Setting a new world record, Bryan Thomas Schmidt is now the first person to have written two guest blog posts here. His first was about creating relatable characters. I’m honored that he wrote another significant post for me and Dionysus in the bar, this time on a perennial question in fantasy and science fiction circles: what is epic? Btw, the second book in Bryan’s Saga of Davi Rhii was released just yesterday. The man writes epic-fun space opera, his work ethic is epic-inspiring, and he is an epic-awesome friend. We hope to see you in the comments!

Before I turn this over to Bryan, here are some other great posts on this subject from the fantasy side. N.K. Jemisin wrote one of the most interesting things I’ve read on What is Epic Fantasy? Chloe Smith at Fantasy-Faction covered good ground in “What Makes Epic Fantasy ‘Epic’?” And Clarkesworld featured what is indeed an epic discussion of epic fantasy (and because there’s always a sequel, part 2) featuring 26 popular authors, one agent, and an editor discussing the heart of Epic Fantasy. I’ll add some quick thoughts to the comments on this post.


The Returning by Bryan Thomas SchmidtWhat does it mean when a story is described as epic? Epic fantasy comes to mind as do historical epics, and epic romances. These are common associations in which people use the term “epic” to describe stories or genres. But in science fiction, space operas are the typical subgenre with which the term “epic” is most associated. Per the dictionary, epic means “long story; long poems about legendary heroes; sagas or prose epics about famous men and women, especially of medieval times; synonyms: heroic poem, legend, narrative, saga, tale; antonym: short story.

Okay, so now that we’ve clarified that. Yeah, right, doesn’t help much.

When I interview authors and ask them to describe epic fantasy, terms like “high stakes,” “good versus evil,” and “save the world quests” are commonly thrown out. George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire, the basis of HBO’s popular Game Of Thrones TV spectacle is epic fantasy. So is The Lord Of The Rings and stories like Wheel Of Time, Terry Goodkind’s Sword Of Truth, Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance. The list could get quite long, but you probably get the idea. So let’s look at what’s epic on the science fiction side: Star Wars is considered an epic saga, along with Frank Herbert’s Dune series, TV series like Babylon 5FarscapeBattlestar GalacticaStar Trek, and Firefly, even Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Space Odyssey novels.

What makes these stories epic?

Epic stories take place on a large scale. They typically occur on more than one planet or across an entire continent or planet (in epic fantasy and historicals) with large casts of characters and complicated storylines. Political maneuvering tends to play a big role as do romance and battles against incredible odds and very ruthless antagonists. Heroes may work in groups, typically just a few in number, or they may work alone. Usually there is a mentor character of some sort and a sense of coming of age for the protagonist in some way, although exceptions do exist.

Epic stories tend to have large set pieces: scenes with large armies or many ships or vehicles or people involved, most often in battles. They tend to have lots of action and melodrama, although this doesn’t have to be of the exaggerated community theatre-type. Often differences in ideologies play a part such as the Dark and Light sides of the force in Star Wars or the different parties chasing the One Ring in Middle Earth. Quite often large families are involved or at least several generations of a family such as the Skywalkers, the Baggins, the Rahls, etc. Many times a member of the family has betrayed the rest or the family has split into factions. Sometimes there’s a lost prodigal. And sometimes there’s romantic competition.

The Worker Prince by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Last but not least, epic stories tend to have many creatures. This can take the form of mystical beings like dwarves, elves, trolls, etc. or aliens from other planets. Usually they are sentient beings and can communicate with each other somehow. Often they conflict over culture, needs and goals. But they all tend to be players in the larger drama in some way. Whether historical or fantastical,  epic stories always project a sense of history, a largeness, as if the world and its populace have existed long before the immediate story and will exist long after. There’s a historical stage on which events take place, whether real or make believe and its implications for the larger world and its inhabitants tend to be high stakes. Overall, the story tends to involve a quest or journey the outcome of which has bearing on a lot more than just one individual’s life.  In adventure fantasy, like sword and sorcery, you might have a lone hero saving damsels or fighting bad guys to win glory or prove his honor, but the outcome is much more about his personal journey than the entire history of the world or planet itself. Epic stories tend to involve earthshaking consequences for the whole world itself.

All of these are common themes one can find in epic stories as we tend to encounter them today. I’m sure you’ll recognize many of the elements from the stories mentioned but I’ll bet you can think of other stories with these elements. Moses’ The Black God’s War and my own Saga of Davi Rhii are epic stories, for example. What are some other elements I didn’t mention which you think should be on the list?  What are some of your favorite epic stories and why do you like them? I look forward to dialoguing with you about that below.

In Bryan’s second novel, The Returning, new challenges arise as Davi Rhii’s rival Bordox and his uncle, Xalivar, seek revenge for his actions in The Worker Prince, putting his life and those of his friends and family in constant danger. Meanwhile, politics as usual has the Borali Alliance split apart over questions of citizenship and freedom for the former slaves. Someone’s even killing them off. Davi’s involvement in the investigation turns his life upside down, including his relationship with his fiancée, Tela. The answers are not easy with his whole world at stake.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 1:36 pm and is filed under Guest Posts, Recommendations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

15 comments so far


Thanks, Bryan!

I do think Adventure stories shade upward toward the Epic, depending on the stakes involved.

June 20th, 2012 at 1:46 pm
Moses Siregar III

I gotta get some lunch. Be back soon.

June 20th, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Moses, hope that lunch was epic.

June 20th, 2012 at 2:12 pm
Moses Siregar III

My lunch was epically interrupted as I returned to FB and Twitter to share. Now, I really need to complete that omelet. It’s gonna be …

June 20th, 2012 at 2:17 pm

…Wait for it…

June 20th, 2012 at 3:06 pm
Moses Siregar III

“What are some other elements I didn’t mention which you think should be on the list?”

I think you covered all the bases very well. Since reading your post, I’ve been thinking about *why* we experience such a pull toward epic stories. That has led to pages scribbled with notes and questions that will probably grow into a blog post of my own. To be short and unspecific for now, I think there are some spiritual urges that epic fantasy fulfills. More on that down the road.

“What are some of your favorite epic stories and why do you like them?”

I think of the first epic stories I loved, Robotech and Greek Mythology (such as The Iliad). In addition to the cool stuff (like transformable mecha, alien invaders, and vengeful gods), there was a sense of awe and wonder while at the same time realistic and gritty drama. The ability to get lost in that, day after day, hour after hour, and to be affected emotionally by the triumphs and defeats of the heroes–that’s what hooked me.

June 20th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

I had the privilege to read Black God’s War AND The Returning and certainly both are worth mentioning in terms of being epic (and I recommend others read them both too!). Largeness and high stakes seem to be key elements of epic SF. I don’t think multiple creatures is really a factor, but it all fits into the “largeness” category of worldbuilding, characters, etc.

June 20th, 2012 at 5:38 pm
Moses Siregar III

Thank you, Peter!

Btw, one of the other epic stories I loved when I was young was Elric of Melnibone. Bryan’s article reminded me that Elric fits under “Swords and Sorcery” and “Epic Fantasy” at the same time. It looks more like a swords and sorcery story, but the stakes end up being really big.

June 20th, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Thanks, Peter. I do think you’ll see a tendency to use creatures as in races and different types of beings to create epic worlds in epic stories though.

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