What makes sword and sorcery viewed in such a manner? Why is it often seen as the lesser of the fantasy sub genres?
I think there are a few reasons why sword and sorcery has progressed into the role it has in fantasy and maybe by realizing this, and adjusting to reader desires, it will be become more prevalent in the future. Here are some thoughts why sword and sorcery may be sidekick rather than the hero when it comes to fantasy fiction.
1. Length - Robert E. Howard the inventor of Conan and the father of Sword and Sorcery published his works in the pulp era. Magazines were plentiful and short stories were a major source of entertainment. Sword and sorcery stories were born during this period. Their length and style of plot based fiction was perfect for shorter works. Readers didn’t mind reading short stories. Howard only wrote one Conan story that was of novel length. That fact never hindered the stories that were published or peoples interest in reading Howard’s work.
Today, readers want to invest in multi-book worlds. They want massive, sprawling trilogies, or ten book long series. They don’t want shorter works because they end too soon, leaving them to hunt for something else to read.
Sword and sorcery is a plot driven story type focused usually on a single character’s personal problems. It just doesn’t have a need to span multiple volumes.
Solution: Write single volume tales featuring one particular character. Character X and the Murdering Mummy … Character X and the Badlands Pirate … Character X and the Slithering Sorcerer.
2. Clones - Howard and Tolkien are both well known and successful fantasy writers. Success breeds mimicry. But in the case of sword and sorcery versus epic fantasy, the things people copied from the two masters are completely different.
From Tolkien, people copied his world and the types of people that populated it, the epic size of the tale, and the moral certainty of good versus evil.
From Howard, they tried to capture his writing style.
So, in the case of Tolkien you end up with: Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, trilogies or longer novelizations, good versus evil, Halflings, the artifact hunt/quest, and the reborn dark lord from 1,000 years in the past.
Some of those things are what people enjoy the most—long stories, epic sized tales, good heroes battling evil.
But, part of what weakened sword and sorcery as a genre is what writers inspired by Howard tried to emulate—his voice. Voice can be one of the most important things a writer brings to their work, but when they try to copy someone else’s voice—it just doesn’t ring true. It comes off sounding fake or false (and they never do it as good as the original).
Solution: Simple. Write using your own voice.
3. Hack-and-Slash (and the movie experience) - This may be one of the greatest obstacles to sword and sorcery’s success. Combat scenes are difficult to do well, even in plot focused works.
But even in plot focused works—the reader needs something more than hack and slash—they still need story and characterization.
I think part of the reason the last Conan movie failed—is because they thought all they needed to show was Conan in an action scene to act as all the characterization they needed.
Action scene, followed by another action scene, followed by another action scene, followed by cheesy banter, followed by, yep, you guessed it—another action scene.
The reason so many sword and sorcery movies failed—is because they were made as only plot scene with nothing but action and no character development.
Solution: Give readers a character that has emotional depth. Conan, had depth. He wasn’t just a stupid hack and slash barbarian.
4. Grey characters and anti-heroes — Most readers want to read about the noble knight in shining armor—the unvarnished hero. They want to read about good versus evil. Sword and sorcery doesn’t necessarily provide that. It has shades of grey and darkness, it’s the antithesis of epic fantasy.
George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” makes use of grey characters. But Martin, doesn’t just stop at making a character grey. He shows their good side. He shows their bad side. He shows how they struggle between the two and how people interact with that character based on the facet that other’s have seen. Jaime Lannister isn’t just a kingslayer—he’s a hero in his own right. The Hound isn’t just some non-feeling, badass thug. He has fears and emotions.
Solution: Make your characters grey or an anti-hero if desired. But, also show the other aspects of their personality, make them feel so that they can bring something to the reader more than just another hack-and-slash adventure.
To wrap it up, I would like to hear from you. What are some of the things you think sword and sorcery needs to improve upon to become more popular in the genre where epic fantasy reigns supreme?