Back when I was in college, none of my writing professors would allow works of fantasy to be submitted for short story assignments. My Advanced Fiction Writing professor even went so far as to claim that the only way he’d managed to force his way through the one fantasy novel he’d ever read was by pretending that the protagonist was insane and hallucinating (he then went on to assign the reading of several clearly superior stories that were first published as serials for Playboy). Even the nerdy professors who gladly and openly admitted to enjoying the genre refused to accept works of fantasy.
Then as I started attending writing conferences I discovered that even some well-established authors, authors I respect and admire, have similar feelings about the merits of fantasy. More than once I’ve received the advice either in person or in presentation that I should “branch out” and do things outside the fantasy genre because “fantasy stories all sound the same.” While trying new things is always excellent advice, I always bristle at their implied opinions.
Fantasy is unoriginal.
Fantasy is unrelatable.
Fantasy is lesser.
First of all, if you think fantasy novels are all the same, you probably haven’t actually been reading much of anything in the genre. Yes, during the 80s there were a plethora of Tolkien copycats who thought that all fantasy stories had to have elves, dwarves, orcs, and non-copyright-infringing pygmy people with fuzzy toes, but that is hardly the norm anymore. Mistborn is a heist novel. The Dresden Files are detective stories. Shades of Milk and Honey is a period romance. And they are all cosily nestled under the umbrella of fantasy.
I feel like, if book genres were kids you knew in high school, people think fantasy is that one nerdy kid with the greasy hair, body odor, and a unicorn shirt he’s worn for at least five days in a row.
I love fantasy. I love fantasy like Oprah loves bread. I love it for being comforting and familiar at the exact same time that it’s trying to make me believe the impossible. I love it for teaching me to comprehend incomprehensible things.
I love its variability. It can be anything it wants to be. Fantasy takes all the cool parts from whatever genre it wants and says, “But then…”.
Good fantasy really shows what it is to be human, even if the main character isn’t one. It delves into our psychology, sociology, beliefs, and cultures in ways no other genre can and reframes it all so we can take a step back and really see ourselves. It gives us a medium to look at human issues in a completely new light. It gives philosophy a high-five and then hands it a magic wand and a dragon.
Characters from fantasy stories have to be full of depth, purpose and personality because we need that familiarity to anchor us in their strange world. Because of that, fantasy characters are almost always the ones you forget aren’t your friends in real life are. (Samwise Gamgee will always be my best friend, I don’t care what you say.)
Fantasy has been a part of us since we first started recording stories. It’s an integral part of everyone’s folklore. Our fantasy stories helped us define ourselves, our values, and our cultures. Beowulf, Odysseus, King Arthur, Hercules, Paul Bunyan, Coyote, Benten, Raja Isalu.
All the stories we started to tell when we realized we could were either biographical or fantastical (often a mix of both). We probably wouldn’t have developed a taste for story-telling at all if it weren’t for fantasy. And no story-telling means no novels and no novels means no genres to argue about in the first place.
Fantasy isn’t the unwashed nerd. It’s the weirdly hot English teacher who sponsors every club and probably coaches or something, too.