Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy Fiction

Some contemporary fantasy fiction leaves me a bit cold. Dragons, hidden cities, exotic races, are for me. Maybe another way to look at it is, I look for the fantasy elements to be significant to the world setting and the characters. Fantasy books that are very much like a given time and place on Earth with perhaps a bit of magic don’t feel like fantasy.

The father of all fantasy for me is Lord of the Rings and to a lesser extent The Hobbit. It doesn’t feel like “in your face magic” but from the start, you have wizards and exotic races, hints of ancient lore that matter to the story, and dwarves and/or hobbits. As both progress, you get Wraiths, Dragons, talking spiders, elves, lost cities, hidden realms. Every few scenes there is something fun, fantastic and not earth like.

Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson's The Lord of ...
Moria, as seen in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Lost cities, former glories seen in the light of a wizard’s staff, goblins and a moving soundtrack. FANATASICAL fantasy.

Contrast with Game of Thrones. No question it is well written, at least the first few volumes, and captivates many but I remember setting it down a third of the way into the first book wondering if this was even really a fantasy series or whether it was more alternate reality. Guy Kavriel Kay looked interesting and I may yet go back to him but that was another case where I wondered if there would be anything fantastic about it. For both of these, I’ll confess an issue which is more a personal quirk: I read a lot of history and some historical fiction. So books like Game of Thrones‘ nod to War of the Roses or Kay’s near-Earth historical setting have two negatives for me. One, I know those periods very well and the near Earth analogies are a distraction more than anything else. Wondering if one of Kay’s towns is modeled on Hedeby (pretty sure it is) takes away immersion for me as does the more obvious modelings. The other problem is, well, if I wanted to read about Earth history there are plenty of good layman’s history books (A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman is a perennial favorite for me; my copy must be pushing 30 years old and is quite worn but I love it) and there are plenty of good historical novels. Why read something that is kinda, sorta Earth history?

For me, and again this is my personal view on it, by all means read and enjoy what you like, if I’m going to read fantasy I want to read about a world where the fantastic is tangible, present and matters. Earth Middle Ages + a dash of magic doesn’t do it.

As a long time fantasy world builder (for gaming and writing), I know the temptation of doing “Earth plus”: it simplifies creation plus you can work off player/reader stereotypes (actually a mixed bag since stereotypes vary widely among individuals so you the author/DM don’t actually know for sure what you are tapping into). I’ve done it for a few D&D campaigns, although usually ones intended to be short. But it feels like a cop-out when carried too far: if the setting is Medieval + a little magic, it doesn’t take that much imagination. And if it is Medieval + a lot of magic, it doesn’t feel right to me: lots of magic will surely change the course of events into something nothing like Earth Middle Ages (and same holds for any Earth historical period analog be it Bronze Age, Seven Kingdoms China, whatever.) That’s not to say a good understanding of history doesn’t help; it certainly does, especially if your take-aways are trying to understand the different customs and mindsets of other places and times.

Where am I going with this? Well, just grousing really but also hoping maybe to tip other writers more into hard fantasy and not into following G. R. R. Martin’s foot steps. Also, it’s a bit of a manifesto on my own writing, for what it’s worth. Here, there will be dragons!

Happy reading and writing!

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16 thoughts on “Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy Fiction

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  2. My first two novels are exactly what you don’t like! Set in Spain, 1492, there is a bit of fantasy, but definitely on the low-fantasy end of things. But, as you said, I realize that it isn’t *real* fantasy. I’m tired of the constraints I’ve built into my duology. My next project (if I ever finish the Spanish one) is an Asian-inspired fantasy with magic, swords, women-warriors, and, yes, dragons. 🙂

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  9. I see your point, especially in the first book, but as Martin’s series progresses I’ve found the elements that make it feel more like fantasy factor in more and more. By the fifth book there are dragons and mystical creatures that squarely put it in the realm of fantasy. The first book feels exactly like what you describe, which is historical fiction in a world much like our own and I can see why that would be a turn off when looking for those fantasy elements.

    1. Many people love Martin’s series, of course, so it’s all just my own personal taste. And it wasn’t a complete turn-off, rather it put me in the “wait-and-see” camp: it is obviously going to be immense; might as well see how the books progressed before committing to the whole thing. Unfortunately, at this point the reviews on the last two books seem quite tepid at best so I’ll pass on it. It has the feel of something that would have appealed more to me if cut to about a third its length.

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