So You Want To: Write A Heroic Fantasy
Heroic Fantasy, also known as Sword and Sorcery, the genre of wizards, dragons, and magic! Heroic Fantasy is oftentimes described as pertaining to a certain aspect of fantasy (or alternatively, swords and sorcery fantasy), but its actually a rather blurred line between this genre and some of the other genres of fantasy. Tends to be distinguishable from High Fantasy by its scale — the problems are generally those of the hero, not the world — and moral standards — absolute evil and absolute good make fewer appearances. (Well, absolute good makes fewer. Absolute evil, in the form of a Religion of Evil, an Eldritch Abomination or the like, makes a convenient foe.) Also by its tendency to be an endless series of adventure, partly because the smaller scale makes it more plausible, and partly because the heroes are very prone to love being In Harm's Way. Since this genre is oftentimes built around classic tropes, it is suggested you read So You Want To Write A Story first before you check out the tips on this page. You may also want to read Write A High Fantasy — the lines between that subgenre and this one are not fixed in concrete.
- Magic. You gotta have magic. While in some cases there isn't any magic altogether, the vast, vast majority of Heroic Fantasy has some sort of magic. It's not called Sword And Sorcery for nothing.
- If you do decide to have magic, the next thing you have to do is create a set of rules for it. They don't have to be explicitly stated in the book, but at least be sure you make it consistant.
- Also make sure you explain where your magic comes from, whether it is created through rituals, a person's emotions, drawn from the Earth, drawn from their life force, won from demons by performing Virgin Sacrifice, generated by using Eye of Newt ingredients that you had to cross a Moral Event Horizon just to collect, what have you.
- And whatever you do, make sure you stick to the rules you set. Nothing turns people off a series faster than them breaking their already-defined rules.
- Decide whether your magic is morally neutral or outright evil. Older stories often drew on a Black and Gray Morality and portrayed magic as just about always evil. This is less common nowadays.
- You'll need to do some worldbuilding. A lot of worldbuilding. Particularly if you are going for a series. Since you are essentially describing a world that none of your readers can lay their eyes upon, readers of this genre expect you to include a map within the first few pages of your book. Build up the environments of your world, as well as its ecosystems, the cultures that inhabit it, and their history. Don't worry if it doesn't seem like all this will go well with the book — that's what writing the separate world guide is for.
- And how technological is it? It often has a Schizo Tech mish-mash of any historical era up to the medieval era.
- Last but not least, Heroic Fantasy needs an adventurer to do the advernturing required by the genre. Originally, a la Conan the Barbarian, a mighty warrior with an endless love of In Harm's Way, providing an occasion for his endless adventures against Evil Sorcerers, Sorcerous Overlords, Religions Of Evil, and monsters of every kind, and a distinct tendency to Anti-Hero-dom, mitigated only by the absolute nastiness of his foes. Sometimes a woman warrior; Jirel of Joiry was the first character (not just female character) to follow in Conan's footsteps.
- While your hero may do incidental good deeds — saving the Virgin Sacrifice from the Secret Circle of Secrets is a favorite — most heroes are looking out for their own interests in Heroic Fantasy.
- Making the character magically oriented, less blood-thirsty, and morally less gray are all options that have been followed over the years.
- The Five Races are more common in High Fantasy, but not unknown here. Others just use part of the quintet (humans and elves most of the time). Still others keep humans, often People of Hair Color, but add in other races all their own; this is, in fact, the older form, with such Trope Makers and Trope Codifiers as Robert E. Howard, who added ape-men, snake men, and Eldritch Abominations to a basically human world, and Fritz Leiber who populated Nehwon with humans and "ghouls" — humanoids transparent except for their bones.
- Number of Books. Conan the Barbarian loves In Harm's Way and would never stop adventuring. Many lesser known heroes of Heroic Fantasy have similar sentiments. Since their problems tend to be personal rather than world-shaking in scale, they can indeed have a whole sequence of unrelated conflicts to go on for as long as your imagination holds out.
- How technological can you make it and still have it be Heroic Fantasy? Consider muskets, cannons, and other technological innovations.
- Fantasy World Maps. Word of advice, at least do a little research on how climate patterns work before you draw your map. Don't have deserts right next to tundra (unless, that is, it's a cold desert like Antarctica), or rainforests where rain-shadows should be. And be very, very careful with rivers. While it wasn't as common in the past, people are starting to notice when one makes a meteorological mix-up. If you do have climate patterns that are unrealistic by Earth standards, you will need to explain them, possibly in terms of magic.
- Consistency. Go through your story and look for inconsistencies, and choose to either correct or explain them.
- The setting in Heroic Fantasy is almost invariably a kingdom or empire, more often than not one where the ruler is aged and decrepit, and enemies are poised to tear the once mighty empire to pieces. While this certainly does add tension to the story, this plot element has become so common as to almost become cliché. While it might have worked for the Romans, or Tolkien, you want to distinguish yourself from the pack. Why not try for a setting where the primary ruling power in the region is a republic of the Five Races. Or perhaps the setting is The Empire, but it is at the height of its power, and the protagonists discover a group wishing to destroy it from the inside (like 24, but with elves).
- Heroic Fantasies oftentimes have a stagnant culture, with slavery being prominent, ample Fantastic Racism, and huge gap between the two sexes. Why not create a Heroic Fantasy where men and women are treated equally, or one where one of the major subplots is the orc struggle for civil rights?
- Medieval Stasis. If your "current year" is 1453, swords and sorcery is all well and good, but when the "current" year is well into the 4000s? Mix it up a little. Add some Weird West or Urban Fantasy elements.
- Left-Justified Fantasy Map. "Humans came from a mysterious continent to the east and that's all we know about it; I see no reason to find out more" translates to They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot. Have the Five Races launch (or have launched) a counter-expedition. Or a follow-up expedition.
- Try having a good necromancer.
- If you want to see a Human you can just look out the window. If you want to see an Orc you can just use the internet. Why not have a cast of obscure mythological beings?
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Bad Guys!
Heroic Fantasy is, in fact, the traditional home of the Anti-Hero — The Hero generally prefers High Fantasy — but to make up for that, the Bad Guys are traditionally very bad indeed. The Religion of Evil, practicing Virgin Sacrifice to summon demons; the Evil Sorcerer meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know; the supernatural in origin vamp and other Eldritch Abominations. Do not stint on your bad guys!
- Revenge! The Evil Overlord, the Evil Sorcerer, the high priest (or priestess) of the Religion of Evil has injured your character. Revenge is called for!
- An expedition to (or from) the newcomer race's ancestral homeland (see above).
- The Magic Comes Back or Goes Away
- And of course, there's always the good old treasure hunt.
Set Designer / Location Scout
- No fantasy story is complete without a vast array of magical and mundane weapons. However, you must take precautions. Just like how in a modern story you had better know how many rounds are in the clip of your protagonist's gun, in a fantasy story you should be aware that while duel-wielding claymores sounds like a recipe for badass, unless your character is a 9-foot-tall, super dexterous master swordsman this is pretty much infeasible.
- Research armor types, their pitfalls and their strong points, before assigning them to your warrior character because "they look cool."
- The In Harm's Way loving adventurer has many advantages. For one thing, he will not eye an Eldritch Abomination and decide he needs a more pacific means of earning his living.
- Conan the Barbarian
- Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
- Michael Moorcock's The Elric Saga
- Jirel of Joiry