Epic fantasy is dead. Grimdark is dead, too. Hopefully that’ll catch your attention.
The following is a thought exercise I’ve thought about, as I work on my next standalone novel: a historical dark epic fantasy set during the Sengoku Jidai in an obscure northern Kyushu province.
More on that later, now it’s time to dwell into the heart of an Anti-Epic.
1) A Cast of Brigands and Outcasts: Epic fantasy lives and dies on its larger than life characters. But in an Anti-Epic, those characters have to be a flavor shadier than your spunky band of misfits. This means outcasts, exiles, former killers, murderers, con-artists, but with a caveat.
They can’t all be shit-birds. Unlike grimdark, where you can have borderline scum endear your black hole of a heart, at the core of an Anti-Epic, there has to be a mixture of idealism and cynicism, and a healthy dose in between.
Wanton nihilism is banal. Good? Good.
2) Bat Country: Unlike traditional epics, secondary or historical, Anti-Epics have to purposely take place in backwater provinces, obscure regions. Why? It’s taking a cue from horror. Think about it: The difference between an epic fantasy and a horror fantasy is one has reinforcements, lifelines while the other has nothing but your wits and sheer grit to survive hellish conditions.
It also creates tension. If Gondor ain’t coming to save you, what are you going to do? Better yet, without the claptrap of some guardian organization, how are you going to do it? When the High Command’s out of reach, and you’ve little options, you see how creative, and nasty, characters can get.
3) The Setting as a Vindictive Monster: The setting both aids and hinders all characters like a game of Russian Roulette. It might give you a boon to kill the super tough shade knight one hour, and it might have you become a mana devouring monstrosity the next. When the setting is an amoral beast, without allegiance, you create stakes and tension. Should I use this technique, even at the cost of my sanity?
There’s no god or demon available on a magic speed dial. Your gang of marauders is on equal footing. Consider them as equal prey to the monster called your setting. Rawr!
4) No One Will Know Your Story: The best part of these stories is they are rooted in real-world conflicts. Consider World War II, and the thousands of individual struggles, battles, and deaths that occurred. Somewhere along the way, a band of five tank men paved the way for an army to advance further into France, and they all died for it.
I’m talking about Fury. It might not be an Academy Award winner, but its stakes, life and death, were pivotal to the characters. And at the end of the day, they’ll be KIA numbers somewhere on an Army clerk’s monthly casualty report.
They don’t matter on the grand scale, but to their living comrades and families? They will always matter.
The same logic applies to the Anti-Epic. Most of these stories will never be known by the greater world. You do not get the princess. You do not get to become a god. In fact, you often end up forgotten or have to bury the truth because of its terrible revelations. Sometimes, there’s no catharsis. No closure. And that’s storytelling power.
5) BRING THE EPIC: On the flip side, because no one will ever know or discover the truth of the story, you can go over the top. Remember, epics, in the traditional sense, not the modern sense, were filled with over the top fights, sweeping emotions, and conversations about morality and mortality. Using these traditional elements to your advantage, and aided by the obscurity of your novel, you can have chi-wielding Taoists kill ten corrupted monsters in the vein of a Wuxia novel while commentating on the pressure of cultural collectivism from an iconoclastic heretic.
6) A Stand for the Standalone: I would rather read a standalone story that influences a universe but was not the end all be all event. There’s something powerful about telling a story from beginning to end without dwelling beyond the incident. If you can write a single volume that has the characters grow, the world change, but not in such an earth-shattering manner? You’ve found the personal.
And it was done in a single story. The world moves on. The players leave the stage. Not easy, but it’s a beautiful thing to see.
7) There Is No Path, But Even Still…: Grimdark often reaches levels of self-induced parody, by design or accident. But by the same logic, traditional epic fantasy more often than not is too sugar sweet, too neatly tied up. There has to be a happy medium between sacrifices, both physical and emotional, and catharsis, calling back to its traditional meaning from plays of antiquity.
For these genres exist to fulfill certain expectations and desires. And when there’s a growing demand for a balance between the darkness in my soul and Chosen One’s happy happy dance party ending, you can seize it.
Sometimes, there’s no answer to the senselessness of violence. Sometimes, you must rage against the heavens. But sometimes, you must move on, forge ahead, and not make the mistakes of those dead and gone.
The world doesn’t get to be saved on a grand scale. But the world doesn’t end in a tragedy, either. Sometimes, far away and forgotten, its saved on a minor scale. Without thanks, without recognition, another story never to be told, of redemption, corruption, and tragedy, plays out like so many stories throughout history.
A story of nameless heroes who the world will never remember.
That is the Anti-Epic.