Why I write fantasy

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner recently ran a readership poll on her extremely popular blog and has now published the results. Of particular interest to me (and her, as it turns out) is that 26% of writerly survey respondents write science-fiction/fantasy (SFF), making it the most popular represented genre. The next most popular was general/’non-genre’ fiction (21%), followed by women’s fiction (12%). Supernatural/paranormal had its own genre category and came in 5th at 10%.

Since as an agent Ms Gardner represents just about any genre except SFF (and specialises in the Christian market) this is quite remarkable — and testament to the quality of her blog content. It also prompted her to speculate whether more writers are producing SFF than is reflected by market demand. A mini vox pop of sales seemed to support this hunch and the debate was thrown open to reader comments.

What followed was a lively discussion about the market for SFF and why so many people are writing it. Some ignorant people inevitably made some rather insulting comments about writing SFF, vis: it must be fun because you don’t have to do research or worry about verisimilitude (arrgh); SFF writers must be seeking to escape the real world due to the global financial crisis; assumptions that all fantasy is Tolkienesque; SFF writers must be trying to cash in on a perceived market and wouldn’t write it if they weren’t trying to sell a manuscript…

I confess I felt a little incensed on reading some of the comments, and although plenty of SFF writers jumped in to refute them, it has prompted me to reflect here on why I write fantasy and do some of my own refuting.

Actually, the reason I write fantasy is easy: it’s because I love to read it. It all comes down to ‘write what you love’.

There’s a strong element of ‘write what you know’ as well. I read a lot of fantasy and I connect with it, so it feels perfectly natural for me to write it. I think many people don’t understand that fantasy is largely about real stuff — characters just as real as any fictional character, with the same spectrum of emotions, faced with the same tough decisions, interacting with each other in the way humans do (note: the vast majority of fantasy characters are human).

Moreover, in just about every fantasy world there are reflections of our own. Urban fantasy is indeed set in a version of our own world; in the case of epic fantasy, which is usually set in a made-up world, elements of that world are often drawn from this world’s history and culture. To illustrate this, consider the classic fantasy trope of horse riding to get around. Or what is used for sources of illumination. Or food. Or materials. Not all these will appear as ‘familiar’ in every fantasy novel, but you can be certain that other reflections of our world will be present instead.

This is why the comment about ‘don’t have to do research’ really annoyed me. There is plenty of research that needs to be done so that all the little familiar details are accurate. These provide the foundation on which the fantastical world is based — and that’s when the hard work begins. Because the moment something is invented, or skewed, its ramifications for everything else must be determined. Magic always has a price, inventing creatures requires whole ecologies to be developed, and creating cultures and political histories opens up a can of worms that must be subdued and controlled.

I love it. Immersing myself in someone else’s richly realised world is delicious, like being an armchair tourist (except you actually wish you could go there). And creating my own world is thrilling and challenging. I can see why non-converts can be dismissive of fantasy as merely ‘escapist’, but it’s an ignorant and narrow view. I read (and write) fantasy because it adds another layer to the journey of discovery. In addition to a conspiracy/mystery/family secret/relationship to be uncovered, there’s a whole world waiting to be revealed as well.

Even more significantly, in addition to adding texture and wonder, the fantastic world provides a canvass for the exploration of grand themes. Ultimately the imaginary world becomes the stomping ground of a cast of characters who are tested by love, betrayal, prejudice, greed, violence, guilt, hatred, rage along with everything else. Fantasy allows us to strip everything back to the bones and invent the perfect crucible into which we toss our characters to see what they’ll do.

It’s not about ‘escaping’ reality, but embracing it. Fantasy allows us to probe and examine the fundamental themes of life and consider what makes us human.

I totally understand that fantasy isn’t for everyone. But I hope I’ve provided some insight into why it’s hands-down my favourite genre. And, judging from the stats on Rachelle Gardner’s poll, I’m obviously not alone in that. It would be fabulous if one day fantasy/SFF could lose the literary stigma that plagues it to allow a wider audience to enjoy the wonders too.

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5 thoughts on “Why I write fantasy

  1. I’ve always tried to think of Fantasy and Science Fiction as the setting rather then the genre. You can still have a Romance story, or a thriller, or any other of the ‘accepted’ genres, but just set in a place that you’ve made up.


  2. Leif, I think that is a valid point; China Mieville’s The city and the city is certainly essentially a crime novel (for example). I also think the fact that we can make up the world in which the story is set means we can tailor it to best explore specific grand themes.


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