Why I Read Fantasy

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

October 4, 2009 -- 10:04 p.m.

My novel wasn’t giving me an ulcer. It was swine flu. I spent two days throwing up whenever I moved and three days recovering.

I hate it when I can’t write. It’s like a burning inside, if the words get stopped up too long. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to go a whole week, except when I’m on vacation, without writing something—articles, essays, poetry, journal entries, debate cases… It’s an addiction I am unable/unwilling to break.

So that explains why I spend so much time writing. But why do I spend so much time reading fantasy and science fiction? The obvious explanation—I have an easier time relating to fictional characters than real people my age, whose concerns seem to circle entirely around television, music and the opposite sex—I was thinking about it the other day, and I wondered if I were different than others who read the genres. Since mostly, I read fantasy, I’ll stick to that for today. Why do you read fantasy? I distilled it into the following:

1) Escapism, pure and simple. Real life is dull. You push paper. You make mistakes. But it doesn’t really affect the world that much. Nothing changes, no matter what happens. Life goes on.

Fantasy characters don’t usually spend their day struggling to get out of bed trying to figure out why it matters if they go to work today. They don’t spend their day in an office reading email. What they does actually matters. They have a unique ability to shape their worlds, and that makes me envy them and love to read them. Epic struggles of good and evil sound much more interesting than the woes of the cubicle. The fantasies where the character moves through the world and nothing changes are usually the ones that fade from memory quickly.

Some people won’t admit reading for the escapism, or try to ‘pooh pooh’ it, especially among the literary elite. I have enough of a Marxist bent (specifically, the part about how, when people are removed from their work in the process of mass production, they become less individually fulfilled—if there’s nothing physical and concrete that they can point to and say “I did that,” workers become depressed) to believe that escapism will become more and more necessary in the future.

The fact is, it’s merely the flavor of the escapism you choose: whether you escape into the lives of your TV friends, or the romance of romance, or even in non-fiction, escaping to the interesting lives of people who did move and shake the world. Ditto with literary fiction.

2) Characters: Something about the epic nature of fantasy makes for truly unforgettable characters. I can’t remember most of the people, even the so-called “great characters” that populate literary fiction, but I’ll never forget the characters in the fantasies I grew up with. I read Dragonlance for Raistlin and Tasslehoff. I read Wheel of Time for Nynaeve, Mat and the Forsaken. I read Tigana for Dianora. I read the Cycle of Fire and Ice for Daenarys and Tyrion (I would mention more favorite characters but…they all got killed off.).

That’s why my preference skews toward character-driven fantasy, and epic fantasy series in particular, because there’s so much opportunity (often admittedly squandered) for strong characters who grow and change.

It’s funny because I have three character “types” that I love seeing over and over again. And I don’t really care that I’ve seen them before, that they’ve become staples of the genre. They are: The big, baaaad wizards (male or female, though I usually prefer male depictions because female evil wizards tend to be sexualized to the point of laughter or end up being conquered/redeemed by the power of luuuuuv.); the strong female protagonists who have to FIGHT for frickin’ everything (this can go to males too, but females usually have an extra layer of difficulty in their quests, an extra layer of threat—but if stuff comes too easily, well, they’re not worth reading about); and the lovable mischief-maker/outcast who sees the world through a different, humorous perspective. And, naturally, they all have to be intelligent.

If a book doesn’t have one or more of these characters types, it’s unlikely to hold my interest. I think that’s why it took me so long to finish Lord of the Rings. The women…well, aren’t really there. The big bad wizard…isn’t a viewpoint character (they have to be POV characters so their evil justifications make sense). And the mischievous Bilbo (the birthday party is actually one of my favorite parts of the books—though I might be the only one who liked it) gets sidelined right at the beginning. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was wonderful, incredible, earthshaking… but if Sam had been “Samantha,” I probably would have finished it the first time I set out to read the trilogy, and not the third.

So is it any surprise my characters are almost exclusively evil wizards, female underdogs, and mischievous renegades with dark senses of humor? I have a hard time writing anyone else. They bore me.

3) Concept: The third thing I read fantasy for is the concept. Villains by Necessity has an interesting concept: the villains are the heroes. Tigana has an interesting concept: what’s in a name? Is it worth dying for? Robert Jordan has an interesting concept: what happens when the savior of the world is also batshit crazy?

Intrigue me, engage my intelligence. Science fiction has usually been the province of “If”, but I believe fantasy can make an equally good case at it, usually from a softer social sciences perspective. Oddly enough, my some of my favorite science fiction stories (we by the Russian, Zamyatin, Brave New World, Farienheit 451) are dystopian because I love the “what if” so much.

Escapism and thought are not mutually exclusive. In sci-fi/fantasy, they blend in a near-perfect balance, at least for this reader.

Note, none of what I said, except for the big bad wizards, involves magic. Which is why, for the first time in my life, now that I’m trying to bang out a real magic system with rules and everything, I find it so very difficult. Most of the fantasy books of my childhood skewed toward D&D classic magic. It’s there. You can use it in limited ways, usually to blow things up. You don’t need to explain it or its rules. (Aside—I wonder why, in a genre supposedly directed to nerd readership, its so often the warriors—the jocks of the Fantasy world—who direct the plotline, while wizards, the ULTIMATE nerds who actually need books for their power and are usually skinny runts—are relegated to sidekick/mentor/bad guy. I’d think you’d have a bunch of good wizards triumphing over evil warriors, not the other way around).

So trying to focus on something that matters very little to me, like magic, which I view as somewhat of a plot aid to hang the character/concept on, is very difficult. But I believe magic should have rules and stringent limitations, so it’s something I have to do. Brandon Sanderson has a rule I like: An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. So, the power well-explained/detailed the magic system, the more you can do with it. Otherwise, it robs the reader of some satisfaction—oh, magic was the key to everything all along! Yay! It becomes too easy.

I’d add a corollary—as long as the bad guys can match the good guy, things are okay. It’s when a nebulous magic system or law allows a triumph that things become frustrating and the reader feels cheated—like if a good wizard faces an evil wizard and a good wizard develops a new power suddenly when the bad guy doesn’t. As long as the villain can match it, its all right by me. For example, we don’t understand Moiraine’s limitations in the Eye of the World, but we do see that the bad guys can match and overcome her, so that’s okay.

Anyway, Sanderson’s good at writing magic systems. I’m good at characterization. I’ll borrow his advice, but I’ll stick to what I do best and won’t develop my magic as fully as he has, just because I find writing and explaining all the rules incredibly tedious.

It’s actually kind of scary to me, thinking about fans who might expect me to develop a real language, with grammatical rules and everything, instead of pulling words out of the air for the First Speech that I think sound cool.

Is it natural for someone to be good at writing what they like to read? Is there anything you’ve ever been good at writing that you hate reading?


  1. Luisa Perkins said...

    Oh, amen to points 1-3. Well done.

    I could not BELIEVE it or forgive it when GRRM killed off Catelyn Stark. And now she's all zombie-ish...clearly GRRM was ahead of his time on that one.

    Tigana is such an excellent book.

    I'm good at personal and expository essays, but I also like reading well-crafted essays.

    I like to read mysteries, but I don't think I could ever write one. But I do think that my love for reading fantasy and my love for and skill (whatever modicum I have) at writing fantasy are strongly linked.

  2. Lee Ann Setzer said...

    I picked up a book a while ago that I thought was historical fiction, but it turned out to be a fictionalized autobiography of someone real (yeah, history isn't my best subject). The front copy and cover did not make it at ALL clear which I was reading. It was a surreal experience, because I kept waiting for try-fail, conflict, resolution, climax, etc., but it was more...episodic. Really interesting and cool, but like real life, not like a story. Totally understandable once I found out it was, yanno, nonfiction. But I learned a few things about plot and characterization that I'm looking for when I know I'm reading fiction--esp. genre fiction.

    Pretty good at writing technical documentation, clinical reports, and research articles, but not fond of reading any of the above...

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