Not infrequently, I run into adults who are clearly skeptical about fantasy novels. Sometimes they even ask why I write fantasy rather than something “real.” These same adults roll their eyes when their kids read Rick Riordan or J. K. Rowling and say, “Well, at least they’re reading,” as if a fantasy novel is some sort of lesser book that might build a bridge to “real” reading.
In at least one way, I understand that skepticism because I’m an intensely practical person who’s uncomfortable with too much magic. Fantasies sometimes create “special” characters who are wish fulfillment rather than real people. A good rule of thumb is that the ability to use magic should get the character into more trouble than it gets them out of.
In the case of young adults, fantasy has a real advantage. It allows a writer to put young characters in dangerous situations they wouldn’t face in Ames, Iowa, for instance. If the writer is clever enough, fantasy lets them take a dilemma a young reader might face in our world and show it acted out in a way our world doesn’t allow.
Readers can follow characters is stressful situations because, for instance, in a quasi-medieval world, young characters aren’t stuck in school all day. Anyone who remembers high school knows that being locked up there can be pretty maddening. Adults boss you around and you have to do what they say no matter how unreasonable it is. And that doesn’t touch the jungle world of life among your fellow adolescents.
But in a traditional fantasy world, characters take on responsibilities that we reserve for adults. Most notably, they work, meaning they interact with adults and wider events. Their families often depend on the results of their labor to survive. They sometimes have to make decisions that affect another character’s survival or the way a war will turn out. In other words, in such a setting, a writer can up the stakes and strengthen tension.
For example, in The Wind Reader, a series of events leaves fifteen-year-old Doniver marooned in a city far from home. He can’t phone his mother and tell her where he is. There’s no social safety net to look after him. He doesn’t stand out to an authority because he’s skipping school. He’s on his own figuring out how to scrape together enough money for food and shelter. As a consequence, he winds up doing some desperate things that test him and make him grow as a person.
Urban fantasy achieves the same goal by throwing powerful supernatural creatures into our world, so again the young character has to engage in a bigger than life struggle.
Given how crappy school can be, readers may be relieved to identify with someone not slumped in a desk. As a writer, I like being able to expose a character to danger and increase what’s at stake if the character screws up.
Fantasy can be real
Not all genres speak to all readers, but for me, fantasy isn’t “unreal.” Rather it’s a way to get at reality in a more vivid and heartfelt way.
Author note: The e-version of The Wind Reader is now available for pre-order. Yay!