In Defense of Escapism and the Themes of Fantasy

fantasy escapeThe great journey, the valiant quest, the ongoing war between good and evil, the “chosen one” who by magic rises above peasantry and poverty to a place of heroism – these are the clichés of fantasy, and I will not defend them as clichés. But they also explore fantasy’s greatest themes.

They explore the themes of escapism. That’s part of what makes them awesome.

With fantasy, we can shuffle aside the trappings of modern society and explore life at the whims of the author and the worlds we create. We can disconnect our readers from the triggers of our lifelong experience and the baggage of our preconceptions, our politics and work-life balance and all the familiar things that we already have opinions about in our modern society. Fantasy can escape that. Fantasy can deepen our immersion and offload a little excess subjectivity, taking that small step closer to writing for the universal reader.

Fantasy’s form of escapism also helps storytellers to highlight one of the most difficult to find emotions in our everyday lives. The fantasy genre is laced with the subtext of wonder, both in its purest, most idealistic moments and at its darkest and most cruel portrayals of human behavior. How often do we feel awe in our lives?

Escapism is Only the Beginning

But that same escapism is also one of the reasons modern fantasy receives a lot of scorn from adults outside the culture of geekery. In the minds of some people, my greatest shame would be that I write fantasy.

Every fantasy writer has felt it at one point. The tightness in the neck, the quick intake of breath, the stutter that comes from nowhere, the need for an instant show of bravery answering that damn simple question.

What do you write?

I write fantasy. I write about dragons and magic and ogres and the nonsense that children are supposed to grow out of. I write fake things for adults, as an adult.

I write escapism.

And what kind of responsible adult wants to escape from their life?

But it’s not that simple. I am not an irresponsible boy, obsessed with the cool, hiding from the challenges of my life by delving into another world. If anything, making the serious effort to write only adds to the challenges of juggling responsibility, life and now writing. It would be a better “escape” to play a modern form of Tetris hiding behind the screen of my smartphone.

Stories aren’t written to escape in that sense of the word. Stories are written to explore.

And once we’ve escaped the modern trapping and underlined our worlds with a sense of wonder, what do we have to explore?

People. Heroes who escape the baggage, villains who escape the excuses, and a society of people who escape their limits.

Escapism is only the beginning of the theme. People have themes. Life has themes. Character traits and flaws and personalities create themes when they play out over time. And in fantasy, our themes can escape the limits of a story that’s true to life.

For Further Thought

How do people react when you reveal that you write fantasy?

What was the most positive reaction that you ever received?

What was the most surprising reaction?

Latest posts by Brian DeLeonard (see all)
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
newest
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kaye Draper
4 years ago

Love this! I just think this bit is beautiful: “I write fantasy. I write about dragons and magic and ogres and the nonsense that children are supposed to grow out of. I write fake things for adults, as an adult.”

I just want to say THANK YOU for writing fake things for adults! Without the world of books to escape to and dream in, I don’t know that I would have survived as long as I have thus far. We NEED magic like we need air. Sad that some don’t get that…they’re missing out!

Britanica
Britanica
5 years ago

I wrote a fantasy novel a few years ago dealing with a real woman and a fictional man. The man in the book was a werewolf but not in the traditional sense. It was based on a lot of lost memories, dreaming, and coming to sudden realization of the two characters. It didn’t sell well on Amazon but I had fun writing it.

rahul
rahul
Reply to  Britanica
3 years ago

whats it called?

J. Paul
J. Paul
5 years ago

Funny anecdote:
We had a local book signing in a small town with a largely elder population. The coordinator of the book signing REFUSED to list on any of the promotional material that my friend is a “fantasy” author. Why? Because she swore up and down that “fantasy” meant “erotica,” and even when we demonstrated otherwise, she said “well, people will still think that’s what it means.” So he had to be listed as a sci-fi author.

Tyrean Martinson
5 years ago

Lately, I’ve been noticing that I have a tendency to say “speculative fiction and other things” when people ask me what I write, usually because it keeps the conversation going longer – because either non-writers think speculative means “end of the world” or because they aren’t sure what it means . . . and then I get to say that I like to explore real world issues in fantasy or futuristic world settings, and that usually starts an interesting conversation.

When asked why I don’t write often in “real world” settings, I often state that I don’t think even “realistic” fiction is all that realistic – it’s all fiction, all speculative, and all imagined, even when based on real life events.

Plus, I like the challenge of making up new worlds in which I might have to create a map, but I won’t have any native of Seattle arguing with me over the exact location of the first Starbuck’s coffee shop (across from the south end of Pike Place Market, not sure of the actual address, btw).

Renaissance Nerd
5 years ago

Despite the scorn it often meets, fantasy elements exist in nearly every genre. Fantasy, however has the potential to be the apotheosis of fiction. I haven’t run into such a work yet, and I’m afraid none of my own books measure up to that level, but it could be done.

In all works of fiction the assumptions of the reader play an enormous part in understanding the story. Every type of fiction produces different assumptions; historical fiction may get details wrong that a historian or history buff might find ruins the story, or more often take a side in a disagreement (Richard III BAD! Richard III GOOD!) and so alienate those who take the other side. Science Fiction is mostly fantasy with a scientific veneer, but there are expected norms that have to be followed and if those assumptions aren’t met…

Fantasy has also become bound by convention in many ways, but it isn’t a requirement. Someday a genius may create a fantasy experience that resists both convention and pre-conceived assumptions and so will at last be able to tell a story where the reader’s prejudices don’t get in the way. I look forward to such a work, but I doubt I’ll ever even attempt it myself. I enjoy history and legend and myth too much, and all three are bedrock to my novels. I accept that some will disagree with my extrapolations from history and interpretations of myth and legend. It’s too bad, but I’m totally, completely and in all ways certain that my view is correct. Their loss!

A.Howitt
A.Howitt
5 years ago

Usually when I tell people I write fantasy, they sort of respond with that, “Ohhh,” that might be accompanied with a nod of sympathetic understanding, like I just revealed I have a terminal illness, or my car just caught on fire and rolled down a hill. The best one was in a professional environment, and someone asked me what I wrote, and I said, “I write fantasy.” And this odd expression came over him and he said, “Oh, the naughty stuff,” with a sly grin. I might have bursted his bubble a little hard when I replied, “Uh, no. I write like dragons and magic and stuff.”

See, that line sort of sums the genre up (you wrote it above), but it doesn’t do a great job of describing what I actually do. But in some instances, it’s just the clearest way to communicate a general idea. Unfortunately, it often earns me the afore mentioned sympathetic response and I just figure the conversation is over, which is usually fine by me. I don’t feel the need to explain myself or earn converts. Maybe they’d actually enjoy my work. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. I write for folks who like what I like–romantic fantasy with grit and realism. It isn’t for everyone. But it’s not really dragons and magic, either 🙂

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
Reply to  A.Howitt
5 years ago

Ohh I definitely agree. That’s the importance of getting to a good pitch and figuring out what it is you actually are writing with your stories. You don’t want to be stuck saying “dragons and magic and ogres and other fake things.”

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever actually even written an ogre.

Aderyn Wood
5 years ago

Great post! I know exactly how you feel. When recently asked what one of my books was about I did the deep sigh and the stuttering, and in the end just said it was a ‘fairy book’. Sometimes being self-effacing seems to help. But, while fantasy does offer an escape (I agree with you there) and a sense of wonder (one of its main draw cards), it doesn’t mean that fantasy can’t deal with complex themes of the human condition. Indeed, perhaps it has more scope to do this For example, the touchy subject of ‘racism’ can often be explored in a fantasy novel in a way that cannot be achieved in a literary novel. A fantasy author can give us that distance from ourselves.

KC Trae Becker
Reply to  Aderyn Wood
5 years ago

A dear friend with a narrow religious worldview once tried to talk me out of reading and writing fantasy. I explained that fantasy and science fiction give writing a greater leeway to explore complex and difficult themes in extended metaphors that can entertain as well as open readers and writers up to new ideas.

Lorinda J. Taylor
Reply to  KC Trae Becker
5 years ago

Strangely enough, I have also run into atheists who don’t approve of fantasy because its subject matter isn’t scientificaly accurate. I wrote a blog piece on this topic awhile back. http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2014/09/can-humanist-write-fantasy-in-good.html

Skip Knox
Reply to  KC Trae Becker
5 years ago

Oh, that wasn’t because he was an atheist, that was because he was stupid. A set of non-exclusive elements, alas.

Keith West
5 years ago

While I primarily read and write in the fantasy genre these days, I also read science fiction, crime, mystery, horror, and historical adventure. I don’t think it matters what genre your choose for your “escapism”. Psychology has shown that play is necessary for good mental health. Reading fantasy, science fiction, or whatever you choose as your escapism fulfills that role in your life as an adult. Children pretend to be police/doctors/astronauts/etc to explore and understand people in a way that is appropriate to their developmental level. Escapist fiction does the same for adults. It’s too bad some adults are too grown up to realize that.

JA Andrews
5 years ago

” The fantasy genre is laced with the subtext of wonder, both in its purest, most idealistic moments and at its darkest and most cruel portrayals of human behavior.” That is exactly why I love fantasy.

And yes, I feel the exact same way you do when I tell someone for the first time that I write it. I do think Game of Thrones has widened the acceptance of fantasy a little more. Hopefully it’s losing it’s stereotype of the fantasy reader who has greasy hair and still lives in their parent’s basement…

Lorinda J. Taylor
5 years ago

I lump all my writings in Science Fiction even though a lot of them have fantasy elements. I disagree that fantasy has to be purely escapism and agree with your statement “Stories are written to explore,” which is not the same as escapism at all. Certainly Tolkien is a lot more than simply escapism. My series in which giant extraterrestrial termites relive Greek myth and other legends carries a lot of meaning that is quite relevant to the human condition and also to our times, particularly the adaptation of The Song of Roland in which two peoples with differing religious perspectives are trying to annihilate each other. And the themes of guilt and atonement and friendship and compassion are present throughout. I would resent anyone telling me that my books are purely escapist.

Arranah
Reply to  Lorinda J. Taylor
5 years ago

I started adding fantasy to my regular stories when I wanted to lighten up. There comes a time when one wants to step beyond one’s own space and explore. I get tired of exploring my own issues. Been there, done that, now it’s time to explore other options. Fantasy provides a vehicle.

When I talk to others about writing fantasy no one gives me a hassle. But I don’t create worlds or fantasy characters, mine are just exaggerated more like paranormal or visionary fiction. So I’m not sure people would pick on me for it.

Bottom-line, I write what I want to write for me first. I think the point to writing is first to please oneself. There is no pleasing others. No matter what we do, someone will find fault with it. So to heck with that.

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
Reply to  Lorinda J. Taylor
5 years ago

I’ve always felt that while fantasy simply dumps the modern trappings to create a new world, science fiction tinkers and fiddles with them directly. Rather than escaping society, Science Fiction can easily be a vehicle for commenting directly on the political trappings.

Regardless, I certainly understand why some people feel resentment towards the word escapism, and while I disagree with the resentment, I wouldn’t dream of telling you how you should visualize your own stories.

This site uses XenWord.