Why Fantasy Works….

Very occasionally, when I say I write fantasy, the listener imagines I write sex fantasies. I won’t go there, except to say I haven’t worked out a really good reply to that one yet.
Occasionally I get someone saying, ‘Oh, I’m afraid I don’t read science fiction. I like my books to be real.’ Or something along those lines. They don’t mean non-fiction, though; they mean books set in our time and place, or at least in known history of this world. Usually I don’t say much, but I could point out that fiction is…well, fictional. It’s not real, folks.
Often I have the person say, ‘Oh you mean things like Harry Potter?’
My reply, ‘Yeah, Harry Potter without the money.’
Best of all is when someone replies, ‘Oh, do you? I love fantasy! What name do you write under?’
For them, fantasy works. They like to read it. Ask them why, and you get a whole slew of answers from different people that seem at first to have little in common. But I believe they mostly can be condensed down to two reasons.
Firstly, many of us live in a world where we are relatively powerless. We look around and wonder what we can do to stop global warming, and our own government won’t sign the Kyoto Protocol. We don’t throw our rubbish on the footpaths, but we have to wade through other people’s litter. We pay our taxes and take pride in the things it buys for our citizens – schools, hospitals, health care – but the mega rich squirrel away their money in dodgy tax havens and claim their fancy cars as business expenses. We teach science, and the teacher in the next classroom is busy telling her students there’s no such thing as evolution.
Most of us are just small people in a big world, wondering if we’ll ever make an impact on things that really matter. 
But when we read, we can fulfill our dreams. We can identify with the little guy who does great things. For a moment, we can be the Hobbit doing huge deeds, or the citizenless girl living feral in a cemetery who grows up to be Blaze Halfbreed, making a difference to a whole archipelago of islands.
In fantasy terrible things can happen, but because they happen in a world that doesn’t exist anywhere except on the printed page, we aren’t traumatised by them. Read a book like “Room” – brilliant literary fiction about a boy born and brought up in the tiny room where his mother is imprisoned as a sex slave – and we can come away feeling distressed because we know it happens. In our world. Now.
In fantasy we can make it all come good in the end if we want. In the real world, we don’t have that choice.
The second reason is that reading fantasy stretches our imaginations. There’s a “wow” factor. You never know what’s around the next corner. The sensawunda. The fabulous, the weird, the wondrous. You can get this in today’s fiction-set-in-this-world too, but there are always limits before it slips across into fantasy or paranormal or science fiction. But in fantasy, a good writer can convince you – for a while – that their world is viable, and take you along for the ride of a lifetime.
To me, those two reasons encapsulate why we read fantasy. 
What do you think?
 Pics from my foreign language editions.


Why Fantasy Works…. — 12 Comments

  1. Love the pix Glenda, I am assuming all from foreign versions of Isles of Glory?

    Yes, I think you are right about why people read fantasy. In my case it takes me away from my humdrum existence too and gives one's imagination free reign to follow the protagonists to an exciting finish. My Blaze Halfbreed probably doesn't look like your Blaze, but it doesn't matter does it?

    At the same time I agree we tend to feel helpless to improve things in our own world and to imagine having magic to enable us to correct it is an irresistible temptation. Finally though, I like fantasy 'cos its a good read.

    I think writers tend to analyse things far more than readers do; if I can believe in the characters you create and the worlds you create for them to inhabit and then weave a good story around it, you've got me every time.

  2. For me, reading good fantasy is like stepping through a portal to another world to meet up with the characters and join their journey.

    How this differs from regular fiction is that the worlds involved are different to our earthly one and invoke that sense of wonder and curiosity to explore further.

  3. My mother never read fantasy – she said it was too much like her nightmares!

    Peter – I think that is why I read fantasy too. It takes you that one step further than most fiction. Mind you, I read that too.

  4. I was not a fantasy fan, until my husband and I worked out a deal – he read a favorite series of mine and I read one of his.

    Good fiction is good fiction. It's believable… you remember it like a movie you've seen, rather than words you've read… and when that is set in a world so completely different than the road that I live on, the writer has not only told you a story of relationships, but designed an entire world for your mind to play in.

  5. Annie, I've always thought it odd how many times people say, "Oh, I would never read fantasy…" and then will tell you how much they enjoyed "Lost" or "X-files" on TV, or "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings"! If only they knew how much richer it is when you do the work and imagine it…

  6. Boy do I ever agree with that Glenda. If ever I see a book made into film I am frequently disappointed in the appearance of the characters who don't look anything like I imagined. Or the world doesn't – on the other hand, for your sake, I hope someone wants to make a movie of your books.

  7. As I mentioned, I have just re-read The Last Stormlord and with the ability to use both animation and humans in film, I think seeing pedes and ziggers would work very well. I really enjoyed the book a second time by the way, I had forgotten a lot. Now started Stormlord Rising. The salt flats would be very easy to portra wouldn't they?

  8. Hi Glenda: Based on what you said, I will try to read science fiction the next time I pop into the bookstore. I hope you won't consider me rude but the only sci-fi I have been reading is Terry Pratchett (well up to now at least since your post has quite enlightened me why I should be reading more). It's Mr Pratchett's wit that gets me rolling on the floor with glee. The other sci-fi book I read last year was one by a Singaporean writer called Joan Hon. I shall be looking out for sci-fi now that you've made me more than a wee bit curious.

  9. No, of course we don't get mad! In fact we often use SF to cover both. I think maybe pure scientific SF folk might tear their hair out in private, but they are well used to the term covering fantasy and horror and alternative history too.

    Anyway, Mary, thanks for dropping by, and I hope we have turned you into a fantasy reader! If you like Terry Pratchett, you'll feel at home…

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