In Defense of Fantasy

fantasy landscape

fantasy landscape (Photo credit: sekundo)

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

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11 Comments

  1. Some readers complain they have to ‘suspend belief’ in a certain book, and thus they rate it negatively. I don’t really get that, because to me, the suspension of belief is what fiction is all about. Sure, the author has to make it SEEM real to the reader (as you point out: “Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events”), but I’m fine with reading something far-fetched as long as it makes sense in the context of the book. I recently read “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” There are some fantasy elements to this otherwise literary novel, and because of that, many readers found it too unbelievable. I thought it was masterfully written, and I had no trouble getting into its story line. I guess it’s a good thing readers have such diverse interests. That means there’s an audience for every author (hopefully…).

    Reply
    • I agree that internal consistency is very important and I also will gladly suspend my disbelief to enjoy a well put together story. I’m sure people will always differ in their tastes in genres and have different places where they’ll draw the line when it comes to deviations from “reality.” I hope that, as you say, this means that everyone will find their audience.

      I should look at “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.” You’ve peaked my interest.

      Reply
  2. I, too, lament the “genre boxes” that keep readers away from what they otherwise might enjoy. I try to get out of them myself, both as a reader and writer, but alas, anytime there is marketing and selling involved, people want boxes. I wrote about my own struggles with genre not long ago on my blog (http://audreykalman.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/a-storyteller-in-search-of-a-genre) where I came to the conclusion that what I really am is a storyteller.

    Reply
  3. Can I say WOW without sounding like a complete idiot? LOL. We found your blog by way of mutual blogging friend, Carrie Rubin, who I see right above us now. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I’m in a mother/daughter writing duo & we write Fiction. We do like to mesh our fiction with a harsh dose of reality. But as you very well pointed out, readers need that reality & humaness if you will to be able to stay afloat with the creatures imagined & the boundaryless worlds that are created from fiction. My affair started early with fiction finding my place & love for names such as C.S. Lewis & J.R.R, Tolkien but I would also read books such as On The Banks of Plum Creek. It’s what makes the literary world so amazing. I could relate to Laura Ingalls Wilder & her tale of life on a prarie & the dangers of the frontier & being poor but loved while still believing the entrance to Narnia could very well be hidden in the closet awaiting the right child to take that first step. I love what you’ve done here Audrey & plan on sharing this with as many that will listen as I feel it’s brilliantly explained and a necessary message!! We look forward to visiting your blog & reading more of your brilliant posts!! Oh…Happy Holidays!! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Fantasy has a hard row to hoe after Tolkien (and C.S. Lewis) set such a high bar. The genre per se really didn’t exist before them, and many of the early writers who followed them didn’t understand what had caught the audience’s attention. The characters and their story must still be the focus, even on distant, magical, and fantastical worlds. Readers must be able to relate to the characters, be they elves, hobbits, or whatever. And the internal logic of the fantasy (or sci-fi) world must be consistent and inviolate, or readers will turn away. This is something that I am really trying to get right in my sci-fi story!

    Reply
    • All very true, JM. I think you’ve got am excellent handle on what you’re doing. A lot of genre fiction tends to focus too much on the genre’s common “tropes” and much-overworked formulas. You always, always need good storytelling – which involves all that you just said.

      Reply
  5. You opened my mind about fantasy. 🙂

    Reply

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