Saturday, February 26, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 1 of 5: Making the Intangible Concrete

What makes a work of fantasy excellent?

Unsurprisingly, this is something I think about a lot.  Over the past few years of writing (and the past twenty years of reading) fantasy, I've come up with the following list, and over the next month or so, I'm going to devote a post to each of the points.  I’ll use the Harry Potter books as examples in a lot of cases, because I assume everybody’s read them, because I’ve read each of them at least twice (usually more; I'm not kidding), and because I think they're masterpieces of fantasy literature.  (I could nerd out on why for an entire post, but I’ll save that for later).  In any case, here they are, The Elements of Excellent Fantasy:

1) Makes Concrete the Intangible Intrinsic
2) No Free Lunch
3) A Complex Villain
4) Measured World-Building
5) Taps the Well of Universal Conflict

Today, I'm going to talk about point number one:   Excellent fantasy takes something intrinsic to being human and moves it from the intangible realm to the tangible.

This is really just a fancy way of saying that fantasy functions as myth.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define a myth as a symbolic story used to express some deeper cultural meaning.  I don’t mean to suggest that fantasies ARE myths.  A true myth, like, say, the story of Prometheus, is purely symbolic in addition to being purely story, and most modern fantasy doesn’t quite meet the “purely symbolic” requirement.  Still, a good fantasy novel will tap into something we already experience, usually something slippery and confusing, and give us a means to look at it, understand it, and deal with it in a way we never, in reality, could.

Here's a very simple example of how the wizarding world of Harry Potter externalizes something intangible.  In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley tells Harry about spells some unscrupulous wizards use to bewitch Muggles' keys:  
"...Muggle-baiting," sighed Mr. Weasley.  "Sell them a key that keeps shrinking to nothing so they can never find it when they need it....Of course, it's very hard to convict anyone because no Muggle would admit their key keeps shrinking--they'll insist they just keep losing it.  Bless them, they'll go to any lengths ignore magic, even if it's staring them in the face...."*
It’s funny, right?  Everyone's misplaced a key at some point, and we can nudge each other and laugh and say, “Oh, so THAT’s why I couldn't find it!”  The Muggle-baiting wizard's spell is an externalization of something internal:  human absentmindedness.   It’s a silly example.  But fantasy—good fantasy—is rich with big, important examples, too.  Take Horcruxes.

As a culture, we've agreed upon the idea that murder is a bad thing, and not just in the sense that it deprives another person of life.  It does something to the murderer, too, something irreparable.  Rowling made this idea concrete in the form of Horcruxes.  Not only does murder tear your soul, it enables you to remove it from your body.  In Voldemort's case, his soul is so little a part of his self that he doesn’t even realize it when one of the pieces is destroyed.  His actions have corrupted him past all human feeling; he has become soulless.  There are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray in this transformation, and in the gradual dehumanization of Voldemort’s appearance.  We can easily acknowledge that committing an evil act has consequences, but in a work of fantasy, those consequences can be felt and seen; they become a painting or an enchanted locket.  We get an object at which to direct our fear and confusion.

I've heard it argued that fantasy continues to be popular because it's escapist.  I don't think that's untrue--not exactly.  Escapism is great.  But we wouldn't keep reading fantasy to escape if it didn't also grab us in a deeper way.  Fantasy gives us a handle to help us understand ourselves and our world, in big ways and in little ones.  

Next week, I'll talk about another important aspect of fantasy fiction: There's No Free Lunch!

*from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling, p. 38.


  1. What a great series! I'm looking forward to the one about villains. Oftentimes I develop my villains too much so that they become antiheroes more than villains, but I think that's part of the idea (and just some of my own style).

  2. Also looking forward to the villains post; they're so hard to get right.

    I agree that good fantasy does not forget that we are human despite special powers/magical laws/new universes (whether that refers to the reader or the characters). If anything, the characters are often forced to face up to their especially human traits.

    Will be interested to read about worldbuilding/exposition too; I suck at exposition in fantasy [weeps into fist]

  3. Hmmm, so no pressure on that villains post... ;) You guys will have to come back and weigh in. @Jaimie, I think creating an antihero is part of the idea. It's tough, though, at least for me! @Lucy, I think you're right: a good story reinforces our humanity.

  4. Ohhhh this is great! I can't wait for them all but definitly the villains post. Yea no pressure, right? I write MG and find my villains not evil enough. I am sure after all the post I will have some revising to do.

  5. I especially like your comments on escapism-so true! I think that's one reason the HP books work so well.

  6. @ Jessica: Sometimes the not-so-evil villains are the best ones! You really feel it when they go down.

    @Caryn: Escapism is one of the reasons I love fantasy so much!