Which is why it’s disheartening, if I’m being generous, and maddening, if I’m being honest, to see so many new stories conforming to such old conceits. To see so many contemporary fantasy authors subscribing to antiquated models, either because of nostalgia, or the ease of well-worn roads, or, more likely, because they still feel adequately represented by them.
What a waste. The most beautiful part of writing fantasy is the freedom, not from rules—because we all know that good stories need good worlds, and good worlds, whether they’re rooted in fantasy, sci-fi, or realism, require solid scaffolding—no, not from rules, but from the exact details of the present we inhabit.
We have the opportunity to subvert the established tropes, to redefine power, to conceive of social landscapes and climates perpendicular to the ones in which we live. Fantasy allows us to explore the strengths and weaknesses of our own world through the lens of another. To draw a concept from its natural framework, its classic, well-worn context, and examine the underbelly of the idea. To restructure, and re-center. Fantasy affords the luxury of close examination—of the self, and of society—laid within a framework of escapism. It can be a commentary, a conversation, and it can simply be a refuge.
Good Fantasy operates within this seeming paradox.
It allows the writer, and by extension the reader, to use fictional and fantastical analogs to examine the dilemmas of the real world.
But it also allows the reader to escape from it. To discover a space where things are stranger, different, more.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as pure Fantasy.
Fantasy, like all stories, has its roots in reality—it grows from that soil. Stories are born from “what if…”, and that is a question that will always be rooted in the known. “What if…” by its nature is a distillation of “What if things were different?” And that question depends on a foundation of what we want them to be different from. In that sense, all fantasy is in conversation with a reality we recognize. It is a contrast, a counterpoint, and in my opinion the best fantasies are those which acknowledge and engage with that reality in some way.
Perhaps that means we see the world we are leaving—we board the train to Hogwarts, we step through the wardrobe—or perhaps we simply acknowledge the foundations on which our story is born and from which we are departing.
I’m not advocating for fantasy as an overt metaphor. The questions and counterpoints need not be the driving force of the narrative—as with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness—but that question, “what if…?”, is strongest when it challenges the world we already know, and finds a way to pivot from it. To ask more interesting questions. To tell new stories.”