Epic Fantasy Blueprint
Epic Fantasy Blueprint

Epic Fantasy Blueprint

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This blueprint utilizes the Hero’s Journey story structure, a structure created by Christopher Vogler that is uniquely suited to fantasy. The terms that have been metaphorized to apply to modern fiction can be applied literally in fantasy. Look to the original structure Vogler based this on, Joseph Campbell’s “The Adventure of the Hero” in the book Hero with a Thousand Faces for additional ideas and side roads your story can take within the hero’s journey.

The beauty of the Hero’s Journey is that it works as a blueprint for both the physical and emotional journey of the main character. Every stage includes plot and character development.

The 12 Stage Hero’s Journey for Epic Fantasy

1. The Ordinary WorldThe hero begins in their own world, unaware what is to come.

This is a very important stage in epic fantasy, for though the world is ordinary to the hero/protagonist, it is anything but to the reader. Avoid info dumps here. Let the reader see the character in their natural environment and have that begin to explain the world to the reader. The first part of the essential Novel Writing: The First Draft has some good examples of jumping right into the world.

2. The Call to Adventurethe inciting incident that begins the journey

Often delivered by the archetype known as “the Herald,” the call let’s the hero know the adventure is about to begin. This can be big or small. Gandalf arriving at the Shire to examine Frodo’s uncle’s ring. R2D2 delivering Leia’s message to Luke. The Grail appearing before King Arthur and his knights.

Though it’s named “The Call,” this can also be a more physical or metaphysical manifestation. The hero discovers they have a magical power. They come into their majority. It can be a discovery or a loss. A murder. Anything that puts their world out of balance. And alerts them that they are the one who must set it aright.

3. Refusal of the Callthe hero is reluctant

Even the hero who has been wishing their life would be more adventurous is initially reluctant to leave their comfortable life for the unknown. Don’t spend too long on this. The reader knows the hero is going to join the adventure.

4. Meeting with the Mentora mentor gives the hero something(s) that hardens their resolve

It can be an object like their father’s sword or a magic ring, or perhaps knowledge or a new skill. But whatever it is, it sweeps away the hero’s reluctance and sends them on their way.

5. Crossing the First Threshold — the hero commits to the adventure and crosses over into the new world either metaphorically or physically

In epic fantasy, this is usually a physical threshold. Frodo leaving the Shire. The Knights of the Round Table leaving Camelot. There is no going back at this point. The old world is gone and the hero must forge a path through this new environment.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: trials are faced, and friends and enemies are made

This is the meat of the book. Pretty self-explanatory. Minor tests are encountered and overcome. Allies are gathered. Enemies are generally discovered more than made.

The key here is to not make things too easy for your hero while still keeping the forward momentum. A useful technique for this is to allow your hero to fail some of these minor trials, yet have them result in character growth. So, even as the plot encounters a setback, the hero’s growth continues. The opposite works, as well. In many stories the hero glibly succeeds in a minor task but their mentor is disappointed, as they recognize that the hero took the easy road and so experienced no growth.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave: the hero comes to a dangerous place where they are to face The Ordeal

Traditionally, this cave is literally underground. It doesn’t need to be, but I have found a trip underground where the hero emerges changed is quite affecting in a fantasy novel. Regardless, as the hero approaches the cave, both physically and mentally, the tension rises.

8. The Ordeal: the hero faces the greatest challenge yet, and in overcoming it, experiences death and rebirth

In some tales, this is the final boss fight. In others, it is the fight where the hero gains the necessary item/power/inner strength to overcome the final obstacle. And in some, it only appears to be the final conflict, for the true enemy is yet to be discovered.

All are valid plot points, but they change how the last four stages play out a great deal.

The important thing about this ordeal is that the hero come out of it fundamentally transformed. That is the meaning of the death and rebirth. Again, in fantasy, this doesn’t have to be metaphorical. They can actually die and be brought back to life in a different form.

9. Reward: the hero gains the object of their quest

Like it says, the hero gets the thing they’ve been after. If the Ordeal was the final fight, then the next three stages go quickly. Which is fine for some of the epic fantasy subgenres like sword and sorcery or heroic fantasy. For full-on epic, readers expect a little more.

10. The Road Back: the hero’s return to the ordinary world is rife with danger as they try to escape with their reward

The story is not over when Jason gets the Golden Fleece. He still has to get home with it.

11. The Resurrection: the hero experiences another moment of death and rebirth, often through an even greater ordeal or betrayal

This can be where the true enemy is revealed and the hero has to face the unexpected puppetmaster of who they’d thought was the Big Bad all along. Or, there is a final price to be paid, either in betrayal or loss, before the hero can return with their prize. The hero is changed a final time, becoming their true self, usually wiser than their first resurrection, which was more about gaining power than wisdom.

Victory is achieved.

12. Return with the Elixir: the hero returns to the ordinary world, and both are irrevocably changed by the journey and what they return with

The change is important, in both the world and the hero. For who cares what happened along the way if the status quo remains the same? This stage can be subverted in comedic works, where the hero having no effect on the world and experiencing no growth points the futility of all endeavors when taken on by a fool.

Things Vogler Left Out

There are some stages that Campbell included that Vogler elided to better suit his medium of modern cinema. However, some of them fit very well into an epic fantasy.

Spuernatural Aid — Replace Stage 3: Meeting with the Mentor with Campbells original stage Supernatural Aid. Pretty clear how well this integrates into fantasy.

The Belly of the Whale — According to Campbell, immediately after Crossing the Threshold, the hero is thrust into the belly of the whale. This is actually the first occurrence of death and rebirth and extends the emphasis of the threshold.

Instead of the minor tests and gathering of allies that comes later, the hero is immediately destroyed, eaten by the whale, and has to tear himself free, as from the womb, to be reborn. It is both a destructive and creative act, a sundering to make whole.

In Lord of the Rings, I see the breaking of the Fellowship as a belly of the whale moment, though it comes after some trials and gathering of allies. The Fellowship was a protection Frodo had built around himself. But it was an edifice that could not stand, as it was built on the flawed bricks of corruptible peoples. It needed to be destroyed so that Frodo could emerge from its corpse as a new creature.

The Meeting with the Goddess — Campbell puts this stage after the Road of Trials, but Vogler combined it, and some other of Campbell’s stages, into his Tests, Allies, and Enemies. Which is fine. But I wanted to point to this one specifically, as the Meeting with the Goddess is good for epic fantasy, as it doesn’t have to be metaphorical. The Fellowship meets Galadriel, as close to a goddess as Middle Earth contains. The Greek heroes are always running into or afoul of goddesses.

Of course, the goddess doesn’t have to be real or female. But she represents a great power that can either seduce or assist, and is often not in direct conflict with the hero’s enemy. She offers a way out for the hero, but a false one, where no death and rebirth can occur. The Lotus Eaters, offering endless happiness, but no accomplishments, a fake paradise that would leave the rest of the world to fall to ruin. But if convinced to help, the Goddess’s power will eventually prove invaluable. If she is denied, her anger can haunt the hero throughout the tale, and often cause tragedy in the Road Back.

Refusal of the Return — I like this stage as it often adds a bitterness to the sweet taste of victory. It can be played in several ways. The hero can refuse the return because the new world is so enticing. If the purpose of their journey was to save this new world, then refusing the return is a satisfying and happy ending. Many portal fantasies end with the hero living now in the new world. If the purpose was to save the old world, then the hero must reluctantly return there. Sad, but satisfying still, as the hero has achieved their gain and chosen the greater good over their own selfish desires. The most bittersweet refusals occur when either the hero wishes to remain—and it is righteous to do so, as they have saved the new world and been changed in a way so as to belong there now—and is forced to return, usually because their task is done and the magic that brought them there is ended. My favorite book ever, The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha, uses this to tear your guts out. The other is when the hero desires to return home, but cannot as they have been too changed by their journey to belong anymore. Frodo traveling to the West with the diminishing elves.

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