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Why Write Fantasy?
By T.J. Dipple
As an author who tends to write more Fantasy than anything else there is a question that I have to answer whenever I meet someone new. Why? Why write Fantasy instead of something that is 'real'? Or, there are many people out there, who hear the word 'Fantasy' and claim it is an easy genre and you are not really a proper writer. Over the years these questions and comments have gotten me thinking. What is it about Fantasy that appeals to so many people? Well, I may not have all the answers. What I can answer is why Fantasy appeals to me as both a reader, and a writer. And I can certainly dispel the idea of it as an easy genre. Let me begin with why I write Fantasy.
There are a few rules in Fantasy that everyone will have heard of. Part of the reason why I enjoy Fantasy is because of these rules. I will now examine these rules in turn.
1. The Rise of The Underdog
We've all heard the story. Farm boy grows up in a humble background and discovers it will be his task to bring down the Dark Lord who is the most evil being that has ever been alive. This is one of the major problems some people have with Fantasy, it all sounds the same. This is true to an extent; look at the evidence – Frodo Baggins (Lord of The Rings), Rand al'Thor (The Wheel of Time), Shea Ohmsford (The Sword of Shanara), Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle), Garion (The Belgariad) and even Luke Skywalker (Star Wars).
Let's face it, this is a common theme in Fantasy stories but at the end of the day, does this really matter, after all sometimes the best part of a book (even if it is predictable) is how they manage to vanquish the evil and the journey that they take.
Next, is it predictable that the underdog always wins? Again, the answer is yes. But look at it like this. If you read a book where the hero emerges, goes against the Dark Lord, and then looses, are you going to be satisfied? The answer is no.
Then there's practicality. Would the underdog really win? Would the Dark Lord even let the underdog get close enough to have a chance at destroying him? To get your head around this point think of the Dark Lord's point of view.
You are all powerful, with an army, or an empire of minions to do your bidding, and usually an elite force of evil minions. Then, you hear that from a small farming village someone has set out to take you down. With all of the other things on your mind e.g. managing armies and empires, forcing other nations and peoples to bend to your will, fending off other assassination attempts (let's face it, if you're evil people are going to try to kill you) and/or seeking to destroy the world are you really going to stop all of your other plans to get rid of a farmer? Probably not. You wouldn't even entertain the idea that someone that low could bring you down, even if there was something special about them.
You'd start by sending out a small force, it's just a farmer/village boy, no need to waste too many minions' time when they could be doing other things and harassing more important people. After they have been killed or overcome by our farmer, you might send a larger force, maybe even one or two of your elite minions. When they have failed to dispatch him you could decide to face him yourself. You are the master of darkness and he could not possibly beat you. Your overconfidence means you make a mistake and before you know it you've been beaten by a farmer who a year ago was milking cows.
It makes logical sense when you actually think about it, and though a recurring theme in many fantasy stories there is one common theme that these stories share. They are usually the best/most popular. People love to read about the underdog because it makes them think they can do more with their lives, I am guilty of loving these stories for that very reason.
2. The Rules of Chaos
It's all made up. You can write anything you want with no rules or worry that you're going too far.
This statement is one that I have heard a few times, and it is not true. Fantasy readers are not children. They won't accept anything that's put in front of them. It still has to be believable to draw them into whatever world they are reading about.
Fantasy must always have rules. But at the same time we can also write about anything that pops into our heads. The hardest part is finding out which of our musings can be developed into a living and breathing thing.
Magic is usually the source of this argument. With magic you can do anything and no one can stand in your way. Another bogus statement. If your characters can do anything and everything because they can do magic then they start to become dehumanised. The best Fantasy stories, with magic as a big part of the world, have rules and boundaries that keep the characters grounded so our readers can identify with them.
Magic is the physics of the Fantasy world. That place encompasses magic into its natural order and is usually as much of the story as the characters that use it.
Let us look at a few good examples of a well thought out magical system. We'll start with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. In this magic is known as The One Power. It has two sides, one male, and one female. Usually the men are more powerful, but that male half of the one power is tainted by evil and as such the men could die anytime they use it. The female side is pure, but the danger is enjoying it too much and drawing so much that it destroys you. Two sides, two different sides of the same power but still both dangerous if too much is used, a good rule. While there are two sides to the same power, they are still used the same way. The magic system Jordan uses is based on weaving. Spells have to be woven in the correct way to be used, and different patterns create different spells. A fairly simple but effective idea of magic, it makes the system believable. Where I feel Jordan falls down is his use of the objects 'angrael' devices created three thousand years ago that enhance the users power. Small versions of these are acceptable to an extent, what I object to is devices so powerful they can undo creation and destroy everything. This goes overboard almost to the point of being comical. Magic should exist in the world, not threaten to destroy it. It should be as natural as lightning. Sometimes dangerous to us, but not threaten to destroy everything.
Another good example of a system of magic governed by rules is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy that featured the Allomancers' people who could digest metals to give them different abilities. Each metal had an opposite, for example swallowing steel gives an Allomancer the ability to push on metals (this allowed the people to push themselves away from objects also), while its opposite iron would allow the Allomancer to pull metals towards them. There were very strict rules to this system, and these metals in particular. For example, you could not push or pull anything that was heavier than yourself; if you did it was your own body that moved. It was a system governed by physics. Allomancers who burned tin, had a boost to their senses, but bright light hurt their eyes, and they felt pain more than usual. Usually Allomancers could only burn one metal, so someone who could burn Tin could not burn any other metal. This was a good limitation and it gave the opportunity to have teams of Allomancers working together. There were Mistborn, who could burn all metal types, but even then, these individuals were still limited to the same physical capabilities and problems as regular Allomancers.
The Mistborn magic system is, in my opinion, the stronger of our two examples, it constrains the use of these abilities by putting real, and logical restrictions on them, which makes them more believable.
3. Hero – Not Superman!
Heroes, no matter what abilities they have, or how good they are, are not invincible. They can be wounded, make mistakes, even fall over because they lose their footing. So as a writer you need to be careful not to make your villain too evil and powerful, because then the only way for him to be defeated is for our hero to become an equal, and this can sometimes be unrealistic when he has grown up herding sheep.
There are heroes in Fantasy literature who seem to overcome every obstacle in front of them no matter what it is they face. An example of these characters is Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser, who both seem to be the best in the world at their particular talents. In addition to this David Gemmel was another author who had characters who were a little too good at what they did. Before I go any further, I must say I loved Gemmel's work, especially the Druss The Legend books, but even I have to admit that sometimes his characters were a little too good. Druss is a prime example. The first time we see Druss, he is an old man of eighty and let's be frank, he should have been past it a long time ago. Yet he still manages to lead a defence against one million tribal warriors and cut through them a lot of the time singlehanded. Wounds don't bother him much and all that really seems to bother him for most of the book is his arthritis, which is eased by being massaged by a young lady.
So, what should a hero be, if not capable of overcoming anything? Well, for a start they should be human. This means they should have doubts, and feelings just like everybody else. Heroes are exceptional, but they are still just flesh and blood. A good collection of heroes comes from one series for me. Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of The Fallen is littered with heroes. Real people struggling against something much, much bigger than themselves. The Sergeant Whiskyjack is a good example, he struggles with much within the series, keeping his men alive is just one struggle amongst many and because of this he carries himself off as a believable hero.
There are other rules in the Fantasy world, but I won't address any more here. As you can imagine working within these rules is not an easy task. It is the challenge of trying to write good stories within these rules that I for one most enjoy. One of the most exciting parts about it is that very often you will have to come up with something completely new in order to do it well, and without it sounding like every other story out there.
Another point to note is one of genre. There are many different genres, Horror, Thrillers, Crime, Romance, Adventure, History, and Mystery. Fantasy and Science Fiction are not always respected as genres, especially amongst English Teachers! That is a shame because at the end of the day if the author has created a half decent Fantasy world, with a good story, then their world will usually bridge all other genres into the same book. This is something that separates the Fantasy author from others, the ability to mix genres in this way is a formidable talent and one that should be respected. It is also another thing that makes writing Fantasy so much fun.
The final and perhaps the most important point is imagination. What other genre can spark imagination in readers as much as an entirely new worlds, with new peoples, cultures, beliefs, animals and science. I know Fantasy was what first sparked my imagination and made me want to become a writer, and I am sure that the sheer scope of this genre has been the spark that has given birth to a multitude of authors and will continue to do so as long as people have the imagination to create.
So there we are; the reasons why I love to read and write Fantasy. I hope I have answered the questions asked at the beginning, and maybe even gone someway explaining some of the things that make the genre so special.