I’ll begin this exploration of genre writing with one of my personal favorites, Fantasy. Literary Terms tells us, “Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic).” This may sound overly simplistic, but it does cover the genre. The fact is, fantasy literature runs the gambit from other-world epic heroic fantasy (e.g. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) to magical or paranormal powers connected to our world (e.g. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) to simple contemporary stories that might have just one little fantastical element, such as the assumption that dragons are real (e.g. Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven).
What makes it fantasy is the appearance of alternate worlds, mythological heroes, fantastical creatures, magical powers, the supernatural—anything that doesn’t exist in the real world that is made real in a story. Of course, you still have to have a good story—it’s not enough just to create a fantasy world, though there are dozens of contemporary authors who have done so with varying degrees of success. You also have to tell a good story within that fantasy world, because without the story, the fantastic is not enough to keep readers turning the page.
When Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” he perhaps unknowingly described fantasy fiction as well as anyone ever has, because while a coming-of-age story can be set in a contemporary American community, how much more effective might it be to follow a Hobbit (Tolkien) or a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (Elizabeth Moon) in a world of fantasy. And, yes, we can talk about elephants and rhinos and whales, but how much more fun might a story about endangered species be if the wildlife refuge is called Dragonhaven (McKinley), and the endangered species in the spotlight is the dwindling dragon population? And there are plenty of news stories today about small businesses in small towns being ousted by wealthy developers who want to burn them out to make way for a new resort, condo, or shopping mall. These stories of courageous contemporary Davids standing up to these modern-day Goliaths threatening their homes and livelihoods are riveting, but how much more fun might it be if the “Davids” are helped out by A Book Dragon (Donn Kushner) who is protecting his treasure in a tiny antique bookstore?
This is the fun of fantasy! It is taking the truth out of the mundane common world and putting it into a fantastical setting. Fantasy is, in some ways, both easier and more challenging to write. It can be easier because a fantasy is set in the author’s original world where the sky’s the limit for the writer’s imagination. But it can be a lot more challenging, especially when writing alternate-world fantasy, because the author has to create everything—from species to geography to cities to political systems to world history to religions. If you read Tolkien or Moon, you will find the most incredible of alternate worlds. Every single detail, from the shoes the characters wear to the animals they ride to the weapons they use to the languages they speak, is otherworldly. Yet there is, underneath the fantastic, an element of “truth” to these fantasy worlds, for even fantasy needs to contain some truth in order to draw readers into that necessary suspension of disbelief.
One of the best examples is found in Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion (a single volume containing the first three books in a so-far eleven-book series, starting with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter). Paksenarrion runs away from home to join a mercenary company. What makes Moon’s fantasy work particularly well, when many other authors have come up short in similar tales, is Moon was a U.S. Marine, and her military knowledge brings a realism, or “truth,” to the story’s training, marching, and battle sequences unmatched by other fantasy writers who do not have Moon’s first-hand experience. The very human Paks is fighting all sorts of fantasy creatures: orcs and gnomes, black elves and rock creatures—the stories abound in strange and magical creatures. But at the heart of the fantastic is a coming-of-age story of a young woman seeking more to life than to be sold into marriage by her father to a neighboring pig farmer. This is high heroic fantasy at its best as we follow Paks from refugee to fighting mercenary to sword-wielding magical paladin of Gird—all set in an entirely fictional world complete with social, religious, and political complexity.
Of course there’s nothing new about fantasy. Aesop’s fables (6th century BC) and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (AD 19th century) are full of fantasy, not to mention folklore from all over the world, in which talking animals, vampires, witches, shapeshifters, fairies, ghosts, and goblins interact with the human race. Many a contemporary writer has cashed in by writing a new version of a traditional fairy tale, and even if you don’t want to rewrite a known tale, you can still write in the fairy tale style, using many of the creatures and themes found therein.
But you should do your homework before you write, because while your elves (for example) don’t have to be exactly like the elves of Middle-earth (Tolkien)—and in fact, they shouldn’t be—elves do have their origins in ancient Northern European mythology, and they have certain characteristics and powers that prove fairly standard across cultural lines. Though like any other mythological creature, elves vary somewhat from culture to culture, your readers will expect elves to look and act a certain way, and in order to keep your readers in your story, you will want to meet their expectations for all your fantastical creatures by thoroughly researching their origins before you write.
The next time, we’ll look at what readers expect from mystery/detective stories.
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com