Using Fantasy to Enhance a Story

Even when the characters’ adventures are fantastic, a good story should have an emotional core which is personal, drawing from common human experience to help readers connect with our characters.  A story written in this way needs little imagination to prop it up. Which is why, in my efforts to write fantasy, I’ve been asked:

If a story is universal, why do you need the magic?

Magic comes with the price of a built-in distance between your events and your reader which can keep you from achieving the potential of your story. Guarding the passageway to an important official, I can hint at the terror of a pair of trolls, or I can connect readers directly to the fear of two condescending and semi-sadistic guards. I can wound my character with the blast of a fireball from a distant wizard, or I can bring my readers the terror of being knifed by a killer.

We have more tools to play with, yet often they can get in the way of our story. The most common use of fantasy is to simplify life’s adventures into a battle of good and evil, only to fill it with flashy spells and action sequences that are more wishful than real. But using magic only to exaggerate features or create special effects risks distancing your readers from the emotion of your story without finding the rewarding payout in return.  And that payout is profound.

With fantasy, I can rewrite the world to enhance the power of my story.

In order to deliver my story’s full impact, I need to connect the seemingly unrelated pieces of character, plot and setting in a way that surprises readers and gives their buildup relevance to my story. In fantasy, by reshaping the laws of the world and the makeup of societies, I have more toys to play with, more connections to make, and more surprises to deliver for each of these elements.

But to seize that greater potential, I have to sort through an infinite jumble of possibilities. Should those guards be people or trolls? Should magic be common or rare? Where do I put the dragon? What do any of these things have to do with my story? That’s where I need to begin.

Use your fantasy tools to create a story which can’t be written without them.

Control the Mood. Mash together two or three concepts into a fantasy story, and you can reshape the world and its societies to create a mood combination that cannot be replicated in other genres. Take for instance the bankrupt welfare state of modern Greece, place it on a flying city with a decaying landmass, and add the temptations of a magical manipulator to see what kind of desperate and unique atmosphere you can create for your characters. Finding a clever combination of concepts will evoke subtle emotions in your readers to help emphasize the story you are telling.

Activate the Plot. Fantasy elements can intensify the plot in ways that other genres may struggle to achieve. Powerful artifacts and enraged armies allow you to escalate the scope of conflict to any corner of the globe, while enchantments can create consequences for even your character’s basic interactions. Combined with the resources of the wizards and rulers found in many stories, these fantasy elements can provide you with the flexibility to entangle your characters’ development around plots that are consistently more dynamic, climactic and personal than otherwise possible.

Reinforce the Emotion of Your Story. In my outlines I have two columns, Story and Plot, because I want to find a rhythm between the way my characters develop and the key events which unfold around them. Using the strength and flexibility of a fantasy plot, you can couple the defining moments of your characters’ relationships and personal development with the intensity of world-changing events that amplify the emotion of their personal conflicts. By coordinating the changes in your character dynamic with the force of your plot, you can give your story the extra power it needs.

Push Your Characters. Fantasy stories often press upon the extremes of good and evil, responsibility and betrayal, warfare and the hope of returning to a simple life. You can pile the conflicts on top of each other as civilization is destroyed, friends become treacherous, and magic seduces your characters with power tailored to their personal moment. You can pressure your characters with endless responsibilities until they rise as heroes or snap beneath the stress. By using the fantasy elements of your story to press, pull and draw out your characters, you can explore the fringes of their personalities and unlock specific emotional journeys which may otherwise be impossible to achieve.

As a final note, sometimes at the height of magical mayhem, readers might be too involved in the fantasy for the conflict to feel real. But you can break that. In the key moments of your story, understand that a knife or a gun is as deadly as a sword or a fireball, and a heart attack evokes more terror than a magical poison. If you can justify it within the context of your story, it’s all right to set the fantasy aside for a moment to help bring the full weight of the emotion to your readers.

The character’s experiences, however fantastic, need to drive at the heart of humanity. The story of a good novel is universal and intimate, unlocking a piece of our shared human experience. In that sense, fantasy doesn’t give us tools to build the story, but to re-engineer it.

We need the fantasy to break the built-in barriers of reality and empower the story.

With universal themes and well-established characters, we can explore the human experience, not only for our characters, but also for our readers. Fantasy can subtly help to bypass the baggage and the burdens of everyday life to lower a reader’s resistance and deliver the emotional core of the story.

When looking for inspiration, I enjoy reading the classics, wondering how I could use fantasy to amplify the humanity captured in these timeless stories. That’s what I want to do in my own writing.

How do you use fantasy to empower your stories?

This is the second in a series of posts Devor is writing about Using Fantasy to Enhance a Story. Read the first entry, Bridging the Gap Between Author and Character.

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