As the fantastic
is my general area of expertise when it comes to writing, I thought
I'd go ahead and write a theory piece about the fantastic as my first
non-fitness post for the blog. Ever since I was a kid, I've been
steeped in fantasy and science fiction. I loved to read, and I would
read mystery and young adult horror novels by the wagonload. I played
video games of all genres. I read Lord of The Rings for the first
time (in its entirety) in fourth grade. I read the first Harry Potter
book a total of fifteen times, and the second and third ones probably
as many times combined. Fantasy has played a defining role in my
life, and is very important to me.
Obviously one cannot count on the fantastic to be 'realistic', that is, you can't expect it to be entirely believable. Fantasy elements are often very clearly defined and easy to point out. Orcs, magic, elves, dwarves, mutants, monsters, aliens, the undead, and all other manners of supernatural and super-technological forces are clearly present in fantastic genres, and this is what defines them and sets them apart from other genres. However, I find that the most intriguing fantasies are those that are realistic, in that they provide clear connections to our own world and in this way draw the reader in to the story.
Tzvetan Todorov argues in his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre that fantasy, properly speaking, never exists. Rather, the fantastic is a placeholder for a human reaction to the fantastic trope. When the characters (and by proxy the reader) come into contact with something outside their normal scope of experience, they have one of two options: either to deny the contact as some sort of illusion (through the use of unreliable narrator, mental issues, tricks of the eye, etc.) or to accept it and thus be forced to amend their worldview. Fantasy, properly speaking, is only the hesitation experienced when one is unable to choose between one or the other; as soon as a choice is made either way, the fantastic is replaced by an element of the post-fantastic, many of which Todorov goes on to define.
The vast majority of fantastic works nowadays are, strictly speaking, post-fantastic, or structurally fantastic. That is to say, rather than being set in a world ostensibly similar to our own, in which characters are astounded by new fantastic events, many are set in structurally fantastic worlds in which the characters never experience this hesitation because the fantastic is ordinary, boring to them. But I find this system very compelling because it still allows for a very human element; the reaction of the reader.
Most fantasy is written as entertainment more than art. Fantasy has in most cases been a popular and not high art genre, though many exceptions exist, and of course even the most dedicated works of experimental art can sometimes pass into the mainstream consciousness ala Lord of the Rings. As such, there's plenty of material on the market that isn't very good. But what sets the good stuff apart from the bad?
I've noticed a tendency in bad sci-fi and fantasy to focus a lot on the development of the setting and thus to focus very little on the characters. The bad fantastic is often highly event-based, and characters exist only as a way to get these events across. An interesting example of this can be seen in the tv show Heroes. Heroes started out very character-based: characters had very clearly defined personalities and their interactions formed the bulk of the material. Then, after the first season, it very quickly devolved into being very event-based. Characters no longer had very clear personalities, only clearly defined powers. They constantly ran around at breakneck speed getting into fights with each other and having interactions which didn't really make sense in terms of the supposedly established earlier personalities. Peter, for example, starts out supposedly as a kind-hearted male nurse, but by the end of the series he's a juggernaut of power-collecting, running around and doing whatever has to be done for the current story arc to be held together. The series also got a little heavy as so many more characters were introduced, each with their own unique or semi-unique special abilities. It was as if the show had realized that it could no longer stand on the force of its characters alone, so it made up for it by making as many characters as it could in an effort to fill the void. Naturally, few of these characters stuck, and most of them just ended up taking up space.
Much bad fantastic is similar. It focuses on the tropes of the genres, trying to show off new and cool fantastic ideas without any real effort to develop the characters. Good fantastic, on the other hand, is uniquely humanistic in that it focuses on characters and their interactions. In good fantastic, the effort is not just about rolling out good ideas for new fantastic tropes, but also about providing a detailed environment in which characters can react in a human way to these new phenomena. In doing so, the fantastic is capable of being far more realistic than supposedly realistic genres. The good fantastic uses the fantastic trope in order to tease out existing human elements or explore them in new ways. Maybe human actions are taken to their extreme, or in their reactions to fantastic elements the characters display courses of action that would otherwise be unique or rare. But these reactions themselves, while brought about by the fantastic, are not in themselves fantastic; they are underlying human reactions given voice by the fantastic.
This is often seen by the sparing use of the fantastic trope in more popular works. Lord of the Rings, while it showed off all sorts of invented history, animal life, and political conflict, used magic rather sparingly, and Tolkien's definition of magic within the legendarium is hazy and confusing. Game of Thrones features only two major fantasy tropes in the entire book: the appearance of the white walkers in the prologue, and the appearance of the dragon in the ending. Harry Potter uses magic quite a lot, but the vast majority of the book focuses on Harry's school interactions with his classmates.
In each instance, you could very easily strip the fantastic trope from the fantastic and still have a relatively similar story. The ring in Lord of the Rings could easily be replaced by any drug or alcohol addiction, and the rest of the plot is largely political (what sets the story apart is the way in which is depicts this addiction as integral to the defeat of the enemy). If you took out the fantasy elements in Game of Thrones, you would have almost the exact same political plot (though in the later books the fantastic elements get more prevalent, and thus a bit more difficult to write off), a fictional (though non-fantastic) medieval political tale. Harry Potter is just the story of an awkward boy coming to grips with boarding school. I could go on and on; the point is that in good fantasy, the plot of the novel doesn't rely solely on the fantastic trope to do its work for it, rather, it focuses on building a good story and compelling characters and character interactions that have almost nothing to do with the fantastic trope. The fantastic trope then serves only to amplify or enhance the existing situation, providing it with new life and meaning, adding urgency and importance to the events by raising the stakes.
The fantastic as a set of genres is highly self-reflective, which was the major thrust of my thesis paper in college. The fantastic, as a constructed realm which doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with reality, is an easy place for the author to play out their own desires, to make the world in their own image. Each fantasy work thus says something about its author and what that author valued. Tolkien, for example, loved linguistics, and C.S. Lewis loved religion. To take these two assertions together, we get the idea that good fantasy is often deeply rooted in reality. It creates realistic scenarios which stand on their own and are believable even when the fantastic rolls around. Bad fantasy is often very escapist – the author plays out his/her own petty ideals and scenarios in a world filled with 2D cutouts of real characters.
The best sort of fantasy is the one that the reader wants to believe, not because the reader is an escapist looking to avoid the pressures of real life, but because they wish to participate in a life alien to their own. Still seemingly possible, still bearing the veneer of reality... Curiosity in the strictest sense is curiosity for what could be, and the fantasy in the strictest sense is just romanticism. Even the most banal realistic works are in themselves fantasies, fantasies of reality, a misrecognition of the power of the human psyche to have real effects on the outside world.