It’s the question that’s at the heart of what we do as fantasy writers. After all, they say that you have to know your audience in order to create a compelling product for them. So what is it exactly that gets people interested in a fantasy story? What is it about a story with mythical creatures set in faraway lands that captures our imagination? Is it really all just escapism — and if it is, is that escapism necessarily a negative thing?
Before I really dive into the subject, I think it’s a good idea to define what I think fantasy actually is. There’s a lot of subgenres thrown around these days, as if it’s not enough to just write a fantasy book anymore.
My own book Shadow of the Owl was labeled as “Sword and Sorcery” fantasy when I uploaded it to the Amazon Kindle store, despite there being zero sorcery in it. I think this tendency toward over classification is a response to the general consensus that fantasy stories aren’t strong enough as they are. You must have something else to drive the reader to your book — it must be “epic” or “urban” or “dark”. As a writer who writes in none of these categories, I am a big believer in the alternative — that there can be a fantasy novel/story/movie that stands without a subgenre. That we can take fantasy at face value, and find value in the magical worlds, in the human triumphs over evil, in all the new races and cultures and creatures. That fantasy is enough all by itself.
So fantasy as a genre can contain any creative work where the rules of the world are bent in such a way that it is no longer reality. This can mean that the fantasy is based in history, or based in science, or based in folktales — where we get most of our Disney fairy tales. Notice I said “science”. Terry Pratchett said something surprising in his 1994 article “When Children Read Fantasy.” “As far as I am concerned,” he said, “escapist literature let me escape to the real world.” It’s fascinating to note that Pratchett viewed Science Fiction as a subset of Fantasy literature, one merely looking forward rather than backward in time. I heartily agree with Mr. Pratchett here. From my definition of fantasy, we see that science fiction is a derivation on the standard world, merely building upon what we know by advancing our current understanding of science.
Once you bend the rules of reality, you allow the reader to take a journey with you through what might be, or in the case of historical fantasy, what might have been. I think of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle whenever someone brings up alternate histories. How fascinating was it to take a stroll through a modified San Francisco (although one could argue the modifications were highly colored by Dick’s own political and racial biases) in a world where America had lost the Second World War? I can tell you that putting that book down and looking at the world around me with its perfectly aligned historical accuracy made me truly appreciate how sometimes the course of events is just as it ought to have been. No one would enjoy living in a world where Hitler lived.
Okay then, if historical fantasy can allow us to better appreciate the world we live in, what about other types of fantasy? Melissa McPhail writes in her 2012 article “Why everyone should read Fantasy,” “Fantasy invites us to explore the best qualities of mankind, and in so doing, we cannot help but begin to look at ourselves and each other in a more healthful light.” Fantasy stories often use the character of alternate peoples, alien races, or monsters to comment on how our society interacts with one another.
It is through reading The Hobbit that was can really understand the depth and complexity of what true courage is, because we interact with a main character from a race of notorious cowards. But it is Bilbo Baggins, a self-proclaimed non-joiner, who faces the monster, learning about his true bravery in the process. And from him, we learn a little more about what we might be capable of.
George R R Martin said in his essay “On Fantasy” “We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang.” Life is filled with so much darkness these days that it’s hard to see the light until someone outside our reality shows us what is truly beautiful. Fantasy stories are perfect for this, because within them we can interact with magical creatures we never would be able to meet in real life.
I’ve talked to many people over the years specifically about what they read. When asked if people read fantasy, some are incredibly quick to let you know that they would never read that. As if fantasy books are somehow less than other genres because we deal in the impossible. I do believe there is a bias against fantasy books and media in our culture, and it might have to do with the negative stereotype connected with the idea of “escapism”. Interestingly enough though, Jo Walton said “Escaping doesn’t mean avoiding reality, escaping means finding an escape route to a better place.” Looking at it in this light, escapism stops looking like a divergence from mainstream society, and more becomes a strategy with which we can navigate through the complex byways of everyday life.
Ultimately though, fantasy is the adventure of the possible. It’s the genre that delves most eagerly into the imagination. A.E. Marling says that “Reading fantasy gives us license to imagine things that never were and never could have been, and we revel in their impossibility.” I think that as readers we need to explore our imaginations. We need to connect with that childhood version of ourselves who made up languages to talk to thunderstorms and who could drive off an enemy invasion with plastic dinosaurs.
We read fantasy to escape who we are, to learn from where we’ve been, and to become who we want to be.