Why I Write Fantasy

One of the questions I’ve been getting asked lately is why I write fantasy. I’ve been replying with something that is not exactly a canned answer but does repeat things I’ve said previously. This response has three major parts: 1) That was what I read growing up; fantasy was my first literary love; 2) I enjoy world-building; 3) I like talking about big themes such as power or justice, and fantasy makes it easy to do this. A variation on this answer is escapism: when I read, I want to be somewhere else entirely, which is why I also like reading historical fiction and 19th century fiction. So I write to escape too.

But while these answers are completely true and accurate, there’s a way in which they dance around the core question, which is why does a fantasy world appeal to me in the first place. I suspect a lot of writers give similar answers no matter what they write; people generally write what they love, all fiction writers engage in world-building in their own way, and there’s plenty of room in realism and other “genres” to think about big ideas. So why is fantasy my sandbox?

It’s easy to identify what is not the answer to the question. For example, it’s not just the presence of magic or myth. Some books that combine magic with the “real” world bore me, because the magic is integral to the plot but not to the core of the story. Take it out, and characters will mostly have the same experiences. You could put them in a different plot without losing anything. Conversely, I like fantasy that is very low-key on the magic elements; one of the things I like about the Game of Thrones series is that so much of it is politics and non-magical behavior. There’s a lot less magic in it than other epic fantasy series, yet I like it more. I could probably read a novel set in a completely made up world with no magic or gods or supernatural experiences – what might be called a historical novel about an imaginary world.

In some ways, writing historical fiction would satisfy a lot of the same urges: world-building, power and treachery and politics, and fun research into everything. It would even give me a ready-made plot, and plot is what I struggle with most. The week after Moth and Spark was published, I engaged in a public conversation (i.e. bookstore) with Patricia Bracewell, author of the historical novel Shadow on the Crown about the differences and overlap of fantasy and historical fiction. There’s much more overlap than there is difference.

But – and here’s the telling detail about me as a writer – after I read Pat’s novel, which is set in eleventh century England, I went to Wikipedia to get some basic historical background on the era she was writing about. I learned a lot I had never known about England, Normandy, and the Danes, including the fact that there was a short period in which England and Denmark had the same king. And instead of saying, Go write a novel about that period, my mind said, Wouldn’t it be a cool alternate history if they had never split back into two separate kingdoms? No William the Conqueror. No War of the Roses. No Elizabeth I. What would the world look like now? That’s a much interesting question to me than, What did the world look like then?

What this tells me is that I like fantasy because it is potential. I don’t mean this in the sense of creative world-building or in the sense that real historical facts could get in my way so I write fantasy to avoid them (I don’t); I mean that it’s a giant “What if?” It’s a thought experiment. It’s almost like being a small kid, when everything in the world is new and you don’t know what will happen when you try things. Inherent to fantasy is a sense of wonder. Wonder is one of the things that differentiates humans from other animals.

Wonder is not the same as escape. Escape is closing down, shutting off, throwing up barriers. Wonder is aspiration. People find it in all sorts of ways: religion, nature, music, daredevil sports. It’s a form of ecstasy – of being out of place, thrown out of self. (This is one of the oldest uses of literature and story – the flip side of ecstasy is catharsis.) And yet in some ways that moment of being selfless is the moment of most authentic self. Self-consciousness is a barrier to being.

I’m not going to go all philosophical now, though I am building a philosophy TBR pile in my head even as I write. The point is that for me, both writing and reading fantasy – even dark, bloody, unhappy fantasy – is where I have that moment of being lifted out of my self. It’s where instead of being aware of all the things that give shape to my daily life – family, money, view out the window, twitter – I experience limitlessness. Potential. Transformation. It’s the top of my pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

I want to try genres, to write science fiction and thrillers and historical novels and mash-ups of all of the above. That will keep me stimulated and growing as a writer. But I think I will always return to fantasy, because writing it is more than practicing my craft; it is practicing my self.