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, &#