Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What is Fantasy?

I've been seeing a lot of posts and articles recently complaining that fantasy keeps doing the same thing over and over again and that people would like to see something different. "Don't give me quest stories", "Don't have an older mentor figure", "Have more beta main characters who stay beta characters", "Make the worlds more realistic by adding more diverse subraces to the races involved (ie, several shades of elves)".

So I've decided to ask, what is fantasy? Why do people still read Tolkien if they don't like quests or mentors or one race of elves (there's actually more than one, indicating that these people didn't read Tolkien very closely anyway)?

The obvious response is the people complaining are only a small group of readers, people who like the idea of the genre but don't actually LIKE the genre. It's sort of like me with romance novels. I like romance, I like the idea of romance, I just don't like romance novels. Why? Because they're too fake. They all end happily. The characters go out of their way to cause problems. They never tell the truth, they never discuss issues that might become problems, they never clarify their meanings so their partner understands the real issue/emotion being discribed, they never ... you get the picture. But what's a romance novel without the twists and turns brought out by the lies and miscommunications? What's a romance novel without the happy ending? General fiction.

Fantasy is the modern fairy tale. I don't read it as escapism. I don't read it because nifty things happen to interesting people (though that's always a bonus). I read it because it makes me think about life and the issues brought up by life that everyone must face. Coming of age, falling in love, learning to depend on yourself, learning to depend on others, facing trials and overcoming them. These are the things myths did for people of the past (and remember that in the past what we term myths were considered religion). Myths explained why people act the way they do, helped people overcome difficulties, gave people hope. That's what fantasy does today. At least, that's what good fantasy today does for me.

The best fantasy in my mind is the type that makes me think. It has philosophical messages about life that are worked into the plot by means of the characters development rather than preached forcefully. Terry Brooks did an excellent job of this in The Sword of Shannara, the book that caused me to fall in love with the genre. It's a 'traditional, epic fantasy'. Quest - check. Elderly mentor - check. Magic - check. A diverse group of questors (meaning, an elf - well, half-elf in this case, a dwarf, various humans) - check. Does the novel still sell? - check. Which means that despite the fact that it's older than I am, this kind of fantasy is still popular (especially considering the second book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara, has been optioned for a movie). And look at Eragon. I won't explain why I disliked the book here, suffice it to say, here's a traditional quest story using all the elements (minus the mixed group) that has done exceedingly well. And it wasn't even well written! So obviously there is a market for traditional fantasy.

Now I'm not saying that it isn't refreshing to read something different every now and then. And there are several excellent authors who are reinventing the genre. Nor am I saying that having more diverse subraces is a bad thing (though I do think the person who posted that should read more fantasy as I can name authors who do use more than one type of elf for example). What I am saying is a lot of us like traditional fantasy. We like our stories set in a medieval European feudalistic system. We like knowing that the main character is learning from a mentor (don't we all want a mentor who will guide us along life's path? - and it's hard to be mentored by someone younger than you, and even harder to learn everything on your own). We like seeing main characters who can make tough decisions, knowing they might not like the consequences but accepting that as a necessary evil (as opposed to 'beta' characters who, let's face it, will always be asking the other characters for advice as they won't know what to choose or want to take responsibility for those choices, or whining about how they don't want to do the quest at all for most of the novel). We want happy endings, or at least endings that allow us to believe brighter days are coming (if an author ends the novel negatively I might think it was a good ending that matched the story but I probably won't pick up their next book).

These are the elements that make up fantasy. Yes, you can leave some elements out. No, you don't have to have lots of philosophy in your book to have a good read. The beauty of fantasy is that it embraces so many subgenres and allows for a lot of diverse interpretations.

My point? Saying you want a fantasy without the fantasy elements that have always made up the genre is like saying you want a romance without, well, the romance. It might work for some people but the rest of us like our genre. That's why we keep reading (and writing) it.