Fantasy Fiction and the Problem of Scale
The Lord of the Rings made a great movie. It was huge, there were massive battles and monsters and adventures. It felt like an epic adventure, even if the Sam and Frodo bits dragged a little. It was a good interpretation of the source material. Then along came the Hobbit films and I was so excited I nearly exploded. I have loved the Hobbit since I first read it. It was the book that made me a fantasy fan. I couldn’t wait. Then along came the films and they were exactly like the Lord of the Rings; Huge sweeping films about massive events that shook the foundations of the world. It was awful.
The Hobbit was a book with a very small scale, it was about one fairly normal, not terribly heroic person going on a little adventure. You could tell that there were big things happening in the background, heroic descendants of kings reclaiming their thrones by slaying a dragon, whispers of a necromancer in the deep woods, all very exciting and all happening just outside the periphery of the story that you were reading. It gave you a great sense of the larger world without abandoning the very personal nature of little Bilbo Baggins’ story. It wasn’t about spectacle and armies clashing. It was about how going on an adventure changed a person.
So often in the fantasy genre you can see authors over-reaching. They take a small personal story that should be viewed through tight lens and they try to make it into an epic.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy was a great example. The first book had action and intrigue and adventure, it was a great book that focused on a small rebellion against an oppressive ruler. It followed the protagonist closely, seeing her meet friends, allies and enemies that were all woven together neatly. By the end of the series this small character was embroiled in a cosmic conflict between the forces of creation and destruction. It had lost all focus.
The most popular fantasy books in living memory, Harry Potter, took a very different tactic. The story always followed the protagonist and while he was conveniently present for the vast majority of the important events in the series and the size of the world that he had to interact with grew gradually the books never lost their focus on him. They never forgot what they were about.
Finding the point of focus in a fantasy story is essential to making it work. If the plot is driven by politics and backstabbing, that needs to be the emphasis of the writing. If the story is about ancient gods returning to life then we need an even wider lens to take in the whole cosmos. If the story is about one little creature going about its business then we need the reader needs to be held close to that creature, to its actions and thoughts and feelings. The best stories are personal ones, and by their nature personal stories are small. To create a good book on any scale you need to understand that.