Monday, December 11, 2006

Writing High Fantasy

I have several subscriptions to magazines publishing fantasy, and I'm noticing that high fantasy stories are in the minority. As a writer of high fantasy, I want to encourage speculative writers not to abandon this sub-genre in hopes that the grass is greener elsewhere. Join our happy throng, if only occasionally.

High fantasy, sometimes termed epic fantasy, encompasses a variety of stories. Certainly anything labeled as epic should include a plot that affects many nations, if not the entirety of the world. High fantasy by itself, however, may not necessarily reach to epic proportions (though it often does), but it will take place in another world or another time, where legendary beasts are commonplace and civilization has not yet reached the industrial age. I think of it as storybook fantasy. Usually there are heroes and villains, and in this sub-genre, there is a higher probability that characters on either side are very clearly heroes or villains. This is simply a high-level (no pun intended) definition for those who may not be as familiar with the term, but feel free to post any additional thoughts on how you would define high fantasy if you think it is worth noting.

There seems to be a negative connotation with writing high fantasy presently. Certainly there are the traps of becoming clich├ęd, especially if a story at all resembles the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Another strike against high fantasy is that many inexperienced writers who try writing fantasy find themselves beginning with high fantasy, often because it was the first sub-genre they were exposed to. Since there is a plethora of high fantasy material written at an elementary level, there is the tendency to stereotype all high fantasy stories as unprofessional (or worse).

What high fantasy needs is a steady flow of excellent writing. There are a number of great writers who are experimenting with speculative stories that so closely resemble literary (real-life) fiction that only a hint of the fantastic exists. If we all move in such a direction, however, we are giving up on something great simply because a few voices say that high fantasy has already been done and cannot be done well again. Perhaps we've allowed others to shame us from writing how we should.

Consider the following analogy: all fantasy writers, regardless of sub-genre, are part of a massive army. We occupy the city of High Fantasy and have defended it well for generations. Now we've gathered so much strength that our soldiers pour forth and converge on new cities, including Magic Realism on the border of Literary Land. So many have departed to new challenges that unless some stout soldiers return, High Fantasy will collapse under any invading force. It is a war we should not lose, but the invaders are coming, and few choose to stand in the gaps left by the great heroes of yonder year. I am unwilling to surrender our city. Who will stand with me?


Amy said...

Though many high fantasy stories seem to do quite well. Eragon, for example, is so closely based off The Lord of the Rings- Even the names are quite similar (Eragon/Arya, Aragorn/Arwen) and the whole lifestyles of the elves and dwarves... and yet Eragon is a rather well known bestseller. I think a lot of it comes down to the marketing, and, let's face it. Luck.

Matthew Wuertz said...

I don't think there's a problem finding readers of high fantasy. I think there's more of a concern among writers in avoiding writing high fantasy for the various reasons I mentioned in the post. Hopefully such bestsellers encourage more fantasy writers to explore high fantasy as they continue improving in skill rather than abandoning it completely.

Brandon Daubs said...

As a relatively new writer (more new to the industry than writing itself) I find it difficult to track down an agent who proudly represents high fantasy. Most agents I've encountered will tentatively mention that they do represent fantasy, but most of the time it is urban, steampunk, or involving some other "twist"-- so far, none of the agents I have researched state clearly in their bios that they welcome high fantasy. And that may be part of the reason why writers shy away from it-- because once they are done writing their 80,000 word piece, they can't find anyone who wants to represent them simply because their genre isn't "with the times."

Matthew Wuertz said...

Brandon, I think that's a fair point. The last time I sought an agent to represent a fantasy novel I wrote, I only came up with around 20 names that targeted the subgenre of fantasy matching the novel, but my search may have been too narrow at the time. Perhaps there's also a similar sentiment among short fiction writers - not that they can't find agents to represent them but that they can't find enough professional markets to sell to.

Anonymous said...

I loved this article. I'd love to know your thoughts on my HIGH fantasy novel. Thanks for you consideration!

Matthew Wuertz said...

Conterrif, I sent you an email message in reply. Thanks for your interest in the article!