What’s missing from fantasy?

By Scott Bury

Birth of Venus photo by Len Prince, courtesy kitchenandresidentialdesign.com/Creative Commons

“…the possibility of having to deal with mental illness or disability doesn’t arise enough in genre fiction storylines, fantasy included – at least not as much as a proper attempt at realism would demand.”

Chantal Boudreau’s post last week got me wondering: else is often left out of fantasy writing?

I heartily agree with her thesis: mental illness is a major problem in our world today, but it’s almost never reflected in fantasy writing, except in villains and anti-heroes. This is a powerful demonstration of the stigma that mental illness carries.

In fact, it’s rare to see mental illness treated honestly and sympathetically in any kind of fiction. Genre writing may be more susceptible to this problem, because any genre has to have some conventions.

One of my goals in writing fantasy is to break conventions. The hero of my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is on the autism spectrum. I have never seen that in a fantasy book before.

One convention, down. But what else is absent from most of the work in our genre?

The purpose of fantasy

Fantasy fiction often abstracts or symbolizes the issues of the real world, today. Reflecting our everyday reality helps us understand issues, problems, relationships and phenomena by presenting them from a different perspective.

An excellent example, albeit from science fiction rather than fantasy (a fuzzy border) is Dune by Frank Herbert. In that interstellar opera, “Spice” is an analogy for oil in today’s global economy: they’re both scarce, expensive and the basis of transportation and development of civilization. The author displayed deep insight by depicting the addictive properties of Spice. Our civilization has been addicted to oil for over a century: even though it’s killing us, we make huge efforts to procure it, like a junkie after his next fix. Like an addict, we outright reject giving it up — we know going cold turkey would destroy us. And the efforts to develop alternatives are well-intentioned, but ineffective.

Opening possibilities

What are some major elements of today’s world that could be reflected in our books and stories?

Addictions – How can fantasy reflect the scourge of addiction in a fantasy world? Addiction can be like possession – the addict is not in control of his/her actions anymore. But for fantasy to really achieve its potential, we have to go deeper. We have to examine how addiction or possession affects other aspects of the addict’s/possessed’s life, how it affects others those in relationships with the addict/possessed, how the addict often protects the addiction, how it can be supported and furthered by other elements in the world around it, and much more.

Religious fundamentalism – I cannot be the only one who has noticed a hardening of faith-based attitudes and increasing intolerance for people who act differently than others — not just Wahabi Islam, but among some Christian groups in the West, and other religions, as well. Autumn Birt’s Rise of the Fifth Order series has a strong theme of religious oppression, but I don’t know of many books that get into how a society can be divided and transformed by competing, intolerant religions.

Environmental degradation – There may be more books about the gradual destruction of the natural environment — I just can’t think of any right now. Stephen Montano’s Blood Skies series has a strong environmental message, but it’s more about how war has destroyed the environment.

Poverty – so many fantasy books deal with royalty. It’s understandable, but we as a genre, as the authors of this genre, need to branch out and write more about ordinary people and poor people. Bruce Blake’s Khirro’s Journey takes some good steps in that direction. While a medieval-style king, nobility, warriors and wizards who want to rule the world are key features, the focus on the hero’s peasant background and the poor origins of the other characters is refreshing.

What about you? What new issues, ideas and problems from our real world would you like to see reflected in fantasy novels? Which ones are you going to tackle in your next book?

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8 comments on “What’s missing from fantasy?

  1. I think the text in Dracula is a fine example of the power of addiction. Granted it’s not modern and classed as horror.Terry Pratchet’s Small Gods would be the book that deals with the issue of religious fundamentalism really smoothly

  2. Great post and some valid questions. I’ll be tackling some of these issues myself in later posts. One problem I’ve noticed with fantasy is that there is far too much emphasis placed on world-building and not nearly enough on character development and thematic concepts. Not that world-building isn’t important, it certainly is, but it shouldn’t dominate a story to the exclusion of other important elements. If an effort is made to keep fantasy “real,” those other elements can’t be ignored, in part by breaking conventions, as you noted.

  3. I once wrote a fantasy story for my writers circle, – I had my characters living in a bubble world, where clusters of these huge bubbles were thethered together to platforms. The judge wrote that I had too much of an imagination. What do you think?
    I made it plausable and had the characters congregating on platformed areas where they could dace the night away or drink coffee.
    I’d never written a fantasy story previously and after this I stuck to either adventure or romance type stories.

    • I have received comments like this, too – that I’m going beyond the boundaries of fantasy, as if those have been fixed by some kind of international treaty. But if we’re not going farther than others have before us, how is it fantasy?

      • Your’e right of course. But with these ex-school teachers, who have no imagination, that appear to run these writing circles, they even try to tell you that you can’t say this or that in a short story. I always ask why not, but they can’t give me a proper answer. They also insist that a short story should take place between twelve and twentyfour hours and when you concoct one that does this, they say, -no, no, this is an incident and NOT a short story.
        In the end I gave up and just wrote stories that took its own sweet time to unfold and this has made me feel more positive about my writing.

      • I think that defining a “story” is putting arbitrary and ultimately indefensible boundaries around art. It’s like the cutting-off points between a novella and a novel. What, 49,999 words is not a novel? Who says? And when does a novel become a series? If you put two stories into one book, is it a series?
        Ultimately, whether a story succeeds or fails depends on whether it engages an audience to the last word.

  4. Great post, Scott! It certainly has me thinking as I consider what to write next. Adding the themes/issues you mention above (not to mention disabilities, ethnic/cultural disparities and more) will only give a story more depth. The neat thing is that fantasy and sci fi often push boundaries. Indie authors will continue this trend in a publishing market that prefers ‘safe’ (sellable) tropes. When I first read fantasy woman heroines, ethnic minorities, LGBT characters were virtually NONEXISTENT. Now I can search for stories by those topics. That is awesome.

  5. My novel The Dry deals with injustice against children. I set it in 1895 but it could just as easily be India 2014. The best novels are not didactic in their approach to any issue. I believe you’re right, I can’t think of any that deal with mental illness in a sympathetic way. This is an excellent area to explore! About the plethora of royalty in fantasy, perhaps writers use royalty as an abstract of parents.

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