It may seem like a strange question for an author to ask. Especially a writer with a Fantasy series.
But common are mentions of 'the five elements of fantasy' that somehow combine into a form so appealing readers will hold on to the genre their entire lives. Books become credos. That last part may seem hard to believe, but look at the passionate loyalty of fans of Brian Sanderson or J.R.R. Tolkien? Even the prevalence of Ren Faires told me that much.
It's clear, once a writer thinks of the readers themselves, that the draw of fantasy is incredibly enduring. Those five elements are sometimes said to be:
A struggle for mastery
The genre itself, and its rich subgenres
Worldbuilding (the place and settings)
It seems a bit of a stretch that people would live lives aligned with their favourite fantasy books when you look at the list. Doesn't it? Or at least, I can't remember reading a fantasy for 'a struggle for Mastery', or 'The genre itself'. So, is that it? That can't be it.
And what is the Fantasy genre for? What's its purpose? Its credo?
Why do I ask about fantasy books?
It helps to remember I started life as a writer of suspenseful mysteries and science fiction. Science and sidearms were things I understood.
Then... The Hobbit film landed, and I got my first glimpse of a narrative less dire and doomful that my other great love, Lord of the Rings. I also laid eyes on Lee Pace as Thranduil, and was immediately captivated by the beauty and charisma of a deeply injured ElfKing whose wife had been torn from him, and whose son was going to leave him soon too.
Prior to that, I'd always liked imagining a Ranger race that featured Ranger women. Strong, competent, free, and fun women. Now I started to have an idea for a series that was fueled by my love of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, their fandoms, and my own reflections on what I would have written. That powered some successful clean fanfic I wrote for fun.
Still, in my mind, I wasn't a fantasy writer. I was writing fanfic in Discovery mode. Just for kicks.
I knew I loved these stories, but when I started to dig more deeply into my career, I honestly thought converting them would impossible. I didn't have the time it would take, I didn't feel capable of writing fantasy, and I hadn't the resources. I knew it would need proofing. A lot of proofing. (Thank you Street Team / 2nd Readers!)
Then came the time for my Writing Business coursework, and I got on a plane and went to classes enthusiastically knowing next to nothing on the topic. Between classes, while at lunch with three other writers, I casually brought the fanfics up. Once they understood, these ladies sort of bopped me over the head and asked me What in the heck I was thinking. By the end of that meal, I was decided. I would rework and publish the Folded Earth series.
But I still wasn't sure anyone would want to read a scifi and mystery writer writing fantasy.
What is the purpose of Fantasy books?
So I started to go through my notes and flesh out a new world. It wasn't that difficult. I'd had some very different thoughts about how the world should exist even while writing the fanfics.
I also thought of the five elements. But struggle and adventure were features of any kind of fiction book. That meant all I had for sure were setting and magic. And I figured that worldbuilding was a natural progression of the first two elements, seeing as you can't have a setting without first building the framework on which it exists, and elements like technology (whether low or high) and magic are prime movers that sharply define that frame and all the possibilities within it.
fig. This is what Britannica says fantasy (or phantasy) genre is. This definition rules out technology as science fiction presents it (though humanity has had technology at all points in history). Whatever else it is, in their world it exists without a single example of women writing it. As a scifi writer, technologist, and woman, this was helpful.
So, the Encyclopedia Britannia notes the Fantasy genre has "imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (such as other worlds or times) and of characters (such as supernatural or unnatural beings)." And I had that down. But I still felt something was missing.
All the articles I'd read about how Fantasy helped memory, emotional regulation, and creativity, or how it encourages the imagination, seemed broad. After all, I'd worked out my memory with textbooks. Regulated emotions with Classics (and by not throttling profs who never taught a single book by a woman because they weren't as Classic). It takes creativity to plot a suspenseful thriller or scifi. You'd need imagination to read or write any of these.
The squishiness of Fantasy as a genre has long given me issues as a writer. Am I writing it...? Or not? But I've begun to realize the purpose of fantasy is very specific to me.
In many ways, there's no bigger genre that lets its readers leave the earth for one similar but also critically changed, maybe in ways that make it better, or that preserves hope for change. This departure also often removes the challenging barriers presented by grasping high-tech and replaces them with a seeming of simplicity. More than anything, Fantasy allows people to go back in time and find a changed and challenging world, and resolve problems there, yet the things they learn travel back with them, and, sometimes, never leave them. That's why, since the time of Gilgamesh and Ereshkigal, humanity has been a big fan.
It seems odd to say that time travel to alternate universes is core to fantasy. You'd think the terms more topical to science fiction. But any time fantasy has mythical creatures, you're dropping back in time to dinosaurs or medieval bestiaries, and when weapons are swords rather than Glocks, the khopesh rears its bronze head (yes, even if the sword is a light saber). And along with all of that imagining comes the opportunity for readers to learn to change the future. Their own, and the world's future.
That's what fantasy really does. That's its purpose.
Why do you read Fantasy books?
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Why do you read fantasy?