On Fantasy Characters


Till_We_Have_Faces(C.S_Lewis_book)_1st_edition_coverI don’t know if the protagonists in fantasy are particularly different from the protagonists in fiction at large. Maybe. There is some “hero” quality a fantasy reader may expect, but I’m not sure that readers of other fiction don’t want that as well.

Here are some thoughts about fantasy protagonists from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books):

The hero has a complex dual role to play: to be human and to be larger-than-life. In many ways, Harry Potter and Bilbo the hobbit are like us, their readers. They are shy, quiet, reluctant to take center stage, not seeking fame or heroic stature. Yet they also have special powers, and when called upon, draw on their inner strengths to perform feats of great courage and personal sacrifice.

p. 98

I started thinking about the fantasy heroes I have loved. There is Taran from The Book of Three and the other stories in the Chronicles of Prydain. He was a young pig-keeper—apparently not a particularly good one—who wanted to be a knight. He was “relatable”—”human” as the quote above terms it. But he became larger than life, in part because of his desires to be greater than he was, but more so because he learned what that meant, learned how incapable he was, and then he did the really heroic.

There was Fiver from Watership Downs, the weakest rabbit in the warren, but with amazing powers that ended up saving them all. He was “human” because of his weakness and his inner strength. What mattered wasn’t just the exterior—the vulnerable part. He was more.

An obvious one is Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She was the youngest of the four Pevensies, which put her at a disadvantage. But when she found Narnia and came back telling her brothers and sister, their disbelief made her a sympathetic figure—more human. She was right but misunderstood and disbelieved. She became heroic because her belief was a cornerstone to their relationship with Aslan.

Speaking of C. S. Lewis fantasy, there is Oruel from Till We Have Faces . She was the unloved and unlovely princess, save for the special place she had in her sister’s heart. She too was sympathetic because of her humanness—her weaknesses, disadvantage, frailty, and her longings, her hopes. She didn’t become heroic until the end, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for any who haven’t read the book yet.

This leaves me with a question, however. If the hero doesn’t become heroic until the end, will readers lose their interest in him (or her)? I mean, Till We Have Faces is not a well-known or popular work of Lewis’s. Is Oruel, perhaps, too human, and not enough larger than life?

What about some of the contemporary Christian fantasy? Billy and Bonnie in Dragons in Our Midst, Susan Mitchell in The Swords of Lyric series, Abramm in Karen Hancock’s The Guardian-King series, Kale and Bardon in The DragonKeeper Chronicles, Aidan in The Door Within series or Aidan in The Bark of the Bog Owl. Your thoughts?

Re-posted from an earlier article here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

What Makes A Speculative Book “Christian”?


Recently in an email group I belong to, the question came up about Christian speculative fiction not being so very Christian. A good number are set in a fantasy world or on a planet far, far away, and the “faith elements” seem more nearly aligned with mythology or the occult than with Christianity. So how is it they are Christian?

As I think about that question, C. S. Lewis’s great novel Til We Have Faces comes to mind. This story, perhaps his best, is a retelling of the Greek myth Cupid and Psyche. And yet it is one of the most spiritually truthful books I’ve ever read.

One reviewer described the book as “a compelling story of Love, and Love’s imitators (desire, dependency, etc.)” (excerpt from “Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis“).

I think that line encapsulates the point of the story.

Lewis hardly needs to make the connections for us — God is love, so this story about another place and pretend gods, is actually about Him. In other words, some of the heavy lifting should come from the reader.

In sum, one must expect that Till We Have Faces will make slightly heavier demands than Lewis’s earlier stories. It requires more alertness, more involvement in the narrative process, more willingness to become informed so that material will be meaningful. It requires, then, an adult level of reading (which, it must be added, some people reach at a very early age, and others never reach), but it will yield, therefore, adult-level understandings of Lewis, of life, and of oneself. (excerpt from Reason and Imagination in C. S. Lewis by Peter Schakel

Speculative fiction seems to come in three classes — that which deals with the supernatural identified in Scripture, that which portrays truth through allegory, and that which uses symbolism and suggestion to illuminate the spiritual.

All three have their danger points. How much speculation should a writer engage in when the topic is angels and demons — beings which actually exist?

How unavoidably predictable is allegory, turning deep matters of faith into boring platitudes?

And finally, what happens when an author trusts the reader to make symbolic connections, and they don’t?

My friend Sally Apokedak, in the same discussion I mentioned, pointed out that all Christian fiction has the same burden — telling the truth through story in an engaging way. In many ways a contemporary story is harder to meet all the obligations of Christian fiction.

It can be too predictable or cheesy or so oblique that the “faith elements” seem tacked on. The need for all stories is to wrap the story around the them in such an organic way that the two can’t be separated.

Speculative fiction is no different.

Is it possible someone will miss who Aslan is or who the God of the Mountain is? Or who the returning king is, in The Lord of the Rings? Yes, it is possible. That’s a risk, granted.

Is it possible that people reading The Last Battle will decide to worship a donkey instead of The Lion? Yes, that’s possible, too, just as it’s possible for someone to sit in church Sunday after Sunday and never turn to Christ.

Reading is a synergistic experience. The writer puts meaning into his story and the reader takes away from the book what matters to him. The writer has no control over what the reader will end up doing with the story in front of him.

The Christian writer needs to exercise trust. The first and most important object of trust is in God and what He will do with the work we’ve committed to Him.

The other object of trust is the reader. If the writer has done his job and we believe God can and will use what we give to Him, can we not then trust the reader to do the job of reading well?

So what makes a speculative book Christian? Truth — spiritual truth, whether it is symbolic or overt.

Published in: on March 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm  Comments (4)  
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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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Fantasy Friday—the Saturday Edition—on Characters


I don’t know if the protagonists in fantasy are particularly different from the protagonists in fiction at large. Maybe. There is some “hero” quality a fantasy reader may expect, but I’m not sure that readers of other fiction don’t want that as well.

Here are some thoughts about fantasy protagonists from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books):

The hero has a complex dual role to play: to be human and to be larger-than-life. In many ways, Harry Potter and Bilbo the hobbit are like us, their readers. They are shy, quiet, reluctant to take center stage, not seeking fame or heroic stature. Yet they also have special powers, and when called upon, draw on their inner strengths to perform feats of great courage and personal sacrifice.

p. 98

I started thinking about the fantasy heroes I have loved. There is Taran from The Book of Three and the other stories in the Chronicles of Prydain. He was a young pig-keeper—apparently not a particularly good one—who wanted to be a knight. He was “relatable”—”human” as the quote above terms it. But he became larger than life, in part because of his desires to be greater than he was, but more so because he learned what that meant, learned how incapable he was, and then he did the really heroic.

There was Fiver from Watership Downs, the weakest rabbit in the warren, but with amazing powers that ended up saving them all. He was “human” because of his weakness and his inner strength. What mattered wasn’t just the exterior—the vulnerable part. He was more.

An obvious one is Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She was the youngest of the four Pevensies, which put her at a disadvantage. But when she found Narnia and came back telling her brothers and sister, their disbelief made her a sympathetic figure—more human. She was right but misunderstood and disbelieved. She became heroic because her belief was a cornerstone to their relationship with Aslan.

Speaking of C. S. Lewis fantasy, there is Oruel from Till We Have Faces . She was the unloved and unlovely princess, save for the special place she had in her sister’s heart. She too was sympathetic because of her humanness—her weaknesses, disadvantage, frailty, and her longings, her hopes. She didn’t become heroic until the end, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for any who haven’t read the book yet.

This leaves me with a question, however. If the hero doesn’t become heroic until the end, will readers lose their interest in him (or her)? I mean, Till We Have Faces is not a well-known or popular work of Lewis’s. Is Oruel, perhaps, too human, and not enough larger than life?

What about some of the contemporary Christian fantasy? Billy and Bonnie in Dragons in Our Midst, Susan Mitchell in The Swords of Lyric series, Abramm in Karen Hancock’s The Guardian-King series, Kale and Bardon in The DragonKeeper Chronicles, Aidan in The Door Within series or Aidan in The Bark of the Bog Owl. Your thoughts?

Published in: on October 18, 2008 at 10:48 am  Comments Off on Fantasy Friday—the Saturday Edition—on Characters  
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