Fantasy, and Why We Need It

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(Photo credit: Hani Amir)

Today I intend to justify fantasy as a genre. Not that it needs justified, no more than any other genre, but I’m going to anyway.

But first, I’m going to tell you a story.


I’ve taken only one real writing class, if we don’t count that Creative Writing hour every Wednesday afternoon in third grade. I’d always written stories, since elementary school, and my senior year of university I finally took a real class on writing fiction. I was terribly excited and I felt like a Real Writer.

We had a lot of guided writing assignments, of course, but once we were given free rein to turn in whatever we wanted. I chose the opening chapters of a novel I was working on, The Sightless Sisters. My instructor called me in for a private meeting. “This is pretty good,” he said. “But you realize this is fantasy. It’s schmaltz. Nobody but twelve-year-old boys will ever read this stuff.”

And for the next decade, I told myself I didn’t write fantasy. I wrote historical fiction, I said, and sometimes I would write historical fiction for places that didn’t exist, with histories I made up, but that was okay, wasn’t it? If I wrote a little fantasy on the side but mostly in a legitimate genre?

And whenever I would notice that I had written a lot more words in fantasy than in historical fiction, I’d tell myself that when I got serious about writing, I’d write more historical work. I was just goofing off with the fantasy stuff.


I’m mostly over that, but if you pay attention, you can still detect traces of embarrassment and denial. If one asks what I write, I’ll answer with a joke about Big Fat Fantasy. My body language will change subtly. I may mention more than one genre, camouflaging.

And I do write other genres, too. But it’s okay to write fantasy.

Fantasy is not just a step-child genre for sci-fi and historical writers who were bad at research. And it’s not just a place to explore Myth, though of course that’s important too. It has its own purpose in helping us assess who we really are and who we should be.

Oh, right, the skeptic responds. A story about dragons and wizards in a fake medieval country is going to tell me who I am in suburban Middle America. Riiiiiiight.

Stick with me a minute.

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (Photo credit: dalcrose)


Before we talk about fantasy, let’s talk about story for a minute. Why do we even have story? I mean, sure, it’s good entertainment; literature, theatre, film, radio drama all require story as basis. Even wordless music tends to be based on story, either the story we bring ourselves or a literal story which the music brings to life (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Moldau/Má vlast, Danse Macabre, and a host of others). But aside from entertainment, why story? And why is it even entertaining?

It’s entertaining because it’s vital to our survival, first physically — story keeps us alive — and then mentally — story helps us cope.

I got to completely nerd out recently with a new (to me) book on the neuroscience of storytelling. For a person who works in behavior, this is pretty cool. And there are a couple of great points right up front about why story matters.

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution— more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it— a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. 1 Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.

— Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence 

Think back to your earliest childhood instructions. Odds are, there’s some sort of story attached. If your childhood was anything like mine, you might remember some instructional stories like these:

  • “Let me check your Halloween candy, because I heard of a guy putting poison/needles/razor blades in candy and passing it out to kids.”
  • “Keep your gloves on, because if your skin is exposed you will get frostbite.” (We have a family legend of my panicked cry, “I got snow on my skin!” as a three-year-old, when I stumbled and snow got between sleeve and glove. I actually remember the incident. Everyone recalls my reaction as hilarious, but no one mentions the hideous and overwrought tales of warning from over-helpful relatives just before we went outside.)
  • “Stay close in the parking lot so no one grabs you.” (My grandmother even explained to me the phonological shift from “kidnabbed” to “kidnapped”.)
  • “Hold on to my hand on the escalator; a little boy didn’t hold on once and he fell and his fingers got sucked completely into that grate at the bottom. Also, if your shoelaces are loose, it will suck down your foot.” (Seriously, if I ever become a successful horror writer, we can credit my grandmother.)

Story helps us to pay attention and relate cause and effect. Then story helps us to imagine scenarios, options, and possible outcomes.

Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving. Hey bud, don’t eat those shiny red berries unless you wanna croak like the Neanderthal next door; here’s what happened.… A recent brain-imaging study reported in Psychological Science reveals that the regions of the brain that process the sights, sounds, tastes, and movement of real life are activated when we’re engrossed in a compelling narrative.

Story prepares us for life by letting us experience intense or stressful or life-threatening situations without actually living them, giving us both a rush of experience and a chance to work out response options before actually needing them. When I watched Die Hard and saw the iconic scene in which John McClane must cross a field of broken glass barefoot, my first empathetic thought was, Yipes! All that glass, all those tendons and nerves in the sole of the foot!

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I'm afraid of.

And my second was, Why not take off your shirt or even your pants, stand on the bunched fabric, and shuffle through the glass? Yeah, a few shards will get through, but it will be much less damage overall.

I don’t mean to denigrate a classic movie moment, but my point is that the story made me think about something I’d never tackled before. I hope I’ll never face a terrorist across a field of broken glass in a building rigged to explode — but if I ever need to get through broken dishware, I now have a plan. And if I do face a bad guy trying to kill me? I have a plan for that, too. Sometimes the story gives you the answer, and sometimes the story prompts you to ask the question.

Okay, that’s for the physical part. Now for the mental.

Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother? If my hapless older brother got no respect in the family, are there circumstances that might lead him to betray me? What’s the worst that could happen if I were seduced by a client while my wife and daughter were away for the weekend? …. The answers are to be found in any bookstore or any video store. The cliché that life imitates art is true because the function of some kinds of art is for life to imitate it.

— Steven Pinker, quoted by Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

Okay, okay, now this sounds like an even better reason why fantasy is wholly unnecessary. Story is about preparing for life. Why waste valuable brain time figuring out options to fight a fire-breathing dragon when I’m never, ever going to face one?

I’m glad you asked.


English: Sign for the George and Dragon, Erles...
Sign for the George and Dragon, Erlestoke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dragons appear everywhere. Is this a primordial memory of dinosaurs, a cultural obsession we never outgrow, or what?

The dragon is a universal aspect of myth and story. It’s a key reference in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, whether the story in question contains an actual fire-breathing dragon or not; the hero will face a monster of some sort, and depending on the story, that monster might be a fire-breathing dragon or a verbally-abusive employer or a protagonist’s own guilt at cheating on his wife. But it’s a monster which must be faced.

And that’s where fantasy becomes invaluable.

We often distance ourselves from the things which are the most difficult. It can range from the humorous (“How do you tell a girl you’re interested in her? I’m asking for a friend”) to helpful (a child reading a challenging passage to a non-judgmental therapy dog) to the very serious (a rape victim describing the attack in third person, or an abused child using a puppet in therapy). Especially with the most personal of concepts, we need an outside view, a projection, something to experiment with and learn from while we pretend that it’s not really about us.

We need dragons.

Some monsters we face are too frightening to call by name, too horrific to think on directly. But our brains are marvelously good at projecting and inferring, and we can work through horrors by pretending they are something else. An army of Nazis bearing down on a tiny island nation, wearing its defenses paper-thin? Terrifying and debilitating. An army of orcs swarming a green shire with only a peace-loving halfling to withstand them? We can face the peril, cheer for the hobbit, and draw another breath.

And three-quarters of a century later, we will do it again, only this time the orcs are not not-Nazis, they are not-terrorists, or not-bill collectors, or not-bullies. It doesn’t matter what the dragon is or isn’t, what matters is that we vicariously practice how to approach the dragon.

A Mile In His Shoes

Working with story lets us handle disaster in smaller doses, innoculating ourselves and building ourselves gradually stronger.
Working with story lets us handle disaster in smaller doses, inoculating ourselves and growing gradually stronger.

Every story I read, every story I write, is an exploration of options. What might I do if I had to commit a crime to save a life? What if I were maimed and falsely accused of evil by those I wished to work alongside? What if I really, furiously hated a man, wished to hurt him as brutally as possible, and he was untouchable? (All explored in my future release Shard & Shield.)

Of course, those people aren’t me. And very often they act in ways I couldn’t, or wouldn’t. But observing their actions gives me insight into my own, allows me to test what I believe and why. And observing them in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar challenges means I have enough distance and perspective to see accurately.

And where I can’t gain options, I can gain empathy. I have a loving nuclear family made of pure awesome. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who are estranged from their families, even to the point of changing their names and avoiding public photos lest they be discovered. I have never lived that kind of distress — but I know a story of a young man sold into slavery by his family, who feared to see them again and reopen the hurt. And I know a story of an orphan adopted by a dark wizard who taught the boy to long for and fear a father. And reading, and experiencing, I can know a little.

And I know another story in which a boy once sold into slavery later turned and rescued his family in crisis, rejoining them years later and forgiving them. And I know hope.

G. K. Chesterton wrote on this in his essay “The Red Angel”:

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon….  At the four corners of a child’s bed stand Perseus and Roland, Sigurd and St. George. If you withdraw the guard of heroes you are not making him rational; you are only leaving him to fight the devils alone.”

And modern culture, being lazy, popularly distills this into a inaccurate-but-pithy short:

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”

We need fantasy, because all literature is fantasy. All literature is our vicarious struggles to learn and experience and overcome and achieve. The genre of Fantasy just gives us the biggest challenges and the most powerful experiences.

Observe: As a fantasy writer, I can easily write a blog post longer than many short stories or school papers. If Word Count is a dragon, consider it slain. Boo-yeah.

Update, Jan 7, 2014: Terry Brooks has shared his take on this topic here.

Good fantasy mirrors reality, but it doesn’t reflect an exact image. That is what makes it so valuable. It shows us reality in disguise, then allows us to unmask it. It frees us up to reconsider our attitudes and beliefs. I think this is what I like best about writing fantasy; I can write about our world and all of its problems without seeming to do so. There is no implied threat of confrontation if I am writing about a place or time or people that don’t exist. After all, I’m not writing about you or anyone you know. I’m not writing about current affairs. I’m not taking sides on a hot topic issue. I’m writing about something imaginary.

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  1. I once had a creative writing teacher tell me that fantasy would “pollute your lexicon” and, further, that it would tempt me to always “pawn things off on some elf”. Granted, I did learn a lot from that teacher, but when he tried to turn my bitter, arrogant, sarcastic King’s Champion into the manager of a store in the mall, battling the evil of a power-hungry corporate drone, I quit listening. He thought I should tell a real story. How to explain that I WAS telling a real story?

    Well, you just did. So thank you. You put into words what I always felt. :)

  2. What is it with (college) creative writing professors discouraging us from writing fantasy? I was told not to write fantasy by a writing professor, wrote the story in my spare time anyway, and eventually shared it in a different writing class, where some of my classmates told me they loved it even if though they “don’t usually like fantasy”. SO THERE! *cough* My first professor seemed to think that fantasy was superficial and that there was really only one plot line available (peasant boy becomes hero) — apparently no opportunities for character-building or depth or humanity in there? Part of me wants to send your post to her.

    Also, I’m just about to buy Wired for Story for my Kindle — it sounds fascinating!

    • Yeah! Genre fiction may not always be as academic as literary fiction — though I’ll argue that it certainly can be when it wants — but it should be taught anyway as it pays the bills better. ;-)

      There are so many more plots than “peasant boy becomes hero,” so he was just showing his ignorance — and there are a lot of non-fantasy books with the same “social nobody becomes hero” plot, too! Why? Because it’s a great way to explore character and motivation and consequence. So there.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful article, Laura! I needed to read this now that I’m 361,000 words into a long epic fantasy and wonder what in the WORLD I’m doing writing this….now I know! ;)

  4. This was so inspiring! Fantasy is actually my favorite genre to read, although I don’t always do it long enough. I also have many stories and a couple novels I’m working on. The idea of exploring the questions of life is so essential to what I believe about fiction. I also love G.K. Chesterton.

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