We’ve been talking about genre in my Writing Group lately, and last week’s topic was Fantasy. I’m a longtime fan of the genre, but I realized that I’ve never really articulated what I love about it. Now seems like a good time to start. It’s a long list so it won’t be an exhaustive exploration, and I freely admit that many other genres feature these elements too.
I’ll get to them later. For now, I’ll stick to Fantasy.
The Struggle Between Good and Evil
I’ve always been drawn to this theme and it tends to occupy a core position in a lot of Fantasy literature. It’s such rich territory and you can find stories that fall at so many different points in the continuum. It's exciting.
You can get straightforward, clearly delineated battles between Good and Evil—and that can be a comfort from time to time. It doesn’t necessarily preclude complexity or ambiguity—and it can offer an opportunity for partisanship. Sometimes I want to throw my lot in with the characters and root wholeheartedly for a side. Exploring the dark side can be interesting, but mostly I want to believe that good will triumph. I can find a lot of opportunities in Fantasy to indulge in this.
There are plenty of Fantasy stories that problematize the conceptions of good and evil. Moral ambiguity and hard choices abound. Sometimes the fun is trying to identify all the different elements and players. I like grappling with the big questions sometimes.
I appreciate that the stakes are often incredibly high—for individuals, whole countries, cultures, and worlds. It lends real urgency and drive to the narrative and it throws the quieter moments into the spotlight as well.
Some titles that come to mind:
The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (duh!), The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie (great for the gray areas), The Harry Potter series (do I even have to say it?), The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, Down the Long Way series, especially Hawk of May by Gillian Bradshaw. There’s a lot more…
The Many Faces of Heroism
I never seem to tire of stories that deal with the heroic, especially when you’re given a broad range of it. I love the overtly heroic acts of daring—the epic battles, the clever tricks, the feats of bravery and strength. I love the quiet acts of heroism—the kindness, the sacrifices, the unwavering loyalty, the patient and thoughtful moments. Cooking a meal for someone, reading the right book, singing a song, holding a hand—all of these things can be just as great as cutting down a horde of monsters. I love that.
Fantasy is one of those genres that provide many opportunities for characters to be tested. Putting characters in extreme situations lets them learn and grow in surprising ways.
Some titles that come to mind:
Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey, The Drizzt Do’Urden books by R.A. Salvatore, any number of Arthurian inspired stories, The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust, and the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (at least the first couple anyway).
Teaching and Learning
I have always been the biggest fan of the teaching and learning elements in stories. I can’t get enough of it. I adore watching the transformation of a student into a proficient—or finding a new path. It’s gratifying on a fundamental level and I seek it out whenever I can. Fantasy is a wonderful source for this kind of tale. So are Kung Fu movies...but that's a different post.
An embarrassing number of my literary crushes have been on magic-users. I suppose it is because I value creativity and intelligence. I like characters filled with wisdom and knowledge, cocky wisecracking characters, bewildered characters, and chances for epic triumphs and defeats.
Mostly—magic is really cool.
I like creative takes on magic systems and traditional tropes. I don’t mind loosey-goosey and I don’t mind highly detailed approaches, just as long as they maintain good balance. Magic that can solve all problems without consequence makes for a boring story. Magic that starts reading like a technical manual also bores me.
I like exploring questions of power, temptations, limits, and responsibilities.
I love a good fight scene. The best ones for me involve physicality of the sort provided by sword fighting (or maces, axes, archery, whatever). I guess it is because a lot of it is individual skill and physical prowess. That aspect makes it feel more…honorable or honest or something-- than guns and the like do. The training sequences are great and I generally dig the descriptions of the fighting. I’m especially susceptible to the poetic naming of moves (shout-out to Robert Jordan).
Epic battles can be a fine thing and a lot of Fantasy features them. The depth of my enjoyment of discussions of strategy knows no limits. Battle plans and their execution, maneuvers, capers, scouting missions—I love it all.
I expect that a lot of my pleasure has to do with the fact that I’m uncoordinated and weak. Anyone who has played strategy games with me will be able to tell you that I have little to no sense of strategy either. That's going to make writing in this genre an extra challenge for me, but when it's time I'm going to give it a go.
Until then, I’m all about living vicariously in fiction.
Some titles that come to mind for the past three categories:
The Riftwar series (especially The Magician) by Raymond Feist, The Earthsea books by Ursula K LeGuin, The Deed of Paksenarrion (series) by Elizabeth Moon, The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (though I will admit I’ve not yet made it through every book), many of the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey (my personal favorites are the Last Herald-Mage and Vows and Honor books). Also, The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson and Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines.
I like being transported to whole new worlds, thinking about pockets of wonder hidden in our world, or transformations of our reality into something strange. It’s awesome.
Journeys and Exploration
It doesn’t matter if it is exploring a single building, city, dungeon, or forest—or traveling across vast distances—I like it. It is good for world building, a sense of adventure, immersion and excitement. Of course, there are ample opportunities for conflict, treasure, growth, loss, and change along the way.
I’m going to slip this in here. Fantasy is a rich source of the classic storyline: the unknown person rising to greatness. Give me your hidden kings, great leaders, surprise magic users, lowborn and orphans, servants and underlings all growing into something more. Sure, a lot of it is wish fulfillment, but I don’t care.
Camaraderie and Character Types
Fantasy stories often rely on relationships: uneasy alliances, fragile truces, true fellowships, romances, families, kingdoms—they are all good. I like stories that have strong characters and Fantasy is filled with them.
I enjoy many of the character types in Fantasy. Rogues, heroes, sages, tricksters….you probably know them all. I like them in their pure forms and I adore twists on them. I like watching relationships grow and change. I like how the pressures of plot and setting can affect them.
But what I really love is banter. It’s one of the best parts of any journey and any story. My weakness for banter is probably one of the main reasons I'm addicted to the Dragon Age games..but again, I digress.
Many of the books I’ve read repeatedly are Fantasy and most of the time it’s the characters that I return for. Rereading gives me the chance to hang out with them again. All the rest is good too, but the books that stay with me are the ones that get me to care.
Some more titles that come to mind—lumped together because these separations have all been rather foggy anyway…
The Belgariad by David Eddings combines so many of my favorite Fantasy elements and I have a real soft spot for it. The Gentleman Bastard books by Scott Lynch (true confession, I’ve only read the first one so far, but The Lies of Locke Lamora is so awesome you know the rest are on the to-be-read pile), The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (really good and it turned me on to the Mabinogion. Pretty much anything by Diana Wynne Jones, but in particular The Chrestomanci series (I’ve worn out at least two copies of Charmed Life in my time).
Fan-Girl Signing Off...
All right---I have to cut myself off. I’m a fan and it is really difficult to walk away. I’ll just tell myself that I can always return to the subject. I mean I didn’t even touch on Urban Fantasy…and there are so many good ones. Sigh.
Thinking about this has energized me. I’ve got a couple ideas for Fantasy novels, but the form is complex enough that I want them to percolate and gel before I attempt to write them.
Besides, there’s this Dark Fantasy/Horror WIP I’m wrangling with, so first things first, right?
Until then, I’ve got a lot of awesome reading ahead of me. Share your favorites, if you're moved to, but keep them spoiler free, please (she says to the yawning chasm of the internetblogowhateverspherehighwaything). Heh.
--Thanks for reading!