One of the cool things about writing fantasy literature is the ability to create new worlds. You get to make up new nations, new peoples, and new histories.
That means you have total control over the shape and style of the world. It works the way you want it to.
That gives the author the ability to create an idealized world — one where things work better than they do in real life. One where there is social justice, even if, to get it, there has to be an epic battle pitting a small, unlikely hero against the forces of darkness.
I am a dreamer — What would you expect from a guy who writes fantasy literature? — and I like to create worlds where there is equal opportunity — for heroism, for villainy, for insanity, for mistakes, and for everything that makes us both glorious and hideous as people. In short, I create worlds where my characters have roughly the same chances as everyone else.
For example, in my first novel, State of Grace, my setting features a lot of gender equality. The main character, Wolf Dasher, is male, but his immediate superior in the field, Kenderbrick, is a woman. She is not only competent at her job, she is highly respected by others in the field, particularly her ultimate boss, the head of Shadow Service. She is an expert on the political situation that grips the land in which she works, and she knows how to handle roguish secret agents who like to follow their instincts instead of protocol. She’s very good at her job, and no one questions her abilities on the basis of her being a woman. Everyone, including Wolf, immediately accepts her authority.
The same is true of May Honeyflower, Wolf’s principle love interest in the novel. She is Captain of the Elite Guard — the top military unit in Alfar, the elf nation where most of the book is set. As a result, she is also an advisor to the government, which, incidentally, is headed by another woman. Nowhere in the novel does it ever occur to anyone that it is extraordinary a woman should hold such a prominent position. Everyone assumes she got the job entirely on merit and accepts her credentials.
I know there are a lot of historical reasons for why women have had to battle for equal rights and opportunities in the real world. But I believe women are every bit as capable as men, and that there is no need to restrict someone’s opportunities. And, since this is a fantasy world, I created it to reflect my values that women are equal to men.
In the same way, one of the themes of State of Grace is the role of religion in society. This is a debate we’re having in the real world practically every day. Whether one is discussing the right to an abortion in the U.S. or the prominence of Sharia law in Egypt, we humans struggle to find the right balance between religious belief and secular law in our societies.
It would have been easy to choose one side or the other and make it obvious what the right thing is (in my opinion). I could have made all the devout believers dangerous zealots to show that religion is a bad thing, or I could have made all the bad guys infidels to make the point that we need some form of higher moral compass.
Instead, I went both ways. State of Grace‘s primary villain is a devout believer, and he is something of a zealot. He believes passionately in God and God’s plan. He believes he must orchestrate a coup and start a war to fully execute God’s will properly. One of his allies, is a terrorist in the mold of Osama bin Laden — a madman who believes God wants him to kill as many infidels as possible.
However, the main villain’s intentions are sincere. He truly believes he is doing the right thing, and that God is guiding his actions. Both antagonists are also being corrupted by outside forces that have taken their faiths and perverted them into something dreadful.
Contrast that with May, who also is a devout believer in God. She has a strong faith, but she is utterly repulsed by the beliefs of the villains. To her mind, they have absolutely lost God’s message in their fervor and are on the wrong path.
Wolf, meanwhile, is an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God at all, and he is terribly suspicious of religion in general. But he recognizes something beautiful and pure in May’s faith. He respects her belief and is jealous of it, even while he condemns the villains for using religion as justification for atrocities.
And the true believer (May) and the atheist (Wolf) are comfortable working together and respecting the other’s ideas. They find it is possible to have dialogue and to cooperate.
There’s that ideal world again. I believe people of differing beliefs — in beliefs as seemingly diametrically opposed as a religious devotee and an atheist — can come together and create consensus to make the world a better place to live.
That is the power of fantasy literature. We can make the world as we want it to be. That’s not to say the mileaux we create aren’t beset with troubles of their own. The very basis of all literature is conflict. The dark forces have to be on the march and threatening that idyllic state. But the basic foundation can be idealized. We can have a world that works more like we want it to.
I like writing fantasy literature, because I can model worlds that may one day come to be. Perhaps one day women will not make less money than men, not be considered less qualified just because they’re female, and not have their opportunities restricted by sexist policies. Perhaps one day people can find ways to cooperate and be respectful of each other even if their ideas are disparate and in conflict. If we create these worlds in fiction, we can envision them and bring them into reality.
Next week, I’ll look at the influence of the fantasy films of the 1980’s. Particularly the early half of that decade saw a huge interest in swords-and-sorcery movies. I’ll examine how these were important in my development as a fantasy author.