How I Write Fantasy

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Continuing with the series on writing I started on Science Fiction, I’m going to write about why I enjoy writing fantasy even if I’m not as excited to read it sometimes. I may do a companion piece about how I pick what I pick next. To be decided!

While fantasy wasn’t my preferred genre growing up, I eventually found fantasy works I enjoyed. I’ve written before why I was turned off initially by fantasy (the epic length aspect was a big hurdle for me) but I haven’t gone into why writing in the genre is appealing to me, even if it’s not my favorite to read. I’ll start with some basics.

Period Piece Writing Without the Restrictions

A lot of fantasy, at least my reading of it, boils down to wanting to include medieval elements without also being restricted by the realities of that time. Some harsh truths keep period writing off the table for me. There are the simple things you can’t ignore if you’re writing a period piece – addressing the lack of most basic needs, let alone creature comforts, for one. A lot of people lived in very distressing states. Simple problems were deadly back then. Just take the example of finding potable water to drink; this all by itself is something I don’t want to have to think about when writing. But there are also expansive and complex societal issues you must contend with when writing in these settings if accuracy is your goal.

If it isn’t already obvious from my writing, I tend to enjoy writing female protagonists more than male. The most obvious guess one might have about why this is how I prefer to write is that I am female, so writing from that viewpoint is easier for me. And that is true to an extent. I am female. But I also want to have more women front and center in fiction because I like to read that kind of fiction.

It’s hard to realistically write those types of characters in a setting where they would constantly be hampered by societal norms. Women weren’t soldiers, knights, or leaders aside from some notable exceptions. By and large, they were relegated to being obedient wives and mothers. In historical fiction, you can either ignore those facets of the timeframe you’re setting your story in (thus setting yourself up for a thousand think pieces about how brave/subversive/unrealistic/inaccurate this is which only serves to divert attention away from the actual story you’re trying to tell), or you can include them and make the story about that struggle. Either way, it’s not something I’m interested in doing which is why I’ve never delved into writing historical fiction.

But, as many authors have shown, if you write in a fantasy world you can pick and choose which elements of a period you’d like to keep. You could go the route of George RR Martin – he has women in a lot of powerful positions in his stories, but he also writes about the struggles they’ve had to face to get where they are – and those struggles are not entirely divorced from reality. When Cersei talks about being the best of her siblings to rule but being married off to a man she didn’t know, you can see this play out. Pretty much everything with Daenerys is similarly a mixture of real issues with women in power at the time, and fantasy.

Or you can completely forget all of that, and make everyone equal, no matter their race or sex, but keep all your castles and princesses and princes. Fantasy provides a lot of flexibility for bending or erasing restrictive societal inequalities. It’s especially useful in modern times, because women make up the majority of book readers, and are much more likely to consume stories centered around protagonists that connect with them – other women. And that’s not even getting into the ability to write about people with diverse racial and cultural backgrounds without having to constantly address why this particular person of color can be a king in a world where people of color are enslaved, or at best, indentured.

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As an aside, albeit an important aside, this is also why the current argument of why people of color, or women, shouldn’t be in modern depictions of works of fantasy on screen is hogwash. That is a patently ridiculous argument on its face. Authors are perfectly capable of writing historical fiction if realism was their goal. They chose fantasy. If a book has magical creatures, readers can’t justify the exclusion of groups of people based on “realism.” If you’re a person so dead set on worlds that look only like you, that’s a different kind of fantasy fiction, and you’re free to write it. But declaring what a deceased author would or would not have wanted is not your right as a reader. Only the author can say what they would have approved of. If by some miracle my books were ever made into cinema, and they put dogs in the roles? Have at it.

I’m going to circle back to this point at the end of this piece, as it’s an important one to make – especially with regards to speculative fiction and the restrictive way some folks want to talk about its portrayal in other medias. Mainly because these arguments run counter to why a lot of people write in the fantasy genre.

Creation of a new world

Fantasy writing also allows you to create a new world from whole cloth should you so desire. You don’t even have to have humans in it (dogs are good) – though that’s a trickier feat, and often even in those stories, the protagonists are basically humans on the inside. Consider something like Watership Down – a book I adore. The rabbits – while decidedly rabbit-like and with rabbit motivations, are given emotion that includes paranoia, premonition, and greed – the general is portrayed as a gluttonous, power-hungry monster. There are even rabbits that practice the deceit of other rabbits. It’s not a bad thing – but it does help an audience connect to a character that would otherwise not have much in common with the reader.

Fantasy writing is, in essence, worldbuilding without restriction. Anything goes. Most readers prefer you have rules in your world because that makes understanding it easier. Otherwise, the story is chaos and it’s harder to fit yourself into it as a reader. Chaos and confusion aren’t something easy to submerse yourself in, especially if it’s someone else’s version of that.

So you can have dragons, fire-breathing lambs, or cotton candy clouds. You can even have dragons that ride fire-breathing lambs through cotton candy clouds. Anything goes. It can be a bit intimidating to start a fantasy novel. The more real-world rules and conventions your break away from, the more you’ll have to explain to your reader. It’s why I often shy away from reading these types of books.

The downside to fantasy writing is the difficulty in getting across this new world to your readers in an elegant way. Narrative dumping is fairly common in the fantasy genre. It takes a lot of skill to weave in worldbuilding, and the further you get away from reality, the more weaving you need to do. I love Dune. I consider it science fiction/fantasy. I know this is probably a controversial thing to say. I don’t think it should be, but as I’ve discussed at length in my pieces on science fiction writing, for a lot of people calling something they enjoy fantasy is akin to an insult. I don’t think it’s an insult to call something fantasy, but I understand where that feeling comes from. I just disagree with it. Back to Dune being science fiction/fantasy – many people would argue vociferously with me about this, but mind reading, magic spices that allow people to fold space and to tell the future and “the voice” falls well outside the realm of science fiction in my opinion. I know some people will argue why these things could also be science, but those people are not usually scientists so I find their claims and their understanding of science to be dubious at best. But! There is a ton of stuff in Dune that falls squarely in the science fiction category. Herbert’s deeply intricate worldbuilding when it comes to the various societies and peoples is extensive and very anthropological. People in Dune seem crazy and out of this world, but the reasoning behind that is very sound and was especially groundbreaking at the time Dune was published.

The crux of why the people in Dune are like they are is because long ago machines became too powerful – think rampant AI – and threatened to destroy humanity. So AI was outlawed to protect humanity. To achieve the things they needed to achieve, extreme genetic modification and control developed. Thus mentats. And Bene Gesserit and so on.

This fact leads to a great deal of strange societal behaviors. And Herbert wasn’t that great at weaving those things in. Every time I put Dune on (I adore the audiobook with Scott Brick and others) I am shocked at how much dialog is in it. When I read it – before audiobooks were a thing – I don’t recall noticing it. But when it’s read to me, it’s really hard not to notice it. There are hours and hours of people talking to each other with no break for any movement. This is because they are laboriously describing the world. The reader is a fly on the wall while two people inextricably explain to each other how the world works. I make it sound more cumbersome than it is, but when you’ve read or heard it more than two dozen times, it becomes truly hard to ignore.

I picked Dune as an example not because I think it fits more as a fantasy than a science fiction piece – it has fantastical elements but the vast majority of the work is science fiction – but because I know it so well and it’s a good example of the narrative dump. I’ve read a lot of fantasy over the years and I recognize this narrative dump when I see it, I just can’t recall specific examples as well as I can with Dune.

All that said, I still find the creation of a world very freeing as a writer. The challenge of writing these details into the work aside, it allows you to have things like daemons that are a second part of you, or steampunk instead of real-world technology. You can create some pretty magical places to explore with fantasy, and even the smallest things can be interesting enough to examine. This brings me to another reason I enjoy writing in the fantasy genre.

Magic Amplifies Everything

Two houses vying for power in a medieval setting. They set their armies after each other, scheme, and fight. This is fine. I’ve seen period pieces and, for me, what mostly keeps me watching (I don’t read this stuff as I don’t have the patience) is that they are interesting because of the characters in them, not the setting. I’m not a fan of period pieces on their own. I watched The Tudors because Henry VIII is a fascinating character. His wives are equally fascinating. The excellent actors help bring all of it to life.

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Now, if you add magic to any of that, suddenly things get crazy. The armies have dragons, the scheming is slyer and often involves dark spells and such, and the fights are flashier. It’s the same stuff as the period piece, just turned up to 11. I know there is sometimes the complaint that fantasy always reduces stuff to whoever can cast the biggest spell. All fights may boil down to whoever can say the killing spell faster. There’s also a complaint that authors will just invent ways for their protagonists to win, and for the villains to become more villain-y. It’s a phenomenon known as power creep and it’s rampant in superhero fantasy.

A good example of this is Superman. When he started, he couldn’t even fly. He was described as being “super durable” – not invulnerable. Heat vision wasn’t a thing. He could hear better, see better, was stronger, could leap far, etc. You didn’t even really need a supervillain to fight him off. A sizeable gang of fairly strong and resourceful people would be a task for him to defeat. Today, he’s basically a god. Unaging, invulnerable, undying (even when he does die, he doesn’t. Not really. He like, hibernates. Very deeply) – he became so tough to write compelling battles for, writers had to come up with ways to make it work. Kryptonite is the McGuffin here that often brings Supes down enough pegs to make any battle interesting and fraught with tension. Over the years he’s had his power adjusted to keep things interesting, but it always creeps back up until it becomes silly again.

It’s a valid complaint about magic and fantasy in general. It’s an easy out to just say, and now the hero has this power! And they can defeat the ultimate baddie threatening the world! For a lot of readers, this just isn’t very interesting. This is why it’s worth reiterating that fantasy writing needing to be done so carefully. If you build out your world’s rules and stick by them, power-up (or down) McGuffins and their like shouldn’t make an appearance. It requires more effort to make the battles interesting, but in my mind, it’s worth it. You get battles more like the ones in The Sword in the Stone, where the combatants each end up using their wits until one is defeated. When done well, magic can make a story exciting and fun without hand of god-ing every problem away.

Finally, there’s one last reason I like to write in fantasy, and this touches on the point I made earlier about societal restrictions in period pieces.

The Freedom to Ignore Current Politics

This reason is a particularly personal one for me. While it’s true, you can do this in any fiction, ignoring politics, discrimination, societal ills, etc. is easiest in fantasy. Science fiction is based on the real world. As such, it’s often used as a mirror to reflect the things you find most unpleasant about society and politics. Fantasy allows you to have whatever kind of protagonist you want, doing whatever you want, without having to address these things. It allows you to tell a narrative that is pure escapism. Sometimes, as a writer, that’s what you want to do.

This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to write about those things in fantasy. It’s just to say that it’s easy to sidestep those issues entirely. For example, no one can tell you that “women can’t do that” when you’re writing about something in a world with fantastical elements already.

It may seem like a no-brainer now to consider these things gender-neutral, but in the 80s, when I was a kid, I was told often how I wasn’t allowed to like Transformers or He-Man. I still recall a conversation I had about Ghostbusters when I was in summer camp one year, likely because of how intensely bad it made me feel. I was in a van with a group of kids, mostly boys, on the way to a lake where we’d be swimming for the day. I was one of two girls in the small summer camp group. Ghostbusters 2 had come out earlier in the year, and the boys were talking about who could pretend to be who. There was the Egon, the Venkman, the Winston, all the parts were being argued over and discussed.

I wasn’t pretty enough to be Dana, I was told, before I’d even weighed in on whether or not I wanted to play (I did) or who I wanted to be (Slimer. I loved the cartoon). The boy who declared he “was Venkman” didn’t like me and made that pretty clear. He was the oldest boy at the camp, the same age as I was, and he ended up scrapping most of the other boy’s choices, assigning roles rather than letting them choose. He decided another boy was encroaching on his Venkman turf, and loudly declared that that boy would be Egon, and he had to date me because I would be Janine. It was leveled as a punishment, as Janine had the “bug-eyes” and was meant to be unattractive (Yes, I grew up in a world where Annie Potts circa 1989 was considered unattractive somehow). I suppose we both wore glasses, which probably didn’t help.

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I was pretty angry all my agency had been stripped from me – I had not been asked who I wanted to be, but assigned a character. I liked the Janine character in the movie, especially the second one. She was funny. But it didn’t matter – if I was going to pick a girl to be in that movie, it would have been Dana, because I liked Sigourney Weaver, especially in Aliens, and wanted to be the badass, not the secretary. The boy had declared the character I could pretend to be primarily based on my lack of perceived attractiveness, my sex, and my glasses. Probably. I had an ace up my sleeve, though, or so I thought. I had seen the movie in the theater, so of course, I haughtily corrected this boy and said Egon was no longer Janine’s boyfriend (ah, simpler times) – Lewis was. I can’t tell you exactly why he cared so much, but the boy in question wasn’t having it. He hadn’t seen the movie and thought I was lying. To be fair to him, there’s no indication from the first movie that Janine would have any interest in Lewis so he probably did think I was lying. In any case, the first Ghostbusters was the movie they were roleplaying, and Janine was with Egon.

The discussion about who I could be was over. He turned to the other girl, who was thoroughly uninterested in any of the talk and reading a book. Dana’s role was foisted upon her; she was someone who hadn’t seen either movie and wanted no part of the playtime. But she was the one burgeoning hormones were telling those boys they had to be paired with, not me, so she was assigned Dana. I complained. A lot. I knew I was being punished for a variety of stupid reasons. So I rebelled in the only way I could think to at the time. Since no one had claimed or been assigned him, I asked to be Lewis, since he was at least part Ghostbuster in the second movie and, again, the cartoon.

“There are no girl ghostbusters.”

It seems stupid to be upset about such things, but when you’re eleven, a lot of stupid things can upset you in profound ways. These types of conversations are exactly why I was so furious when the all-women reboot was announced for Ghostbusters and a bunch of internet nerds came out in droves to talk about how terrible it was – before it was even released. I knew those boys who treated me so poorly in that van on that summer day would be the same types of boys who were now declaring fictional characters couldn’t be women, either. It seemed especially unfair because Ghostbusters is fantasy. These types of rules don’t have to be in fantasy, and forcing them there felt needlessly restrictive. The movie wasn’t about gender roles and what women were allowed to do in society. It was about bustin’ some ghosts. Ghost bustin’ doesn’t have anything to do with gender and it would have impacted the story in zero ways – much like in the reboot. They’re girls. The story is still about bustin’ ghosts. Whether you like the movie or not, the core story hasn’t changed due to women being the ones doing the bustin’.

So I enjoy writing in fantasy because I just don’t have to care about that stuff. My women can wield swords and no one in the world I created says, “Girls aren’t as strong as men and therefore couldn’t do that,” or whatever other nonsense someone wants to say. I find it particularly ironic that these people think the very existence of folks of color, or women, brings politics or political correctness into a piece of fiction. Not having them in there brings politics into the work. The decision to exclude them is the politics, not the reality. Women and people of color exist. Making an active choice not to include them is a political and societal choice. Including them is the neutral position. And in fiction, and especially in fantasy writing, it’s an easy choice to make.

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