Epic Women Doing Epic Fantasy

On the streaming Fan Track Channel at 10PM Saturday, panelists, and writers, Day Al-Mohamed, Kristina L. Gruell, Marie Whittaker, and Katie Cross, with moderator Cisca Small, talked about Epic Fantasy and what women writers bring to the genre, going toe-to-toe with men even on toilet talk.

Small asked each writer to define epic fantasy, and everyone agreed it had to have high stakes, a journey, and be set in a different, but somewhat familiar, world. Beyond that, each writer provided nuanced takes, with none being wrong. Not only should the world be different, but Gruell stressed that epic fantasy had to include “deep world-building” in which a reader can escape, with Cross agreeing and adding that it needed new cultures. For Whittaker, that world should also include a magic system while Al-Mohamed said it needed to showcase different perspectives.

Cross discussed the archetypes, tropes, and archetypal language (i.e., hero, heroine, crone, etc.) that were key to creating early Epic Fantasy, saying you “can’t unwind the hero’s journey from the Epic Fantasy.” As for women writers challenging these, Whittaker said she has played with gender roles and altered tropes such as “the first-born” always being the quest taker; whereas, Gruell has flipped societies to be matriarchal instead of patriarchal, setting down rules such as forbidding men from owning land. But Cross sees women’s influence in Epic Fantasy not just about flipping traditional binary gender roles but leaning into the inherent strengths women have, writing characters that to try “to bring the innate powers we have as women to the hero’s journey.” For her, this means having a woman win, not because of a sword, but because of “[her] deep sense of compassion” and using how she operates (such as being organized) as an advantage. Al-Mohamed took this a step further, emphasizing that diversity—a character’s culture, color, place of origin, gender, and sexual orientation—also influence their reaction in a situation and its final solution.

All this, Small imitated, could be used against women writers since Epic Fantasy most often borrows from medieval and renaissance periods for settings and people have argued female characters should be historically accurate. “Garbage,” Al-Mohamed said, noting she “violently objects” to many of these arguments because, first, in Epic Fantasy, writers are remaking the world and, second, a lot of women’s history is missing because men wrote history, and they wrote it to show them winning, not for accuracy.

“We won’t be able to correct history,” Whittaker added, “but we can write stories that correct it.”

All of the writers talked about what they read growing up and what influences led them into writing Epic Fantasy as adults, how they see it borrowing from other genres (i.e., fairy tales and folktales), and adapting it to be more diverse and, thus, a better reflection of the world. Cross said Asian influences have helped move it from Euro-centricity while also revitalizing it. “There’s a whole much bigger world out there,” Al-Mohamed said.

Before plugging their latest and next books, the writers went down a rabbit hole of technology’s place in Epic Fantasy by focusing on the use of a toilet and how something so mundane can either take a reader out of a story or set expectations that a place is both familiar and different—the most important consideration when building an Epic Fantasy world.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.