Why Read (and Write) Fantasy

Why Read (and Write) Fantasy

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.

Traditional fantasy

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

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!


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10 thoughts on “Why Read (and Write) Fantasy

  1. I, too, dislike “too much magic”, Dorothy. I grew up with, or encountered as an adult, talking pigs, warrior mice, evil-working cauldrons, controlling rings, and many more magical characters and objects. I loved those stories, and still do.

    But the real power in a story, what resolves the problem and overcomes the evil, must be the decisions, the actions, the courage and cleverness and daring and persistence and generosity of the (usually human) characters, not the enchanted swords, special charms, elven-forged rings or magic wands. As you point out, employing magic should cause trouble, not stop it.

    Fantasy authors who follow the precepts you note above usually write the kinds of stories I like to read!

    1. Thanks, Susan. Sometimes I think I’m in the wrong genre, because I am uncomfortable with some magic, and yet, here I am. 🙂

  2. Love it: “Rather it’s a way to get at reality in a more vivid and heartfelt way.”

    Maybe my love for the pace of pulp is showing here, but reality is often too subtle or too filled with grey areas to tell a really sharp story. Fantastical elements let you spotlight the points you want. The morality is a lot clearer when your villain is a banker with 10 tentacles threatening foreclosure than if the villain is just a vanilla banker threatening foreclosure.

    Plus fantastical elements can be a lot a fun; a talking dog can inject a point of view you don’t normally think about.

    Or they can can be your MacGuffin that drives your story in way that reality wouldn’t go.
    No one every trekked into Mordor to return a found wedding ring.

    1. OK. Now I need to write a story:
      Kim finds an expensive wedding ring with an engraved name.
      When the aforementioned be-tentacled banker threatens foreclosure on the family homestead she finds that she is morally unable to sell the the ring for the money.
      But it’s still the only hope she’s got so she finds herself trekking deep into forbidden Mordor (with the serial numbers filed off) with a cast of unlikely characters accompanying her.

        1. OK, this is funny.


          Greg van Eekhout’s “The Boy at the End of the World”

          “In a future world, Fisher is the last boy on earth. But evidence suggests there may be a far-away survival bunk with other humans. In order to get there, he’ll need to rely on a ragtag team he assembles, including a robot, a mammoth, and a prairie dog with basic English skills. Readers will be riveted as this unlikely team races toward survival.”

          * Bunker not banker: Close enough – check
          * Talking Dog – check
          * Trek into Mordor with serial numbers filed off: Could be – check
          * Wedding ring – Not mentioned in promo text. But how does Fisher learn about that bunker? Hmmm?

  3. I really liked this! So many of the stories I love are speculative, even though I, too, am uncomfortable with magic. I think you’re right that a fantasy setting lets you put a young character into danger in a way you can’t in a more “realistic” book. And the best fantasies are emotionally very realistic, IMHO.

    Good post, and congrats on your new book!

    1. “Emotionally realistic” is it exactly! The characters are what has to feel real. They’re what we have to care about. Without that, plot is just going through the motions.

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