So I’ve been thinking about my hobbies1, and reading (if you hadn’t guessed) is chief among them. Writing’s definitely up there, but I use writing more as a tool to maintain the necessary distance between me and the world, so I don’t feel constantly overwhelmed. That got personal fast! What a light, fun beginning to an article that’s realistically just going to be a ramble about the stuff I like; definitely not a jarring change of pace!
Anyway—I like reading. I have ever since I learnt how. That got me thinking about the sort of book I like to read. My grudge against genres aside2, fantasy is the genre that a fair majority of my favourite books falls into.
Ever since I learnt to read, I’ve been drawn to fantasy. I read Harry Potter at six, I discovered KA Applegate’s Everworld series before I was eight and through that Greek mythology—that’s right, I was born in a pre-Percy Jackson time. After that there was no hope for me. I was a fantasy reader. I loved books by Ian Irvine, Traci Harding, Liz Williams, Raymond E Feist, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Pratchett… You get the idea.
I loved fantasy. I love fantasy. And I think it’s because it’s not trying to be realistic. The author isn’t trying to trick me. There’s no trite “You may not believe this, but I swear it happened just like I’m telling you…” open3. Fantasy isn’t real. Which lets it be true in a way that not much writing can be without getting artsy, or just plain uncomfortable to read.
If you’ve gone through a difficult experience—I’m not going to list any, no need for that, just picture your own personal Darkest Moment TM
Maybe it involved a ventriloquist’s dummy, and a practical joke gone horribly wrong and now everyone you meet wants to know about the eye patch… Or maybe not, I don’t know.
—and a book you’re reading has someone going through that, you’d probably get a bit squirmy. You’d be comparing your own difficult experience to that of the character in the book, you’d be distracted from the plot by unpleasant memories; even if you really appreciated the opportunity for other people to sympathise with your pain, your enjoyment of that book is always going to be a little bit tainted by association with whatever you went though. It’s too personal, right? Think about it, do any of the main characters in your favourite book/movie have the same first name as you? No! That would be weird. Our names, our formative experiences, they’re too close to us to really work as entertainment.
If that experience was altered enough to leave a little cushion of plausible deniability, if the demons you battled with were actual demons, if a little bit of magic and sparkle got added to distract your brain from the darker bits of your memories, you could sympathise and appreciate the reflection of your battles without confronting the grim reality of what you went through. And if that sounds like fantasy is the blanket people can pull over themselves to keep them safe from monsters, then so be it.
Though I firmly believe that fantasy (and reading) is not about escapism; it’s about survival. Coping skills. You read enough times about good triumphing over evil, or people having been where you are4 and you start to feel more hopeful, or less alone. Fantasy is all about grand sweeping themes, the fate of the world and good vs evil, which makes the character development and the tiny ordinary details of regular people’s lives that anchor the fantasy absolutely crucial. It can’t all be fireballs and dragons, there needs to be loss, and growth and heartbreak and friendship. You need the blanket to have fluffy duckies if the monster has big scary teeth.
Urban fantasy strikes this balance between grim reality and magic sparkles so clearly! Usually the protagonist is poor, emotionally damaged, and a minority of some kind. They have firm principles, and a chip or three on their shoulder, and things only get darker for them; but they still manage to find people to help them keep it at bay. It’s great! It’s life, if you’re lucky and you do it right. The more you learn, the more skilled you become, the bigger and weightier your problems and responsibilities.
Hopefully, you gather people around you, and build support systems, and manage to build a place for yourself among the ever-clearer mess you can see around you; and eventually you figure out how to start making that mess a bit less chaotic.
That seems like a nice cheery way to end this barely coherent ramble, so I’ll stop now. I doubt I explained in an understandable way why I like fantasy, but maybe some of you can figure it out anyway.
1Because I am nothing if not self-absorbed
2I prefer to describe the style of book I like as ‘anachronistic’ and leave it at that, both to avoid limiting myself to only one genre (self-absorbed and greedy); and because I tend to prefer art (this includes books, movies and music) that don’t neatly fit into a single category
3Standard disclaimer—my opinions are not universal, I’m not referring to any book specifically, I’m sure there’s a bunch of writers that could start with that exact sentence and make it interesting, etc, etc, etc
4That’s the grown-up version. Straightforward fantasy is fairy tales, it’s all ‘The hero wins, the monster dies, a big rainbow comes out.’ Adults get ‘You’re not alone, we all die, but maybe your life can mean something anyway. You don’t have to win to avoid losing.’ A more believable ending, if a less happy one