SDCC 2010: The Epic Fantasy Panel

July 31, 2010 @ 9:54 am | Filed under: ,

It’s a week after Comic-Con and I’m still working through my notes! Two more panels and another booklist to post, and then it’s likely to get quiet around here for a spell.

I scrawled a crazy amount of notes at the Once Upon a Time panel—six authors of epic fantasy discussing their craft—but the odds of my being able to translate the scrawl to English are slimmish, so never fear. This was a fascinating panel. (Hence the 12 pages of notes.) Have I mentioned I love hearing other writers talk about their work? Yeah.

The panelists, in order of seating: Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Lynn Flewelling, Megan Whalen Turner, Christopher Paolini, Patrick Rothfuss. The moderator: Maryelizabeth Hart of the awesome Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. She was great. They were all great.

Hart’s first question was about the everyman character vs. the larger-than-life superheroic character. In epic fantasy, with these sweeping adventures and grand-scale worldbuilding, does the main character also need to be larger than life?

SANDERSON: talked about Bilbo and Frodo, everymen, little guys, ordinary, small. “If Tolkien did it, it must be okay.” (Gave context of Tolkien as originator of high fantasy.) Made interesting point about Sam having superheroic loyalty—i.e. Sam is not a typical everyman. But came back to “at core of every everyman there is something exceptional.”

WEEKS: If we can follow them [everyman characters] through that journey, we are great too. We know there is something great within us, potential; as the everyman becomes great, we become great with him.

FLEWELLING: likes to see the process (of becoming great), doesn’t like to see heroes from the start. Wants backstory. If protag is superstrong, etc, can be boring.

WHALEN TURNER: Likes themes of “extraordinary performances of ordinary people.” Talked in terms of flavors—her favorite flavor is a book about an extraordinary person, but it requires careful handling to maintain dramatic tension. Spoke about the Mary Sue character, two different definitions of that; one is “squicky,” where the character represents the author; but in another sense a Mary Sue character is an everyman who can represent the reader. She likes that, thinks it makes for satisfying story.

PAOLINI: Basically it comes down to: “Batman is better than Superman.” (Gets huge laugh.) Talked about the difference between the extraordinary SETTING and the extraordinary CHARACTER. You can put an extraordinary character in an ordinary setting (like Superman in Kansas corn field) or vice versa, ordinary guy in extraordinary setting (Frodo in Mordor). Over time, the ordinary character becomes larger-than-life—best example, he says, is Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “a larger-than-life doofus” with flaws and weaknesses.

ROTHFUSS: 1) Paolini beat him to the Batman thing. 2) He’s a contrarian so has to reflexively disagree with what everyone else said. (Big laugh.) For him, a really big story (and epic fantasy is always a really big story) needs an everyman for people to relate to. He also spoke about the Mary Sue—my notes say “Your main char is one”—was he talking to Paolini? I think so, think it got a laugh, Paolini nodding in agreement. Rothfuss likes characters like Cyrano, Odysseus—unusually cool and clever.

PAOLINI: discussed “hereditary vs earned skills” (again Superman—hereditary—and Batman—earned/learned). “Escalating powers” can make problems for a writer—if the guy can simply “snuff the sun,” no story left. He too likes CLEVERNESS in a character.

SANDERSON: talked about origin of epic fantasy, founded by Tolkien, before that there were heroic tales (Conan, Tarzan, the guy starts off as hero). Tolkien drew on tradition of EPIC, was a Beowulf scholar, brought elements from Beowulf to LOTR but with a Mary Sue protag instead of a born hero. (Beowulf is a hero from the start; Frodo becomes one.) My notes add, “Would love to take a class with this guy.”

QUESTION #2: How do you (as a writer) feel about the role of destiny in epic fantasy? (I’m paraphrasing; my notes say simply #2 role of destiny.”)

ROTHFUSS: “It’s crap.” (Roar of laughter from audience.) “When it’s used as a plot device, it’s lazy. The story suffers.” He hates the thought of writing a book where the main character is SUPPOSED to be something—if handled poorly. Hates the idea of “the chosen one.”

PAOLINI: “As writer of a series about a Chosen One—” (huge laugh; he was grinning, great sense of humor, this was a very funny and goodnatured discussion)….1) If you are starting with a preconceived destiny for the character and ramrodding it in, ugh. But probably your preconceptions will be changed anyway.Β  2) But actual predestination, as in the character is predestined to do something, can be interesting, it’s all in the handling. If the character were real, you’d believe in predestination because someone is obviously controlling things behind the scenes—lots of coincidences. “I think the character would notice.” This can be problematic, you have to look at tropes, try to make them fresh/subvert them.

WHALEN TURNER: spoke about seeing recent Alice in Wonderland movie, she loved Johnny Depp, but there was this whole element about a prophecy that Alice would kill the Jabberwocky, she didn’t like that. Often in a story, The Chosen One will show up and then you know how things will turn out, he will win. She’d like to see some uncertainty: You are the chosen one and there is a 63% chance you will win in the end. (Funny!!) “Would you want to be the One in that case?”

FLEWELLING: Magic is not to replace but to aid human effort.

WEEKS: Loves to play with prophecies, all sorts of ways to explore this, who gave the prophecy? A zealot? Universe structured around the prophecy? Basic storylines: boy saves girl, girl saves boy, nobody saves nobody and they all die.

SANDERSON: (intones) There is a prophecy that someday there will be a sequel to The Name of the Wind and it will restore balance to the universe.Β  (Huge laugh. The Name of the Wind is the enormous epic fantasy by Patrick Rothfuss. His fans have been waiting four years for the promised sequel. Rothfuss laughed uproariously at this.)

SANDERSON (continues): Prophecy can work for story reasons. He discussed the classic “hero’s journey,” Joseph Campbell, not a guidebook for how to tell a hero story but rather a description of similarities between countless hero stories across cultures and centuries. Gave Star Wars episodes 1-3 as an example of a failed attempt to shoehorn the steps of the heroic journey into a story. Problematic when forced. The reason the steps of the journey work is because they are part of our collective unconscious.

ROTHFUSS: As a contrarian, he would now like to disagree with himself. (Big laugh.) Prophecy used well can be a tool to create dramatic tension. Used the wrong way, it’s like—[I wish I could remember what his analogy was. My notes say “like paint___” (illegible) and there’s a sketch of something like a knife. Like painting with a knife? Maybe. This is why podcasts were invented. I’m sure there’s a podcast of this panel somewhere.]

ROTHFUSS (cont.): What’s interesting is where the tension comes from and what it’s about. The play is the thing. Greek audiences didn’t watch Oedipus to find out how it ends. When there is an absolute prophecy, you know the ending. The question is: HOW DOES HE GET THERE? (the hero) If you remove that plot tension, you can let it be about character. He likes books where this has been done well, has seen it done better than he could, so he doesn’t work with prophecy that way himself.

PAOLINI: found a way to eat his cake and have it too. Had a character under a prophecy who didn’t like the prophesied fate so—-[but what he said next was a plot spoiler, so I’m redacting it].

After this there was a lively Q&A, but I didn’t take notes about that part. Well, actually I did a little, but all I’ve got is: PARENTS! “RAISED BY DISNEY” and then FANS TAKE OVER CHARACTERS. So, um, yeah. The first one had to do with something Rothfuss (I think??) said about how Disney storylines have shaped several generations’ understanding/expectations of story—which would be in itself an excellent topic for a panel discussion. And the second fragment was from a question about fanfiction. The authors were all in agreement that they love that fans write it, it’s an honor, but they don’t read it. I think it was Brent Weeks who said (but maybe Brandon Sanderson) there are only two possibilities: it would be written worse than he would write it, in which case, would be painful to read; or it would be written BETTER than he could write it, in which case, painful to read!

To sum up: a captivating discussion. This is what I love Comic-Con for.

More on SDCC 2010:

A few photos
Photos of supercool steampunk wheelchair
Awesome sketch drawn for me by the incredible Fiona Staples
What I did at SDCC
Rick Riordan panel
LOST Encyclopedia Panel
Books that caught my eye (part 1)
Books that caught my eye (part 2)

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6 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. sarah says:

    this is all wonderful! I wish I’d been there for the original discussion. I would love to read more of your notes if you could translate them.

  2. Maureen E says:

    She’d like to see some uncertainty

    This makes sense, coming from the queen of sudden plot twists. πŸ™‚

    It sounds like a fascinating discussion!

  3. kimberlee says:

    This is all so fascinating! I just read Seraillier’s Beowulf aloud the other day, and was amazed at how many LOTR images came to mind. My kids are fond of discussing characters and refer to Sam as the ‘Ultimate Pet’ for his ‘superheroic loyalty’.(they just wrote a humorous post on character relationships)’At the core of everyman is something exceptional.’ Imago Dei comes to mind -and the ‘extraordinary setting’ is how we get saints like Maximillian Kolbe and ‘ordinary setting’ gives us Therese of Liseaux. So much to ponder in here – thanks for sharing ‘con’ with us.

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kimberlee, have you read Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his (amazing) translation of Beowulf? He talks about what Tolkien drew from B. Fascinating stuff.

  5. kimberlee says:

    I’ll have to dig out the Heany book – we have it somewhere around here. If you like Beowulf you should peek at our new chessboard I posted the other day. πŸ™‚

  6. Jeanne says:

    I wish my 12 yo and I could have been there! He wouldn’t get all the references, but would get enough of them, and I’d love to hear him talk after hearing THEM talk! Thx for sharing.