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What Makes a Story Epic…To Me

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry

Did you hear it? That epic sigh of relief, coming from the southern end of the Lake Michigan shore? Yeah, that was me. Sorry if I interrupted anything important.

It’s just that I finally finished a draft of my WIP. This one is book three of a trilogy, so it feels particularly epic. No seriously, I hope I’m on my way to completing an actual epic story.

Epic Undertaking

I’ve always loved epics. They’re the only sort of story I’ve ever really wanted to tell. This trilogy has been an epic effort for me (sorry, I’ll stop now). This story is rooted in my first WIP, a trilogy I first completed in June of ’09 (just a few weeks shy of a decade ago!). Much of that first story was influenced by a character who never actually appears in it. He dies relatively young, more than a decade before the story begins. This person, Vahldan of the Amalus Clan (a fictional ruling clan of the Goths), achieves legendary status during his life, and his legend only grows after his death.

Back in 2011, while struggling to make the original trilogy salable (something I’ve yet to achieve), I decided it would be revealing and fun to write a short story about the man who becomes a legend.

And it became a case of short story, long.

I started writing the full life story of Vahldan in March, 2012. It ended up weighing in at 160K (some short story, eh?). Then, in September of 2014, while awaiting feedback on a rewrite of book one of the original trilogy, I started playing around with a rewrite of Vahldan’s story. This time I decided to focus on his rise to power. Nine months later I finished a draft (of a mere 120K this time). A trusted mentor advised me to drop what I was doing with my original trilogy and focus on Vahldan. My gut agreed.

Four years, three manuscripts, a half-dozen rewrites, and almost 400,000 words later, here I am. Phew!

Epic Hindsight

Now that this draft is done, I’ve been wondering whether or not the story achieves epic status. It’s obviously an overused word these days. It’s become slang, and conveys far more than its original definition. I mean, there’s really no such thing as an epic feast, or an epic overtime victory.

When I think of the kind of stories I love best, I think of words like sweeping, intricate, and immersive. To me, those things define an epic. But somewhere, lurking among the long list of things learned in college lecture halls and promptly forgotten in the pub, was a vague awareness that there are actual criteria for what makes a story an epic.

Funny thing. Here’s a guy who says he loves epics, and has always sought to write one, and then never bothered to look those criteria up. Until now.

The scholarly consensus seems to boil down to six elements. They are:

  1. Centers on a hero of extraordinary status—one who is often either part-god or divinely imbued or ordained.
  2. The hero has super-human strength, skill, or valor—achieves feats that inspire wonder and reverence.
  3. Vast setting—not just across large swaths of land and sea (into the strange and unknown), but over a long span.
  4. Involves supernatural forces—gods, demons, angels, prophecies, spells and curses, etc.
  5. Written/told in an elevated style—often stylized, formal, lyrical, or exaggerated for effect.
  6. Told from an omniscient point of view—by an objective narrator who sees and knows all perspectives.

My first thought as I perused the list? Yeah, no. I definitely had not written an epic story.

Epic Fail

To give you an idea, here’s how my story matches up:

  1. Divine? My hero is about as far from god-like as can be. He’s decidedly human.
  2. Feats? He’s an ordinary guy, born into the right family, who mostly gets extraordinarily lucky.
  3. Vast? Yup. This element is my one and only score! I have a huge geographic setting, and my story takes place over most of my protagonist’s lifespan.
  4. Supernatural? Hmm. Well, I have a prophecy. However, its origin is nebulous and its validity is shaky. Also, the gods in my world are mostly referenced in curses spat by my characters.
  5. Elevated style? Actually, I used to employ a highly stylized, archaic form. It wore on readers and on me. So I dropped it. Although I kept the aforementioned penchant for archaic cursing.
  6. Omniscient? Nope. Tight, third-person, multiple POV. And none of them is the least bit objective.

Epic Upending

So much for the scholarly criteria. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about them. In spite of the fact that I didn’t bother to look them up, I’m pretty sure I instinctually explored each of them. It’s just that I did it mostly by upending them. For example:

  1. Divinity—Though Vahldan is decidedly human (chock-full of human foibles), he does have a rather extraordinary legacy. His father is a clan chieftain who was exiled (for murdering Vahldan’s mother’s betrothed). Just after Vahldan’s birth, a seeress claims he fits a prophecy (one that includes not just his ascension but also his doom). His formerly powerful clan and a neighboring tribe of warrior women place great stock in Vahldan’s supposed destiny. Mostly with an eye to the political gain it might provide.

In other words, external forces impose his extraordinary status. He’s ordained by the self-serving.

  1. Wondrous Feats—Though Vahldan is not super-human, he is well-supported by extraordinary warriors. Early on, with expectations high, he rashly flings himself and his followers into danger. He not only survives, he emerges victorious. Afterward his mantra becomes, “The gods favor the bold.” His followers begin to think he’s actually destined to greatness. It’s probably needless to say that, in the long run, this doesn’t bode well.

In other words, the wonder and reverence are achieved mostly in the retelling. And by Vahldan drinking his own prophecy Kool-Aid.

  1. Vastness—As I say, I did utilize a vast scale. The thing that might upend this criterion is that early on Vahldan realizes that, if he’s going to ascend (as foretold), it would be a lot easier with a bit of wealth (isn’t everything?). Along the way he stumbles into an opportunity by rescuing a smuggler. He and his followers become a mercenary security force for the smuggler’s fleet. Which brings him into contact with the imperial world. Which leads to trouble. But it does make him rich.

In other words, the expanding setting spurs Vahldan’s ambition to a vast scale. A bit too vast for his own good.

  1. The Supernatural—In Vahldan’s world, religion and the prophecy are both used as tools to convince others to act, or to support those who propagate them. There’s only ever anecdotal evidence to suggest that anything that happens to Vahldan is “destined” or divinely favored.

In other words, as long as there are enough people who believe in a supernatural phenomenon, that belief can be exploited. Sometimes innocently, other times not.

  1. Elevated Style—I figured out a long time ago, I’m no poet. So I didn’t even try for poetic. That doesn’t mean I can’t try for meaningful. One of the great things about writing fantasy (rather than straight historical fiction) is the flexibility the genre offers. No one really knows how the Goths spoke to one another. Hence, I get to make it up. And making it up has (for better or worse) led me to my voice. (Not to mention to some creative cursing.)

In other words, this ain’t high fantasy. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a bit more accessible because of it. And by discarding high style, I might have allowed for a few laughs along the way.

  1. Regarding POV—“O Divine Calliope, daughter of Zeus, muse of epic poetry, sustain me for this song of the various-minded man who comes to sunder the Gothic nation, thereupon plundering the hallowed citadels of the Roman world in the name of his heathen gods. And lo, though his doom is forgone, let him forsake his true self in the pursuit of treasure and lust, and… What’s that, Calliope? You say I should have each of the players sing their own song? Without the benefit of my all-knowing, all-seeing aspect interceding? Well, if you’re sure about this. Sounds like fun, actually. Thanks.”

In other words, my muse rocks.

Epic Outlook

Whether or not I ever manage to write something truly epic (or even subversively so), the attempt at the scale has been rewarding. Rather than looking at the effect of events on a character, we’re seeing the impact of a character’s life on their world. Exploring an entire life like that, as well as the lives of those entwined with it, has provided me with the opportunity to reflect on some of life’s big issues. Things like:

What do we owe to our parents’ legacy?

When, if ever, is it justifiable to kill?

When, if ever, is it justifiable to ask others to kill in one’s name?

What are the true costs of ambition?

Can our destiny lie in the destiny of another?

Is love essential to our wellbeing? Can we really live a full life in its absence?

Does love really overcome all? Is forgiveness as powerful as love? Are they one and the same?

What meaning can there be in death? Do I want my death to be meaningful? To whom?

As I approach the last leg of the journey with this trilogy, I’m certain that it’s provided more questions than answers. But I’m also certain it’s provided me with an expanded outlook.

And for that, I’m epically grateful. So here’s to Vahldan of the Amalus and Elan of the Skolani. May the singers ever sing your songs.

What about you? Do enjoy reading or writing epics? If you write them, how do yours match up to the scholarly consensus? Does your muse rock?

[Image is, The Nine Muses – Calliope, by Johann Herinrich Tischbein (1780, Public domain)]

About Vaughn Roycroft [1]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.