Epic Definition: Characteristics, Examples, Development
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is an epic?
  2. Characteristics of an epic
  3. Examples of epics
  4. How epics are developed

Grasping the grandeur and drama of an epic can transport you to distant lands and times. This blog post will guide you through the fascinating world of epics, shedding light on their definition, characteristics, development, and providing you with some compelling examples. Dive in and discover the depth and richness of these impressive literary works.

What is an epic?

An epic, in its simplest terms, is a long narrative poem, usually derived from ancient oral tradition, that tells the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures, or even the history of a nation. The definition of epic might seem quite straightforward, but there's so much more to this literary genre than meets the eye.

Origins of the Epic

Epics have a long and illustrious history, with roots reaching back to ancient civilizations. These stories, initially shared orally, were later written down and have since become treasured pieces of literary heritage. Some of the oldest known epics include the Ancient Greek "Iliad" and "Odyssey", and the Mesopotamian "Epic of Gilgamesh".

Structure of an Epic

Though there is some variation, most epics share a few common structural elements. First, they often begin in medias res—that's fancy Latin for "in the middle of things". This means the story starts in the thick of the action, and then flashes back to provide necessary background. Second, epics frequently employ elevated language and style to convey the grandeur of their subject matter. Lastly, the plot of an epic revolves around a hero's journey, filled with quests, battles, and supernatural elements.

The Role of the Epic Hero

At the heart of every epic is a central figure or hero, whose courage, strength, and moral integrity are tested over the course of their journey. This hero is usually of noble birth or holds a high position in society, and their actions often determine the fate of their people or nation. Remember, though, this epic hero isn't perfect—they often have a tragic flaw, or hamartia, that leads to their downfall or a major conflict in the story.

Impact of Epics

Epics are more than just long poems—they're powerful cultural artifacts. They provide a window into the values, beliefs, and societal norms of the periods and places they originate from. In other words, understanding the definition of epic helps you understand a whole lot more about human history and culture.

Characteristics of an epic

Now that we've laid down the foundation with the definition of an epic, let's explore the main features that make an epic, well, epic. These characteristics provide a framework to help us recognize and appreciate these grand stories.

Heroic Protagonist

At the center of an epic is a hero, a figure larger than life, often with divine or noble lineage. This protagonist sets out on a daring journey, facing numerous challenges along the way. Yet, it's not just physical strength that defines these heroes—they also possess wisdom, courage, and a firm moral compass. So, next time you meet a character like this, you might be reading an epic.

Supernatural Elements

Another distinctive characteristic of an epic is the presence of supernatural elements. This could include divine intervention, mythical creatures, or magical objects. These elements contribute to the grandeur and mystery of the epic narrative, and often play significant roles in the hero's journey.

Vast Setting

The world of an epic is expansive, often spanning nations, worlds, or even the cosmos. This broad setting reflects the magnitude of the hero's journey and the high stakes involved. So, when a story takes you on an adventure across a landscape as vast as your imagination, you might be in the realm of an epic.

Elevated Language and Style

Epics aren't just told in any old way. They use a high, formal style of language, full of dramatic and descriptive phrases. This helps to highlight the importance and epic nature of the events and characters. So remember, if the language seems a bit grandiose, you're probably dealing with an epic.

Universal Themes

Finally, the themes explored in epics are often universal, dealing with concepts such as good versus evil, life and death, love and loss, and the nature of heroism. These themes resonate across cultures and time, making epics relatable and intriguing to readers everywhere.

So, those are the defining characteristics of an epic. The next time you're engrossed in a grand tale, you'll be able to spot these features and say, "Ah, that's why this feels so epic!"

Examples of epics

It's one thing to grasp the definition of an epic through its characteristics, but nothing brings clarity like real-world examples. Let's take a look at some of the most famous epics that have shaped literature and culture worldwide.

"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" by Homer

When we talk about epics, it's impossible not to mention these ancient Greek gems. Homer's "The Iliad" revolves around the last days of the Trojan War, with Achilles, its heroic protagonist, standing tall amidst the carnage. "The Odyssey," on the other hand, follows the hero Odysseus on his long, treacherous journey home from war. With the divine meddling, vast settings, and elevated language, these are textbook examples of epics.


This Old English epic poem follows the hero Beowulf as he battles the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a deadly dragon. It's a tale of courage and heroism, with a good dose of supernatural elements, making it a classic example of an epic.

"The Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri

This Italian masterpiece takes us on a journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and finally Paradise (Paradiso). It's a grand exploration of life after death, replete with Dante’s use of an elevated language and style, and universal themes of morality and redemption.

"Paradise Lost" by John Milton

This epic poem delves into the biblical tale of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. With its grand themes of good versus evil, divine intervention, and a heroic protagonist in the form of Satan, it's a prime example of the epic form in English literature.

These are just a few examples of the many epic tales out there. Each one, with its heroic protagonists, supernatural elements, grand settings, and universal themes, beautifully embodies our definition of an epic.

How epics are developed

Developing an epic, as you can probably guess from the earlier examples, is no small task. It's like building a cathedral: it takes careful planning, loads of creativity, and often a lifetime to complete. So, what are the key steps involved in the process?

Creating a hero

The first step is to create a hero. This isn't just any ordinary character, but someone larger than life, capable of deeds beyond the reach of most mortals. They might possess superhuman strength like Hercules, or unmatched wisdom like Odysseus. The key is to make them memorable and admirable, someone readers can root for.

Developing a grand setting

Next, an epic calls for a grand setting. This can span across multiple worlds or countries, or even across different realms of existence — like in Dante's "The Divine Comedy". While creating such a vast setting can be challenging, it's also an opportunity to let your imagination run wild and create worlds that captivate your readers' attention.

Introducing supernatural elements

In the world of epics, the ordinary rules of nature often don't apply. Heroes might receive assistance from gods, battle monstrous creatures, or even journey through the underworld. These supernatural elements add a layer of excitement and unpredictability to the story, keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

Choosing universal themes

Lastly, the themes of an epic are grand and universal. They might explore concepts like good versus evil, life and death, love and hate, or bravery and cowardice. These themes resonate with readers across different cultures and time periods, giving the epic a timeless appeal.

So there you have it, a brief guide to how epics are developed. While each epic is unique in its own way, they all share these common elements. And who knows? With a solid understanding of the definition of an epic, perhaps you're now ready to start creating your own!

If you enjoyed this exploration of epic storytelling and want to learn more about how to apply these characteristics to your own creative projects, consider checking out Jessy Moussallem's workshop, 'Documentary Filmmaking.' In this workshop, you'll learn how to create powerful narratives and bring epic stories to life through the medium of documentary filmmaking. Expand your storytelling skills and create your own epic tale!