There’s fantasy, and then there’s epic fantasy. Given that a fantasy has “many moving parts”, and may involve many viewpoints and timelines the more ‘epic’ it gets, the panel of authors at MCM Comic Con are asked: How do you come up with yours? How do you deal with the tenses? How do you plot? It turns out there are many ways to write an epic fantasy.

It was Friday, 26 May 2023 at the Creator Stage. By lunchtime, MCM Comic Con May 2023 was already buzzing with visitors. Writing epic fantasy was a literary panel at a pop culture event, which was only fitting because fans of the bi-annual convention are discerning consumers of fantasy fiction. True, you may never see some of them anywhere near London Book Fair or equally highbrow literary events, but they know their stuff.

Fantasy author L R Lam moderated the event. On stage were Natasha Bowen (Soul Of The Deep), Michael Miller (Ascendant), Samantha Shannon (A Day Of Fallen Night), Saara El-Arifi (The Battle Drum) and Sebastien de Castell (The Malevolent Seven).

If you want to serialise your fantasy and make it epic, get ready to plan and plot really well. From left: Natasha Bowen, Michael Miller, Samantha Shannon, Saara El-Arifi, Sebastien de Castell and moderator L R Lam. Photo: Story Of Books.

What is epic fantasy?

Lam started the ball rolling by asking the panellists: “What is epic fantasy?”. To her it’s something “expansive”, and hers include romance and caper. A marketing term, said El-Arifi. Characters on the fringe of a big event, said de Castell. That made us think for a bit. Ah, Star Wars. Game of Thrones. Attack on Titan. Swords and dragons, women in love with each other, a dystopian genre, said Shannon. Miller went for dragons – his tales have a raw epic vibe. Bowen said hers are that of black mermaids, African spirituality, gods and goddesses.

Approaches and inspirations

The authors’ fictions come in different forms. Approaches to fantasy vary.

El-Arifi’s tale is Afro-Arab in inspiration. It incorporates mystery and crime storyline. Lam’s is an exploration of gender roles. De Castell said it’s about being able to play on your cultural role. Bowen’s young adult fantasy on black mermaids is about representation. The focus is not on the same standard that it’s been. Miller plays with the magic system with his dragon stories. Shannon, meanwhile, wanted to reimagine the story of George and the Dragon, but also finding out who the damsel in distress is.

The sign of a strong character is one that has a will of their own. If you try to force a plan, the character won’t be organic.

Tenses, tone of voice and point of view

The conversation got really interesting to us when Lam asked: “Are there certain tenses that help you with writing?”. After all, epic fantasy has a lot of moving parts.

Shannon’s answer was third-person past tense. The epic quality can be imparted via first-person narration. Of course, when it involves more than one person or  “multiple eyes”, this approach can get very difficult.

De Castell broke it down like this: Is it psychological storytelling or sociological storytelling? If it’s psychological, it’s first-person past tense. If it’s sociological, then who’s going to solve the problem, the main character or the other characters? How many people are going to solve the problem? If so, how do you show the different viewpoints?

Lam explained there are merits to different positions in the narrative. First-person past tense, direct address is the device you use when addressing the readers as “you”. We assume she’s referring to second-person narration, but we could be wrong. Third person past tense gives a sense of history, she said.

Shannon went for first-person past tense. Bowen’s tale is in first person present tense. This prompted El-Arifi to as ask how one could write a story in present tense. Lam said first-person present tense adds to a sense of urgency to the story. She said she was upset when her editor asked her to rewrite her story in present tense. She wasn’t pleased at first but admitted her editor was right.

Who’s going to solve the problem, the main character or the other characters? How many people are going to solve the problem? If so, how do you show the different viewpoints?

Planning and plotting

And then there’s the story outline. The planning and plotting.

Bowen said she creates a three-arch timeline with lots of post-it notes. El-Arifi doesn’t use post-it notes. Miller said he has a plan, but the story stuff will be there, unformatted. Shannon said if you’re creating a series, you have to plan. She uses this to add connective tissues between the series. The sign of a strong character, she observed, is one that has a will of their own. If you try to force a plan, the character won’t be organic.

Lam said it’s a blend. A thriller has to be carefully plotted. With fantasy any attempt to plan doesn’t really work. De Castell asked: what’s being privileged, the plot or the character? His outline is that of the figurative cave. He gives them a flashlight; they figure their way out and he’d find out what would piss them off next. De Castell later explained that he likes to breach stereotypes – the notion that heroes are virtuous.

If you’re creating a series, you have to plan. 

A lesser genre?

During the Q&A, the authors were asked: Is fantasy a lesser genre?

Shannon mentioned that J R R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, did touch upon fantasy being labelled by critics as an “escape”. From what we know, Tolkien acknowledges that ‘escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories’ but he doesn’t think it’s about running away from real life.

It’s been a successful era for fantasy, de Castell said. He thought the bias is more against historical books. “I need more people who are snooty against literary fiction than snooty against fantasy fiction,” he said.

He’s right. At the Artist Alley, many fantasy fictions at MCM Comic Con were sold as comic books, mangas and graphic novels – either by indie creators, or popular retailers or distributors. Fantasy tends to get adapted as films or TV series. It interfaces closely with the general public. That, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t be literary.

Maybe the perception that it’s “lesser” is to do with the highly commercialised channels associated with fantasy fiction. Also, you don’t need a Literature degree to enjoy and decode a fantasy story. Its proximity to the masses makes it possible for fantasy to be serialised, expanded on and propagated widely. And that’s how it becomes epic: when it’s scaled up, when it gets ambitious with universes, and when it’s much loved by a legion of fans.

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