What Makes Fantasy Work?

I’ve thought about fantasy a lot as I’ve worked on The Lore of Efrathah. I love fantasy, and a growing number of others do, too. Since Friday I’ve discovered a number of other writers who are hoping for publication or who have already published with a small press or a self-publishing company, all Christian fantasy.

But I’ve also discovered that not every fantasy is equal. As I’ve read some of the snippets or chapter samples, it’s clear to me that some of the stories are ones I might like and others are ones I wouldn’t want cluttering up the bookshelf.

What makes a fantasy work?

In some ways, I think what makes a fantasy work is no different than what makes any other piece of fiction work. But in another way, fantasy aims to accomplish more, so it has more that can go wrong.

I suppose that isn’t quite true. Mystery writers could say that mystery tries to accomplish more because the story tries to create a puzzle that keeps the reader guessing. And romance writers could say that romance tries to accomplish more because the story tries to bring two people together while keeping them apart. Writers of historical fiction could really make a case for their fiction doing more.

In other words, each genre has its own tropes to which the author must adhere, so it isn’t quite as simple as just writing a story. But when I say that fantasy does more, I’m thinking of the depth—the way that the story is only the obvious part of what the writer is saying, not the entire substance.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, for example, Orual’s experiences say much more about Mankind’s spiritual life than about the mistakes of one lonely girl who became queen.

But what makes Lewis’s stories work so well? Why, in fact, are the Narnia stories known around the world but few people have read Till We Have Faces? Of course, the only people I know who have read the latter, count it among their favorites, so I’m not suggesting it doesn’t “work.”

And yet, it’s hard to say it works as well as Narnia. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be as many people who have read it and love it? I suppose we could argue that children’s books have an advantage. Often times, parents who love the books they enjoyed as children, read them aloud to their children, and the love of the books is passed on, as much by the pleasure of the reading aloud experience as by the quality of the stories.

Has anyone read Till We Have Faces aloud to their children lately? I suspect not. It’s not that kind of book.

So I suppose the first thing to realize is that what “works” is somewhat subjective. Yet I can’t help thinking that some of those books I stumbled upon don’t work.

Perhaps the key is to look at what the books were trying to accomplish. The question would then be, did they get it done?

The higher the book aims, the harder it is to reach that goal. Consequently, if a story aims to be a sweet romance as a means of providing a little escape for the reader, then it works if it does just that. But if it aims to be the next Gone with the Wind, the author has set an ambitious goal and her work must be judged based on whether or not she accomplished what she set out to do. If she wrote a sweet romance, albeit a thousand pages long, I’d say she did not meet her goal.

So too with fantasy. But I think I need to pick this up another day and explore the original question a little more.

Published in: on December 13, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. Looking forward to what you have to say 🙂

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  2. Thanks, Morgan. I hope the series gave you at least one helpful something to think about.

    Becky

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