More and more fantasy, even Christian fantasy, is available these days. Some small presses are devoted to the genre and its cousins, science fiction and horror. But some authors are putting their work on their sites for free, some are self-publishing, and traditional publishers are adding more and more titles to their stock.
The truth is, however, most readers will only learn of a small number of the books that are available. Chalk it up to promotion or platform, if you will, but I don’t think we can ignore that some fantasy works better than most. Readers love Narnia and Lord of the Rings, and they love a handful of later fantasies. But a lot of stories don’t go viral, don’t get hundreds of reviews, and in fact get tepid responses. So what makes fantasy work?
In some ways, I think the answer is no different than what makes any other piece of fiction work. But I also think fantasy aims to accomplish more, so it has more that can go wrong.
I suppose that isn’t quite true. Mystery writers could say that mystery tries to accomplish more because the story tries to create a puzzle that keeps the reader guessing. And romance writers could say that romance tries to accomplish more because the story tries to bring two people together while keeping them apart. Writers of historical fiction could really make a case for their fiction doing more.
In other words, each genre has its own tropes to which the author must adhere, so it isn’t quite as simple as just writing a story. But when I say that fantasy does more, I’m thinking of the depth—the way that the story is only the obvious part of what the writer is saying, not the entire substance.
But what makes Lewis’s stories work so well? Why, in fact, are the Narnia stories known around the world but few people have read Till We Have Faces? Of course, the only people I know who have read the latter, count it among their favorites, so I’m not suggesting it doesn’t “work.”
And yet, it’s hard to say it works as well as Narnia. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be as many people who have read it and loved it? I suppose we could argue that children’s books have an advantage. Often times, parents who love the books they enjoyed as children, read them aloud to their children, and the love of the books is passed on, as much by the pleasure of the reading aloud experience as by the quality of the stories.
Has anyone read Till We Have Faces aloud to their children lately? I suspect not. It’s not that kind of book.
So I suppose the first thing to realize is that what “works” is somewhat subjective. Yet I can’t help thinking that a lot of the books available today don’t work, or at least not as well.
Perhaps the key is to look at what each book is trying to accomplish. The question would then be, did the author get it done?
The higher the book aims, the harder it is to reach that goal. Consequently, if a story aims to be a sweet romance as a means of providing a little escape for the reader, then it works if it does just that. But if it aims to be the next Gone with the Wind, the author has set an ambitious goal and her work must be judged based on whether or not she accomplished what she set out to do. If she wrote a sweet romance, albeit a thousand pages long, I’d say she did not meet her goal.
So too with fantasy.
When I first considered the question, what makes fantasy work, my immediate thought was, an engaging character. That’s when I realized that there might not be so much difference between fantasy and other fiction.
In some of the fantasy that doesn’t seem to be working, I’ve seen three problems with the central character—she/he doesn’t have a specific goal, is nondescript, or whines.
Readers are most engaged with a character if they care about him and if they can cheer him along as he tries to accomplish an important goal. He needs to seem real, so he must have a rounded personality. For fallen humanity, that means weaknesses and needs as well as strengths and things to offer others. At times, however, a character weakness can be painted with too much emphasis. I know because I created such a character.
It crushed me at first when members of my critique group told me they hated my main character. Hated him? I loved him. How could they misunderstand him so completely? Yes, he had problems, but don’t all characters? I mean, isn’t that part of the character arc?
That, in a nutshell, is the balancing act authors must achieve—give the character problems but not let him become embittered, sullen, whiny, complaining, slothful.
In some ways, Jonathan Rogers’ Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy is the perfect character. He’s got a problem—he’s an orphan, but that’s not all of it. The only person who knows anything about where he came from is unreliable—worse than unreliable. He twists the truth at will, however it suits him.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Grady makes the most of his circumstances. Here’s where the reader sees his real strengths. He’s loyal, hard working, and humble enough to do the job he needs to do.
So the first thing fantasy has to have in order to work is a main character that is believable and engaging.
The second thing, because this is fantasy I’m talking about, is a well-developed, consistent world. This is the aspect J. K. Rowling mastered. If I were to grade her, I might give her a C or C+ for her character. Harry wasn’t particularly believable in the first book because the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys was over the top. Nor was he particularly engaging. He didn’t whine but neither did he do anything to change his situation.
But the world Rowling created was awesome. She did such a great job creating a magic place that the story came alive. She paid attention to detail and didn’t overlook anything.
In Hogwarts, food appeared magically on plates, the ceiling in the dining hall changed to appear like the outdoor sky, persons in portraits moved (and moved from their own frame to another’s), persons in newspaper photos moved too, and so did the figures on the cards that came with certain candy. And those chocolate frogs could actually jump away. The students had to be taught how to fly a boom and how to use their wands. And on and on and on. So many little details, everyday things twisted to fit a place where magic was real.
But there’s still more to this “What makes fantasy work” question which I’ll look at next time.
Adapted from posts on this subject at A Christian Worldview of Fiction