Fantasy as a genre has become extraordinarily popular with young adults, movie makers, and television viewers. Its unique abandonment of the world we know lets you have complete control of the world you create–there are no true rules in fantasy.
Which should make writing fantasy easier…right?
I don’t think so, and having read and reviewed many fantasy stories, I think it’s actually harder to write a good fantasy than to write a story set in our own world (at least, a contemporary novel in our own world). So, to examine this a little further, I want to include some quotes from J. R. R. Tolkien, who did a fantastic job creating a detailed history and complex fantasy world.
“The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”
By its very nature of being broad, an author may be tempted to discuss or include the wide imaginative range of things he’s created, even if they have nothing to do with the story he’s telling.
“In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.”
Because a fantasy is filled with things that come directly from our imagination, it makes telling that story tricky. We can’t just say a few words and make our ideas understood, because we aren’t discussing a world that others have seen or visited. We have to not only tell a convincing story, but create a convincing world for that story, all without becoming didactic or wordy.
“Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough—though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.
“To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story- making in its primary and most potent mode.”
Nowadays, it doesn’t seem as though “few” attempt “such tasks” anymore, and while readers of fantasy may rejoice at the wider range of novels available, there are some (like myself) who are dissatisfied with the details of these novels. We want other worlds we can believe in, where it feels like it developed as the results of generations of people, and not as the product of an author sitting at a keyboard.
So, if you’re thinking about writing a fantasy, please take the time to do it well. Don’t just give your society zeppelins, towering wigs, slaves, trolls, and goblins on a whim. Make each decision based on how the world runs. Even if it takes a while to delve into how such a world would work, and why, it will create a far stronger fictional world (and novel) as a result.
And a strong imaginative world becomes part of our literary traditions, a portal that we carve into stone for generations to cross. It becomes a dream we long to relive.
And wouldn’t you rather write that than just another story?
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by Jacky, Creative Commons