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Why Fantasy?

For a writer of fantasy, I’ve written remarkably little about fantasy. I can slip it on like a second skin, but never really stopped to think just how easy it is for me to do so.

Of course, I’m all-too familiar with the genre’s champions: I have many a time lost myself within the Dark Tower, while the Wheel of Time turns and the One Ring weighs me down. Yet, the further down the path I tread, softly, and in the footsteps of giants, the more I realise that these classic books are simply markers of an even greater adventure. That fantasy is so much more than many understand. It is an all-encompassing, living, breathing beast of an experience that neither I, nor you (if you are here – reading Fantasy-Faction), can do without. Which leads me to wonder how this came to be; and what led me here in the first place.

Why fantasy?

As this site’s own Marc Aplin wrote in his article Becoming a Fantasy Writer (21 Nov 2011), part of the fun of fantasy is the ability to take every single idea within your imagination and put it down onto paper. The creation of impossible worlds into which we can escape. As wonderful as our lives may or may not be, it’s easy enough to understand the lure of the unreal — a break from the stress, pain or sheer ordinariness of our ordinary lives. Who doesn’t want to experience something extraordinary?

Yet fantasy is more than simply a colourful playground in which to roam until reality calls. Many of us forget that it actually enables us to be taught about life itself. That it can act as a filter for those ideas and issues too contentious or difficult to study in the cold light of reality.

For example, I started writing a novel in 2002. At the outset, it was simply about telling a good story. Yet, while trying to finish it over the next ten years (yes, I’m slow) the War on Terror took shape in Iraq and Afghanistan. As terrible acts of inhumanity on both sides filled the news, I began to ask questions that I could not answer. What exactly must happen to a man to cause him to capture and behead another? Or strap explosives to his chest and detonate himself in a marketplace? Or take a gun and kill the very people he was claiming to free from tyranny?

The fact is that emotions run high when considering such things; or at least mine did. Perhaps the answers could be found, but I just couldn’t face them. Because I knew their stark reality might cause me to give up hope for humanity altogether.

War by ideakodiang

However, perhaps unavoidably, I found these events began to shape my plot. And it soon became clear that by virtue of the fantastical setting I was able to shed my fear and loathing and objectively deconstruct these troublesome issues. Not only that, but the answers I happened upon were far easier to digest.

I’ve heard other writers talk about similar experiences. That by using fantasy like a screen, we can take on frightening topics and explore them in detail without fracturing our delicate psyches. And that in turn we can do the same for our readers.

But is that what brought me here?

I’d like to say yes, but I’d be lying.

Plato (a Greek Philosopher) is long held to have concocted the myth of Atlantis to demonstrate a point he wanted to make about civilisation and moral decay. I certainly never set out to do anything quite so intelligent. The social importance of fantasy as a screen for real-life issues was simply something I discovered by accident along the way (although it’s certainly kept me on the path).

So, again, what exactly was it that led me here? What pushed me into exploring such impossible worlds and attempt to conjure up my own?

Why fantasy?

I’ve come a long way without knowing the answer to that. I just accepted that it was ‘my thing’ and found it nice that so many other people thought the same. The truth behind it didn’t actually occur to me until the other day.

It happened when I was sitting with my two sons watching In the Night Garden, a children’s TV show, wondering just how much fairy dust the creators had been on to paint such an insane palette of character and plot.

And at about the same time as the blue squiggly creature and the girl with the inflatable skirt began to dance with the giant balloon people, I finally figured it out.

Fantasy is everywhere. And it always has been.

From the earliest age, our imaginations are conditioned to embrace the impossible through television shows with colourful characters, animated inanimate objects and talking creatures. While picture books, aside from being chewable, will always feature a more entertaining version of reality to ease the innocent mind into the world.

Even if you dismiss what may seem at face value to be mindless entertainment, how about the myths and legends of our ancestors? Or the fairy tales that teach us about good and evil? Or when we use jumpers for goalposts to create fictional sporting arenas, populated by all those imaginary friends we have forgotten about? And let’s not even talk about the nursery rhymes that once lulled us to sleep—seriously bizarre and horrifying tales cloaked in the dreamiest of melodies.

All our lives we are conditioned for fantasy. As babies, then toddlers and young children, and even in adulthood. Perhaps especially in adulthood. In any one day you’ll daydream about something improbable or impossible. You can never say what is on your mind, but rather have to filter it into a socially acceptable approximation of what you’re thinking. All the while advertising assaults us from every wall, magazine, paper, mobile phone or television screen; the fantasy of Photoshop and a carefully crafted message work wonders in enticing us to part with our money.

CSI FairyThink you’re safe watching CSI: We’re Slowly Running Out of Cities or the latest dowdy UK drama? Nope, fantasy there too. Blame the writers I guess, because even if the plot, characters and events are all utterly realistic, the dialogue is total fantasy.

And it has to be. If we wrote what people actually said, nobody would watch or read a thing—it would be far too dull! Instead, we weave our linguistic magic, aiming to capture a certain essence that feels real, but is actually our perception of how we imagine people should talk in order to convey information, layer a plot or simply move the characters forward.

There’s that word again. Imagine. And, for me, that’s possibly the best answer to why fantasy? We exist because of our ability to imagine. To conjure the impossible from the possible. Fantasy is who we are and what we do. Not simply a genre of fiction, defined by dragons and sword-wielding girls in gold bikinis (although that’s always fun), but in our very essence. In the dreams we have and the goals we aspire to reach, both as people and as a society.

I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m here. How about you?

Title image by sandara.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Great article, Dan! Firstly, welcome to the staff – really enjoyed this look into why you’ve chosen fantasy.

    Actually, something you said about writers exploring their fears… I remember reading Peter V. Brett’s novel ‘The Painted Man’ and seeing quite a few parallels with events at the time it was written. People being trapped inside their home for fear of going outside where ‘demons’ lurked. It reminded me a lot of September 11th and actually, Peter and I did discuss this over e-mail and this was his reply:

    “I really enjoyed your letter. I think you hit the nail right on the head about the inspiration behind the story. It really was about September 11 in its soul, and this is something I’ve discussed in interviews before. I was writing the book before the event, and it had all the cool demons, wards, etc, but the personality of the book grew very much out of what Americans were feeling in the early days of the War on Terror. “

  2. Avatar Dionne says:

    Great article Dan. I love writing and reading fantasy because it takes me out of this world and into one I would rather be in (and I love dragons). Ok, that doesn’t sound too intelligent but it’s all I’ve got.

  3. Avatar Eric Storch says:

    Great article! There are two reasons I can give for “Why Fantasy?” One is that I can create a story I want to read but can’t find anywhere and the other is so that I can get up on my soapbox and write about what I think or explore issues from the safety of a fantasy screen. That’s it for me. You hit on it halfway through your article.

  4. Avatar Dan H says:

    Hey guys, thanks for the positive comments! Glad you liked the piece.

    Marc, will have to check out PV Brett’s novel, sounds like something that will resonate with what I’m doing. In fact, I would imagine that there are countless books out there that have been irrevocably shaped through such events – more, perhaps, than many authors give credit for?

  5. Great article. Lin Carter pointed out, back in the 70s, that the answer to the charge that fantasy is “escapism” is that all fiction, without exception, is escapism, along with all journalism and works of non-fiction. Anything that takes us away from ourselves and our situation is escapism. Fantasy’s just the genre that’s honest about it.

    Fantasy can certainly be used to express the issues of our own world, from an oblique angle that can often shed more light on the underlying issues than any full-face portrayal.

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