By its very definition, fantasy is an escape from reality. It is the unreal, the fantastic, the imagined.
I’ve yet to meet a reader of fantasy fiction that didn’t yearn for a world where magic is real, where justice triumphs, where the forces of darkness gather and march but are ultimately defeated. Real life is boring. Real life has bills and relationships that don’t work out and unsatisfying jobs. In real life, the wrong person gets elected president or to Congress and someone else wins the lottery.
But in fantasy, life may be hard, but it has some higher purpose. There is a discernible deeper meaning to it all.
To an extent this is true of all fiction. An author makes choices for the characters and plot. He or she adds structure and cohesion. He or she eliminates the randomness of reality. Why? Because it isn’t satisfying to read otherwise. Even a memoir, ostensibly based on real events, is shaped to have a meaningful structure.
Genre fiction takes escapism even further from the realm of ordinary life. The action hero always overcomes incredible odds to defeat the bad guy. Science fiction takes the reader to other times or other worlds, where the only-imagined is now possible. Even romance supposes a world where relationship complications work themselves out neatly and two people who belong together not only find each other but live happily after ever.
Fantasy has magic. It could be a long-lost artifact. It could be the ability to summon fire from thin air. But, somehow, the ability to make use of the supernatural is either good for the protagonist or the weapon of the antagonist. Often, it’s both.
For example, my novel, Red Dragon Five, features two villains with magical powers. One can transform herself into a giant, firebreathing dragon. The other can control the weather and water. Meanwhile, my protagonist has innate magical abilities. He can see magical energy, has postcognitive vision, and can vanish in shadows. The villains’ powers are greater than his, making his path to triumph fraught with peril.
The presence of magic in whatever form it appears is one of the major attractants to fantasy literature. Since I was very young, I’ve believed in magic in one way or another. I like the idea of there being more to this world than we expect. Whether it’s secret dimensions, charms to repel monsters, or a ring that makes one ultra powerful, I like the idea that there is an ethereal means to change the conditions of the world around us.
In my real-life experience, such things don’t exist. There are no magical creatures imparting wisdom. There are no spells that prevent harm.
So I make them. As a fantasy writer, I create worlds where magic exists. I open doors to other dimensions for my readers to slip through. I bring the fantastic to life.
There is another key component to escapism that runs through all genre fiction, particularly fantasy: hope.
Readers of fantasy literature are not just seeking to escape the mundane existence of ordinary life. They also want to believe in a world where things work out the way they should. The brave are rewarded for their courage. The wicked are punished for their evil. Small, unassuming people can step onto the world stage and steer the course of history towards justice and light.
Wolf Dasher, the main character in Red Dragon Five, is an orphan. He was born into a rich family, but he was cast out and disowned when he was just 15, because he developed his strange, magical powers. He went to work for the government, because they took him and trained him, but he was unjustly denied his birthright by the people who were supposed to love him.
Despite this ignominious beginning, though, Wolf fights for the people of a strange land. He battles megalomaniacs and psychotics. And he wins. He is often hurt along the way, and not all of his allies survive. But, in the end, he wins. He preserves lives in the name of good. He is by no means a paragon of virtue. But he’s a decent person who fights like a lion to protect the innocent.
Wolf gives us hope that the forces of evil will not triumph when they inevitably march on us. He gives us hope that even a person with a broken background can do good in the world.
I want a world where there is magic. I want a world where the good guys defeat the bad guys. And real life doesn’t always give me that.
So I write fantasy literature. I create worlds where we can enjoy magic, where we can hope for justice and believe it will happen.
Fantasy literature gives us an escape from drudgery and from darkness. That’s why I like it. That’s why I write it.
I’ll continue this theme next week, when I’ll explore the concept of idealized worlds in fantasy literature.