Sword & Sorcery: "An earthier sort of fantasy" discussion

About Sword & Sorcery > 4 Things Sword and Sorcery Needs to Improve to Become More Popular

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by A.R. (last edited Jun 08, 2019 11:22AM) (new)

A.R. | 78 comments When I was submitting to e-zines and magazines, one thing I noticed was that even though fantasy had a lot more opportunities to publish short stories online than other genres—sword and sorcery was rarely wanted. Some, said that they accepted sword and sorcery, but on reading their issues it became clear that sword and sorcery was not really something they published. Epic fantasy, for the most part, is the king of the fantasy genre. Sword and Sorcery is the red-headed step child.
What makes sword and sorcery viewed in such a manner? Why is it often seen as the lesser of the fantasy sub genres?
I think there are a few reasons why sword and sorcery has progressed into the role it has in fantasy and maybe by realizing this, and adjusting to reader desires, it will be become more prevalent in the future. Here are some thoughts why sword and sorcery may be sidekick rather than the hero when it comes to fantasy fiction.

1. Length - Robert E. Howard the inventor of Conan and the father of Sword and Sorcery published his works in the pulp era. Magazines were plentiful and short stories were a major source of entertainment. Sword and sorcery stories were born during this period. Their length and style of plot based fiction was perfect for shorter works. Readers didn’t mind reading short stories. Howard only wrote one Conan story that was of novel length. That fact never hindered the stories that were published or peoples interest in reading Howard’s work.

Today, readers want to invest in multi-book worlds. They want massive, sprawling trilogies, or ten book long series. They don’t want shorter works because they end too soon, leaving them to hunt for something else to read.

Sword and sorcery is a plot driven story type focused usually on a single character’s personal problems. It just doesn’t have a need to span multiple volumes.

Solution: Write single volume tales featuring one particular character. Character X and the Murdering Mummy … Character X and the Badlands Pirate … Character X and the Slithering Sorcerer.

2. Clones - Howard and Tolkien are both well known and successful fantasy writers. Success breeds mimicry. But in the case of sword and sorcery versus epic fantasy, the things people copied from the two masters are completely different.
From Tolkien, people copied his world and the types of people that populated it, the epic size of the tale, and the moral certainty of good versus evil.

From Howard, they tried to capture his writing style.
So, in the case of Tolkien you end up with: Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, trilogies or longer novelizations, good versus evil, Halflings, the artifact hunt/quest, and the reborn dark lord from 1,000 years in the past.

Some of those things are what people enjoy the most—long stories, epic sized tales, good heroes battling evil.
But, part of what weakened sword and sorcery as a genre is what writers inspired by Howard tried to emulate—his voice. Voice can be one of the most important things a writer brings to their work, but when they try to copy someone else’s voice—it just doesn’t ring true. It comes off sounding fake or false (and they never do it as good as the original).

Solution: Simple. Write using your own voice.

3. Hack-and-Slash (and the movie experience) - This may be one of the greatest obstacles to sword and sorcery’s success. Combat scenes are difficult to do well, even in plot focused works.
But even in plot focused works—the reader needs something more than hack and slash—they still need story and characterization.

I think part of the reason the last Conan movie failed—is because they thought all they needed to show was Conan in an action scene to act as all the characterization they needed.
Action scene, followed by another action scene, followed by another action scene, followed by cheesy banter, followed by, yep, you guessed it—another action scene.

The reason so many sword and sorcery movies failed—is because they were made as only plot scene with nothing but action and no character development.

Solution: Give readers a character that has emotional depth. Conan, had depth. He wasn’t just a stupid hack and slash barbarian.

4. Grey characters and anti-heroes — Most readers want to read about the noble knight in shining armor—the unvarnished hero. They want to read about good versus evil. Sword and sorcery doesn’t necessarily provide that. It has shades of grey and darkness, it’s the antithesis of epic fantasy.

George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” makes use of grey characters. But Martin, doesn’t just stop at making a character grey. He shows their good side. He shows their bad side. He shows how they struggle between the two and how people interact with that character based on the facet that other’s have seen. Jaime Lannister isn’t just a kingslayer—he’s a hero in his own right. The Hound isn’t just some non-feeling, badass thug. He has fears and emotions.

Solution: Make your characters grey or an anti-hero if desired. But, also show the other aspects of their personality, make them feel so that they can bring something to the reader more than just another hack-and-slash adventure.

To wrap it up, I would like to hear from you. What are some of the things you think sword and sorcery needs to improve upon to become more popular in the genre where epic fantasy reigns supreme?

message 2: by S.E., Gray Mouser (new)

S.E. Lindberg (selindberg) | 1969 comments Mod
Great thoughts AR. You combine nice analyses for readers and a nice ‘solutions’ for writers.

message 3: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 623 comments But do the readers want episodic tales that do not involve character arcs?

Certainly there are a good number -- mysteries in particular -- but character arcs do seem to be popular.

And the thing about arcs is that they have to end.

message 4: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments Thanks, S.E., I'm glad you liked it.

message 5: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments @Mary

I think it depends. Some readers do want epic stories with character arcs.

Others, just want to invest in a world, character, or story without having to change books and become acclimated to somdthing new.

James Bond is essentially the same character in all the books. The reader is buying his persona, who he is, and how he lives his life. They're not looking for character arcs.

The way Howard wrote Conan was as though Conan were retelling stories about his adventures. One story may show Conan in middle age, king of his own country but anoher would have Conan in his teens. Conan's thoughts and actions would be different between the two stories. The arc took place from the ditance in years between the two stories.

Readers want the familiar, when hey find a world rhey like, fhey want to spend time there. You can use an arc, no arc, or a slow arc as the character ages and matures. But if it's a place they want to visit over and over, they want longer work they can settle into for awhile.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary Catelli | 623 comments You don't need epic stories for character arcs, the concepts are distinct.

message 7: by Phil (new)

Phil Emery | 60 comments So you need to take readers into account? Darn, that's where I've been going wrong all these years... :-)

message 8: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments @Mary

No, you do not need epic stories for character arcs. But, readers want longer stories.


Yep, readers do come into play. The trick is giving them some things they want, while also taking he story where you want it to go.

message 9: by Stewart (new)

Stewart | 4 comments I don't want it to become more popular.

message 10: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments @Jack

I agree with the idea if a series is too far ahead it can be intimidating to start. I also agree with your point about arcs allowing readers to jump in more comfortable. But, I still think most readers want longer works.


Fair enough. But, if it becomes more oopular you would get more of it.

message 11: by W E (new)

W E Wertenberger | 20 comments Great piece. I think the success of writers like Martin show that there is a market for darker, grittier fantasy. But there does seem to be a stigma attached to sword and sorcery that high fantasy and the like, are immune to. My thinking is that it is all because of its pulpy roots. The lurid covers, mature content, has turned off some readers and scared off publishers. It’s a lot easier to sell stories about singing elves I guess. As far as Howard’s material translating to other mediums, I wish they would get away from film and just go the TV route. I've read that the Netflix (I think it was Netflix) Conan series had great promise, but probably fell prey to the same issues I mentioned above.

message 12: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments @W.E.

I think t.v. could show promise. The serial nature might fit that medium better than how they've tried to fit it to movies.

message 13: by W E (new)

W E Wertenberger | 20 comments Exactly. Like you pointed out before, the Conan stories are already self contained shorts and seemingly tailor made for episodic TV.

message 14: by FulciLives (new)

FulciLives | 1 comments Some interesting insights.

message 15: by A.R. (new)

A.R. | 78 comments @FulciLives

Thanks :)

back to top