The fantasy genre gets a bad rap. People tend to think fantasy is for people who want to imagine they can do magic. Like children playing pretend.
“Fantasy? That’s the genre for people who want to escape into magical MAGICLAND. It’s a genre for people who can’t grow up and read SERIOUS fiction.”
The main mistake in my estimation is that people think the fantasy genre is about MAGIC, when in fact, any fantasy reader you ask can tell you it’s about a LOT more than that.
What ARE fantasy books about if not just magic?
Why do people like to read them if not to escape into wand-waving unicorn fairyland?
I’m sure there are MANY many answers to these questions, but I boiled the appeal of the genre down to three main elements.
1. The Experience of Exploration
This is what an average fantasy book looks like:
Look how absurdly THICK that is. While genres like mystery, romance, and thrillers often clock in at around 60,000-90,000 words, fantasy novels are almost ALWAYS in the 100,000-120,000 range. What’s IN there? Does MAGIC take up that much space?
What makes fantasy books so ginormous is WORLDBUILDING.
Fantasy books feature worlds where just about EVERYTHING is different from the world we know.
There’s a different world map, different countries, different languages, different social structures, jobs, art, food, and perhaps most importantly–different CULTURES, a different HISTORY, and different NATURAL LAWS.
Fantasy books will spend PAGES and PAGES describing all of this. THIS is what fantasy readers come to the genre for. As a matter of fact, people TRAVEL for the same reason: to explore new places, experience new cultures, to consider a different way of living than your own. Learning about new environments is exciting, and put most simply:
Fantasy readers LOVE the experience of being at the LOW end of a learning curve.
You get to be shocked and surprised, you get to experience wonder, you witness customs and consider scenarios that you never would have thought of from within the confines of your own life bubble. None of it is complex–you’re just learning the basics, so it’s not difficult, there’s just a LOT of it. And the way fantasy readers see it, the more the better!
Magic is a PART of this, but often a much smaller and much different part than non-readers would assume. Magic is just another factor in WORLDBUILDING. It’s not about DOING magic but the IMPACT of magic on the world: Does magical talent correspond with social status? Does magic create new careers? Does it affect how people live day to day? How people live? What they talk about? What they eat?
When magic IS done, it’s most often used to convey one of two experiences. If the magic of the fantasy world is systemized, learning about magic is like discovering a new science. You learn the rules, what people have accomplished with those rules, where the cutting edge is and where scholars hope to take it, etc.
If the magic is not systemized and remains unexplained (like in Lord of the Rings for example), then the magic will evoke a sense of WONDER at the unknown–another of those bottom-of-the-learning-curve emotions that fantasy readers love.
All in all, fantasy readers like exploring, they like wonder, they like considering the impact of the fantastical much more than doing the fantastical.
2. The Notion of a Hidden Talent
With all that said, fantasy, like any fiction, IS wish fulfillment.
However, that label easily leads to oversimplification. Take the ROMANCE genre as an example.
Romance is wish fulfillment for LOVE. But if it was just about falling in love per se, you could write about ANY kind of romance. If you look at romance stories, that’s not the case. There are SPECIFIC tropes in romance: forbidden love, unlikely love, characters who don’t want love who find it, characters who don’t think anyone could love them who find someone who does. It’s not as simple as just “falling in love”, the CONTEXT of romance tropes shows that a much DEEPER and more complex wish is being fulfilled. (What that wish fulfillment is specifically is for a future post.)
It’s the same with magic. There most common context of magic is the HIDDEN TALENT, e.g. “You’re a wizard, Harry!”
Once again, it’s not about DOING magic, it’s about being SPECIAL. Even in fantasy stories that are heavy on magic, there’s often less focus on DOING magic and much more on what being able to do magic MEANS for the protagonist. He goes from being a nobody to being SOMEBODY. His social circle changes. He becomes famous, respected, sometimes even loved. Most importantly, his outlook on his own future changes. He’s no longer the farmboy whose life will never amount to anything, he’s the WIZARD who is capable of GREAT things! He’s going to change the world!
Everyone wants something they’re naturally good at, and magic is PERFECT for that fantasy. We figure out pretty early on whether we have talents for academics, art, and sports. Once the big name talents are out of the question, what’s left isn’t THAT exciting. Sure we secretly could be the world’s greatest Pac Man player but who really cares about that? (Sorry Billy Mitchell.)
But take magic and let’s be honest–EVERYONE who reads Harry Potter thinks, “If magic did exist, I’d be AWESOME at it!” We simply CANNOT have that thought about painting or music or anything we can actually DO, but when it comes to magic we can forever have confidence in our own would-be potential and never be proved wrong.
3. The Emotions of High Fantasy
Different genres lend themselves to different experiences. Different experiences lend themselves to different emotions.
A slice of life school drama lends itself to experiences of first love, friendship, bullying, worrying about the future, dealing with home life, etc.
A thriller lends itself to experiences of puzzle solving, suspense, mystery, surprise, betrayal, etc.
People come to the fantasy genre because they want that specific bundle of experiences and emotions that ONLY fantasy can offer.
They want to experience wonder, to witness grand acts of courage, to admire larger-than-life heroes, and to explore the unknown. These subjects simply don’t FIT into the kinds of stories other genres tell, but fantasy gives us the PARADIGM experiences of these emotions. Nothing feels more heroic than slaying a dragon. I can sublimate that experience to “standing up to a bully in school”, but if I want the emotion in its rawest form–give me a dragon to slay, a black knight to fight, a colossus to kill.
For whatever reason, these paradigms of heroism and adventure feel the purest and strongest in the human psyche. Heroes to us, at least in this generation and this culture, MEANS the swords-and-sorcery of the high fantasy context.
Game of Thrones (or the Song of Ice and Fire) is one of the best examples of what the fantasy genre can offer. Game of Thrones is about family rivalries, power struggles, political intrigue, exploration of remote lands, swashbuckling action, battle scenes, sex, and many other things.
If you break it down into parts like this, you can have family rivalries in a period drama, power struggles and political intrigue in a political drama, exploration in historical fiction, swashbuckling action in adventure stories, battles in military fiction, sex in romance, etc.
But what is the ONLY genre that can support ALL of these in ONE story?
Hopefully this post provides a little insight into the fantasy genre fort the non-fantasy reader.
What got me thinking about the misunderstood nature of fantasy was the Asian Saga by James Clavell:
These books are NOT fantasy at all, they’re historical fiction. But as a fantasy reader, I KNEW I would enjoy them. Why? Because they were geared towards the same elements as fantasy: exploring a new world, a new culture, a whole different way of life, etc. I’d be on the low end of the learning curve where there’s TONS of interesting stuff to learn. And even though there’s no magic to function as a hidden natural talent, the story was ABOUT the same kind of epic, heroic, larger-than-life, world-changing characters. The stories evoke a sense of honor, courage, and wonder that I think any fantasy reader would enjoy.
Magic IS a defining factor of the genre, but it’s the magical WORLD–more specifically a world unlike OUR world and a life unlike OUR lives–which is the real attraction of the genre. To label this as escapism would be equivalent to labeling world travel as escapism. To simplify it as child’s pretend play shows a clear unfamiliarity with the genre.
Put simply, it’s not all magical unicorn wizards.
(Not that we don’t want to see more magical unicorn wizards in fantasy. We totally do.)