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On Superhero Fantasy: My Fantasy Problem

A long time ago, my friend Dan and I got together to brainstorm a fantasy series. We did it for a handful of reasons (most of which weren’t mentioned in that article). I saw an opportunity to work on an exciting new writing project with an old friend. Dan saw an opportunity to fix my fantasy problem.

The heart of the issue (and we both recognized it) was that eight years of working a day job and watching my dreams die had robbed me of the sense of grand adventure that makes fantasy novels work. I couldn’t write what I didn’t believe in, and that left me writing dreary realism even in the scant time I actually spent writing books.

Dan saw all that, and he knew what I needed. I needed to write big fantasy, to get my nerve back and get back in the game. So he came over (as I described in that first link above), and he proposed a universe and a basic theme for our character and story design.

The theme was “superheroes.” He wanted to write superhero fantasy.

When I offered that phrase at Consortium Time last night, Courtney said, “Wait, aren’t superheroes already fantasy?” Joshua wasn’t around to quibble, so I gave my answer.

“It doesn’t matter.” The point is that we’re taking the conventions of superheroes and transplanting them into a distinctly fantasy story. Dan’s original suggestion was that we take a traditional sword-and-sorcery setting (Renaissance Europe with magic), a cast of traditional sword-and-sorcery characters (the warrior, the lovable rogue, the snooty wizard, the damsel in distress), and we have those characters behave the way comic-book superheroes do.

That means we end up with a big cast of superheroes and supervillains (of varying powers and importance). We end up with intensely powerful characters (and don’t apologize for it), and we wrap them up in all kinds of targeted branding (think costume and accoutrements). We end up with legendary names directly associated with clear ideals. We end up with mortal enemies (who never really die).

And, of course, we end up with epic battles. We end up with big fantasy.

That all started three or four years ago now, and not much has come of it. We have ten- or twenty-thousand words of notes in Google Docs, I’ve got a handful of half-finished short stories introducing some of the characters, and we have plots for eight novels that may never get written.

It doesn’t matter. It worked anyway. We ran into scheduling problems getting actual pages written, and I finally gave up and started into my own projects again, and (would you believe it?) everything I wrote started getting bigger. Just thinking like that had improved my style. Several years later, here I am watching my sales numbers on Taming Fire climb and climb.

That’s the same fantasy novel that broke  my heart a decade ago. That’s the one I wrote, presented to a class full of rational-types, and decided it was too over-the-top and what-was-I-doing-with-my-life? I went back to it in May for the rewrite, and wrote it bigger. I added magic. I added battles. I added a supervillain or two.

Dan’s plan worked for me. If not for that failed project, I probably wouldn’t be seeing the success I am today. Thanks, Dan.

4 Responses to “On Superhero Fantasy: My Fantasy Problem”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    My favorite part of this story is that it was invented by two guys who don’t know much about superheroes. Which is AWESOME because when you say it to somebody soaked in superheroes (ie, me) you get a completely different animal. That’s fertile ground.

    I should do a blog post just for Courtney that deals with superheroes having aspects of a lot of different genres but has become a genre unto itself. Court, any interest?

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      You should! I do intend to do a follow-up post on Thursday talking about the direction you took my initial comment, and the flexibility (and opportunity) the genre could present.

    • Absolutely, Josh. Git ‘er done. ; )

      And for the record, I don’t consider superheroes a sub-genre of fantasy, by any stretch of imagination. It’s just that to me, one who’s done little more than wade the superhero waters, the genre has enough fantastical elements to qualify as fantasy. And as sci-fi. And I think that’s why I enjoy wading. 😉

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