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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Realistic Fantasy?

Wow, it's been well over a month since I last posted. My only excuse is that I had two or three ideas for posts in the last month but when I started to write them, I realized that they would take a lot longer and be much more involved and complex than I first thought. I may still write them, but it will definitely take time and probably they would be in a series of posts.
So today I'm going to be talking about an aspect of fantasy that really bugs me. It is the idea that fantasy has to be 'realistic'. That is, that because governments in our world are almost always corrupt, and that good monarchies always go bad after a generation or two, and so on and etcetera. Apparently, according to somebody in a review that I read, Tolkien didn't understand economic issues and that it's painfully obvious in his writings. Well, not really. What's painfully obvious is that Tolkien knew how to write a tale that stirred the imagination and was full of beauty, courage, hope and just plain ol' good adventure. So what if the people of Minas Tirith, if this was 'our world', would have looked at Aragorn with skepticism and not welcomed him with open arms? Who cares if, in real life, Faramir would have been corrupted by the Ring? The beauty of fantasy, to me, is that it tells a tale with elements of reality in it but with more beauty than could be put into a more 'realistic' story.
I don't want to write stories where my protagonist is 'medieval' or 'Celtic', in the sense that he's dirty, barbaric, lives in a drafty castle, takes mistresses, wears no shirt half the time, and has long, unkempt hair. If I want my protagonist to live in a beautiful palace where each of his children has their own bedroom, the pillars are made of ivory, there are warm fires and glass windows in every room, the peasants are well taken care of, and his hair is nicely kept, then why can't I? If I want to write about the other, then I can write historical fiction.
I write fantasy because in it there is a way to have a different 'reality'. Not an escape, but an adventure. I like swords and kings and queens and noblemen and journeys and magic and heroism and the wicked getting their due. Lately, I've felt rather constrained by this idea of 'realistic fantasy' that I seem to see everywhere. But I realized that Tolkien and Lewis most likely would never have become so popular and their fantasies so beloved if they had stuck to what would be 'realistic'. There's no joy in about ninety-five percent of the fantasy stories written today. There's very little beauty, because fantasy has become so 'gritty and real' as a rule. And I'm not even against a little bit of 'gritty realism' showing through once in a while. But when that's all we judge fantasy by, and when that's all we write, I think we've gone from fantasy to alternate reality.
That's why I'm not interested in The Wheel of Time series, or the Game of Thrones series. That's why I dislike the Auralia Thread series (you may have a rant on those books some day).
Now, you may be thinking, "Aw, you're just a sissy. You like pink unicorns and fairies and Prince Charmings . That's what you think fantasy is. We like the gritty, hard, dark stuff."
Which brings me to another point: I'm not against dark, as long as there's light. In the Auralia Thread series, I didn't get a sense of prevailing light in a huge amount of it. And obviously there were things that were supposed to be hopeful and bright, but it was the amount of... I don't know. There was something wrong with those books. But what I mean by fantasy is Narnia and Lord of the Rings. Good overcoming evil, beauty overcoming ugliness. If you want a beautiful princess, then write one (so long as she isn't a Mary Sue :D ). If you want a handsome knight, or a moderately comfortable castle, or peasants that love and respect their king (who also loves his people), then write them. Tolkien and Lewis did it (of course, far more skilfully than we could ever hope to do, but still...), and they infused a light and a hope into their stories. Which of course was mostly due to their Christian (or Christian influenced) views.
So, since I am a Christian, and I believe in hope and valor and beauty, then I am going to write those things in. And maybe my heroes won't be as 'morally conflicted' as some people might like (thought they won't be perfect, of course). And maybe my princess will have long, beautiful, shining hair. And maybe the castle won't be drafty. And maybe, just maybe, the story will be good.
One thing that has always captivated me in The Return of the King, and that has influenced my idea of soldiers and knights in my own fantasy tales, is Prince Imrahil and his tall men with grey eyes and silver armor, bearing a banner that flutters in the wind.
So, what are your thoughts on 'realistic fantasy'? Do you feel constrained in your pursuit of it by all the little things that everyone says you have to do? Do you think that your story will be hampered by your ignorance of medieval serfdom or your sketchy knowledge of the freedoms afforded women in the 12th century? Research is good, and people (myself included) appreciate it when you don't write motorcycle horses (i.e., horses that can run for miles and hardly tire, and require very little care), but some things you can invent or change to your own specifications (providing, of course, that you aren't overstepping bounds of Biblical morality). Well, this is getting long, so I'll end it here. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts!


  1. Good thoughts, Laura. I'll be honest, I have to struggle sometimes to keep myself from going into total realist mode when writing fantasy. I mean, yes, there are some things that have to be done realistically or readers simply won't buy it. Their willingness to suspend disbelief will only carry them so far.
    At the same time, though, this IS fantasy and fantasy IS about suspending disbelief and letting yourself be transported into another world where anything--however fantastic and magical--is possible. I read fantasy to experience new and enchanting worlds that spark my wonder and curiosity, so I want to write fantasy stories that do the same thing for other people too.

  2. I think fantasy should give that freedom, but I'm attracted to human nature in all its realism. I love the Auralia Thread, though darker than I expected, for the beauty within a deeply flawed world of largely wretched characters. I used to hate my heroes falling short, but I've come to see how much stronger that makes the story. The history of the Bible shows us how human nature includes heroes and villains, the image of God and total depravity. Here's a quote from N.D. Wilson in his book Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: "The world is full of soft beauty and gentle lapping waves. We would be fools to ignore the gentleness and get caught up in the grit, only able to tell dark stories. But a world of gentle touches is no truer than a world gone black. Put the colors in their places. Paint a true picture, with tension… Realism is not puffy-faced angels and realism is not grit standing alone." That's what I strive to write by.
    Now, conditions of life in fantasy worlds are something else entirely. They can have sweet-scented castles and shining hair if I darn well please.

  3. Thank you both for your thoughts :) Mostly what I was talking about, Anna, was not the realism of the characters but the so-called 'realism' of the setting, the 'conditions of life', as you put it. Although I do get a bit tired of protagonists who are no better than the antagonists ;)

  4. Well, political realism/economic issues are driven by characters, which is what sparked most of my comment. :)

  5. You've got me there :D I may have to reconsider some of my statements now!

  6. I've tagged you on my blog! See... well... my blog. I hope you get to do it and have fun and stuff. :D

  7. Ray Harryhausen used to say, "Nobody wants to go to the movies to see a sinkful of dirty dishes." I think that applies equally well to fantasy. --Lee Duigon (not really anonymous)

  8. I really love Auralia's Colors, both for the setting and the characters. I didn't think of it as too "realistic;" but it had a different sort of world than most stories.