(Ah, Where Fantasy and Psychology meet!)
I talked to a woman yesterday who had an interest in what I did in my free time, while not at work. I told her I wrote fantasy novels, and she instantly smiled a matronly smile and asked what kind of fantasy. Choosing to talk about the latest WiP, I told her it was High Fantasy, where a bunch of people go on a journey. As an afterthought, I added it was similar in style to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, though not so descriptive.
She sighed. “Ah. Do you write anything else? I’m not much of a fan of Tolkien’s work.”
I must start off by explaining the difference between fantasy and science fiction. While you’d think one uses magic and the other uses science, that’s not always the case, though “magic” might be a theme in a scifi novel and science might be the preferred skill of a race in a fantasy novel. Good fantasy focuses on the individual, on the psychological, and on the expansive nature of the human condition, while good science fiction focuses on the society, the culture, the history, as a point of conflict. Usually. One of the big hitters of fantasy is currently Martin’s Game of Thrones. I’m using this as an example because this series bends my definition a little, and when I wrote the previous sentence, I asked my self, “What about…”
Tolkien’s LOTR is all about his take on war while simultaneously creating races that speak his created languages. It is broad-reaching, overarching, complex and societal. Yet it’s more about the journey of a group of people to throw a ring into a volcano. In my opinion. You are certainly free to disagree.
What would you call any zombie book ever written? The best of which I’d refer to Max Brooks‘ World War Z. Most people would posit it’s fantasy due to the (currently) inconceivable nature of the thing. I am inclined to say, and probably always believe, zombie literature is science fiction. What was the first zombie, nay, the first work of science fiction we have today? Frankenstein’s Monster. The first fantasy goes aaaaaall the way back to Beowulf. Fantasy’s been around a lot longer than science fiction. Why? Well, science wasn’t always “science.” It was superstition, then spirituality, then religion, then art, then science (I’m exaggerating a lot here).
I don’t just write High Fantasy. In fact, Nautilus is the first HF I’ve written since early college. It’s usually not my bag, but a recent blooming of the genre by several fresh writers inspired me, most notably Rothfuss and Pollock and actually, the ending of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series also plays a small part. That’s not the point.
While everyone has their opinion about things–I’m not sure what I could send that woman that she’d like, now that I know she’s not a fan of High Fantasy. Modern Fantasy? Thriller? Epic Literature?
There are a majority of people who don’t enjoy fantasy writing. And that’s cool. I respect it. We all have our preferred genres of writing–if we even enjoy reading at all. But why is fantasy MY bag? Why is it MY thing? And why do I believe everyone in the world should give it a chance? Several chances?
Like all smart writing, the smart fantasy novel can be brilliant. There’s no one way to write a fantasy novel, despite what you might think. Edgar Allan Poe wrote fantasy. And so does Anne Rice, Tolkien, George R. R. Martin (whose name synergy isn’t an accident. By using this construction, it rings with Tolkien’s name. Brilliant), Jim Butcher, and Dan Simmons. The particular genres for fantasy are as far-reaching as rewriting history (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
I’ll start with the Cons of fantasy, or at least what I’ve heard others say. If you have a few that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to tell me about them. I’m a professional, and I’d love the input.
- Too detached from the real world. “Not real enough.”
- Too long a read. I’m a casual reader but don’t have the time to dedicate.
- Difficult to connect with any character, regardless of perspective. Then they just die anyway.
- Too much fluff. Not enough science/logic.
- Magic is used as a plot device and also used to fill in weak storytelling. Every time.
- Straight-up boring. Why do I care about some midget with a ring? Who cares about magic missiles?
- Too many options. I can’t pick one, because they all look the same!
I hear you. Those are all valid reasons. While I’d say half of those would apply to genre-specific novels in general, it might be difficult to find the right type of fantasy for you. It’s a matter of taste, usually, and unfortunately, like romance novels and in the late ’80’s, horror novels, the market is saturated with mediocre-to-terrible published writing. Who knows? My book might be added to that list, if you were to read it. But that isn’t to say you can’t find what you’re looking for in a great book. I’ll go through these piece by piece, and offer advice to each one in turn.
1. Some fantasy is. There’s fantasy that even I don’t like, as a sub genre. In fact, truth-be-told, it’s difficult for me to get into most fantasy. Why? Not real enough for me. Teleporting, tiger-in-a-rock summoning, fireball-throwing fantasy is rough for me, because most writers inundate and overwhelm. They take a sledgehammer to the scene, then step back and watch the wall fall. Then pick up the pieces. But not all. Guy Gavriel Kay is very real-world oriented, with a finesse for the psychic. Charles de Lint holds the reader’s hand through rich and intricate real-world scenarios, then invites the reader through the portal he created while nobody was watching. Rich storytellers don’t need the flame-retardant computers. Some use them anyway.
2. A good book can engross anyone, regardless of length. Take the Harry Potter series for example. So many people picked up those books and said, “I usually don’t like this kind of stuff, but I love these.” I know fantasy-hating people who have read that series three, four, even five times through. Yet, if length is specifically important, I recommend checking out Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, Washington Irving, or Anne McCaffrey. They even make anthologies of fantasy from big name writers like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. And don’t be misled by Lovecraft’s reputation. He has some incredibly sweet dream-stories that have nothing to do with the macabre.
3. Yes, George R. R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones series has recently made quite the buzz. While it’s not my style of writing, it is important to note there’s a kind of fantasy that focuses on the medieval, Shakespearean murder-she-wrote aspect of royalty and intrigue. If you feel too detached from the characters, move on. Not all fantasy is sword-and-sorcery in such a setting. Modern Fantasy (or even Urban Fantasy) might be something closer to what you’re looking for. Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files might fit squarely in your interests, with an equal dose of “hard-boiled” detective work and “high octane” fantasy. There are slower books, as well. I don’t think any of us can avoid the recent insurgence of romantic Modern Fantasy novels hitting the shelves where romantic links between human, ghost, werewolf, and elf is commonplace. Again, not my bag, and I can’t even recommend an author I find particularly interesting in that sub genre, but it’s out there.
4. Fantasy’s bread and butter IS not having to use science to explain it all away. But that’s not the point of using fantasy as a storytelling tool. I feel instead of making it easier on a writer to simply whisk a character away via magical means, it should make the elements more difficult. A lot of poor writers fall into this hole. Instead of a magical structure built on action/reaction and cause/effect, some writers simply bubble hearth, to take a term from World of Warcraft, and use deus ex machina to handle difficult plot. It’s cool in a game, but not in a book. Some science-minded fantasy writers would include Neil Stephenson (I know. Some might consider his work science fiction, but I read Anatheme, and even though it deals with the multi-world interpretation, it focuses more on the individual than the culture) and Greg Bear, though his body of work in the fantasy realm is much smaller than his science fiction. Finally, Jaqueline Carey‘s Kushiel’s Dart series uses so little magic, it might not even have it at all (if you’re into the sex/romance/smoldering brothel scene without the pointy teeth and (much) blood).
5. A great example of terrible storytelling is Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series. Not only does his character randomly have three arms (one holding the reins of his horse, the other two shooting a bow), but every time the main character runs into a difficult situation, he passes out. Conk out cold. Sleepy time. It’s an amateurish way to end a chapter and could be done much better. (Note: I’m talking about a non-magical way a writer uses to close a chapter. If he uses waking sickness to close a chapter, I can only imagine what he does with magic.) Another writer who uses magic to fill in writing weaknesses is Terry Goodkind, and his Sword of Truth series. He falsely drums up conflict then resolves it–I don’t know how many times–by turn-of-phrase or previously forgotten information on the MC’s part. That begin said, not all novelists use magic to make life easier for them. Patrick Rothfuss, Lev Grossman, and Terry Pratchett give every magical conflict the consideration it deserves.
6. I understand. Fantasy might not be your type of writing. I would, on the other hand, recommend some of the classics of fantasy due to its historical/religious/psychological significance. Some of the heavy-hitters I love are Dante‘s Divine Comedy, Milton‘s Paradise Lost, the various works of the Bible and apocryphal sequels, the Bhagavad-Gita–any Gita, really–1000 Arabian Nights, or finally, the comedy of Terry Pratchett. One of my favorite novels ever written is Good Omens by him and Neil Gaiman. Brilliant work, that. It’s so very difficult to do comedy well in any genre, but Pratchett’s satire is palpable, while Milton’s environment is intangible. For those who still say “who cares?” you might want to go elsewhere for your reading needs.
7. The market is over-saturated with fantasy writers of all shapes and sizes, and currently the majority of them are Romantic Fantasy or Urban Fantasy Lite. I don’t know how many novels I’ve picked up, read the inside jacket, thought it had promise, then bombed horribly when I cracked open to the first chapter. We all have our own tastes, but it can be difficult for someone to find the right kind of fantasy. This is why I recommend word-of-mouth, research, and a little time spent looking at the market. Tom Pollock is one author I stumbled on, followed the media buzz for his first novel, and fell in love with his writing. Same with Patrick Rothfuss. If it has a shirtless guy on the front, or a woman with a shotgun, you should know you’re looking at a cover that (I want to say panders, but I’ll avoid it) empathizes with the mainstream. It says, “I am no better than the shirtless guy book beside me.” Which might be just fine for you. Finally, ask. I’d be happy to give my opinion on writers. I tried to drop as much as I can in this post to show a few.
So why COULD you like fantasy? Here are some personal favorites among the Pros:
- Great storytelling.
- Outside-the-box thinking you can’t get in regular ol’ Literature.
- Escapism at its best.
- Symbolic writing, and furthermore, psychological development at it’s absolute best (or worst, if you know what I mean).
- Epic storytelling (which is different than great storytelling by definition: the epic scope of a story allows for an individual, or group of individuals, to change the path of history).
- Focus on the individual and not society. Humanity can be delicious.
- Extension of Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, and overall Pagan beliefs. Any book that uses magic as a tool, in any capacity, tips its hat to the ancient religions that built our society.
- Inspiring alternate history.
I won’t go into individual pros because I think they explain themselves. There’s a reason fantasy movies go huge or go home in the box office while other genres (thriller, detective, con job, romantic comedy) have more mundane turnouts. American culture likes to visually see fantasy. It takes a particular mind, or group of minds, to create something unique and concrete. It wakes the minds of people to see things outside the norm.
Why is the Fantasy Genre so important? Because you are.
I really hope that doesn’t sound as cheesy as it looks. We all have hopes and dreams (despite what my high school priest told me in religion class), and fantasy is not only a great way to introduce new thinking, but it’s also the perfect inspiration to do something fresh.