Is portal fantasy dead? I don’t know. My opinion is that you can write anything, even portal fantasy, and it can be great so long as it’s executed well.
So let’s talk about the pros and cons of portal fantasy, what we should focus on and what we shouldn’t.
What Even is “Portal Fantasy”?
Basically, what I consider portal fantasy is when a character goes through some kind of magical/scientific portal that puts them into another world that is not our own.
- Chronicles of Narnia
- The Wizard of Oz
- Alice in Wonderland
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
- Outlander (kinda).
And many more.
What Makes Portal Fantasy “Bad”?
Pretty much anything that can make any literary work “bad”. The problem becomes when portal fantasy becomes the author’s wish fulfillment, bad fan fiction, or relies heavily on tropes and cliches that aren’t executed well.
For example: Teenage girl is lonely and sad with her boring life in the 21st century. She goes exploring in the back woods one day and finds a cave. She comes out the other end of the cave in a new world. She is immediately in danger, but a handsome knight from FantasyLand saves her and she is taken to the King’s court. They are at first suspicious but she has profound knowledge, and then someone remembers some ancient prophecy that must obviously be about her. She eventually saves the world from the Big Bad, marries the handsome knight, and they live happily ever after. OR She saves the world and then decides to go home.
Can even this work? Yeah. But that would heavily depend on your target audience and your execution. The problem is that a lot of this stuff makes readers groan and just oozes of wish fulfillment. Plot holes are rampant. It can become a mess.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Portal Fantasy Has Just as Many Options as Any Other
Portal fantasy can be anything. In Outlander the protagonist is sorta teleported via ancient Scottish magic back in time. The standing stones are technically a portal, and although she goes back in time to what is still the “real world”, the whole Scottish magic thing, doesn’t really exist.
Even Harry Potter is portal fantasy. A secret, alternative, reality that exists in our world, but apart from it. Harry becomes a part of this world when in the first book.
So portal fantasy isn’t dependent on transporting a character from our world to FantasyLand. It can be anything. Hell, someone from FantasyLand can be teleported to our world if you want. You can throw in some SciFi “alternate dimensions” in there if you want and it works. It’s really your oyster.
Don’t let anything stop you from the story that needs to be written.
Everyone pursuing any creative undertaking must answer this question. I don’t care what the answer is, but it must have an answer.
Why must this character be transported to FantasyLand? Why today? Why tell this story now?
“Because it’s fun” might be valid enough. How is this character going to grow and why do they need to grow by inserting them into another world? Answer those as well as you can.
Worldbuilding Matters that Much More
Worldbuilding is so important to any fantasy story for obvious reasons. However, if you’re writing a portal fantasy, it becomes that much more important, especially if your portal fantasy relies on someone from the modern day being teleported.
You will eventually (probably) have to establish how this portal works, you will need to establish this world and all of its trappings, you will need to explain a bunch of stuff.
In non-portal fantasy, things like maps, traditions, language, culture, location, etc. don’t need to be thought about too much by the characters because it’s all familiar to them. It’s more work to make it authentic when the protagonist is completely unaware of everything about this world.
You don’t even need to do this early on, but you will eventually. Readers are smart. They’ll know that the character is in a strange new place and don’t need the entire history of that world explained to them right off the bat. However, it will need to be as the story progresses and the plot thickens.
A Lot Will Depend on Your Audience
A 15 year old protagonist from the “real world” saving FantasyLand? Sure, but it’s probably YA, and if that’s your intention, go for it.
I’m the first person to stand up for tropes and cliches, but not all of them are the strongest choice all the time.
We’ll use Harry Potter as an example (though Narnia is a good one too). Harry was the chosen one in his story, but remember the books were aimed at kids, and got darker as they went along. There was nothing too special about Harry before Voldemort showed up when he was an infant. In fact, the whole portal thing is switched up in that Harry truly did belong in the wizarding world (by nature of being a wizard) and he was “returning” to that world in the first book.
So the whole chosen one worked in Harry Potter, but it won’t always work in other stories. This one seems to be the biggest culprit in portal fantasy, so I’d either find ways to avoid it or rethink it altogether, if you can.
Again, this is fantasy, so I’m going to avoid the word “realistic” and instead use “authentic.”
If Protagonist McGee finds themselves in a new/strange world, there are a lot of practical things that need to be dealt with. They won’t know where they are, they won’t know anyone, and they won’t be able to speak the language(s).
I mean, is it authentic to have this world that is completely separated from our reality to have the same languages? Probably not, and you’d have to justify it if you did it.
The language thing is huge. One of the biggest mistakes of portal fantasy is having the character magically be able to understand what everyone is saying in this world and vice versa. Yes, it’s less convenient, but there’s an opportunity there. There’s an immediate obstacle which lends itself immediately to a conflict, which is a GOOD thing.
I mean, if an English speaker somehow was dropped into a part of the world where English isn’t spoken like at all, that’s the reality of the situation. The same goes for portal fantasy (unless your character is being teleported back in time to a place/time where they can get away speaking their native tongue, or you explain it somehow like Quantum Leap.)
This language barrier also allows for more characterization. Your character is going to have to rely on body language, gestures, and other things to communicate. They’re going to notice more things, they’re going to have different emotions about the whole thing.
Don’t ignore the initial language barrier, embrace it.
To Go Home, or Not to Go Home
I traveled a bit over the summer. Within a couple days, the newness wore off and I really missed home, my family, and friends. “My boyfriend would love this! I wish he was here.” or “This weather sucks. I miss the weather back home.” I could have kissed the ground when I got off the plane.
Not everyone is like that, but think about it. Depending on who your character is, will they really want to stay in FantasyLand? The opposite poses the same problem. If a character had nothing to live for, no one they loved, etc. in their homeland, would they really be desperate to return to it?
Either way, you have to give them a damn good reason why.
When I first saw Wizard of Oz as a kid, I had this problem. Why would she want to go back to Kansas after being in this wonderful world? It made sense later that it was all a sort of dream, and Dorothy was like 10, though. Still, the idea stands.
Hell, you can turn this on its head. Maybe there is no possible way for the character to go back to their home-world. Maybe it was a once every 10 million years, freak incident and it’s impossible. Would your character mourn this? Would they mourn the option being taken from them? How would they handle having to start completely over in this new place?
Think creatively here. Remember, you have so many options that are all valid.
Your Character is (Probably) an Immediate Threat
Imagine if someone who looked really strange, spoke a language not spoken on Earth, dressed strangely, etc. randomly showed up. They have no identification, no history, no relations to claim, and no knowledge of our world whatsoever.
Aliens, am I right?
Anyway, the point is that if we could somehow prove that this visitor to our world wasn’t faking it (for the sake of argument) how would the world react? There would undoubtedly be some people who think it’s fascinating and cool, but there would be many others who would be threatened and terrified that this was proved possible.
What would it mean for science? National security? Government secrets? Threats to our world? etc. There are so many that would interpret it as a threat on instinct because its unfamiliar.
The same would likely go in your portal fantasy. Even if your character is unarmed, not intimidating, in their underwear, etc. The fact that this is a very weird anomaly will be perceived as a threat in a lot of eyes.
Don’t minimize it. Force your character to have to prove their case and prove (to the best of their ability) what happened, and to gain trust/support.
Your Character Will Have to do a Lot of Work
Not everyone should rush to take care of your character and help them. There will, in all likelihood, be more to it than that.
Your character is the invader. Not everyone is going to immediately come around to their way of thinking or think like them right away.
Your character will have to learn the language, the culture, the mannerisms, their place in society (that depends, obviously), the dress, the history, current events, and so on.
They aren’t going to gain respect and support from everyone unless they work for it, and it will be a lot of work. I argue this is a good thing. Again, immediate obstacles are set up and your character will have to make choices about how they act.
By making this too easy, like having everyone like your character right away, you rob yourself of using that as a chance to boost conflict and complexity in really rich ways.
The People of FantasyLand Are Not Dumb
Another thing I see a lot is that the protagonist from our world goes to FantasyLand with primitive technology, but the protagonist can use their knowledge of modern science, medicine, math, etc. to teach FantasyLand all these rad new things.
Is there anything wrong with that? No. But at the same time, would our science even be useful in a completely new world? I don’t know, that’s for you to decide.
The problem comes in when the protagonist becomes a super genius by default. We’d all be geniuses if we went back in time and whispered in the ear of philosophers, scientists, and government officials from hundreds/thousands of years ago, but also we should remember that people weren’t dumb. Without the stuff they did, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
So yes, your character can propose that maybe there’d be less plagues if the royal city had a proper sanitation system, but don’t make it easy. Remember the fact that your character is, at least initially, completely ignorant of everything about this world and are sort of “dumb” about it than the other characters.
Making your character a super genius by them having basic knowledge from our world is cheap. It makes every other character look dumb. It makes this new world stale and like a cardboard cutout. There’s a funny scene in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (the movie) where the little girl (who traveled to Camelot) takes polaroids of King Arthur, which makes them freak out about their “souls being trapped in flatness!” There’s also a scene in the Outlander TV show where the protagonist tells her husband from the past how there are metal tubes with wings that can fly in the air.
These are used for humor. None of these characters are “dumb”, they just don’t have that technology or don’t know. Knowing these things by having been exposed to them doesn’t make your character a genius. It’s general knowledge in our world.
If you have these things, use them sparingly and for a reason. They shouldn’t be your character’s only ace in the hole.
Keep the Conflict in Mind
If your characters goes to FantasyLand and there are no conflicts, everyone loves them, and all is at peace in this world, it will make for a boring story.
The history of FantasyLand didn’t begin when your character stepped foot in it (although someone should write that, that’d be kind of cool). So it will have its own stuff going on.
That usually means your protagonist saves the day at the end by nature of being the hero of legend or something. They can be instrumental, but do they need to be the most important person ever? I don’t know, answer that yourself.
The only conflict shouldn’t be bent on your character, there should be more going on that can involve your character, but may not completely depend on them.
Now, you can do other things here. Maybe, since your character brings foreign bacteria that are relatively harmless in our world, they accidentally bring a plague by nature of coming to FantasyLand. Now that’d be interesting to see. Maybe they teleported to a border and two countries have to have a fight over who has “ownership” of the destined hero.
For example in Outlander, the protagonist goes back 200 years or so in Scotland where Scotland and England are warring. Though she becomes involved in the conflict, the conflict existed long before she showed up. She also has the burden of knowing how history plays out.
So have some other conflicts that have nothing to do with your character. It can be anything, but complicate it and make it authentic.
Be Clear on What the Portal is
Your characters don’t have to know how it works right off the bat, but you, the writer, should. It’ll keep you from accidentally breaking your own rules.
Is it a one way portal? Is it magical or scientific or both? Does it always work the same way? Was the character “chosen”? Did someone conjure them to come out of it? Can it be controlled?
Like I said, the options are yours, but as the story goes on, allow your characters to discover or investigate the nature of the portal, and be clear for yourself about what it is and what it does.
Portal fantasies are cool and just with anything, execute them well. Set up your rules, write authentically, and don’t forget the practicalities.
Write a scene or story that’s portal fantasy.
- Who is teleporting to where and from where?
- What is their home-world like?
- What is this new world like?
- Who finds them, if they are found?
- How do they try to communicate with each other?
- What does the character see, hear, smell, feel, etc. that is completely unfamiliar and different from their home-world?