Why fantasy?

Why Fantasy?

I have, from a very early age, found myself drawn to ‘genre’ fiction. Even within the ‘classics’ I prefer to find elements of fantasy or crime or at the very least, romance. For example, Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest are my favourites of Shakespeare’s plays.

I like the way that this kind of fiction enables us to explore the human condition without any heavy preaching or moralising and lets us approach otherwise taboo subjects without placing them in recognisable places or communities. Genre fiction at its best shines a spotlight on issues like race, sex, class, insanity, bullying, religion, political power and other issues whilst superficially telling an exciting tale about alien planets, fantasy creatures, the solving of crime, the sweetness (or tragedy) of romance or the fascination of history. It is well placed to alter perceptions and change attitudes. As an adult I am unlikely to be swayed by it and hope that I have already opened my eyes to many of the messages contained in fiction, but as a teenager I found myself able to question many things I had been taught because the books I read posed questions. I found, and still find this valuable.

When I read what is sometimes known as mainstream fiction or even litfic, I often find myself admiring the execution but bored by the content. In fiction, I want excitement, stories that have me reading till late at night to find out what happens, or tales that set fire to my imagination. I do not particularly want to read about ordinary people living ordinary lives, however well described. In short, I require fiction to provide a kind of escapism, not from anything but to unknown worlds in my head. This applies to films as well as books.

There is a school of thought that tells writers to write what they know. Taken literally that advice would effectively rid the world of all speculative fiction and a great deal of crime/thriller fiction. It would also do away with books told from the point of view of animals, such as Watership Down, and would mean authors could only write about their own gender in stories set in their own home towns. So it cannot be taken literally, though I have known a friend given this advice very firmly on a recent writing course. (She was writing a crime story with a male hero.) However, it does help to be familiar with any genre – or location – before embarking on writing in it, and that means reading a great deal, and analysing what is read.

This is where reading genre fiction diverges sharply, for me, from reading mainstream fiction. Instead of being bored by the content I am enthralled, but instead of admiring the execution (almost a ‘given’ with mainstream fiction) I find myself being extremely critical and judging what I read by a host of criteria. I am far more likely to find a book completely wonderful or totally dire and I could go on at length on what I find good and bad in different genres.

So when I came to wanting to write myself, I naturally wanted to write in one of my favourite genres.

Sci-fi is out. I tried a couple of short stories and failed miserably. My science education was simply not good enough and whilst research can substitute for poor early learning the research would be huge and not particularly interesting, for me, in itself. To have to understand physics in order to write convincingly about space travel would not appeal to me. I can allow myself to write fanfic in sci-fi fandoms, utilising other people’s research to underpin stories with no intent to publish, to entertain myself and my friends. But original sci-fi: no.

Crime is a possibility but again, a lot of research is needed. Police and other agencies need to be presented convincingly and the research needed would again be vast and uninteresting. I have to admit that cop shows are another fanfic favourite, for writing as well as reading, and again I let the originals provide adequate background for procedural aspects.

The same thing applies to historical fiction. Although good writers can sometimes keep me reading and loving their work, I can only admire their meticulous research and could never emulate them. I read non-fiction history as well as fiction but I skip from era to era and never get sufficiently invested in any particular period to know it in depth.

I am not sufficiently interested in ordinary romance, set in modern times, to write it although I love Jane Austen and other romantic ‘classics’. I tend to get bored at quite an early point in the relationship and could not see myself with the enthusiasm to write a whole novel. I mostly dislike horror and am not usually too keen on supernatural beings such as vampires who interact with humans.

Fantasy is a different matter. I am wholly engaged in the fantasy worlds I read about, and in the ones that then spring to my own mind. I continue to live in the worlds I have read about and I want to share my worlds with other people. It is perhaps strange to say that the research needed never seems like work. Make no mistake, fantasy needs research. Names, physical characteristics of people, animals and plants, weather systems, planets, architectural styles – they all have to be written in such a way that readers will suspend disbelief and that means a lot of underlying work. It is no good having daffodils in a tropical jungle or winged animals that are too heavy to fly. Those are obvious errors but they exemplify the way the writer needs to build a fantasy world adequately and with credible detail. This is where I do write what I know. I use settings I know well, repopulate them with my own creations, tweak the flowers and animals, and make subtle alterations to the road systems and the houses. In a sense, whenever I am out and about, or travelling, I am observing and doing ‘field’ research.

Once I have a ‘world’, I can use it to tell a story that appeals to me. I enjoy romance and crime, and to some extent I tend to put both those into my stories. I have an elf detective, a fae family with assorted love dramas, a prince solving a mystery surrounding unicorns, and shorter tales that involve murder, theft, and betrayal. A constantly recurring theme in my writing is culture clash – between countries, between classes, between species, between the adherents of beliefs. It’s something I have researched and dealt with on a professional basis in my career and I suppose it is close to my heart – at any rate, I seem to write about it, even when I am ostensibly writing about elves or unicorns.

Within all speculative fiction there is the possibility of asking ‘what if?’  What would happen if societies did or did not behave in certain ways? Not just individuals, but nations, religions, whole swathes of people. How would these people react if something different was dropped into their midst? That possibility is what sparks my imagination and then the characters come along to show me how the answers would play out in individual lives.

Fantasy enables me to ask and answer questions about social issues. It also enables me to build worlds that fascinate me and people them with characters who interest me. It satisfies deep needs and at the same time is fun. This is true both for what I read and for what I write.

How do you feel about fantasy? Do you enjoy it? Does it make a difference to your opinions about anything? And how about genre fiction in general? What are your thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Why fantasy?

  1. I must admit I share most of these views, especially I require fiction to provide a kind of escapism, not from anything but to unknown worlds in my head, and that about spotlight on many issues. Deeming mainstream the ‘higher art’ is a sort of snobbery. On the other hand, there’s no distinct line between genre fiction and mainstream. Or rather – it’s easy to pick examples of genres, but I’m not sure if it’s possible at all – to find a story without a smallest trace of some genre, especially if we agree that ‘biography’, or ‘roman-fleuve’, or ‘portrait of the epoch/place/society’ are specific genres too.

    I’ve noticed that I’m rarely interested in genres in their purest, but mixes tend to spark my curiosity. I avoid romance as the genre, but usually I’m happy with romances being secondary threads in otherwise non-romance stories. I like genres used in less threadbare ways. Politics in the ancient Rome? Yawn… A crime story in the ancient Rome? Oh, sounds tempting! War between dwarves and elves? Ugh… A dwarf joining the elven army? I’m in! (Yep, I’m always hungry for culture clashes too!)

    I don’t favour nor reject fantasy, just a genre as many others. All in all, my choices are based more on the author’s style and passing whims than permanent devotion to any genre in particular. Not to mention that half of my readings are non-fiction…

    • I suppose a lot of ‘litfic’ would like to think it isn’t in any kind of genre but I agree that often it is. However, there are a lot of novels in England – especially the ones that seem to be shortlisted for literary prizes – that simply describe types of society and the behaviours in those societies. I frequently find them boring though I can appreciate the writing styles etc. I prefer more *story*!

      I love crime stories set in other periods such as ancient Rome and I would enjoy a dwarf in an elven army. I really do crave excitement in fiction, though not necessarily war or violence.

      Possibly about half my reading is non-fiction. But that’s in terms of time rather than number of books because so often a non-fiction book is long and dense and I turn to a number of shorter fiction books for light relief. Of course, I also read a great deal of fanfic.

      I think maybe fantasy is a term that covers a number of sub-genres. Your favourite Pirates of the Caribbean is essentially fantasy, after all. And I don’t read only fantasy by any means. But when it comes to writing as opposed to reading, I think that’s where my strengths lie.

  2. I love fantasy – both reading it and writing it. Currently Game of Thrones is enchanting me and making me despair of ever writing anything as good. I love to escape to my fantasy universe, where anything is possible as long as I can explain it. I can incorporate ideas or references from other fiction or real life – I love it when I recognise those sorts of things in other work and hope my readers will feel the same. It can be as simple as naming a special place in my multiiverse as a real place spelt backwards or it can be an obscure reference to ancient myths and legends. I love sword & sorcery and dwarves & elves. (I had a dwarf and elf marry in my multiverse – any interest ?) Even though anything is possible, I agree that a lot of research is required.

    • I adore Game of Thrones – reading it is like attending a master class except that I get so lost in the world he builds that I have to go back later if I want to analyse the techniques. I’m about to start watching the DVD of the TV version into which Martin (who is also, of course, a great screen writer) had a lot of input and I’m told it’s good.

      In my fae stories I like to reference or parallel things, some obscure and some not, particularly traditional fairytale themes. In my elf detective series I try very hard not to use any ‘real’ references because the whole thing is set on a different world. I expect readers to use their own knowledge of e.g. tropical forests if I’m describing something of the kind but I don’t use individual plants or names that refer to earth ones.

      I have, over the years, had a great deal of pleasure from sword and sorcery but find myself now preferring dwarves and elves. Maybe you can explain the use of & to me? I’ve seen it used quite a lot recently and have tried investigating but am not much wiser about the correct usage!!

  3. Um the ampersand. I used it without thinking. Its usage is very much reduced these days, I think except in company names – Matthew & Son and book titles/references etc. In my family history research, I have found it much more widely used on birth/death certificates etc in the 19th century.

    Wiki says

    The word ampersand is a conflation of the phrase “and per se and”, meaning “and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and”.[1] Traditionally, in English-speaking schools when reciting the alphabet, any letter that could also be used as a word in itself (“A”, “I”, and, at one point, “O”) was preceded by the Latin expression per se (Latin for “by itself”). Also, it was common practice to add at the end of the alphabet the “&” sign as the 27th letter, pronounced and. Thus, the recitation of the alphabet would end in: “X, Y, Z and per se and”. This last phrase was routinely slurred to “ampersand” and the term crept into common English usage by around 1837.[2][3]
    Through popular etymology, it has been falsely claimed that André-Marie Ampère used the symbol in his widely read publications, and that people began calling the new shape “Ampère’s and”.[4]

    Scribe Consulting says

    The ampersand (&) is an often over-used abbreviation for the word and. Its use should be limited to a few situations.

    We use an ampersand:

    in certain company names; e.g. Smith & Jones Consulting;
    if space is very limited; e.g. in a table with a lot of text;
    when artistic considerations dictate; e.g. a logo; and
    in some academic references; e.g. (Grant & Smith, 1998).
    Do not use an ampersand in general writing simply to abbreviate the word and. For example, we write:

    We need to reorder toner cartridges and paper.


    We need to reorder toner cartridges & paper.

    So my usage was incorrect.

    • Well yes – I know the ampersand symbol. It’s on my keyboard and on shop titles, and that kind of thing. But recently I’ve been seeing more of the longer version that you used – not just *&* but *&* and I have to say that has confused me! All incidences have been non-Brit and *possibly *Australian. I wondered if there was a new idiom I was missing! To use it as a condensed form of ‘and’ seems totally contrary (five symbols instead of three) so maybe there’s something else? *g*

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