (UTC)
I have to say it would be an experiment worth doing.
Jules and I were in Waterstones last week, and looking at the fantasy promotions table. All men, apart from Meyer, Suzanne Collins and Robin Hobb, who is very gender neutral. The men not all that high profile, but it was the 'if you like GRRM' table, so.... Allowing for the fact they don't stock US editions, they were missing Jules, Kate Elliott, Gaie Sebold, Trudy Canavan....
kitmizkit on April 22nd, 2013 05:49 pm (UTC)
I really very much think it *would* be an experiment worth doing. But hoo boy, it'd be hard to pull off!
Flitterbyflit on April 23rd, 2013 12:28 am (UTC)
Oh wow, that would be an amazing project, though yes, hard to pull off.

They did this will plays written by an award-winning playwright, though, and the results were depressingly predictable.
kitmizkit on April 23rd, 2013 06:38 am (UTC)
I have no doubt the results *would* be depressingly predictable, but it would be a case study for SF/F in specific that I think might enlighten some people.

OTOH, it's possible those people cannot be enlightened. :)
Deborah Blakedeborahblakehps on April 22nd, 2013 12:18 pm (UTC)
When I was younger, I loved epics full of many folks, although really still the ones that focused on one or four main characters. These days, my brain just can't track all those people and I end up confused and lost and frankly...not caring that much. I gave up reading those types of books some time ago.

These days, I much prefer to get into the head (s) of one or two or three characters I'm really going to care about. The thing that makes Carol's writing so remarkable is the way you get immersed in her protagonist's world to deeply, it is almost more real (and more important) than your own.
S. L. Grayshadowhwk on April 22nd, 2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
I think, for me at least, that the magic aspect is my biggest draw to epic fantasy. I have never been great at keeping track of a cast of thousands.

Well, no, I take that back-- I used to be able to name every GI Joe and Transformers character that raced across the screen. Ahem.

But I've never been good at keeping track of a cast of thousands in books. I much prefer a handful of characters to love or hate and get to know and mourn if necessary. Probably why that's the kind of epic I write, when I go there, too.

You have good keeping awake at night questions.
kitmizkit on April 22nd, 2013 03:39 pm (UTC)
The overt magic, you mean? As opposed to the politics?

Re: Transformers. I bet it's easier to keep track of everybody on the TV show of Game of Thrones than the book, too, because there's an actual visual component, not just what's in your head. (Or not, in my case. :))
S. L. Grayshadowhwk on April 22nd, 2013 04:08 pm (UTC)
Yes, the overt magic. That's what makes a fantasy fantasy, for me. Even if there's no "actual" magic being done, meaning no wizards, etc. there's still usually some form of magical something. It's learning and getting comfortable with how all that works that draws me in. And the characters, of course.

...though to be fair, I do like politics. Just. Not as much as the magic, I guess.

Having never read GRRM's books (she admits quietly), I can only imagine that's true. Which is frightening, because I still spend a lot of time going "which one is this one, again?"
Alix (Tersa): Arwen Reading (tersa)tersa on April 22nd, 2013 03:53 pm (UTC)
I prefer the series that focus on a handful of people, but...my perception of GRRM's (and Robert Jordan's) work is that they both have a larger story to tell of which their characters are but cogs in. I can't remember how many narrators GRRM had in The Game of Thrones, but I don't think it was many. Do secondary characters count as being beyond a handful of people, or is it just the number of narrators?

I feel like his scope has expanded over the last four books because there were parts of the stories he could only tell if he made new narrators. Maybe it's scope creep. But I wonder if he'd limited his narrators to the ones of the original book, would he still be hit with the 'cast of thousands' label?

Also, FWIW, one of the things I found the most novel about The Game of Thrones /is/ the fact that magic wasn't prevalent at first. It was a fantasy world where magic existed, but the majority of people didn't believe it did. It's been fascinating to see it's re-emergence into the world and how people cope with it.

You could say that anyone who follows that pattern might be accused of mimicking GRRM...but then again, having a world where magic is there in your face has been done to death as well.

/rambling thoughts of an EPIIIIIIIIIC fantasy reader

Edited at 2013-04-22 03:53 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
TuftEars: Gamingtuftears on April 22nd, 2013 07:22 pm (UTC)
I just got done with her Soul Mirror, myself! Yes, I r slacker.

I don't think epic fantasy needs multiple viewpoints. It needs an epic landscape, epic villains and threats, epic characters rising to meet those challenges, but the characters don't have to be seen *through*, they just have to be *seen*.

I prefer handful of protagonists and magic described early on, but that said, to actually capture my interest and get me to pick it up, it has to do /something/ different from the innumerable swathes of "formula epic fantasy". I picked up Game of Thrones because it's GRRM and I love Tuf Voyaging, but I passed on Robert Jordan's epic because I wasn't already attached to his work and I didn't see anything really interesting in the series premise.

So I guess it boils down to "be yourself, do what makes your clock tick, don't worry about checking off boxes on a list". :)
Chrysoulachrysoula on April 22nd, 2013 07:34 pm (UTC)
Truth: In epic fantasies that skip between a lot of viewpoints, I end up reading some and skimming or skipping others. Which inevitably leads to me putting the whole series down (at least until it's over, and maybe not even then.)

There are characters I like and characters that bore me. And ultimately I'm reading for those characters.

I have trouble believing the placement of the magic has anything to do with it, other than maybe GOT's HBO success. The seasons and the direwolves felt like magic to me, and they're in the book from the beginning. Maybe that's because I'm a fantasy reader. There may be something to the idea that without (other) magic to worry about, GRRM spends his time dealing with lots of deeply flawed and/or weak characters who haven't got anything but their personalities to ride on.
Flitterbyflit on April 23rd, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
To be honest, I stopped reading Game of Thrones because of the split book. I only liked one of the characters that would be showing up in the second half of the split, and I couldn't be bothered to wade through all of the grim grim grimdark to find out what was up with them.
The Tickshanrina on April 22nd, 2013 09:30 pm (UTC)
I'm not a huge fan of the "cast of thouands" type of epic fantasy, partly because I have a really awful memory when it comes to keeping track of who's where and partly just because I enjoy getting to know one or a few characters (really, one is my favorite) intimately over the course of several books. I do think that there's more opportunity to find a character you really love and connect with in a series that has a lot of options, though, even if they get less screen time.

As far as magic goes, I'm really an anomaly--I read fantasy because I like low-tech non-Earth worlds, and fantasy is really the only place you find those. I prefer low- and no-magic worlds to ones where magic is everywhere, generally, although if the magic system is really unique and an integral part of the fantasy culture then I can sometimes work up a real interest in it. But a lot of my fantasy-reading friends do love the magic element, so I think having magic as an overt presence might be a draw for a significant percentage of the fantasy-reading population.
Herefoxherefox on April 23rd, 2013 06:37 pm (UTC)
I tend to dislike the cast of thousands usually though I'm willing to overlook it if there are enough characters I like in it (One of my friends didn't believe me that the reason I didn't like The Wheel of Time books because all the people were terrible and I didn't care what happened to any of them after the second books, no matter how true it was)

I think the cast of thousands is easier to adapt to television and that's partially the reason that GRRM had a hit. The books were read before the show came out but I saw tons of people reading them after on public transportation. It may be the fact that there's no overt/flashy magic in them (that I remember, I've only made it thorugh the first two, they're kind of exhausting to read) made them more likely to be picked up as television series though. Less special effects budget needed ;-)