I taught a workshop on writing fantasy in 2008 at a conference. I opened up for questions at the end and got hit with a biggie. A woman asked if Christians should be writing or enjoying fantasy as the Bible teaches us to avoid sorcery, fortune telling, and other such dark arts. She was genuine in asking as she wanted to write fantasy but felt troubled. I find this a fascinating topic since I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and never had a doubt of whether I should or not.
I believe great truths can be told in a good story. Jesus told stories, many with fantastic elements, like a camel going through the eye of a needle or the vision between heaven and hell (Lazarus and the rich man.) The Bible has lots of speculative images and stories, like Eli riding up to heaven in a chariot of fire and Jacob seeing the angels travel between heaven and earth. And Revelation goes without saying.
I think there’s a difference between using magic and wizards and sorcery to move the plot along, and glorifying the practice of them. As Christian writers, we must be on guard so we don’t make the dark arts appealing to our readers. As Christians who read or watch fantasy, we must be on guard for the same reasons. But a good fantasy includes these things. There has to be something for the hero to fight against, right?
When you hear the word fantasy, what comes to mind? When I think of fantasy, I think of fairies, elves, dwarves, and characters like that. I think of magic and wizards and a quest to save the world from a dark and evil force. Sound familiar to you?
Webster’s dictionary defines fantasy as:
1) imagination or fancy; esp. wild visionary fancy
2) an unnatural or bizarre mental image
3) an odd notion; whim; caprice
4) a highly imaginative poem, play, etc.
5) same as fantasia
6) a daydream or daydreaming, esp. about an unfulfilled desire
Fantasia is defined as:
1) a musical composition of no fixed form
2) a medley of familiar tunes
A term I wasn’t familiar with was caprice, so I looked that up, too. The definitions are:
1) a sudden, impulsive change in thought or action
2) a capricious quality or nature
3) music same as capriccio (a lively musical composition of irregular form)
I don’t see anything in those definitions that fit in with my thoughts of fantasy. But let’s take a look. Any kind of fiction takes imagination, of course, but fantasy even more so. Fantasy writers need to come up with new worlds and characters. My novel, Fairyeater, (Hope Springs Books, Feb. 2015) has fairies, dwarves, humans, a witch, a dark lord, and characters of my own creation. And now that I think about it, a bizarre mental image is needed to picture them. If I write them correctly, my readers will also be able to picture them.
And what about God? Does good fantasy include God? The God of the Bible? Other gods? No god at all? A fellow Christian fantasy author said this about his WIP on my blog: They have the same God that we do, not our God mapped into some other form.
I attended a one-day workshop with SCBWI in 2008 and got the opportunity to talk with a senior editor from Scholastic. We talked about including God in fantasy novels. Her advice to me about having God in the story is to make sure it’s a natural part of the culture, whether fantasy, sci-fi, or futuristic. “Don’t put God in your story simply for the sake of making it inspirational or Christian,” she said. “The reader will know if you’re hitting them over the head with a message.”
She also advised me to give Him another name – I was calling Him “The Most High God” in my story. That was too much like the Bible, and fantasy writers need to keep in mind that there are not fairies, elves, wizards, or dwarves in the Bible. That made sense to me. So, I renamed Him Celtar. I think it works. Since then, I’ve read several fantasy novels where God has another name, but because I’m a Christian, I know it’s the God of the Bible. Donita Paul does this in her Dragonspell books, and it’s a natural part of the story. I just finished reading A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr, and he includes the Trinity with different names, but the same roles. It was beautifully done.
I include God in my writing because He is such a part of my life. But there are other characters in a novel: the protagonist, the antagonist, sidekicks, and other secondary characters. Whether you read fantasy or write it, you need to be aware of each and how they affect the story.
What makes a good hero/heroine? They need to be someone the reader can sympathize with or care about right away. How can you create interest right away? My friend, novelist Joyce Magnin, says to put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him. I can do that because I know how I’m going to get them down from that tree. But as a reader, it makes me nervous at times, especially when the author gives me no clue how they will escape. And some authors, like George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), kill off many of their main characters. How does this make you feel when you are reading? When I read a well-written novel, I feel like the characters are real. When they die, I will weep and mourn.
What makes a good dark foe? What characteristics should you give him or her? What makes your antagonist different from all others out there? Sauron, Darth Vader, Maleficent—just three examples of fantasy, sci-fi, and animated villains. One was redeemed. Two fell to their tragic deaths.
As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?
As Christian readers, how do we choose a fantasy novel to read for enjoyment? How well do we know ourselves? What can you handle in a speculative novel? Do we only read Christian spec? Is there good fantasy in the general market? How do we know what’s good and what’s not? Once you read something, it’s there in your brain – forever. Scripture tells us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …” (Philippians 4:8) Are there fantasy novels like that?
Of course, there are. Lots of them. If you love speculative fiction, do your research. Ask your friends. Read reviews. If you pick a novel and it doesn’t sit right with you, stop reading it. Yes, I heard some of you gasp. Stop reading a novel? Sacrilege! But if the Holy Spirit is poking you in the gut, yes, stop reading. Stop watching that movie. Stop going to that blog or website. It’s really okay.
Now it’s your turn. What do you look for in speculative fiction? As a Christian, where do you draw the line? Let’s talk!