The Power of the Genre – Why Write Fantasy?

With a few rare exceptions, genre fiction is generally dismissed – even disdained – by “serious” authors and critical reviewers alike. Fantasy book sales are miniscule compared literary fiction; even the other genres outsell it. If you want to get rich, you’re better off writing “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” than “Bonds of Sisterhood.”

So what is it about Fantasy that motivates a writer to sacrifice broad cultural acceptance, fame, and money for the genre?

I asked editors and authors, “Why Do You Write Fantasy?” I was curious what it was about the Fantasy genre that made it the best venue for the stories they wanted to tell. Some weren’t really sure, but others had some very definitive ideas on the subject.

Why Ask Why?

In a recent interview, Mur Lafferty stated,

“I’ve always been an avid reader… but I never wanted to BE a writer until I started reading Madleiene L’Engle and Robin McKinley… until I saw what you COULD write.”

For her and countless others, the Fantasy genre represented a gateway to wonders and stories that stepped beyond the narrow conventions of the known world.

Understanding the genre you’re writing in is an enormous asset to a writer. It helps gauge reader expectations, allowing writers to deliver a satisfying story. It also defines a set of literary tools, structures, and conventions that are the strength of the genre; writers can then leverage them to develop better story ideas and execute those stories with confidence and purpose.

Untainted Metaphor

Myke Cole uses Fantasy settings to deliver a strong message without confronting the reader’s personal biases.

“Writing SF/F allows me to get close to real subjects that I want to address, while keeping a measured distance. My SHADOW OPS series is making some hard calls about war, xenophobia, colonialism and most importantly the role of bureaucracy and how it places process over people. But those are all REAL issues, and talking about them can polarize. When you deal with it through an SF/F lens, you get some distance from the topic. This lets folks interact with it on their own terms, without investments and agendas tangling up the point.”

Two things to take away from Myke’s observation:

  1. Fantasy stories can – and often do – deal with crisis, pain, loss, and inequality… valid and challenging issues we are confronted with in the “real” world as a society and as individuals.
  2. Using a Fantasy venue for the story allows writers and readers to engage with those issues without the intimately personal associations they would have in a realistic setting.

How can this help you as a writer? Look at the issues and questions you want to raise in your story, then strip away the recognizable frameworks that usually represent those questions. By creating Fantasy parallels, the message underscoring your story becomes more accessible and the reader experiences it without the distortion of their prejudices or cultural preconceptions.

Hope Beyond the Boundary

Tony C. Smith summed it up in a single word: hope. Alasdair Stuart agreed and expanded on the sentiment.

“Speculative fiction by its very definition implies that there is potential left unfulfilled, places still to go, things still to see. I love that idea, I love that for all our skills and knowledge we still hunger for the new, for something different. We’ve grown and we’re still growing.

“Of course the element under that is hope. Hope that I’ll walk on the moon someday, that cancer and HIV will be a distant memory in my lifetime, that we’ll see the definition of ‘human’ change. I hope to watch the sun set from a different world before I die. I may very well not, but if I don’t, speculative fiction’s put me there anyway and I didn’t even need to go through baggage check.”

For me, Alasdair’s thoughts remind us that the very essence of SpecFic and fantasy is…

  1. Redefining boundaries and exploring new expressions of what we find beyond them
  2. An opportunity to deconstruct stereotypes and re-examine what we believe to be our limitations

One is an outward exploration, the other a careful inward scrutiny. Both invite the writer to be bold in their expressions. Tropes and conventions are a fine starting point, but rarely the foundation for a whole story. It’s not enough to take a cliché and change its name or make it a different color. Dig deeper, push further, give yourself and your readers a radical perspective with which to explore the human condition.

Virtual Reality Therapy

And finally, J. Daniel Sawyer offered a vision that elegantly ties it all together…

“Written fiction is the ultimate Virtual Reality technology. It allows us to explore both the limits of our perception and understanding, the inner workings of our own characters, the constraints placed on us by culture, and the consequences of choices in the possible futures that lay before us.

“That last is the place where SpecFic–particularly Science Fiction–comes into play. We live at the changeover in ages, in the midst of transformations of culture, technology, politics, morality, and consciousness the likes of which our species has never seen (I’m not being hyperbolic). The 20th century almost buried us. The 21st century is the time where humanity finishes its bootstrapping, or fails spectacularly and falls all the way back down.

“SpecFic like Steampunk and Fantasy helps us cope with crippling and destructive nostalgia, and SpecFic like Science Fiction helps us cope with anxieties and build ambitions to help us navigate this tectonic transition so we can create a future that will see us outlast the death of our own sun.”

Dan’s perspective is a call to arms for all Fantasy and SpecFic writers, elevating our genre from the narrow shallows of mere escapism to the full scope and depth of social commentary and reform. He addresses the question behind the question: what is the real value of what we do as SpecFic authors?

While there’s always room (and need) for playfulness in our stories, it’s important to remember the true power of the writer. Our readers let their guard down and immerse themselves into our stories, allowing us to speak directly to the heart of their perceptions. The seeds we plant there can take root and grow into marvelous inspirations or profound dread.

Final Thoughts: Fools and Trickster Gods

As writers, our work addresses to the most profound gift of our species: the imagination. From that shadowy maelstrom of “might be’s” and “could be’s” has come every magnificent break-through and every soul crushing horror we’ve invoked upon our world.

We are the King’s Fool, the only one at society’s court permitted to speak the truth, though it may be cloaked by a fantastic glamour and a touch of madness.

Fantasy’s greatest power has always been to raise a distorted mirror to its readers, magnifying aspects of the world around us to archetypal proportions, dragging the best and the worst of us into the light and on to the stage.

In that capacity, we as writers in this genre are Trickster Gods. We are Hermes and Coyote, Anansi and Loki, seducing our readers off the clear path and revealing wonders and horrors that vanish into shadows when the last page is turned.

What About You?

Can YOU articulate what it is about Fantasy that makes you want to read/write it? I mean a real answer, an expression of the essence that drives you to that section of the book store to browse for the latest Urban Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery, High/Low/Epic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Mythic Fiction, or Paranormal Romance (see Staffer’s Book Review: Fantasy: A Subgenre Taxonomy for a great blog post with descriptions and examples of the Fantasy sub-genres)?

Dave Robison and creative writing teacher Brion Humphrey host The Roundtable Podcast, where they invite writers to workshop their story ideas with authors, publishers, and editors.  Writers of all levels and experience are welcome to join… visit the website and sign up for your episode!

Dave Robison has indulged in creative pursuits his entire life. His CV includes writing Curious George fan-fiction at the age of eight, creating magazine cover art, writing audio scripts, hosting mythological roundtables and generally savoring the sweet drought of expression in all its forms.

26 Responses to The Power of the Genre – Why Write Fantasy?

  1. I think it fulfills some of the lost, ingrained and traditionalist need to connect with our ancestry, as people in previous eras might have done through the studying of mythology. To me, it is the modern mythology, in a post-religious world, where that mythology has left a realm of supposed believability and truth, and entered a realm of pure, unadulterated fantasy.

  2. While I don’t dream of writing fantasy, I certainly love reading and writing about fantasy. I love seeing patterns, archetypes and allusions of all types. The mythological allusions and parallels are especially intriguing and it’s fun to see how the writer makes the connections.

  3. It’s very simply the ability to create a world that is distant from this one. It’s an escape, for me and my readers. Well, it would be an escape for my readers if I had readers! When it comes to writing, I think fantasy is the ultimate fun in creativity.

  4. Why wouldn’t you want to write fantasy? You make your own world where anything can happen and where you control the elements. Of course you can write straight fiction and make the characters do what you please but you are limited to physics and character of the real world. You can’t let a character “fly” on their own wings if you are writing about the real world. 
     

  5. I don’t write fantasy but it is my favorite genre to read.  I love sweeping epic stories like those of David Eddings and Terry Brooks.  The worlds are rich and detailed; they sweep me into another place.  I think fantasy appeals to many of us on a primal level because in the dark corners of our minds, we want there to be magic, fairies and dragons. 

  6. I write fantasy because I still want to believe in trolls, fairies, unicorns, dragons… This world has too many boundaries, so I´ve created one where you just don´t know exactly where those are.  All the other reasons mentioned apply as well.

  7. For me fantasy is a development of the ancient art of story telling. In the oldest tales, the stories told at camp fires, that shaped and crafted societies were not about the ins and outs of everyday life but tales about heroes and the gods with the power to shape the world and inspire the listeners. The best tales are deeply mythic and archetypal – quote  “elevating our genre from the narrow shallows of mere escapism to the full scope and depth of social commentary and reform” “magnifying aspects of the world around us to archetypal proportions, dragging the best and the worst of us into the light and on to the stage.” I enjoyed this piece.

    •  Thank you, Lorna! I completely agree with you… no matter how I’m engaging with the genre (through a Kindle or an actual book), every time I start a new book, there’s a kind of eager reverence… you can almost hear the hush around the campfire as the storyteller draws that first breath to launch into the tale.  And, because magic and wonder are such intimate elements of both the genre AND the storyteller, their mingled ancestry just enhances that reverence. 

      I’m so glad you found something in the piece that resonated for you! : )

    • Hey Justin! I know, the whole Balticon experience was like Flash Fiction only with people.  Fortunately we have the interwebs to help forge and sustain those connections.  NEXT year, we find time to sit and actually converse. ; )

  8. … I actually wrote a rather long blog post on this a while back, but the gist is “Speculative fiction is the best genre in the world to write, ever” because it rediscovers the joy of PLAYING and then adds whatever we want on top of it.

    I say “Speculative fiction” because I think both Fantasy and Science Fiction fit there.

    •  Chris, you raise an excellent point that I didn’t touch on in the
      article.  You’re absolutely right… more than any other genre, SpecFic
      has an inherent invitation (and permission) to be playful, to indulge
      whimsey and mischief, and connect with that child-like wonder.  Thanks
      for pointing that out… I hope to include that in the next installment.

  9. I have found that Fantasy is more about the conceptualization of the human condition than it is about the potentiality. Even Science Fiction deals with real possibilties, whereas Fantasy is rooted in the impossible. It flexes the imagination as it spins us back into the myths that enchanted us as children and protected us when we lacked understanding.

    Normal fiction and even some Science Fiction is definite, unitary and subservient to the laws which codify the human experience. Alter those laws and you give birth to a whole new possibility–an ideational structure that takes us beyond limitations.

    The potential in Fantasy isn’t to define or redefine, it’s highest form is pure creation.

    Fantasy lets us be god.

  10. I love writing fantasy for two reasons.

    First, is the luxury of telling the story you want to tell without getting hung up on the details. A consistent world is necessary, but the fantasy writer can build their own consistency and let hang those threads that are not important. How many times do details derail the explanation of a greater point? :)

    Second, is the joy of having an outlet for ones imagination. The act of creation is the fundamental motivator of my life, and writing fantasy is a way of satisfying that need. There is also the pleasure of sharing my ideas and thoughts with others who have similarly active inner lives.

  11. Fantasy is escape in it’s highest form. You can go anywhere, be anything or anyone, just by picking up a book. You are not bound by the traditional world or its encumbrances. Rules are bent and worlds are changed and its all for the pleasure of our readers.

  12. First of all, if you’re going to ask “why fantasy?”, the question may as well be “why fiction?”. All fiction is to one degree or another fantasy. John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom may live in circumstances much closer to those in the real world, but ultimately, he’s just as imaginary as Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins. Fiction is our way telling the truth through a series of lies, and fantasy is simply taking that to it’s logical extreme.
    I like the idea  “untainted metaphor”. In the “Limekiller at Large” series, I’m using superheroes as a way of commenting on both politics, and also the dangers and allures of fame.  I use superheroes
     I would also add that fantasy is also great vehicle for satire, used to great effect by Terry Prachett and Jonathan Swift.

  13. I love Myke Cole’s answer. So true.

    Fantasy gives you unrestricted access to the most powerful weapon in your creative arsenal – your imagination. There’s something primal and deeply embedded within us that resonates with the fantastic – the earliest stories were never about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but about illustrating the impossible. 

  14. I feel I have a deep connection with the world I write about, and many fantasy worlds, almost to the point of wishing I had rather lived in those worlds.  Ok, I’ll go before I sound too nerdy.

  15. There’s so much freedom to create and explore. And I think people are always going to be suckers for that epic battle of good vs evil and the sense of anything is possible that comes with fantasy. I know it makes me feel empowered.

  16. My love for the fantasy genre comes from a primal place that believes we are more than just organic material. That there is more to this world than the now, and reading and writing fantasy helps to explore that. I specifically love mythology and the creative licence it allows. 

    An afterthought, I have sometimes wondered about my love for swords and armour and battle scenes. Ive tried to explore why I liked it so much. Saying, “because it’s cool” is not a satisfying answer (even if true). So, for now, I’ll use my “Primal Need” theory until I can come up with something better or, through my creative endeavours, a long lost voice directs me somewhere else. ;-)

    Brilliant article, thanks.

  17. I recently read a review of ‘Game of Thrones’ in a snobby literary section of a well known broadsheet, the reviewer was full of praise for the epic stating that it was actually about humanity more than dragons and magic. And I would agree. Most of the fantasy I read is about humanity and the human condition, but the dragons and magic give it some welcome escapist relief.

  18. “Our readers let their guard down and immerse themselves into our stories, allowing us to speak directly to the heart of their perceptions.”

    This is the reason why fantasy & sci-fi are the best genres to write in. ;) The suspension of disbelief is greater than with other genres, and it takes with it several other veils of the mind as it falls. 

    I write science-fiction, but just as with fantasy, what draws me toward the genre as a reader and as a writer is the immense number of possibilities to reach into the reader’s mind and subconscious. This is also why fantasy & sci-fi have such dedicated readerships (and fandoms) — the relationship is much more intimate and profound.

  19. What you’ve mentioned, that spec fic addresses real world issues, is something I’m always quick to point out to people who sneer at the genre. There are real world lessons to be learned, and I think I got the majority of my personal morals from fantasy. As well as distancing us sufficiently from real world issues to have a meaningful debate, spec fic, and especially fantasy, polarises right and wrong – and through the eyes of fantasy we can often see that real-world hair-splitting and justification is in fact ludicrous – and conversely, also the complex motivations that can drive people to the actions they take. That’s something I love and I think it’s part of what drives me to write fantasy.

  20. I write fantasy because it’s the only genre that allows me to combine my disparate autistic obsessions. What other genre allows me to write about sexy African warrior women fighting dinosaurs?

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