I’ve been thinking about this lately. It may seem obvious or inconsequential, but all the same it’s interesting to think about. Where is fantasy stronger against other genres? Why do we choose to tell these stories at all?
Why write fantasy at all?
This is one place where fantasy is strong. You can push the limits of what is humanly possible in fantasy. Dragons? Sure. Magic swords? Sure. Exploring old folk tales and legends from real life? Yes!
And putting all that into narrative form, putting characters in who drive the story. Having characters who live in this other world unbound from the constraints of the “real world”, that’s a cornerstone of fantasy.
Fantasy asks a lot of its readers. In realism, you have to suspend your disbelief much less (in my opinion) than you do in fantasy. If you read my work, I am asking you to throw a lot more out the window than I would if I were showing you a story that fit into realism. This is a high demand, and for that reason the writer needs to pull it off well, but the pay off is huge.
I’ve heard fantasy be compared to virtual reality in this way. A reality that isn’t ours but that we can see and experience through reading and writing it. And yes, a reality that we, the readers, can take as valid. All the “could be’s” of our own world have a place here, can be explored, can be pushed so far past any recognizable sense of “reality”.
But we can still read it, love it, write it, enjoy it, and be moved by it. If a writer asked me “Is this [crazy idea] possible to write about?”, my answer is always “Yes.” without fail.
Things that are ridiculous, or even physically impossible, in the real world come alive in fantasy.
This is, in my opinion, one of the biggest things that makes fantasy a fantasy. If it’s not set in our world, than it’s some type of genre fiction and often times fantasy.
All those imaginary settings, beautiful scenery, ancient castles, impossible or improbable landscapes have a place in fantasy. I’m not saying the setting is the most important part of fantasy, but it’s huge. It’s the stage the actors play on.
The coolest part? There are no limits.
Yes, you have to have limits within the world and the setting needs to make sense in the context of the world, but it’s bound only by itself. It serves itself and is independent from anything we see as “reality”.
I love ready about crazy landscapes, huge monstrous castles, old ruins, forgotten caves and caverns, all of that. I love all of it. I love writing it, I love reading it. I love watching it come to life through characters.
It’s always fantastic. The setting is part of what makes fantasy what it is. World building is such a powerful tool and its impact on the story at large is incredible to watch.
I’ve loved fantasy for as long as I can remember. I was a kid when Lord of the Rings got popular again thanks to the movies. My dad is a big fantasy/sci-fi fan and took me to the Fellowship of the Ring movie when I was a kid. And that’s where I really came to love the genre. I can’t tell you how many hours my dad spent reading Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Ring/The Hobbit as bedtime stories for me. I even went as Galadriel for Halloween one year in a make shift white dress and painted tin foil leaves on craft wire for a crown (made by my dad. Thanks, dad!)
Also as an only child, I had only myself to hang out with on a day-to-day basis. No, I was not neglected and yes I had friends, but my parents had jobs and couldn’t always drop everything to entertain me, and my friends weren’t always available. So my parents encouraged me to play by myself and figure out how to entertain myself. And I loved it. I spent so much time in the backyard pretending I was an elf in Lothlorien or that I went to Hogwarts, or that my bedroom door was a magical portal to a magical world that was entirely my own.
Now, this was all childhood stuff, and obviously my perspective and appreciation for fantasy has matured. But when I read and write fantasy that I love, I still get that same sense of wonder.
That sense of wonder is powerful (as I’ll get into more further down). There does seem to be on artistic level some kind of drive to hear stories that we can dive into, no matter how strange or outlandish. There is a desire amongst people to explore new worlds that we will never visit in the flesh. I could be cynical and say it’s because our own lives are so mundane or our world is so depressing that we need that, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. I think we could live in a perfect world and live happy, uncomplicated lives, but still want to get lost in some kind of otherness.
I think it’s much more innocent and childlike. The desire to play, to explore. To see this thing come to life and feel like you could be there, with your favorite characters and be part of it somehow. When I was a kid in my backyard, I was an elf, not a little kid in a silly outfit. Instead of being outside in a backyard with the sound of cars in the background, I was at Hogwarts and my favorite twig was actually a wand.
I can’t speak for everyone, but that’s my connection to fantasy.
No matter how dark and brutal fantasy is, I still firmly believe it’s a genre of hope. The Lord of the Rings drives this point home. No matter what people are going through as whole, there is always hope to be found somewhere on some level.
This happens in a lot of genres, and is not exclusive to fantasy (Star Trek leans heavily on this idea), but all the same there is something really powerful in fantasy where all these great battles, huge trials and tribulations, monumental tragedies happen, but still the characters carry on with the journey. The characters in fantasy are the embodiments of hope and perseverance, no matter how they change, who they become, or what they go through.
There’s something in reading about helpless characters becoming powerful and taking charge. There’s something about having a way out, though it may be a long, hard road to get there.
Resurrections, magic, old powers, different groups uniting, keeping on the path. There’s something beautiful there that speaks to the human experience of hope and perseverance.
In theatre, we often talk about Shakespeare. Why the hell do we keep performing these plays 400+ years after they were written? Take it even further to the Greek plays and ask why the hell are we still doing Oedipus Rex over and over?
The answer: Because of humanity and the universality of the human experience.
I’ll use Hamlet as an example. Hamlet is an amazing character. He goes through it all: Loss, joy, sorrow, test after test, betrayal, and on and on. He contemplates suicide, he’s at times hopelessly lost. He turns his back on his loved ones for their own good and it all falls apart on him.
No one will ever be Hamlet. We’ll probably never be Danish princes visited by the ghost of our dead fathers who give us the task to avenge them by killing their uncles (after they married our moms). But still we love Hamlet and his story. We are moved by it. It’s because Hamlet with us shares our humanity; thoughts and experiences that unite us. I’m a firm believer that there is more that unites each person than there are differences that divide us, and stories like Hamlet are part of the reason why I believe that.
I’ll never be a noble lady in Westeros, yet I see parts of myself in Sansa Stark. I’m not a Witcher, but I see parts of myself in Geralt of Rivia. These characters with such different backgrounds in completely different realities share things with me that I can identify with. I can look at those things and say “That’s me.”
That’s where fantasy is so strong. If it was about other worlds with nothing in common to us, then we wouldn’t read it and the genre wouldn’t exist. It’s more than that. It’s about the humanity of characters. It allows us to see ourselves in elves and dwarves and sentient animals.
There are feelings and experiences that are universal to everyone: loss, betrayal, joy, passion, love, and so on. These are reflected in fantasy, inserted into new realities and made all the more powerful for it.
The beauty of humanity as a whole is that our experiences and the things that bind us together transcend our differences. They are more powerful than our differences, they make us stronger. They transcend story telling and genre as well which is why fantasy is so wonderful and powerful.
Our World in Another Lens
Now, I don’t like message fantasy. I don’t like fantasy that takes a war, conflict, political or environmental issue and repackages it, spits it into another world and boom. I think that takes away from a character driven story, which I (personally) think is a lot more interesting. There’s nothing wrong with drawing from our reality and stuff, but that shouldn’t be the preachy message in the epilogue of the tale. We fantasy writers can do better than that.
That being said, we can explore issues that have an impact on our world through fantasy. This is similar to the idea of universality, in that there are common experiences that apply. We can see the devastation of war, trauma, passion, love, joy, wonder, perseverance, loyalty, and so on through characters in fantasy. There are many times in fantasy I’ve seen a character go through something and think about how that is like our world or applies to my understanding of the world in some way.
This allows readers and writers alike to think about these issues in our world in a safe space. It’s just a story, it’s just a book. It’s more approachable and not as intimidating as it would otherwise be. We can get rid of our own personal biases and prejudices about real world issues by engaging with it through another lens. All the personal biases are moot because it’s not our world and therefore we can think and write about them with a fresh set of eyes.
It also leads to great conversation. If war is unnecessary ever why did it have to happen in Harry Potter? Voldemort had to be defeated, and there was a lot of destruction in its wake. Was it necessary? Was it not? There’s no right answer here, and that’s what I’m getting at.
Think of it like a mirror in a fun house. The ones that make you look really tall or really wide and short. You are still there, your image being reflected in that mirror, but at the same time that’s not what you look like in real life. However, it’s still you. Fantasy works like this, seeing our reality through some bent and misshapen reflections.
Fantasy lets us tackle big questions in a way that’s safe, that’s our own, that moves and sways us.
Fantasy allows us to change the rules about our own world. To throw our personal opinions out the window and create more of blank slate for us to consider and contemplate our own world and its problems.
This ties into some other things mentioned above, but I think it deserves its own spot.
Sometimes when I’m frustrated or cranky about something, I turn on Skyrim and start taking down bandits with a war hammer in the game. Sometimes I pick up a favorite book and read about my favorite characters doing awesome, badass things and feel a sense of encouragement or catharsis.
We can feel and express our own emotions in a safe and healthy way through reading and writing, and for me, fantasy in particular.
Sometimes I want to see my favorite characters beating the odds and triumphing. Sometimes my own problems don’t seem as great: If they can do it, why not me? Sometimes I’ve finished a book that had me on an emotional high for a week, nothing could bring me down from it.
Those emotional ties are powerful ones and they’re everywhere in fantasy.
Reality vs. Authenticity
I’ve heard so many writers talk about “realistic” fantasy and I hate that term. I instead prefer to use “authentic”. Fantasy is not realistic by its nature, but it must still be authentic. It must convey a truth within the falseness of this new world, with new weird things, things that are in their essence “unrealistic”.
Authenticity is more powerful than the “realistic” in this way. The beauty of fantasy here is that I can write you this crazy world, with magic, with almost nothing in its setting resembling the real world and still make it moving and at its core authentic.
A world with limited gravity, talking animals, no humans, magic, and so on can still be authentic.
The brilliance here is that whatever we perceive as reality is skewed, leading to all kinds of new questions on the nature of what is human and what is real or not real. Shattering our perceived frameworks and creating a new reality is just as authentic as the one you live in. The unrecognizable is just as real for us as anything else.
Writers across the board of genres and through time have been able to prove that reality is absurd, twisted, skewed, or otherwise a matter of perception. Fantasy can take us even further.
That sounds really simple, but if you think about it, it’s huge. Like you’ve cracked some kind of code. There is so much freedom in shattering our frameworks and notions that it’s staggering.
Fantasy is Closer to Us Than We Might Think
Think of the last time you were in the woods and heard a weird noise. The logical part of you probably knew it was a bird or a critter stepping on a twig. But maybe, just maybe, there was a part of you that thought of something less logical.
Think of the last time something went bump in the night as you were trying to fall asleep. Logical you knew it was probably your cat walking around or the house shifting slightly in the walls. But again, maybe there was a part of you that went back to you childhood fears of the dark and thought of ghosts or monsters.
It doesn’t always have to be fear, but the fantastic and the legendary is all around us. Old mysterious, old stories, old legends, old superstitions surrounding us. If you make it to a top of a mountain, you’ll live a hundred years. Making a wish on a birthday candle. It goes on.
The fantastic, the daydreams, the superstitions and mysteries are a part of our lives just as much as our daily commutes and mundane responsibilities are. We just might not think about their nature as often.
And they all have a place in fantasy writing. Our imaginations are far more alive and well than we think they are.
One of life’s big questions since humans became sentient somewhere along our evolutionary path is if life even means anything. The question has been asked and answered over and over: “Yes.”, “No.”, “It is what you make it”, “There’s no point in asking it all.”, and so on.
But with all of our perceptions of reality stripped away and our disbelief firmly suspended, we can tackle some of these questions. What does it mean to be a hero? A villain? Where do the lines blur? What is morally good? What is evil? Do these things even exist as we see them?
In fantasy, we have a box to throw this all in, shake it up, and see what comes out. What are our values? Why? What is up, what is down? Where are our definitions right or wrong about these things?
What really makes us tick?
In such a limitless, fantastic space that we write in, it’s almost a crime not to address these things in some way.
What If? and Wonder
Again, so simple, yet so powerful.
What if there were dragons? What if there was magic? What if there were all those things we love about fantasy?
Unconstrained by realism, we get answers to these questions. The beauty of it?: There’s no right answer. We get infinite answers to these questions, in infinite worlds, and it’s incredible.
The freedom to ask “What if?” is unparalleled in fantasy, in my opinion. Any variant of the question yields an infinite variety of answers.
It’s like a huge thought experiment and the key to this is the potential of it. In this way, art can be a science (I’ve actually presented academically on art as a science and I think it’s a key to understanding art as a whole, but that’s another thing for another day.) The potential is limitless.
The answers to the “What if?” question breed so many answers of wonder. Each different from the other. People are always seeking out wonder whether through travel, art, skydiving, etc. Writing is one way to that and fantasy is here to help.
I feel wonder when I see things that are bigger than myself. A large cathedral with a high ceiling or swimming in a vast body of water, or on a boat going fast and feeling the spray and the wind. I feel wonder when I read and when I write.
Wonder is something that makes our hearts beat faster, that bring tears to our eyes, that make us want to relive that feeling over and over. It’s a sort of ecstasy. And there’s so much room for it in fantasy.
You as the writer make the rules. You set the stage. You ask the question. And you provide the answer. Go big, make wonder.
Whatever language it is: English, German, Chinese, Arabic, all over the world, language comes alive in writing.
But I am very partial to language in fantasy.
Fantastic words talking about fantastic things. Sentences that would never exist in our day to day conversations fit and are made real. All those beautiful words I love, have a perfect home here and I love using them.
It’s Fucking Fun
World building, character creation, cultures, races, factions, creatures, anything and everything.
It’s so much fun to do. It’s so fun reading it and writing it. Watching it come to life into something moving and powerful. It’s brilliant and it’s the gem of genre fiction’s crown.
Obviously any writing is fun, but I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun writing in other genres as I have in fantasy. This isn’t universal as I know many writers who would hate writing fantasy, but all the same, for those of us that do love fantasy, this is maybe the primary motivator:
It’s fun to write and it’s fun to read.
Sometimes the simplest answers, are the best ones.