Is Bigger Really Better?

In the fantasy genre, across novels, movies and games, there’s a tendency to go big. We’ve got a brand new world to explore, with fantastic beasts, powerful magic and unique cultures, so we have to show all of that. There are also huge armies duking it out before larger-than-life castles and dark lords threatening entire worlds. This is especially true of novels, where the effects budget is the author’s imagination, so it’s easy to dial it up to eleven to create a spectacle of gargantuan proportions. But is this always a good thing? For me, the most memorable moments in fantasy are often the small ones: Glokta simply attempting to walk down the stairs with his maimed body in The First Law, Frodo and the Hobbits hiding from the Wringwraith under the tree roots in the film The Fellowship of the Ring, waking up to Lucien Lachance’s chilling baritone branding your character a murderer in Oblivion. That’s not to say that the big battles in these works are not good too (frankly, they’re fantastic), but I feel that fantasy has a bias towards large-scale conflicts. A story can be amazing with only intimate, personal conflicts. Thus, a story, regardless of its medium and format, will fall flat if it does not contain that human element which the audience can relate to. After all, large-scale action can only provide so much interest. In trying to be “epic”, storytellers can miss the inner struggles of a character, mirrored in the external world. Reading cold descriptions of a siege wouldn’t necessarily be captivating, but reading about a young squire’s attempt to defend his comatose sister’s quarters from invaders can be.

In order to provide the “human element”, it’s clearly important to consider the characters, and more specifically, the viewpoint characters. The majority of fantasy novels are told in third-person with multiple viewpoint characters. This makes sense, since with more characters, more of the world and plot can be shown through the lens of the personal conflicts of the characters. Each character has a small conflict tied to the larger one, which, when done right, makes the reader care about it all. For example, if you’re like me, you don’t care as much about the abstract concept of Middle-Earth being thrown into darkness as you do about Frodo and Sam losing their beloved home in the Shire. Sam’s comment, “If take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been,” is, for me, one of the most significant moments of the story. It’s worth noting that while The Lord of The Rings as a whole has some truly epic battles, The Fellowship of the Ring barely has any. Everything is on a smaller-scale than the latter two parts, with the focus just on the fellowship rather than the fates of, say, Gondor and Rohan, and their respective armies. We grow to care about the personal stories of the fellowship and, when they disband at the end of the first part, and end up scattered across the various blossoming conflicts in Middle-Earth in the second and third parts, we care far more about the War of the Ring because we care about the characters waging it and their internal struggles. Without Fellowship, we wouldn’t be nearly as emotionally invested in the plot.

All of this makes me wonder: where are all the small-scale fantasy books? Epic fantasy is great but so many fantasy books involve the fate of the world, or at least a nation, in some way. It’s strange since, in other genres, the stakes can be much lower but the stories are still gripping. A crime novel will often just be about catching one killer, a romance novel will just be about two lovers, and a literary novel might only be about character with no real plot. These are all successful genres. Just because, in fantasy, new worlds can be explored, doesn’t mean they have to be. I don’t just love fantasy because secondary worlds are cool, I love fantasy because of the freedom of a pre-industrial lifestyle, coupled with the exciting prospect that literally anything could happen. I love epic fantasy as much as the next guy but I’d love to see a greater range of narratives told within the fantasy genre.

An example of “epic” getting out of hand is A Song of Ice and Fire. George R. R. Martin is a fantastic writer, and the series is one of the best but its scale has become too large. The first novel came out before my first birthday and the series still isn’t complete. I believe that the series is trying to tell a story that is simply too large, with too much focus on characters whose personal journeys only seem to exist to prop up the larger conflict. I also believe that one of the reasons why the television show is so successful is because it’s focused on what’s genuinely interesting, and cuts out anything extraneous. It’s decreased the scale of the story and is better for it.

Now, grimdark fantasy books generally have a balance of internal and external struggles, since dealing with a morally ambiguous personal dilemma is the staple of the genre. A focus on deep characterization is something common to most grimdark fantasy books I’ve read, whether epic in scope or not. Marc Turner’s The Chronicles of the Exile is one such series, with half a dozen viewpoint characters in each of the three books that are currently available. Despite the world-shaking plots of his novels, each leading character is wrapped in an intimate, personal journey, and I interviewed Marc to ask how he managed to pull off such success on both the macro- and micro-levels of his stories. He said that before he begins writing, he plans out each character’s whole life and “puts them on a virtual psychologist’s couch” in order to “give them a good grilling”. For example, “Dragon Hunters is principally about Imerle Polivar’s plot to seize control of the Storm Isles. But it is also a book about Karmel rebuilding a relationship with her brother, and about Kempis’s ongoing quest to piss off the whole world one person a time.” When I asked how one might emotionally invest a reader in a large-scale, epic conflict, he said, “It has to be through the characters and … the events of a story, no matter how dramatic, won’t touch us in a major way unless we care about the people in it, and the feelings for those characters will hang around long after the clever plot twists fade from memory.” It is interesting to note, however, that he begins planning the larger plot first, to make sure all the characters’ threads “weave together in a way that makes sense” and each character slots into the wider narrative. However, when working on their inner journeys, “often, those journeys necessitate changes in the wider story, because characters should never become servants of the plot.”

The Crimson Empire trilogy by Alex Marshall (a.k.a. Jesse Bullington) is less epic in scope than The Chronicles of the Exile, and has a smaller number of viewpoint characters, each of whom are explored deeply across the trilogy. The stakes of the larger plot are still high but the focus is definitely more on the characters’ inner journeys. Jesse was also kind enough to answer some of my questions and he said, “The epic conflicts are nothing without the personal struggles of the individuals caught up in them. It’s the difference between writing about a raging sea and writing about someone struggling not to drown in it.” Despite this, he conceded that we’re shaped by the larger events we take part in and he also added, “Ideally, the interplay between these layers of the narrative is so organic that you couldn’t divorce one from the other.” Regarding how personal character arcs could be married to epic conflicts, he pointed out, “Character arcs are the inevitable result of someone being pushed out of their comfort zone or hobbit hole” and that the conflicts are what the characters are wrapped up in which force them to change and grow. He stressed the importance of not allowing epic action to overshadow personal struggles. “Our capacity to focus on our own personal and even petty issues even in times of extreme external crisis is part of what keeps us going, and part of what makes us human.”

One thing that grimdark fantasy reinforces is that people are often selfish shits and, despite the risk to the world at large, they’ll still often only think of themselves and their loved ones. (Wait, is that selfish?) As for world-building, Jesse said that a good way of showing a secondary world is through the characters, since “everyone is a product of their environment so, by describing and defining the characters, I’m simultaneously describing their world.” It all comes back to characters and a deep understanding of character seems to serve everything else.

When it comes to character, Mark Lawrence is arguably the grimdark author most capable of sucking us into the head of a single person, no matter how flawed that person is. Where most writers have a larger cast of third-person narrators, Mark’s Broken Empire and Red Queens’s War trilogies each have a single, first-person narrator (with a couple of exceptions). It’s strange that this tight, intimate style of writing is so rare in fantasy, since it can be so effective in captivating the reader. When I interviewed him, Mark said that many points of view are useful for big, complex plots, but if the story is “more about a character, then sticking with that character can be a sensible way to do it.” And Mark’s books prove just how effective that can be. Personally, the reason that I read books more than watch movies or play games is because I enjoy finding myself inside another (fictional) person’s head. However, Mark added, “Just because you use third-person doesn’t mean you can’t stick with one person” like his new book, Red Sister. Also, third-person narration can allow for more flexibility. Despite the emphasis on characterization, Mark still manages to create a sense of the epic conflicts in his trilogies and it really is important to note that it is a “sense” of the epic conflict “rather than the detail”. “One can give a sense of it simply by what you say, what the characters do, et cetera.” Therefore, it’s not necessary to actually show all of the elements of an epic conflict for it to still feel epic. Another one of Mark’s techniques when using only one viewpoint character is to have “the same character in different timelines, so the story can jump from events in a big city to a trek through a desert. This can give both a better large-scale view of the world and events, and also of the character.”

While grimdark fantasy books pull off strong small-scale struggles whether the scope of the plot is large or small, recent fantasy films have been less successful. An example is Warcraft, which focused on the epic conflict between orcs and humans rather than the characters. A story needs to be about individuals, not merely events. Seventh Son (an “adaptation” of The Spooks Apprentice if such a loose adaptation can even truly be called that) and the film version of Eragon both completely miss the points of their source material. In those books, the smaller, quieter journeys of the protagonists are the highlights, but the movies focus on big battles and effects. In a big cinematic battle, if the personal stakes are weak, we have no anchor for our emotional investment. It’s just people fighting. Why should we care about those people? I believe it’s also why people dislike like the film adaptation of The Hobbit. The strength of the book is a short, homely tale about a hobbit overcoming his stuffiness, emerging from his comfort zone and learning a sense of adventure. The (three!) movies puff it up with too many action set-pieces that detract its intimate origins.

The principal holds true with video games too. These days there’s too much focus on quantity over quality. Developers advertise that their game has “x hours of gameplay” when, really, three-quarters of that is a dull grind. I’d prefer a one-hour game that is amazingly emotional over a hundred hours that’s just, say, killing boars. This is the reason that many people prefer The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind over The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, despite the technological superiority of the latter. Morrowind is a lovingly-crafted, alien world, filled with deep stories. Skyrim is bigger and flashier but it lacks the attention to detail and the small-scale charm of its predecessor. The larger scale of Skyrim actually hurts it. Comparing Morrowind and Skyrim is like comparing an incredibly deep pond with an ocean only a few inches deep. I know which one I’d prefer to dive into. Some gamers disagree with me, however, and just want lots of content, evidenced by the success of games like World of Warcraft where much of the gameplay literally is just killing boars. Different people play games for different reasons, and I can only speak for myself, which is to find an emotional engagement in an interactive story. The games made by Telltale are a great example of beautiful, personal storytelling, and I’d recommend that everyone go and play The Wolf Among Us, a gritty noir take on the Big Bad Wolf and other Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Grimdark authors are doing a pretty great job when it comes to putting characters first, but I’d still like to see more fantasy books that focus tightly on the small-scale stories of single characters, and less so on world-shaking events. This is not because there’s anything wrong with epic fantasy stories, but simply because I think that variety is more interesting and healthier for the growth of the genre. The creators of fantasy films and books could take a page from our grimdark authors and recognize the vital importance of small-scale, intimate journeys. As usual, grimdark is the best. But you knew that already.

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Matthew Cropley

Matthew lives in a basement in Adelaide, Australia, coming out only very rarely for food to sustain him through long nights reading. He makes films, acts, and dabbles in game development, but his real love has always been writing. Prince of Thorns introduced him to grimdark several years ago and he hasn't looked back since.