I have an idea… and I’m pretty sure I’m right

Hello, everyone.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately regarding my approach to fantasy as a literary genre, particularly my thoughts on what I believe can be done with fantasy, things I want to try to do with Royal Redemption. Hopefully, those of you who’ve checked out the (very) rough draft so far will have noticed that the story is rather dark. I’m planning to deal with some very serious themes, very adult stuff. Not ‘sexy’ adult, but ‘serious’ adult.

In Royal Redemption, I plan to deal with such issues as rape, prejudice and racism, the temptation to compromise one’s principles for the sake of survival, and so on. I don’t think I’m the first writer to tackle these issues in a fantasy novel, but as I’ve really opened the hood and put some thought into writing this story I’ve ended up dong some thinking about the genre itself, and that has led me to ask the following question:

Are we all doing this wrong?

By that I mean, is fantasy really what we think it is? Is it really a genre of literature?

I’m not so sure, and I’m beginning to think very seriously that it isn’t.

Think of the themes I’m writing about in Royal Redemption. Mainstream or contemporary novels deal with these issues, too. Fantasy lends itself well to stories of high adventure, but If one wanted to write a mystery or a thriller, or a horror novel, a detective drama, or even a romance and set it in a fantasy world, one certainly could. And I’d be willing to bet that if you’re a big fan of fantasy, you’ve probably read books where writers have done exactly that. I’m not claiming to blaze new trails here.

The trail I’m trying to blaze is more in how we think about fantasy. I don’t think it helps us to think of fantasy as a literary genre. I see it as something bigger. I think it’s more of a setting. We don’t call mainstream, or contemporary novels ‘real world’ novels. That would be silly, wouldn’t it? In the same vein, I don’t think we should call novels and series like Lord of the Rings, or The Riftwar Saga, fantasy. They’re adventure stories, really. They’re simply set in a fictional world, that’s all.

I think, shedding the ‘fantasy’ label would do a lot for writers. First, it would put writers like Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist on the same shelf as Louis L’amour and Tom Clancy, and I think they both deserve and would appreciate that. Secondly, I think it would help writers like me who might want to follow in Feist’s and Brooks’ footsteps be taken a bit more seriously as writers if the focus is shifted to the kinds of stories we write rather than the setting we choose. I think that draws the writing community together a little better. Writers of fantasy (and science fiction, too) wouldn’t be made to feel like they’re in some box separated from the ‘real’ writers of contemporary or mainstream fiction.

So, that’s it, I think. Fantasy is not a genre to me. It’s a setting. A setting where you can tell any story you can imagine. It’s a literary device then, really. Useful if you have a subject you want to tackle, such as rape, that if set it in the real world might be too intensely personal, or in the case of prejudice and racism, might be so controversial that attention would become glued to the controversy instead of the point you’re trying to make.

And that’s what I think I need to spend some time thinking about as I become increasingly serious about my writing. In the realm of fantasy, high adventure rules and has done since Tolkein, or even Jules Verne perhaps, if you want to really think about it. But maybe, if instead of trying to shoehorn the themes I’m trying to tackle into an adventure story, if instead I take a broader view, maybe I can make Royal Redemption something more than just an adventure story.

Something to think about…


4 responses to “I have an idea… and I’m pretty sure I’m right

  1. The biggest difference between fantasy fiction and the other sub-genres of fiction is that fantasy involves magic and/or imagined creatures. I think it has its place and that readers of fiction appreciate the sub-genres being kept separate, as it makes it easier to choose one book from many options. It’s sort of like picking a place to eat… if I like hamburgers, I know I’m more likely to find food that I want to eat in a burger joint than in a Chinese restaurant.

    That being said, I know lots of readers who don’t usually enjoy fantasy, but they all make exceptions for really good work. This is why Star Wars and Harry Potter became so popular. Good writers incorporate ‘real’ issues into their stories, regardless of genre and if the story is good enough, word will get out and it will cross-over; appealing to readers regardless of their preferred genres.

    My advice is to focus on the writing; not where it is shelved or marketed.

  2. warning: this may be a long post. 🙂

    Hmm, I see what you are saying but not all fantasy is epic, like LOTR. The fantasy genre is broken down into several sub-categories. That’s why it’s important when pitching to an agent, you know which sub-category is your target audience.

    There is your Authurian fantasy. Example would be Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of Avalon”.

    Then you have comic fantasy, dark fantasy (demons, dark magic, etc.). Then there is Epic/High fantasy. these are usually tales of a young nobody, thrown unexpectedly into a massive “Good vs. Evil” struggle, where he must learn to uncover his own latent heroism to save the day. Often also includes a “grail-finding” quest – regardless of whether the ‘grail’ is an icon, a person, a magical talisman or any other form of symbolic token. Usually involves a very large cast of characters and spans a vast area of a fantastical world. LOTR.

    Then you have fairy tales, mythology (Percy Jackson), and heroic fantasy. The latter is more along the lines of Raymond Feist. These are worlds with an almost ‘middle-ages’ feel, peopled with wizards and sorcerers, communing with dragons and riding pet unicorns to tame a battalion of wild orcs and goblins. Heroes are generally muscle-bound sword-wielding types, determined to rescue a true damsel or world in distress. Magic is an accepted part of life, (think Pug and Tomas) although the workings of such are sometimes left unexplained.

    Then there is magic realism. Think of The View from the Mirror. Then you have Modern fantasy which incorporates Urban fantasy (think Silver Born by Patricia Riggs), Steampunk (20,000 Leagues under the Sea) and Dystopian (Hunger Games).

    The thing that separates these stories from regular fiction IS the setting. That’s what makes it fantastical. Without the magic, the creatures, the beings, the stories would blend with all the others, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want that (probably because I like writing fantasy).

    Also, take away the fantasy genre, you automatically decrease your word count acceptable for publishing by 20 – 30,000 words. That’s a lot. Fantasy and Sci Fi allow the extra words for world building. The setting is very, very important to allow the read to suspend belief. Without the fantasy genre, Midkemia couldn’t exist in the manner it does.

    I think this whole fantasy thing would be easier to digest if you can remember that fantasy is classified under Speculative Fiction. If you look at it that way, then each fantasy sub-category makes sense and you can pick and choose which one your particular stories would belong.

    If I were Feist (which I’m not but I wish I was his female clone), I wouldn’t want my books next to L’amoure’s. I saw Cowboys and Aliens. It didn’t work for me. 🙂 Just saying. 🙂

    Anyway, these are just my opinions. Great way to open up some dialogue.

  3. Pingback: The Ongoing Search for a Bold, Fresh Approach to a Well-worn Genre | Alpheus: The Underground Stream

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