Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Makes and Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 5 of 5: Evil We Can Believe In

Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy.  If you haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!

And today, Part 5!

“ Dorothy L. Sayers once pointed out about the mystery genre, fantasy is one of the last bastions of “moral fiction.”  By this she meant that in mystery—and in fantasy—good triumphs over evil, the wrongdoers get their just deserts, and all ends, if not always strictly happily, at least well.  This is the definition of “moral fiction”: something that shows the world, perhaps not as it is, but certainly as it could and should be.”

There’s a depressing amount of tragedy in the world.  And most of it, unfortunately, is complicated.  The more closely you look at an issue—any issue—the more complicated it gets, and intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree on the best approach to dealing with it.  Solutions aren’t just difficult to accomplish; they’re difficult to find in the first place.

In a fantasy world, things can be simpler.  In the Harry Potter series, taking out Voldemort and his Death Eaters is the clear, universally-agreed upon solution to stopping the wizarding war.  Don’t get me wrong, any good book, fantasy included, needs to be nuanced about its conflict or we’ll all get quickly bored.  There are plenty of cowardly, selfish and power-hungry characters in the series doing their part to make the world worse for complicated reasons.  But having that central, unequivocal evil to fix our sights on is satisfying.  We know who we’re fighting. 

Not only is the evil in fantasy easy to identify, it can form a “universal well” for sub-conflicts.  In Harry Potter, the mistreatment of house elves and muggle-baiting are tied to Voldemort’s pure-blood wizard fanaticism.  Barty Crouch senior, who sent his own son to prison, was driven to by fear of the escalating violence of the Death Eaters.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the power hungry over-zealous Hogwarts disciplinarian originally tied to the Minister of Magic, goes over to the dark side once the war begins.  I’m not suggesting that these people wouldn’t have found other ways to go bad in the absence of Voldemort, but even Harry recognizes that Voldemort is at the root of it all.  While recalling the fate the Neville Longbottom’s tortured parents and Barty Crouch’s imprisoned son, he thinks, “…it all came back to Voldemort….He was the one who had torn these families apart, who had ruined all these lives….”*

For the reader, this sort of convergence is, strangely, relieving.  The more closely we look at real world problems, the more complicated and nuanced they get.  The more closely we look at the problems in a fantasy universe, the more they all seem to lead back to the same place.  Just like I love a good romance novel for the guaranteed Happily-Ever-After at the end, I love a good fantasy novel for the guarantee that the Bad-Guys-Get-It-In-The-End.  What’s more, getting the bad guys actually gets something done.  It’s a respite to sink into a world where people can figure out the problems and then solve them.

That’s it for my “Elements of Fantasy” series.  What do you think?  Did I leave out one of your favorites?

*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 607


  1. I think you covered it all very well. This is one of those series that deserves a ton of attention. Ironically, something that deserves a ton of attention doesn't always get it. C'est la vie. I know I will be coming back here when I'm polishing my 2nd draft to make sure I'm hitting all the notes right. Very good work, AJ. I love analyzing the bones of something. I should do some kind of 3-part series on how to write a good villain sometime... God knows I've thought about that one enough.

  2. Thank you so much! (And c'est la vie, indeed. Ah, well.) I truly hope you do a series on villains. You're good at them, and I could definitely use the guidance.