Defining Sword and Sorcery Fantasy
Now that we’ve taken a look at high fantasy, sword and sorcery fantasy is the natural choice of topic for this next article on fantasy sub-genres. You might be wondering why that is. I’m glad you asked!
Sword and sorcery fantasy has some elements in common with high fantasy. Like high fantasy, it often carries elements of magic and supernatural. It is also sweeping and dramatic at times. However, unlike high fantasy, sword and sorcery is not focused on world-endangering matters. Instead, sword and sorcery fantasy focuses on a sword-swinging hero or heroine and their life. The lens of the camera hones in on the dangerous adventures and violent fights they must endure to reach the end of the journey they have embarked upon. The genre often overlaps with heroic fantasy because of some of these elements.
For writers, there are some more technical elements involved in sword and sorcery fantasy. Beyond just having a hero or heroine that carries a sword and having a dash of magic, sword and sorcery novels usually involve a fast-paced, action packed plot and high personal stakes. Often, sword and sorcery fantasy lends itself well to a series of novels or novellas because of the nature of the work: the stakes are not as high as they are in epic fantasy and the characters, who are usually travelers by nature, do not enjoy the calm after the storm. Because of the wanderlust most sword and sorcery protagonists possess, it is easier to take many adventures through the world with them. This does, of course, require a dynamic world for the character to interact with, so world-building is something that may be seen a little more in sword and sorcery fantasy than in certain other types of fantasy. Having grand adventures all over the planet tends to require it of authors writing sword and sorcery fantasy.
Sword and sorcery fantasy finds its roots in several areas. First and foremost, it has deep roots in mythology and works like Homer’s Odyssey and Arthurian legend. However, it also has its roots in historical fiction such as Ivanhoe, and most of the early works that defined the genre drew heavily from the Middle Eastern mythology like the Arabian Nights and the myriad demons, monsters, and fearsome warriors contained within those tales.
The sword and sorcery sub-genre is, admittedly, a much smaller subset of fantasy compared to other sub-genres, but it is becoming more popular as the years go by and has seen a bit of a comeback since it became less popular in the 1980’s to give place to epic fantasy.
Writing Sword and Sorcery Fantasy
For those of you who are more interested in learning about new genres than in writing them, feel free to skip this section to look over the book suggestions within this sub-genre. But, if you are interested in writing sword and sorcery fantasy or would just like to know more about how this unique sub-genre works, let’s take a closer look at this genre, which doesn’t get nearly enough time in the light of day.
Battles of Epic Proportion
To begin with, the name of the sub-genre does give a big clue as to what your sword and fantasy book needs. And the first thing it needs is a whole lot of action and battle. Your character is going to be on a mission of some sort, and along the way, sword and sorcery protagonists always end up fighting epic battles.
It is worthwhile to note that the battles do not have to be fought using medieval weapons. Even though the word sword is included in the title, it is perfectly permissible for you to give your hero a musket or some other newer piece of technology so long as that is the tech the whole world is using. It is more traditional to have the hero or heroine wielding some sort of sword, but it is not a requirement. What you absolutely cannot get around are fight scenes.
And the scenes can’t be included just to have them in the book or as a nod to the title of the sub-genre. The fight scenes need to be integral to driving the plot forward. Really, any scene in any type of novel should serve to push the plot forward or to reveal further information that is integral to the plot. But with sword and sorcery, your fight scenes have to do so even more than they would in other types of fantasy. The action is essential for driving plots of sword and sorcery forward. If you can have a good story without the sword fights and battles with monsters, chances are that the story is not sword and sorcery. Either that, or it needs to be refocused.
Because this is the case, that means that you, as the writer, will need to be able to write convincing action and fight scenes. If you are weak in that area, then you should practice that. Have some beta readers go through those scenes after the novel’s first draft is done and get feedback on what needs to be changed. Some people have a hard time visualizing action or fight scenes in their heads and just need more input on that area of work. That’s fine. But if that’s you, make sure you get the help you need. The novel and the readers will thank you for it.
And now, let’s look at the second piece of the name. Sorcery. A sword and sorcery novel isn’t complete if you don’t put in a dash of the arcane. In most fantasy novels, systems of magic range from good to bad to neutral. Magic isn’t considered to be something only one side or the other will use. Most of the time, it’s accessible to everyone or a fairly decent size of the population. This is a bit different in sword and sorcery.
Usually, for sword and sorcery fantasy, magic isn’t a good thing. It’s something that the villain uses, and it comes in all different shapes and sizes to cause our protagonist grief. The sorcery could be anything from spells to change the protagonist into a toad to magical weapons that animate themselves or lend strength to the wielder. Really, it can be almost anything, but it’s usually nothing that means good news for the protagonist.
Since the villain is the one using the magic, you as the writer have more leeway on what happens. Sword and sorcery, unlike high fantasy and epic fantasy, may not have a clear, established magic system. Usually, the magic is rare, but the story does need a fantastical and magical element to be considered sword and sorcery. Still, the typical rules you find for other fantasy don’t apply as strictly.
That isn’t to say you can get away with throwing things in for the convenience of plot, but you do have more leeway to leave off with an explanation of the why behind the magic. After all, it’s a bit hard to explain something that’s a mystery to your protagonist. Still, this doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to explain. If your protagonist is a bit more of the strategist type, they could discover some weakness with the seemingly insurmountable barrier the sorcery presented, and it could help to drive the plot forward. Either option, whether mysterious or slowly revealed, has its merits and its downsides. Make that choice conscientiously depending on what type of flavor you want to give your sword and sorcery novel.
Sword and sorcery novels usually take place in exotic locations. This could range anywhere from ruined cities to mountain holds. Either way, the locations themselves often are a piece of the problem facing the protagonist. They present their own dangers through nature or the inhabitants of the settings. The dangers also vary. Some of them may be less serious than others. Perhaps a character is traveling to a distant land and is forced to adapt to foreign cultures along the way. They may get themselves into trouble, depending on what they do, or it may simply present a new challenge for them to overcome. On the other hand, the danger could be very great. If the character is climbing into a mountain stronghold several hundred feet off the ground over a raging river, the stakes are going to be quite high for the protagonist. Death is high in the list of consequences for that particular adventure.
Given the varied settings and the sweeping adventures sword and sorcery characters usually experience, you should plan to use the setting as another tool for carrying your readers through the story and for causing problems for the character where necessary to move the story along. The power of setting can make or break scenes, and it can even cause significant issues for the plot if it’s integral enough to the story. Plan carefully and write settings purposefully.
Any avid reader or experienced writer will tell you that characters make or break a book. Have you ever read a book where the plot was stunning but the characters drove you nuts or, worse yet, bored you to death? How much did you really want to keep reading? Chances are that, unless the author is extremely talented and has some kind of magic, you didn’t want to keep going. No matter how compelling the plot or the settings are, neither of them can make up for dull, flat, or obnoxious characters.
This means that, particularly in sword and sorcery where you only have one or two main characters, you need to make sure those characters are people the readers can rally around. They need to grab the readers’ attention and pull at their heartstrings where necessary. If the characters are well-rounded and likable, readers will be drawn into your story even if the plot is a bit on the mediocre side or settings aren’t the most inspiring. Why? Because the reader is there for the character, and now that they’re invested, they’ll stay just to find out what happens. It really does work. I often end up reading through a book I wouldn’t otherwise finish simply to find out what happens to a character I really like. As a reader, I can be picky about whether the plot is flat or settings are too vague, but if an author can hold my attention with a character I can cheer for, all of that somehow doesn’t matter anymore. (If you need any further proof, take a look at all of the Victorian romance novels out there. Most of them have the same basic plot line, but the readers are there for the characters and their love story, not for the plot line.)
Hopefully, if you weren’t convinced to begin with, you’ve now been convinced that characters are the most important part of your sword and sorcery novel. After all, where would the story be if you didn’t have your protagonist or your villain? Or your supporting characters, for that matter? So, as a writer, it is your job to create characters that come to life in the readers’ minds.
You can do that in many different ways, and going over that is best left for another post since it isn’t the point of this one. But since we’re discussing sword and fantasy, why not take a look at some of the most common types of sword and sorcery protagonists and villains?
First up on the list is the “barbarian” or the protagonist that is an outsider from a supposedly civilized society. Ironically, this archetype usually has a moral code that is much superior to that of the society claiming to be more civilized. This leads to a struggle for the character as they try to fit in or, perhaps, try to live the same way they always have despite resistance from the rest of society.
Next is the criminal. This is a popular archetype since sword and sorcery tends to show the darker sides of human nature. The criminal is the epitome of the greed often showcased by sword and sorcery fantasy. This guy is in it only for what he can get out of it whether it’s women, money, or fame. Even if they aren’t the most greedy individuals, they usually tend toward being self-centered and look out for their interests before anyone else’s. Their code of conduct is their own, and who cares how they got to the end so long as they did?
Another favorite archetype is the doomed champion. This individual holds more power than they should, and that very power is exactly what dooms them. They might start out as a decent person, but they end up corrupted by whatever has made them the powerful figure that they are. Usually, this comes in the form of some sort of arcane artifact or soul-sucking item they possess. Beyond that, pacts with demons and tainted magical weapons are also options. Really, anything that involves tainted supernatural sources is good fodder for what causes this character archetype and everyone around them grief.
First on the list of troublemakers? Evil wizards. This is the stereotypical villain of sword and sorcery fantasy, and they can certainly cause more than their fair share of trouble. Similar to the doomed champion, wizards typically started out human and became corrupted by some sort of tainted magic source. Chances are that they may never have been good even before they were corrupted, but that’s really not the issue, is it? The good news for our protagonists is this: the wizards are typically still human and are vulnerable to mortal blows. Their sorcery also requires complicated spells to perform, so that does complicate matters for them a bit.
Second up on this list of villains are the supernatural forces. These are meant to be unexplained, horrifying forces of evil that the protagonist must contend with. Sword and sorcery, once again, shows a much darker view of the world than many of the other fantasy sub-genres do on the whole, so it is quite commonplace for a protagonist to run into evil spirits, remnants of some darkness, or even some other dark and destructive force while they are battling for the success of their quest.
The last main villain archetype I’ll include here is society. Yes, society. Many sword and sorcery novels focus on the idea that society itself is not worthy of salvation, in particular those societies that are unjust. This works particularly well with the outsider archetype discussed above with the protagonist archetypes since the outsider’s view shows the complete spectrum of depravity of the novel’s society.
This post is by no means an all exhaustive explanation of sword and sorcery or how to write the sub-genre, but it should help point those interested in writing the sub-genre in the right direction. Although the sub-genre isn’t the most popular one, sword and sorcery novels can be extremely interesting and well-written. They don’t deserve the bad rap they’re given in every case. So, if you’re thinking about writing a sword and sorcery novel or giving a new book in the genre a try, don’t let the lack of popularity deter you. A good story is a good story regardless of genre.
Further Reading and Examples
Robert E. Howard’s Weird Tales
Robert E. Howard’s Conan of Cimmeria
Charles R. Saunders’ Imaro
T.H. White’s The Once and Future King
Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword
Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (Finished by Brandon Sanderson)
Disclaimer: Many of these books are known in the sword and fantasy genre, but I haven’t read most of them, so I can’t vouch for how appropriate they are for younger readers. I will say that since sword and sorcery often focuses on the darker side of humanity, the novels and stories are often not appropriate for younger readers. However, if you would like to introduce younger readers to the sub-genre, there are some authors who have written a few things for children and young adults. My main caution is simply that, if you do want to vet what your younger readers are exposed to, much of sword and sorcery should be combed through very carefully before it is handed off to them.
Howard Andrew Jones’ Blog (He has an entire section on writing, which includes a sub section on sword and sorcery, his favorite fantasy genre.)
Alistair Rennie on Sword and Sorcery (This blog post goes a little more in depth about some aspects of sword and sorcery fantasy that I didn’t cover here, and it is from the perspective of a sword and sorcery/horror author who has been published and has done some different panels at events. If you’d like to know more about the sub-genre, his article is worth looking over.)