Eric here, with a special guest. I'm lucky to live in a burg like Ithaca, New York. It's gorges. (Get it? That's our official municipal joke. You know, because we have... deep rivers. Anyway.) In this hyper-literate college town, I've been lucky to meet several writers, even some that write things that aren't academic papers. Nancy Holzner is one of the best. She's the author of the DEADTOWN series from Ace Books, now at five books—count 'em, FIVE—and counting. With more to come. She knows her fantasy heroines. She's here to talk about fantasy and escapism. It's something we should all be thinking about.
People often use the word “fantasy” to indicate something totally divorced from reality—an idea, a scenario, a story with no roots in the so-called real world. Reading fantasy is frequently associated with pure escapism. I enjoy escapism as much as anyone, but I question the assumption that fantasy merely distracts readers from the problems and concerns of real life. I think the opposite is true: to engage readers and make them care about the characters and their struggles, fantasy must be rooted in reality.
Think about it. If there were such a thing as pure fantasy, it would be impossible to relate to the characters or understand their world. Readers need an entryway into the story, and the best way to draw readers in is to give them something recognizable—something real—they can hook into.
There are many ways authors ground their fantasy stories in reality, but I think it’s especially important to pay attention to characters, conflict, and setting.
Characters. “You’re only human” doesn’t necessarily apply to fantasy characters. Elves, fairies, aliens, vampires, dragons, ogres, ghosts, weres of all kinds—any sentient creature you can imagine can be the focus of fantasy. But if a character’s psychology is incomprehensible, readers can’t connect to that character. And if they can’t connect, they don’t care.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that fantasy characters have to think and act like regular Joes and Josies. Part of their fascination is in how different they are from someone who might be walking down your street. Yet a little strangeness goes a long way. If a character’s mind works in a completely alien way, it’s hard to follow that character through a story. Readers have sometimes told me, “I don’t read much fantasy but I like your Deadtown books because the characters are psychologically real.” In other words, even though my protagonist Victory Vaughn isn’t human (she’s a shapeshifter), readers like her because they can get inside her head.
A classic example is Grendel. When John Gardner retells the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view, he presents an utterly inhuman character who considers mankind his enemy. But Grendel experiences thoughts and emotions—such as loneliness, rage, anxiety, and angst—that everyone has felt. As Grendel ponders and feels and acts, readers may not see him as any less monstrous, but they can understand why he acts as he does. His feelings are recognizable to us, and seeing the “other” experience such feelings makes him interesting.
Conflict. As any writer knows, conflict drives both plot and character development. A character wants something but is prevented from getting it, causing the character to act—and so the plot begins. In fantasy, the plot often takes the form of a quest. Whether that quest is for love, a treasure, to defeat an enemy, or to save the world, readers understand what it feels like to want something badly enough to go for it. That makes them eager to accompany a fantasy character on his or her quest. Strong conflict creates suspense and keeps readers turning pages in all types of fiction.
Aside from a story’s main conflict, readers connect with characters who are facing everyday problems that we all face. Slaying a dragon is tough—slaying a dragon while preoccupied with wondering why your boyfriend isn’t calling you back is even tougher. Fantasy characters who encounter problems with relationships, finances, jobs, family, etc. while struggling to achieve their goals feel more real and well rounded than those who pursue those goals single-mindedly. No one lives in a vacuum, not even in fantasy.
Setting. World-building is fun. To some writers, the best part of writing fantasy is imagining a world completely unlike our own and bringing it to life. Yet that world can’t be completely unlike our own, or it won’t come alive for readers. Alien landscapes still have climate, weather, and topography, and readers want to know what those are like. Fantasy characters still have societies of some sort—are they rural or urban? tribal or cosmopolitan? hierarchical or egalitarian? violent or peaceful? What political system predominates? What do characters eat, and how do they get their food? How do characters get from one place to another? The reality of a world is in its details, and these details create a world that readers can step into and inhabit.
Fantasy can take readers far beyond their everyday lives. But fantasy needs a strong dash of realism in its characters, conflicts, and settings so that readers can understand and relate. Even the most fantastical story must anchor its roots deep in reality—that’s what makes the story believable. And, as Tinkerbell knew, readers’ belief is what makes fantasy live.
Nancy Holzner is the author of the DEADTOWN urban fantasy series, published by Ace.