Why Write Fantasy?

Raise your hand if you have ever second-guessed whether or not you should be writing in your chosen genre, based off of such worries as “this genre won’t make me one of the Respectable Writers” or “everything I want to do in this genre has already been done before” or “no one will ever take my work seriously if I write in this genre.”

I’m sure this goes across the board, but today, I want to talk about fantasy. Namely because fantasy and sci-fi are my chosen genres and my favorite ones to write for, and I have often been shaken by fears of not being taken seriously, not having anything unique enough to contribute, or having my work dismissed as trite by some nasty and nameless Critic Who Hates Genre Fiction.

Let me be clear: I grew up on sci-fi and fantasy. My mother watched so much Star Trek: The Next Generation while I was in utero that for the first several years of my life I would drop whatever I was doing and stare as if in a trance, if the TNG theme song started playing. As a child I watched the VHS tapes of the original Star Wars trilogy and compared them side-by-side with the Special Edition releases. (I’ll confess I was a sucker for the Special Edition. The extended song-and-dance sequence in Jabba’s palace will always hold a special place in my heart.)

Some of the first books I set my hands on were The Jewel Princesses series. After that it was The Enchanted Forest ChroniclesThe Unicorn Chronicles, and The Daughters of the Moon. I read Cornelia Funke, Anne McAffrey, Terry Pratchett. I fell head-over-heels in love with Haroun and the Sea of Stories and clung to the magic realism in Autobiography of Red and Tropic of Orange. I can’t get enough of stories that take me an extra  step outside of my real-world circumstances.

But, again–I mentioned specifically fantasy. I’ve listed a bunch of genres up there, but titled my post after one of them. So why fantasy, specifically?

Honestly? It’s because fantasy is the one I’ve got the most hang-ups over. It’s the one I feel I need to justify. It’s the one that got thrown under the bus when I was searching for literary criticism to bolster up my thesis–when I was searching for critics who would look at how sci-fi worked, I found critics who held up science fiction by way of calling fantasy too far removed from real, and saying that sci-fi in particular was a better genre, more worthy of a critical eye.

I call bull. But, at the same time, I catch myself having to justify my own writing. My friends write sci-fi, after all. They have the science and the mechanisms and the know-how to make it work. So why don’t I? Why, when given the choice, do I tend to pick fantasy?

Head’s up, as to the title of my post: I’ve already given you the first reason to write fantasy. This one’s simple, really, and it should be the only reason you ever need. Do  me a favor, if you write fantasy. Ask yourself, in the most selfish and simplest terms. Why fantasy?

Because I can’t get enough of it.

Because, honestly, I think a lot of people can’t get enough of it.  How better to return to your real-world refreshed and ready to go than to take a break from it? I read fantasy so that I come out spinning with ideas and new possibilities, so that the mundane corners of my real world look fresh and new and bright again. I read fantasy so I can stop thinking about politics for ten minutes, already. I want to see new and different things, and some familiar things, and reconcile the two in my head. I want the epic journeys, the age-old prophecies, the ways people make meaning in worlds of gods and monsters and magic.

Honestly, I read fantasy to fantasize, and to be fascinated. I write it for much the same reasons.

As far as I’m concerned, that should always be the core reason. If it fulfills you? If it makes you happy? Write fantasy.

But there is more! Of course there is more. If selfish, human need for meaning and wonder isn’t enough, then you can ask again: why write fantasy?

Consider this: fantasy allows you to explore that which does not exist in the real world. That’s the joy of genre fiction on the whole. Worlds with islands floating in the sky, magic spells that can shake the ground beneath your feet, gods living on the earth among mortals… That is all fine and good, but consider, as well: where witches were something suspect, something to be condemned and destroyed in our own world–what if, in another place where magic is real, witches are well-respected and revered by society? What if the end of the world comes and goes, and all that’s left behind are the people society thought was weakest? What if trees could talk, and they had something very important to tell you?

You see where I am going with this, I suspect. Genre fiction on the whole lends you contrivance. It is, if you will, an excuse to push the questions of what makes us human and what matters?

Fantasy alone does not do this. Sci-fi does a great job of it, as does horror, as does magic realism, as does… so on and so forth. So why fantasy, in particular?

I once read somewhere that the difference between sci-fi and fantasy was whether you were writing about the improbable or the impossible. In a sense, how much is what you are writing a stretch? How many rules of our real-world circumstances does it obey? Even sci-fi doesn’t have to follow a lot of rules, and some sci-fi doesn’t even follow those rules well. But that might be one guiding idea in distinguishing the two.

But the thing is, just because fantasy is the impossible, just because it doesn’t follow the physics of  our world, doesn’t mean that fantasy worlds don’t have rules. Magic, surely, can only stretch so far. Maybe war has gripped the land for a thousand years, but what has that done for the culture? How do you continually pull soldiers in? What enemy do you fight that could merit so long a battle? Even when happenstance makes one in a hundred humans stronger, farther-sighted, longer-lasting–how far can they jump, how long can they last, and how far can they see?

At which point, I ask you: how exciting would it be, to write what is impossible and make it seem real? How rewarding might it be, to make the impossible feel probable?

I feel as though writers of fantasy are aiming towards that very thing. Bridging the gap between what is impossible and what we could imagine to maybe, somewhere, be real. If we can take blatant impossibilities and still find meaning in it, how much then might we be able to make sense of the seemingly-impossible when it happens to us, here, in our day-to-day life?

Food for thought.

Camp NaNoWriMo, in the meantime, has officially begun, and I am writing fantasy! Fifty thousand words of it, with any luck. In celebration of all these new and exciting words getting written, I am going to up my blogging to twice a week for the month of April! Wednesdays will be personal updates from the Camp NaNoWriMo trenches. Sundays will continue on as writing reflections and advice.

Thanks so much for reading, y’all–take good care, and whether you’re NaNo-ing or not, keep writing. Here’s to it!

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