In Defense Of Fantasy

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As a fantasy writer I have come across my fair share of people who think my chosen genre is nothing but silly reused nonsense composed of the same old places, people and adventures. And in a way it is. The same archetypal characters and situations are employed, but for good reason and to great effect if done properly. But still I encounter people who sneer or scoff when I mention what genre I write, as if Fantasy is somehow a lesser art. It seems to me that for the most part, unless people write fantasy novels (in one sub-genre or another) or are natural fans, they tend to look down their noses at the people whose minds dwell in the past or atop some misty hill where the fey are dancing before their very eyes.

For example:

I have often heard that as a historical fantasy writer, my job must be very easy considering my characters/environments don’t have to conform to “real” world rules that tug and weigh down people in the “real” world. If I want the grass to be ruby-red well then my grass is ruby-red, if I want my characters to fly…then POOF they can fly without anymore explanation than my typing that they can do so. Yeah…here’s what I have to say about that: Say you have a character in both a modern-day  ordinary novel as well as one in a historical fantasy one, and say that character lives in a very desert-like dry place and you are having him/her get dressed for the day. Naturally they must put something on that will be cool enough that they will not suffer a heat stroke the moment they open the front door.  It takes all of two seconds for the modern character and writer to decide to throw on a cool cotton t-shirt because hey, t-shirts are real, they’re relatively cool and no one would question that.

But…

That same character in a h/f novel cannot just grab an old cotton shirt from the bottom of his wardrobe, that is before the author has considered and researched the following:

1) Did they have cotton clothing in the time period you are writing in?

2) If so, how did they make it and where? Is it something that can be grown and produced in the land you are writing about? Or must is be shipped from elsewhere, or is that even an option for your novel?

3) Which leads you to research the necessities of growing cotton: how much water is needed, does your dry-hot land provide that much water, what soil is best? ect. ect.

Because if your character is living in a cotton-inhospitable environment without access to trade, then they cannot possibly throw on a cotton garment. And for those who don’t think readers will notice, you might be surprised at the amount of things a fantasy reader will pick up on. They notice almost everything! If there is an inconsistency, THEY WILL SEE IT AND IT WILL BUG THE CRAP OUT OF THEM. Which may impact your future sales.

But I hear you, I hear you, what about silk, leather, muslin, wool…something else! Why don’t you just chose something else and skip all this drama? Well…it all involves the same process. Where do you get the silkworms, leather might work but it will be hot as heck, muslin is a form of cotton clothing  and puts you right back in the old problem, and wool garments –other than being hot and itchy–  of course comes from a live animal (sheep/goat/camel ect.) and that leads you to the keeping of animals in the dry-hot place.

Basically, if you build a world instead of using the provided one with all its well-known and deeply ingrained rules and limitations, you must literally build one. From the ground up. The world must make sense or it will fail. That requires time and effort to be spent outside the actual story, so that the author truly understands the place he or she is describing. Fantasy novels aren’t all wizards and fairies and such, they’re a study in plant life, science and zoology. It takes two seconds to grab a cotton t-shirt, but hours and days to study how that shirt came into existence.

Think about it the next time you scoff at a fantasy novel, or tell the author what they do is easy. Think about it the next time you go to grab a shirt; take a moment to feel the texture of the material between your fingers and thank the lucky stars that you don’t HAVE to know anything other than it fits. And even that’s optional nowadays.

Originally published in September 2012.

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10 thoughts on “In Defense Of Fantasy

  1. Oh great article. I started writing my first High Fantasy novel as a challenge, to abandon my crutch of technology, I never thought about the challenges of ordinary clothing like cotton. I use a lot of leather, silk, chain mail, and intricate metal pieces (like corsets).

    • Thank you! I hope you’re enjoying the fun of fantasy writing, I could never write anything technological — I can barely figure the simple things out lol. I tend to stick to leather, silk, and metal as well, but I also have muslin dresses and things and I never really questioned it until I started writing a novel set in a desert-esque enviorment and was like wait…what would they wear there?

  2. Funny! And, I just sent an e-mail to my daughter about this very thing. She is writing fantasy/paranormal. I can understand why ‘some’ people would scoff, though. A market glut of basically the same thing. I like that you stick to your guns, though. If what they say was actually true, then I would be the only one interested in Game of Thrones. We writers need to tune out the negative but at the same time digest the possibility of being mundane ourselves.

  3. What always amuses me about people who look down on the Fantasy genre is that the very things they claim to seek in other genres is what makes Fantasy tic, only with more colour and life. That’s really it, though, don’t you think, life? That is what Fantasy is to me at least. The human experience. Modern Fantasy is becoming increasingly dark, and I think most Fantasy Authors are trying to move away or at least tackle the Hero’s Journey approach to storytelling. Personally, I welcome that change, I like Fantasy with a bit of grit and unpredictability.

    I so hear you on the world building, the amount of work it is possible to put into it can be as staggering as it can be enormous, and coincidentally, daunting. Especially where High Fantasy is concerned. From argriculture to infrastructure, government to politics, social norms to religion, and countless other topics it’s easy to underestimate just how interconnected everything is. Why is one kingdom wealthier and more powerful than another? Why are mages feared/respected/hated? Why do men women have different social standing, or why don’t they? Much respect to the authors that do their research properly, but it’s also important to not get dug in too deep. The focus should always be on the story itself and storytelling, in my oppinion. That being said, I have a weakness for just going into nerd-mode and just mapping out the entire world and connecting the dots. It’s like the entire thing has a life of it’s own.

    Crikey, this is getting to be a long comment. Haha. One thing that always bothered me about fantasy, though, is what appears to be a reluctance to go through the world-building process more times than needed. Hatching another couple of books with the same characters in an already established world creating mammoth series is what perhaps made our genre so infamous.

    • I’m so sorry it took me so long to reply to this comment!!!! It was lengthy and I wanted to wait to reply on my computer instead of my phone and then I forgot to, my bad! But I agree with you, fantasy is about life and it annoys me when people don’t get that and just turn their noses up at it without even bothering to read a fantasy novel. And yeah, those twenty book series are somewhat annoying, but I do like a few of them, though I can only get through a few books before my attention fades and I switch to something new. I mean the series of books I’m writing has nine planned books so far but each one has a different main character, kind of like a family tree, so hopefully it will keep readers attention but not be one of those annoying neverending series! 😀

      • I tend to dislike writing on my phone as well, my fingers are to big for the keys haha. I keep pressing two at the time. ^^’
        It’s a dubble edged sword, I like long series if there is something interesting that keep them going. I tend to think stories in trilogies. I actually had a similar idea, well kind of, I’m planning a trilogy and at some point the protagonist is going to “pass the torch” so to speak, to his daughter. 🙂

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