Thursday, August 30, 2012

Element of an Epic #3: Huge Stakes

Great epics are never about a single character’s journey. Even if the stakes are enormous for that one character, rarely would such a story be described as epic. In great epics, many characters must be in peril, and sometimes the fate of whole nations, or even whole worlds, are at issue in the story. The stakes for everyone must be huge.

The stakes are huge for everyone in A Game of Thrones!

One of this blog’s loyal readers commented that great epics tend to involve multiple viewpoint characters. She’s exactly right. One of the most popular epics today is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and while the stakes are huge in the abstract – the fate of the kingdom of Westeros hangs in the balance – Martin shows the reader why those stakes are huge through the viewpoints of numerous characters. Take A Game of Thrones, for example. Through the stories of the Starks, Martin illustrates the danger of a tyrant like Joffrey on the Iron Throne. And he does so through four different characters, each of whom faces their own huge stakes: Ned finds himself in danger as the Hand of King, especially after he discovers the truth about Joffrey; Catelyn is trying to save her daughters, but ends up helping her oldest son wage a war against the Lannisters; Sansa becomes a virtual hostage of Joffrey and Cersei Lannister; and Arya literally must run and fight for her life. The reader appreciates how huge the stakes are in this war because if the Lannisters win, so many of the characters we’ve come to care about in the novel will suffer or die.

But Martin’s epic goes beyond the story of the Starks in Kings Landing. Martin takes us to the Wall through the story of Jon Snow, revealing another impending danger for the kingdom of Westeros, and has Jon experience that danger first hand. Martin also shows us another “threat” to Westeros in the form of the Daenerys Targaryen, though he does so in a way that the reader empathizes with her because of the dangers she faces, all of which flow from the central conflict over the Iron Throne. And, like many great stories, Martin shows us the stakes from the perspective of the antagonists – the Lannisters – through yet another sympathetic viewpoint character (and one of the best in the novel), Tyrion Lannister.  

The fate of England was at stake during the Anarchy!

Ken Follett achieves the same effect in The Pillars of the Earth. There, the huge stakes involve the fate of England during the Anarchy and the violence associated with that civil war, but Follett illustrates those stakes through the stories of a number of different characters, including a cleric (Prior Philip), a common man (Tom Builder), a noble woman (Aliena ), and a sadistic knight (William Hamleigh). The same could be said for Stephen King’s The Stand, who shows how huge the stakes are after an apocalyptic plague through the viewpoints and plotlines of numerous characters, both heroes and villains.

These aren’t stories about a crisis facing a kingdom or nation in the abstract, but rather they’re stories of a crisis shown through the experiences of numerous, well-developed characters. By illustrating what is at risk through the collective experiences of these characters, the author makes the stakes appear real, and most importantly, shows why they are huge. And that’s why something huge at stake – for both the story world and the characters within it – is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.

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