Every story needs three basic elements: a character, in a setting, with a conflict.
Most instructors will talk about a number of possibilities when choosing a conflict for a story: man versus nature, man versus self, man versus man, or man versus society.
Years ago, a Hollywood script doctor named Michael Hague pointed out that if you study the most powerful movies of all time, you’ll find that at the center of each tale lies what he calls an “identity conflict,” a central conflict where a character is trying to define himself or herself while other people in society struggle to pin the protagonist down with a false definition. Thus, a young girl, Josie, might want to follow her dream to become a pastry chef, while her father insists that she go study at Harvard, mom wants her to marry well, and her childhood friend sees her as a rival for the affections of a boy they both once liked. Over the course of the story, the protagonist must define what she wants to be, take the steps to follow her dream, and convince others that she has made it.
It’s true that the identity conflict lies at the heart of nearly all great stories, but when we start studying the epic, there is another conflict that rises to the fore: ideology versus ideology. In other words, it isn’t just one man against a society, it’s a society against society. It’s mankind seeking to define itself.
Think of it this way: an ideology is the system of beliefs that your characters live by. It’s so integral to the choices the character makes, the values they espouse, that the character can’t be separated from the ideology. Just as a person will die when their head is separated from their body, the person’s soul dies when it is separated from its ideology. And an ideology isn’t something that you can turn on or off. As Morris Berman puts it, “An idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.”
Now, an “epic novel” is more than just a big book. An epic is one that typically deals with a number of elements. The protagonist is often something of an “ideal” man or woman. The tale revolves around several characters. The major conflicts will change the shape of the world (or universe) for years to come, and the wars being fought aren’t about something as trivial as which king has the greater claim to a throne. The conflict centers on ideals.
The bestselling stories of all time have often been epics. Homer’s “The Odyssey” is an epic, as was “Beowulf,” Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, War and Peace, Les Mis, and many others.
Since I’ve done a bit of work as a Star Wars writer, we can look at it and see the battle between ideologies quite clearly. Luke Skywalker starts off as a young man with a love for freedom. He hopes to become a pilot and someday fly among the stars. For him, happiness can’t be separated from freedom.
Darth Vader and the Emperor, on the other hand, want a universe where people are controlled. They’re partly right. It’s tough to be happy when some thug is pummeling you.
So Lucas points out that we can’t have freedom without some control—hence the light and dark sides of the Force. In scene after scene, we see two ideologies in opposition.
But you could look at any opposing ideologies and build a story around them. For example, I could imagine myself writing a book set in 900 A.D. about a humble priest who finds joy in serving the poor—who discovers himself in opposition to a king who tries to “serve god” by waging a Holy War against infidels.
So when you’re writing an epic novel, if you’re character is going to embody some sort of ideal, you really have to consider, what ideals does your protagonist embrace?
The struggles of the antagonist and protagonist then become a framework for your tale.
David Farland’s Epic Novel Writing Workshop will start in four weeks. We’ll be studying several epic novels over the next few months, with meetings to discuss them on Saturday, and then we’ll do exercises to help you brainstorm and outline your own epic novel through January 2121. If you’re prepared to take a big step forward, come click the link: http://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/