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How To Help Fantastic Heroes, Part 1

Before fans can promote fantastic stories or publishers, we must love the heroes and quests.

Yesterday I asked Christian-fantasy advocates to Purge the Stereotype of ‘Geek’ Readers.

By that I don’t mean “alienate the alien advocates” or “banish fantasy fans from the land.”

I mean: If we think our favorite kinds of stories have only limited appeal to those who say, “I’m a geek,” we’re missing the transcendent appeal of fantasy (and other) stories — appeal that is rooted in human nature, and for Christians, roots in the epic Story of Scripture itself.

Of course there’s more to say about this. And of course this is inspired by the Marcher Lord Press sale and all the conversations afterward. Is this good? Is this bad? Will MLP’s stories and marketing change? How much? You’re not going to go all “CBA” on us, are you?

But I suggest that in one sense, readers and fans should not actually bother at all about helping particular books, The Speculative Genre, or any particular publisher(s).

And by “readers and fans,” for now I leave author/agent/industry questions completely out of it. As I said yesterday, I’m thinking more about conversations with friends at your local church, among your friends, in the workplace and abroad, and online. I’m convinced this is where the true action lies. Forget this, and you forget our roots: the grassroots.

Here are some do/don’t thoughts on how to help, not an Industry or Movement, but people.

1. DON’T promote stories for their genre or genre parts.


Disregard promotion of story parts.

How well it was said in yesterday’s comments that it’s a mistake to promote fantasy/sci-fi because of certain parts — parts such as magic devices, sleek spaceships, or strange lands.

People don’t sell new cars by saying: “Under the hood it has the highest quality coolant hose!” They either stress its features that may actually appeal to you, or even better, put it on TV, all shiny and performing driverless stunts on a closed course (do not attempt).

For those seeking similar stories by professing Christian authors, we do have SpecFaith Library BookTags.1 But if I had my way, fans would eliminate from informal classification — I don’t speak of designations at the Library or bookstores, or within the industry — most references to genre.

I might even eliminate the descriptive term speculative. Speculating isn’t the story’s point. I’d instead call them journey stories, or quest stories. Quest stories has the scent of fantasy but implies more than fantasy.

2. DO enjoy and promote stories for their heroes and journeys.

If I’m on my game and raving about, say, The Avengers, I may mention the acting and effects and such. But more likely I’ll discuss fun heroes such as Tony Stark or Captain America.

And if I’m on my game and praising a new novel I’ve been reading, I shan’t even mention the genre elements, fantasy worlds, strange names, enviable sci-fi tech, or alternate history. Instead I’ll say: “It’s an amazing story about [Character Name], who above all else wants [goal], but [inciting event] happens, forcing him to join with [other Character Name(s)] and oppose [adversary] with one mission: [mission].”

That’s it. That’s the hero and journey. Everything after that is just color filling in the lines.


It has action, spaceships, spacey costumes, and lots of stars, plus wars.

By the way, I capitalized Character Name for a reason. Don’t let’s talk about common nouns such as young orphans, teen sons of space smugglers, peasant girls, and galactic rangers-in-training. Name them. First and (if applicable) last name. If the author did his job, that person should seem almost as real to you as a close personal friend. So tell their full names. Frodo Baggins. Edmund Pevensie. Luke Skywalker. Harry Potter.

Thus this column’s title. I want to help not things but people, both fictitious and real.

(Next time: more do/don’t quest-story challenges, and thoughts in response to your thoughts.)

  1. Example: if you like dystopian, they’re all organized under dystopian, but can include fantasy dystopian and sci-fi dystopian.

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17 Comments on "How To Help Fantastic Heroes, Part 1"

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Leah Burchfiel

So it’s a question of invest-ability. That’s certainly a problem I have, being able to think in terms of emotions and emotional investment rather than “how do I get characters into this situation to produce the desired outcome?” I wonder if I’ll be one of those people who really only start writing after they’re old and floppy and have a better grasp of the throbs of life. Sometimes makes me wonder if I’m actually a horrible person because empathy is something that I almost need manipulating into, to be put into the proper mindframe and such.


You might try combining the approach. If I put  Character A, B, and C in Situation 2, I’m going to have a certain set of possible outcomes. If I remove or change any of those things, I’ll get a whole different set.   It’s not manipulation; it’s just knowing the character (which…you don’t necessarily up front).  

Empathy’s a funny thing. It took  a friend’s perspective change and two viewings of Iron Man for me to even tolerate Tony Stark.  I know I’m supposed to like Buddy the Elf, but he’s really someone I’d avoid in real life.  And I’m sort of on record saying “If I actually lived in the same apartment complex as the people in Friends, I’d move.” Personally, I’d rather have a character that takes awhile to understand and appreciate (Tony) than a “nice” one shoved in my face. 
Anyway, think of it like that: their psychological makeup – beliefs, emotional baggage (or lack thereof), personalities, thought processes – are going to determine a lot of what you’re really able to do with them. 

Brandon Sanderson has a section on his site devoted completely to running commentary on his various novels. It’s fun (though I recommend reading the books before his annotations), but I won’t forget him commenting on something I thought was just a fluke: In one book, they find all these clues except for one. No matter how hard they look, they can’t figure it out and decide there isn’t one.

Brandon’s note basically said that the last piece *did* contain a clue, but the girl lead didn’t have the education required to figure out “a complicated math puzzle” and the guy lead, while he might have, didn’t have the time required to study and figure it out. 
Anyway,  maybe that’s no help at all, but hey.  I wanted to try. 0=)  I mean, basically, most readers *want* to like the character and you kinda have to go a long way to get to “just kill this one off!” 


Great piece Stephen. I have found that I have had to struggle with recommending certain stuff under the presumption that certain folks aren’t “geeks” and thus may not like it. I also think that, to reference CS Lewis’ essay on “The Inner Ring”, that a problem is that so often have those who enjoy fantasy been mislabeled, that we almost relish being known as “geeks”. We are us, and the other people are them, different. I think that, for some, a strange sort of prideful condescension can settle in and affect this.

D. M. Dutcher

I am not sure I like this line of thought.
Let me put it this way. I have two books for you. Both are heartwarming tales about a father protecting his son in the midst of hostile enemies. One book is set in feudal Japan during the warring states period. The other is in modern-day, and is a zombie apocalypse.
If it’s simply a matter of hero or journey tales, why would I read zombies above Japan? Why would a Christian need to write the latter? Isn’t it something about the genre itself that differs and attracts people, not the theme or myth of the book? Will the book be different and uniquely so because of the genre?
Aren’t you kind of making the case that spec fiction as spec fiction isn’t important?

Leah Burchfiel

Wait, wait…what? Are you implying that Christians are not capable of caring about feudal Japanese people? I don’t want to just fling the r-word around willy-nilly, but that just triggered all my racism red flags. Like, raaaaaacism. You and I both know that it’s weird encountering a new culture and getting used to its ways and means, but that doesn’t mean we just take it off the table. I got my dad to watch an anime, for cryin’ out loud, and he’s a pretty solid stick-in-the-mud (I say that affectionately). Ethnocentrism should be a bug, not a feature of Christian fiction (or society in general).

Leah Burchfiel

To clarify, not that you’re being racist, but that you’re expecting and making excuses for other people to indulge their consciously or unconsciously racist tendencies. Let’s not accommodate that kind of crap.

D. M. Dutcher

The “latter” was meant to be for the first pair. Why should Christians write zombie novels if historical novels fulfill the same need for heroes? I didn’t realize I had inverted the order until after the editing time had passed.
That was a typo, but I’m a little sad you’d think that I’d believe such. If I were that kind of ethnocentrist, would I really be blogging so much about how I enjoy anime and how I find God in it some times? 

Leah Burchfiel

Well, you’re in a good position to get unintentional (or intentional, Godforbid) racism from people, not about you, but about the things you’re interested in, and it’s plausible that you could get enough of it that you’d lose your faith in people not being huge ethnocentrists. (Ha, maybe I can throw the e-word around in place of the r-word. It’s very nearly the same thing.) It could be that I’m from the South, where there’s a lot of veiled or half-forgotten racism mingled with the guns and American flag drapings around Jesus memes.


Whoa, read the comment again, notleia. He wasn’t making a slight on Japan, he was giving examples of two different genres. Feudal Japan being an example of historical fiction and the zombie apocalypse an example of speculative fiction. Swap in the Old West for feudal Japan and read the comment again.
Admittedly, the use of “latter” in the second paragraph is confusing but I believe it is intended to refer to the spec genre book as per the last sentence of the first paragraph, as in: why would a Christian need to read spec fic?
His argument is that genre is just as important as character, theme and plot in what makes up a story.

EDIT: And that’s what I get for not refreshing a page I’d opened hours ago before commenting. o:)

E. Stephen Burnett

I think it’s possible to be accidentally “fundamentalist” about the “appearance of evil” even if the perceived evil is a sin often ascribed to conservative folk. 🙂

Anyway, I think the kind of person who would dislike fantasy and see no point in it is more likely the kind of person who would see little point in a historical epic based in “real” feudal Japan. Either one is not about such a reader’s world, not his “set.” So why should he care? But of course the Christian should care, because the Christian should care about any person, no matter his culture. The only difference between this and fantasy/sci-fi/whatever stories is that their worlds happen to be made-up. But why should we be “racist” against their kind?

Leah Burchfiel

That’s the thing, that a good deal of the turbo-conservos I’ve known or read just don’t or can’t sympathize with people who are not like them. The types that treat non-Christians as if their souls were Pokemon to collect, or the ones who would give Bibles rather than food or money as charity.
Tangenting off, that’s kinda why I’m leery of mission trips. They seem more like vacations with touchy-feels than anything that benefits the natives of wherever-the-heck. One kid kinda-sorta affiliated with my home church went to Poland, and when he came back with slideshows and stories I had a running  commentary in my head about how a week of uncertified teenagers attempting to teach little Polish kids English and Bible stories doesn’t accomplish much. But to counter my cynicism, that kid happened to have had a leg amputated in an agricultural accident, and he wore a prosthesis. It was a big deal to the adult Polish that he nonchalantly wore shorts, because to them a prosthetic would have been something to be ashamed of and hidden under pants even in the July heat. And of course to the little kids, the prosthetic was more interesting than his conversion story. So even if his proselytizing success was meh, I hope that he at least made a dent in their way of thinking about the disabled, normalizing and humanizing them. Hey, I managed to bring in sympathizing with people who are unlike yourself again. I must be better at this theme thing than I think. And naturally the kid had his horizons broadened by seeing people in places where it’s normal to live in apartment buildings rather than suburban houses.


The types that treat non-Christians as if their souls were Pokemon to collect, 

I’m sorry, I think that’s the best analogy I’ve read in awhile. 0=) 

Henrietta Frankensee

Genre: label, box, pigeon hole, formula, hash tag, tribe. Man made distinctions helpful to varying degrees.  If we thought of ice cream in genres there would be ‘anything with chocolate’, ‘anything with fruit’.  For really avant garde people there is Heavenly Hash! 
I read your post as a call to be well rounded and to recognise the essence of human story cravings.  Character, action, conflict, resolution.  Readers need to be taught and encouraged to know this, to know and accept (embrace) their inner longing for truth, not just to follow a group wearing costumes that appeal to them. 
As a writer boxes disgust me.  Give me freedom to write about a wide, puzzling, contradictory universe or two!  Does a world without labels disgust a marketing manager?  This would be a nightmare to her/him.  Go out and sell!  But the world is so large!  I need it to be divided into manageable pieces! 
I conclude that this is not either/or.  Not Abstract or Absolute but both in moderation and wisdom.  Know and accept essence, rest lightly in tribes.

Carole McDonnell

I so love falling in love with characters. I really can’t name a lot of Christian spec fic characters, alas.  Yeah, okay..Aslan. But no one modern character comes to mind. Well perhaps… of course Psal (my character) but that’s my character. But that’s about it. Wonder why those characters aren’t memorable, or why I haven’t heard reviewers in christian fandom squealing the Christian equivalent of Edward and Bella.  Or Katniss, for that matter. 

E. Stephen Burnett

Perhaps because Christian novelists’ character tend to grow strangely dim in the light of the “glory and grace” of, well, either Message and Theme, or else (by those correcting for overdone Message and Theme) color, setting, and genre elements.

Even Protestants haven’t overcome a bent toward the wrong kind of icon use. 😛

But I’m always hesitant to say that secular authors are running rings around us just because we’re somehow inferior. In fact, secular stories become more popular mainly because they have a broader readership base. Or the “right kind” of readers pick up on them — e.g. school librarians, celebrities, TV personalities. Yet I don’t mean to minimize the clear genuine appeal of something like The Hunger Games.

Austin Gunderson

Gonna be brutally honest here.  I think the characters in “Christian” stories tend to feel like cardboard cutouts because that’s exactly what they are.  Serious novelists committed to masterful storytelling treat their characters like real people: they never expect them to do anything without convincing, organic motivation.  A good character is so strong, in fact, that he or she tends to drive the plot, not vice versa.  Kinda like in real life.

But that’s only the case if you’re a true storyteller seeking with every keystroke to breathe life into fictional beings.  If you’re merely an ideological propagandist seeking to change or reenforce a reader’s perception of some issue or reality, your characters will be nothing more than expendable pawns subservient to your plot or theme.  Whether a Shining Example, Pitiable Victim, or Despicable Lout, a character in a Message Story will lead a Message Life.  (Less common are Tragic Anti-Heroes, but even then you always know exactly where they stand on the Sliding Scale of Appropriateness.)  From the reader’s perspective, few things in a Message Story are ever challenging, complex, or ambiguous.  After all, the author can’t afford to run the risk of the all-important Message vanishing for a single moment into the muddy minutiae of realistic existence.

Yes, I know that the preceding polemic could easily describe any number of poor-quality “secular” stories.  My point isn’t that these issues are unique to Christian writers, but that Christian writers tend to be — pretty much by definition — more susceptible to them.  Self-described “Christian authors” — as opposed, I suppose, to “authors who are Christian” — tend to write books because they have a message to communicate.  And, though there’s nothing necessarily wrong therewith, such authorial ambition doesn’t generally bode well for the characters expended in its pursuit.

Leah Burchfiel

NONONONONONONONONONO, NO CHRISTIAN TWILIGHT (It was already solidly Mormon anyway). Katniss, okay, but in the name of everything not soul-sucking and torturous, let’s not make Bella and Edward out to be anything but creepy, co-dependent shells of personality that should never be admired or replicated.
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