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Why we need fantasy

Why we need fantasy

One of the uncomfortable aspects of being a published fantasy author has been learning that some people take great delight in saying with disdain ‘I don’t read fantasy’. I’ve been attacked in a public forum by someone who felt anyone over the age of 40 who reads anything other than feminist literary fiction has something wrong with them. Fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction are often dismissed as ‘childish’ or ‘only entertainment’ or worst of all, ‘escapism’ for those people who can’t face reality.

Clearly I don’t hold that opinion. From where I stand, fantasy actively requires readers to stretch their imagination muscles. From imagination comes the ability to put yourself in others shoes, and to see other ways the world could be. Both of these are sorely needed in the present climate.

Luck has a hand in life

When I was a social worker working at a cancer hospital, I had a client who was no longer able to work because of his cancer. On the surface he was wealthy, with multiple houses, cars and employees, but it was all dependent on him continuing to work. Now it was crumbling before him because of circumstances beyond his control. He couldn’t stop the cancer or will away the need to have treatment. Spending money wouldn’t get rid of the terrible side effects of medication. What shocked him the most, he said, was that he had judged others who were poor, thinking it was all their fault for not working hard. To discover that the course of his life was now out of his control was a terrible awakening. He was unlucky to get cancer, but there was nothing he could do about it.

This is the reality of life – the smallest twist of fate can change everything. If you have enough income to feed your family and pay your bills, you are lucky. If you have the money to travel and buy expensive things, you are very lucky. Others are not so lucky. But many can’t see this – they think others deserve the life they have. They’ve never experienced an abusive parent, or poverty, or any of the myriad other disadvantages that derail life. And they can’t put themselves into others’ shoes to understand how these things impact on opportunities.

Lack of imagination and empathy

Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes is crucial to developing empathy. When we can imagine what another person is experiencing, we feel compassion for them. In Buddhist terms, compassion is the wish to free others from suffering. We live in a world with increasing levels of narcissism. Everyone wants to be heard, but few seem to want to listen. People can’t imagine what others are going through. This lack of imagination results in lack of empathy. Many only come to understand others if they suffer some setback themselves. But there is a less painful way.

Books let us immerse ourselves in someone else’s life for a while. They take us deep inside another person’s experiences and possibly even into their mind and emotions. For the duration of the book you can become a homeless young person, and understand that they were forced to leave home to flee abuse. You can become a refugee and realise why making a dangerous journey is better than living under occupation. This sort of immersion can show us that sometimes there is no choice.

Why fantasy?

Fantasy requires the imagination muscles to work harder. If you are reading about someone who lives a life very similar to your own, in a place similar to where you live, connecting with them is easy. Empathy comes more readily. If they live in a very different time or world, or if they are very different to you, what you are connecting to is not surface similarity. It is the spark of humanity that lies deeper within. It helps you see the underlying similarities that are there even when what is difference seems enormous.

Fantasy is also good at asking ‘what if’? The rule of fantasy is that its world needs to be consistent with itself. But it doesn’t need to follow the rules of our world. As long as readers find some things they connect with, fantasy can show readers other ways of living. Social conventions can be challenged. Alternative ways of being in the world can be brought to life.

We need to imagine a better future. To do so, we need to stretch our imagination muscles. Go read a fantasy book!

** If you want something a bit more in-depth about this topic, you can read my thesis, Re-Storying the Earth: Writing a New Meta-Narrative Through Eco-Fiction.

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

Reflect or correct: What is the role of the author?

I’ve been reflecting recently on a book review that was critical. The reviewer argued that I was irresponsible for the way I’d handled a particular scene. This made me think about the role of the author in writing difficult things. Should they reflect the world as it is, with its ugliness and chaos and lack of resolution? Or should they correct the problems of the world, perfecting them? The answer, of course, is complex, and depends very much on all sorts of factors, including genre. I could write a whole paper on this, but in the interests of keeping things short, I’ll address a few key points.

The power to change the world

I think the reason a lot of writers write is so they can change the world. They want to correct the problems they see around them. These might be personal experiences that they wish had happened differently, or broad social issues they want to address. A good area for authors to ‘correct’ is in diversity. For too long books have not reflected the real world, in terms of race, disability, gender and other differences. Authors can use their power to ensure it is not only middle class white people (generally men) in stories who have autonomy. They can create characters of all kinds, without stereotypes. Even in a genre like fantasy, places and people can be written as complex and nuanced, like the real world. To correct in this way is definitely worthwhile and important.

When it comes to events within a story though, there are some risks in over-correcting. Stories aren’t true. But they need to seem true. So the world in your book needs to seem convincing. It needs to reflect the real world to some extent. Even if it’s fantasy. Bad things do happen to good people and sometimes those people, or the people around them, don’t respond in the best ways. Writing a good character means giving them complexity. Writing a good plot means you don’t solve a problem straight away. If your villain immediately faces consequences for his actions, he’s not a very good villain. If you pose a problem, and immediately resolve it, there’s no tension in your story. If your character is always strong and demands justice, they’re not a real person, they’re a superhero.

Politics or story telling?

Why do people pick up a novel? Kafka says “a book should be an axe for the frozen sea within us”. He was talking about writing books to awaken emotional responses, not to enlighten us politically. In novels, readers connect with characters, not political ideas. As a writer my aim is to write scenes that will make readers feel something, not scenes that will politicise them. Books are great for creating empathy. But to create an emotional response you need to connect with the reader. This won’t happen if your scenes aren’t realistic. The scene in my book is true to life, and true to the characters involved. If I were to write it differently in order to responsibly reflect how this sort of thing should play out, I wouldn’t be writing a novel, I’d be writing a training manual. 

Trust the author

My final point is that it is important to trust the author. Writing a novel is about selection. As a writer you decide what to include and what to leave out. And what is included is there for a reason, if you know what you are doing. The reader doesn’t always have the full picture until the end. This is particularly true of a trilogy. Not everything will be resolved, or even revealed, in the first book. And even more true of a mystery.  A mystery has hints and clues that may look irrelevant, but may be very important later on. Look at the way JK Rowling revealed Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem in one of the early Harry Potter books. It seemed like an aside, a meaningless incident, but it wasn’t. Sometimes if you wait, you learn not everything is as it seems…