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How to Write an Epic Novel


To write an effective epic novel, you must create a well-developed hero or heroine who overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges. From Homer to Virgil to Tolkien, authors of epic literature have constructed new worlds, languages and species that intermingle with our world as readers. You can create your own world in the form of your own epic novel by including these key ingredients and taking hints from the greats.

Introduce the Hero

While an epic novel features a cast of wild and whimsical characters, your novel will center on your hero or heroine. Traditionally, epic novels usually are based on the adventures of a man, though that trend is beginning to change. Place a significant amount of time and effort into constructing your hero and filling out his personality and motivating force. As the "hero's impulse" is to fight, consider your hero's attitudes and reactions to conflict to anchor your character's development. For example, in "Lord of the Rings," J.R.R. Tolkein's protagonist Frodo Baggins does not begin his journey with a hero's impulse, but as his story unfolds and he is around other strong characters, he develops his own impulse in his own way. Build relationships between your characters so that the reader feels invited to follow along on your hero's journey.

Construct the Setting

Whether your setting is mystical, magical, historical or practical, make it grand. An epic setting is one that presents opportunities for adventure and obstacles that the heroine must overcome. Use the physical environment in your novel to not only allow the reader to better visualize the surroundings but also to both aid and impede the heroine on her quest. Use adjectives to paint the picture, especially if your world is a fantasy. Ensure that the reader fully experiences and visualizes the environment, whether stark or mystical or historically accurate. For example, the setting in Homer's "Odyssey" is both the constant sea and the changing lands Odysseus and his men encounter. The reader fully experiences a sense of anticipation about whether the ship will ever reach home on the endless sea. Yet, with each land the men encounter, the reader experiences the curiosity and hope of finding a new setting, such as the temptation in the Siren's song and the danger of the sharp rocks.

Tell the Time

Traditionally, epics were historical in nature and told the true or untrue stories of heroes from the past. In planning your novel, you may choose to tell a historic tale, or you may set your novel in the present or future. Your epic may even take place in another dimension. Traditional epics also took place over an extended period of time and over the course of many years, sometimes a lifetime. Carefully lay out your timeline. Time is also an obstacle that many epic heroes have to overcome. In Virgil's "The Aeneid," time plays a role in the setting as Rome is experiencing peace under a new order after long wars. Time pushes the action as the hero, Aeneas, undertakes a journey that takes him from Libya to Sicily to the underworld, and he must move on, whether he wants to or not, keeping the reader guessing about what comes next.

Overcome the Obstacle

Any novel is based on the desire for something, and any protagonist must overcome obstacles to obtain it. An epic novel is based on a quest, and the protagonist must embark on a journey riddled with challenges to reach his goal. As you write your novel, carefully consider what these challenges will be. Traditional obstacles include time, distance, politics and physical barriers. Encountering and overcoming each obstacle will progress your plot, develop your hero and engage the reader in the journey. For example, Tolkein's Frodo must overcome not only the monsters and creatures that try to stop him but his own insecurities as well. Odysseus and Aeneas must overcome specific perils at each stop on their journeys and their own uncertainties about if they will ever return home. These uncertainties keep the reader reading to find if they are ever resolved.

About the Author

Hannah Richardson has a Master's degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University and a Bacheor of Arts in English. She has been a writer since 2004 and wrote regularly for the sports and features sections of "The Technician" newspaper, as well as "Coastwach" magazine. Richardson also served as the co-editor-in-chief of "Windhover," an award-winning literary and arts magazine. She is currently teaching at a middle school.

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