Failing at Figuring Out Fantasy

In a creative writing workshop a few years ago a friend of mine had finally worked up the courage to submit her newest piece.

“So what do we have for us today, Eleanor?” I remember our teaching asking.

“It’s a fantasy epic, about twin sisters learning how to harness their innate auras.”

Our teacher let out a long audible sigh. “Well,” he said, “At least it isn’t zombies.”

As I’ve gotten older I’ve tried to conquer my literary biases. Most of the time it’s a simple matter of finding an author that speaks to the styles and themes that interest you. Even though I found most science fiction to be the equivalent of wading through countless metric tons of techno-babble, there is the rare author that can make me appreciate the inherent advantages that science fiction can give.

But the one egg I haven’t been able to crack is Fantasy. I’ve done my homework – I’ve read Lord of The Rings, dabbled in Harry Potter, even gave Game of Thrones a go. But even in the best of circumstances my response is always an abstract thought rather than a raw emotion. Scenes that have made my friends weep in Harry Potter leave me thinking “Well, that was competently written.” We are apparently on different wavelengths.

And that would be fine, except I like to give rational reasons for the way I feel. I recognize that a memoir is usually a solipsistic journey into the fraught world of internal conflict. Crime fiction appeals to so many of us because it usually posits a way to confront and deconstruct random chaos. Poetry is meant to hang around your mind for weeks on end, its meaning only revealing itself once your subconscious has wrestled it into submission.

But fantasy? I’m still left cold. I can objectively speak to questions of craft, of dramatic stakes, of giving thematic weight to fictonal landscapes. But subjectively? I am completely at a loss.

In discussing this with another writing friend, he noted that his reason for disliking fantasy (and most genre work) is that the trappings often become more important than the characters. Bad writing runs rampant in amateur workshops because people get hung up on the details instead of realizing that, say, there’s no dramatic conflict for the first twenty pages. And I’m willing to buy part of that argument, but even before I started showing up to workshops I had an innate dislike for the world of fantasy. Bad writing or not, my personal feelings towards the genre have very little to do with the fantasy writing (some good, some bad, and some excellent) I’ve seen in workshops.

So let’s try broadening out the question. For those who like to read fantasy, what part of it appeals to you?

Is it the focus on adolescent/teen empowerment? I fucking devour teen fiction (including the horrible stuff), but the second you give Johhny the ability to flick fireballs from his fingers my emotional reader just switches off.

Is it the ability to explore a world and society alien to ours? I somehow managed to make it through 1984’s longwinded historical section (if you’ve read it, you’ll know it) but found Lord of the Rings to be one of the most excruciating reads of my life. No, I do not care who this characters father, mother, and best friend were. Just get on with it, for chrissakes.

Or is it just about the inherent coolness in getting to shoot fireballs out of your fingertips? Is a love for fantasy tied to our childhood? Did I miss out because my mother used to hand me threadbare copies of Nancy Drew mysteries instead of  Pratchett’s Discworld?

One last note to further muddy the waters. This inability to connect with the fantasy genre extends to multiple mediums. Whether its Willingham’s Fables, NBC’s Grimm, orBethesda’s Skyrim my response mirrors the sigh my instructor once gave.

Rich, Alex, I know that this is your guy’s home turf. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you write fantasy – what drew you towards it in the first place and what’s made you return to it again and again?

Oh, and I should probably mention – Not much a fan of zombies either, cultural zeitgeist be damned.

Steve Timberman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeyna Grace
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 10:38:24

    The unrealistic-ness, if there’s such a word, of a fantasy story is the main reason why i love fantasy.


  2. Mister Sugar (@rabbitwithagun)
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 10:42:32

    Apologies for the long reply, but I write science fiction, and there’s lots of fantasy and SF on my bookshelves. The motivation for reading is often escapism: good fantasy, SF (and historical fiction) takes you outside your own culture without engaging in ‘cultural tourism’. An example of crass cultural tourism is the memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where the writer gratuitously travels to do the things she could have done in New York.

    Good fantasy often explores ‘what if?’ questions through setting and metaphor, as well as character. For example, Embassytown by China Mieville is science fiction, but it could easily be fantasy. Good science fiction extrapolates from today’s science and technology; good fantasy speculates about other societies, etc. that aren’t possible. Embassytown is a book about language, metaphor and simile told through a story about aliens. I’d definitely recommend it:

    The books you mention: Lord of the Rings, and George R.R. Martin’s books are extremely similar. They’re both epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings, when it was published, was innovative because the depth of world-building and his use of myth. I don’t think he’s a good place to start reading because you can’t turn back time, and he’s spawned numerous imitators. George R. R. Martin is simply writing dynastic family drama with violence. Harry Potter is light reading like Dan Brown: it’s a fun read where you don’t need to think too hard.

    Other modern fantasy writers like Joe Abercrombie are fascinating because they explore characters a western author might find too politically controversial to tackle in contemporary literature. Inquisitor Glokta in The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie has been disfigured and disabled by torture, and now works as a torturer himself. Joe Abercrombie tries to get inside this guy’s head to explore his motivations and morality. I’m unsure how successful he is, but it’s fascinating to read. I think there might be magic in The Blade Itself, but I don’t remember it.

    I agree about zombies (and vampires). I think they’ve passed the point in popular culture where they’re scary or meaningful. For this reason, if you like comedy, I must recommend Married with Zombies ( It’s about marriage counselling in a zombie apocalypse (tagline is ‘the couple who slays together, stays together’) and the author knows the zombie trope is overdone. The protagonists immediately realise they’re in a zombie apocalypse and decide how to kill the zombies based on their knowledge of zombie movies. Each chapter starts with a parody of a ‘feel good’ tip from a relationship self-help book.

    Writing science fiction and fantasy is, in many ways, harder than writing contemporary fiction because you have to create the world AND the characters. You end up running a huge model of society, science and technology in your head. For this reason, some of the results invariably don’t ring true. Fantasy is especially difficult because you can’t assume Earth’s laws of physics. Fantasy authors are the people who sit about thinking ‘in a world where I could shoot fireballs from my fingers, would I need to fill in a tax return?’

    I love asking this type of question and chatting about my answers, which is why I write genre fiction. Only this morning I was thinking about how, if technology means we don’t need to kill intelligent animals for food or experimentation, they might acquire the same legal rights as human children of similar intelligence. In that world, how would they reclaim their voice and heritage? For example, the first Earth astronaut would no longer be Yuri Gagarin, but a girl called Laika. If we ever colonise another world, will we have statues of men in space suits or a statue like this one ( The minute you have one SF character meet another under a statue in a square, you need to ask that question.


  3. Alexandra Little
    Nov 29, 2011 @ 11:54:03

    I’ve been contemplating a post on fantasy since the blog was proposed. My answer to your question is turning into a critical thesis, so give me a few days and I’ll get back to you on that!


  4. obiwannabe
    Dec 01, 2011 @ 19:11:00

    Why write fantasy?

    Because the steel is sharp, and the laws are cloudy.

    Because the pits are dark, and torches gutter.

    Because there is no need for explanation, or justification

    Because you can have a purple goblin sucker-punch a dragon, a noble minotaur strumming a lute made of stolen moonbeams, and a half-elven, half-DARK ELVEN maiden break your heart from the back of a crimson unicorn.

    Literally break your heart – she cast a spell that crystallized it into Soul Ice, and her gauntlets are enchanted by a fire daemon.

    Because, because, because….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


wordpress stats
%d bloggers like this: