People have been telling a form of fantasy stories for as long storytelling has existed. Even when the hearers or readers believed them, tales of the gods, of floods and warriors with superhuman powers still had strong fantastic elements.
Yet not every fantasy has lasting power, where it gets passed down from one generation to the next. With so many versions and variations being created, it’s inevitable that some will be forgotten while others are treasured.
So what makes a fantasy “stick around”? What gives it staying power and lets it remain on our shelves and reading lists, year after year?
- Relatability. Memorable fantasy stories frequently involve a situation readers can relate to, whether it involves being the “ugly duckling” or the weakest member of the tribe. Or its relatability may come out in the theme, where the story deals with unrequited love, insatiable curiosity, or the blessings of being kind to those around us, but one way or the other, the story must find a way for us to root for the characters.
Most ancient fantasy stories don’t necessarily have what I’d call “compelling characters.” The focus isn’t on who these people are but on what they’re facing and what they do–a far more active narrative approach than most modern fantasies–yet the task remains the same. Whether through theme, plot, or characterization, we have to make the readers and listeners care about the people in the story.
- Longing. The most memorable of fantasy stories feature something we deeply want in the core of the story, whether it is to be beautiful, to be loved, or to vanquish evil in our world. This is where story archetypes come in–using motifs like a dying character saving someone or something and then coming back to life, a poor girl becoming chosen from among her peers, or the lost being found. It isn’t just wish-fulfillment, where every whim is satisfied, but it’s about reaffirming something deeper in our human natures. We long for certain things to be true, to really happen, and memorable fantasy stories tap into this longing and make it a reality.
The affirmation of longing doesn’t mean that every story will have a happy ending, though. The original Little Mermaid is all about the longing to be loved, yet she never gets what she wants. She yearns and hopes and dies…and through the story, reaffirms that, yes, this longing is true and real and deep, even if it never is satisfied.
- Imagery. Finally, memorable fantasies use strong, clear mental images to keep a story fixed in our mind. Whether it’s Penelope at her loom, Sleeping Beauty and the spindle (or later, her lying artistically on the bed, waiting for true love’s kiss), Cinderella and her shoe, Smaug attacking Laketown, or Lucy slipping into the wardrobe, there are clear pictures to illustrate what happens, and they add to the strength of the story. We don’t just read what happens; we witness it as well, through our imagination with the help of the narration’s distinct imagery.
With the help of these three elements, a fantasy tale can go from being just “one of many” to being the one that people recall and revisit, time and time again, year after year.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Image by Moonlightway, Creative Commons