What makes readers interested in fantasy stories? Where does the power of fantasy live?
How can we harness it as writers?
We know what fantasy “is” but not why it has the conventions it does. Today I’m going to look at how you as a writer can get the most out of the genre.
The secret is simple.
A while back, I wrote about how sci-fi needs to focus on certain elements of storytelling. Fantasy authors tend not to have the same problems because of genre distinctions, but the path to writing strong fantasy stories is similar.
1. Focus on Numen
Numen is a fancy term that refers to the influence a thing, place, or idea has on people.
When you’re writing fantasy, you’re specifically looking at that.
You’ll hear people talk about the rules of metaphysics or the deep world-building that form the core of fantasy storytelling. These people aren’t wrong, in the sense that they have identified a part of fantasy.
They just haven’t identified what makes it tick.
What you’re looking for in fantasy is the thing which compels you to think about a different world.
Unlike science-fiction, this has an overtly metaphysical bent to it. You aren’t contemplating what might be in the future. You’re contemplating what might be psychologically interesting.
A world where the gods walk among people has a very different cosmology than ours. How does that change the way people behave?
Think about a question like this, and you set yourself up to write a story that asks meaningful questions.
That’s how you chase the numen.
Unlike science-fiction, the audience for fantasy never really demands plausibility. You’re not saying “What if this happened?” but “How would this world work?”
There’s some overlap there, especially with visionary and “soft” sci-fi that can take the latter approach.
But as a fantasy writer you wield the power of fantasy when you focus on changing the rules of reality to speculate about what happens.
2. Embrace of Mysteries
There is a reason that almost all fantasy stories focus on the past, or at the least carry vestiges of the past into their setting.
This is because of the role fantasy plays in the broader category of speculative fiction.
Mysteries are the things that we contemplate but can never really know for sure. When they stem from nature or metaphysics, they’re unanswerable. Unlike a murder mystery, no killer will ever confess what makes the universe (or even our minds) tick.
In fantasy, you change the rules, and sometimes you manifest the answers to mysteries as characters, places, or events.
This is a central part of the power of fantasy.
Fantasy excels when it engages with how mysterious the cosmos is.
There’s a tie between mysteries and numen, but they’re also a matter of their own.
Good fantasy writers use the unknown as a way to explore hypothetical questions.
3. Meaning over Matter
Fantasy as a genre attempts to orient stories toward what is meaningful.
This is, of course, part of every story. But not every story lets you bend the rules of reality.
I think of Lewis and Tolkien as the inventors of modern fantasy, which is unfair to some of the early pioneers in the genre but highlights this element more than others.
Where Romanticism focused on exceptions to rules in its treatment of the supernatural and early fantasy oriented itself toward children, modern fantasy moves beyond established myths to create settings where the meaning of each element is best understood from its role in the compound of its parts.
Tolkien in particular created a massive world that focused intensely on the questions he was interested in. From the love story of Lúthien and Beren to the influences of Sauron and the one ring, his stories were not necessarily allegorical but certainly focused on controlling questions.
One element of the power of fantasy is that writers can craft a world that functions in a way that is not strictly possible. Whereas in a realistic genre, this would demolish the suspension of disbelief, the important point in fantasy is not plausibility but cohesion of meaning.
This meaning needs to be tied into the cohesion of the fictional universe, but it does not need to be plausible outside the framework of the story.
4. Archetypal Alignment
Archetypes are commonly occurring patterns that appear broadly across human experiences. When telling stories, the use of archetypes permits a writer to predict where their story will go and connect to readers’ expectations.
Joseph Campbell is famous for his use of an archetypal approach to storytelling, which he drew from Carl Jung’s theory of psychological archetypes.
While I think there are errors in Campbell’s interpretation, I don’t think this comes from his methods.
When you write, you can think of things in symbolic terms. Archetypes are the layers beneath symbols.
When we refer to someone as a snake, we are using a symbol (snake) to evoke an element of an archetype (dragon) to represent something material (an untrustworthy person).
In this way, fantasy stories are more prone to align themselves to the archetypes that underpin our understandings of the world.
We should consider the origins of this phenomenon with caution, but the effects are simple. We see in fantasy the clearest examples of the archetypal hero, and also the clearest examples of archetypal figures.
If you write fantasy, use this to your advantage. Draw upon primordial figures and use them as representations. People understand these things very well, even if unconsciously, and leveraging universal themes is powerful.