As a speculative fiction writer, I get this one a lot. Sure, it doesn’t come as a blatant question, clearly and confidently asked by the curious outsider. That would be a welcome deviation from the norm. Instead, the question generally comes up like this:
Narrow-Minded Stranger: So what do you do for a living?
Me: Well, I spend a lot of my time writing.
Narrow-Minded Stranger: Is that so? What do you write?
Me: Novels, primarily.
Narrow-Minded Stranger: How…interesting. What genre?
Me: Umm… well, I write speculative fiction, primarily. So fantasy and sci-fi, which is what I’ve always loved to read.
Narrow-Minded Stranger: Uh huh. That’s…interesting. Well…nice to meet you, take care, bye!
In cases like this, the implied question is not “Why fantasy?”, but rather “Why in the world would you bother to write about that nonsense? Are you an adult, or aren’t you? Dragons and unicorns aren’t real. GET A REAL JOB, weirdo.”
Of course, most people don’t say that outright—I sort of wish they would. At least we could have a conversation, if they’re willing to directly express their confusion! But either way, the question is plain on their faces. If I had to estimate, I’d guess that writing this genre—by choice—is perplexing to 90% of the people I meet in casual conversation settings. Perhaps I often find myself in unusually biased rooms, but more often than not, when I get to the point in the conversation where I mention my genre, people look at me like the weird uncle of the writing world that nobody wants to admit they’re related to.
I’ll resist the temptation to rant about the inherent value of writing in general, and why fiction matters. If you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need to hear that argument, anyway. But I do think it’s worth taking some time to discuss my specific desire to write fantasy, as opposed to other genres of fiction.
Because this is the way my brain works, I’ve broken my thoughts down into three segments: Well of Infinite Possibility, Soul-Satisfying Victories, and Visions of What C(Sh)ould Be.
Well of Infinite Possibility
One of the most obvious benefits of fantasy—though some argue this is a drawback—is the well of infinite possibility that is inherent to the genre. Fantasy writers get to break all of the rules, as long as they do so in a believable way. Magic, imagined in various forms, becomes a natural, readily-accepted thread of the environment. Animals can talk, and fantastic creatures can exist alongside humans like us.
Let’s take a moment to sit back and explore some of these categories of ‘reality’ that are at least partially confined in other (non-speculative) genres:
-laws of gravity
-species of plants and animals
-existence of non-human, sentient beings
-geography, climate, and weather patterns
-cultural customs and norms
-laws of physics and nature
And that is just a sampling from the top of my head! It quickly becomes apparent that there is a great creative expanse available to the fantasy writer. Our minds are not restricted by the world that we reside in—we can create entirely new worlds!
The ability to stretch the bounds of what is already known to us in our world is 1) exquisitely freeing from a creative standpoint and 2) great practice for our interaction with the “real world.” As we delve into the creation and exploration of worlds where anything at all is possible and plausible (at least at the beginning), then we develop a habit of thinking outside the box in the world around us. Creative problem solving skills increase, and we become accustomed to seeing challenges and obstacles from a fresh, innovative perspective.
Consider a common outline of fantasy fiction: a mostly unremarkable individual endures trials, injuries, adverse weather conditions, relational betrayal, abuse, hunger, thirst, self-doubt, and/or self-reliance until they reach the end of the road and find a way to defeat the villain, often with the help of some trusted friends.
At its heart, I believe fantasy captures our attention because it is a battle between good and evil — it fuels our hunger to defeat our own demons, and come out on the other side victorious.
While drafting this post, I came across an absolutely phenomenal explanation of this concept from an article in The Atlantic written by Joe Fassler:
“The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them.”
Which one of us, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t love to physically separate ourselves from our own demons—our pride, envy, self-loathing, self-righteousness, anger, bitterness, FEAR—and triumphantly stab it through the heart with a gleaming, magically-bedazzled sword? Fantasy takes the internal battles that we are fighting on a daily basis, and thrusts them into the realm of tangibility, where we can touch those enemies, and name them, and identify their weaknesses.
I completely agree with Fassler’s statement above—fantasy is anything but escapism. Sure, nestling down to explore a new world is satisfying, and we don’t have to directly think about our never-ending to-do list while we read. But for all practical purposes, most fantasy stories center on a real, relatable person: a person much like you or me, with problems, relationships, questions, fears, doubts, and competing priorities. They are average people, interacting with remarkable places and things. And as we journey with them, we have an opportunity to seek out our own dragons, and to find that unlikely but feasible moment to strike our death-blow to the dragon's heart.
Fantasy says “Yes, you can. You can conquer big, fire-breathing obstacles and achieve impossible goals.” And honestly, we could all probably stand to hear that a little more often in our daily lives.
Visions of What C(Sh)ould Be
Above all, for me, fantasy fills the gaps in a world that is full of wounds—the world is not as it should be, and fantasy shows me what it might look like if the world were righted.
If this sounds like romanticism, you’re tracking with me so far. Romanticism is definitely involved, and I will not deny my own tendency to idealize and romanticize the larger world around me, as well as my own unique circumstances and relationships. But beyond that, when we dig a little deeper, fantasy points to the source of romanticism: why do I want more than the world delivers? Why am I frequently disappointed, and the bar never feels like it is met? Why do I dream of unicorns and imaginary places and knights and adventures?
Because this world is broken, and it is not enough to satisfy the deepest, truest longings of my heart.
My faith intersects with this conversation out of necessity, as opposed to intention or convenience—it is impossible for me to separate my beliefs from the romanticism that compels me to write and read fantasy. A Christian believes that the world is broken by sin, and that the world will be restored someday. We believe that sin separated us from God, and God, desiring to restore us back to him, sacrificed his only son Jesus—who died willingly for us—to draw us near to God. The story is in-progress, and we wait in eager anticipation for God’s full restoration of our world. In the meantime, we try to pull reflections of his kingdom down into a broken world.
If you haven’t read the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, it is a fictional, step-by-step window into the story of God’s interaction with our broken world, and his efforts to bring us home. Regardless of your beliefs, it is a compelling, inspired, masterfully-written story that is well worth your time. But the final chapter of that series is what captures my attention the most, and the final scene comes to mind immediately when I consider the fantasy question.
In The Last Battle, the various individuals that we have journeyed alongside across the entire series find themselves together in a new, rich, radiant Narnia. They run without tiring, and swim up waterfalls; they are reunited with many of their dearest companions, and delight in the freedom and joy of a Narnia without darkness, without winter, without evil. Most of all, they bask in the warmth of Aslan’s presence, knowing that they will never be cast out or parted from him again.
I am drawn to fantasy because I know in the depths of my self that Lewis's new Narnia is anything but fictional—Aslan is going to make the world right, cast out the darkness forever, and bring me home. And so I immerse myself in these magical worlds, because they remind me every day that I’m not home yet. In a world full of pain and suffering and ugliness, this is one of the most sustaining truths that I can feed on internally: I am not home yet, but someday I will be. The kingdom of God is revealed in the magic and mystery and endless possibility of fantasy, pointing to a world without sin, death, guilt, or shame—a world where evil can be fully and indisputably conquered forever.
Now that I have actually taken the time to sit down and lay out my arguments for my personal attraction to fantasy, and its inherent value as a genre, I realize that it would be a tad overwhelming for someone to actually ask the question directly—the explanation is not simple, straightforward, or shallow. Perhaps some people would listen, and perhaps after all of this, they would still walk away with wide eyes and crinkled noses. But even if every single person on the planet told me that this was a waste of time and a worthless pursuit, I know without a doubt that I am on the right track. No, it isn’t always easy to feel that way in the moment that someone is insulting my profession. But when I sit alone in a quiet room and weigh the value of fantasy apart from the opinions of the world, fantasy always wins.
If you are a fantasy lover (reader or writer!), I hope you find an inherent, untouchable purpose in your love of the genre, an argument for pursuing your work that cannot be stolen away by any snobby, narrow-minded haters. Encounter unicorns. Journey to faraway lands. I will be beside you on the road, seeking out my own dragons to slay. Or for the Hobb fans — waiting in eager anticipation for the day that I can finally carve my dragon