P. T. Mayes


Fantasy and Familiarity.

The first thing every writer of fantasy has to consider before he or she puts pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) is how much fantasy there is going to be in the story.

Let me explain. Most fantasy novels take place in a world similar yet different to our own, but if it truly was a different world, then it would be very different to our own. And by that I mean very and different and everything. There would be no sparrows, no foxes or horses; clouds might be green in colour and shaped like pyramids, the sea purple, and the design of every town, castle, sword and... well, everything... would be vastly different to what we know, so much so that new words would have to be invented for everything. A new dictionary would have to be built for this strange new world.

And that’s only the things.

What about distances? Do people in this fantasy land think in terms of miles or kilometres, or would they base it on a completely different unit, like the length of a snark’s beak, or on how far it takes the call of a jubjub bird to travel in a minute? You could invent just about anything, but when you mention them in the story they would mean nothing to the reader, even if you explained it in detail. They would remain alien until the very end.

What about days of the week? There can be no Thursday without Thor, nor any July without Julius Caesar. Does the week even have seven days, or twelve months in the year? Maybe a year is fifty-six months long, but each day only seven hours. And what happens if the fantasy world has no moon (complete darkness at night) or twelve moons... or two suns... or ten? Again everything changes and becomes alien to the poor reader, although these are matters the inventive writer of fantasy can use to his advantage.

And then there are the inhabitants. No world is much good without having some people in it to fall in love or have disagreements. If the world is different to ours then surely the people are certainly going to be different. Low gravity: elves; high gravity: dwarves; too much sulphur: balrogs. Maybe they don’t have arms, they could have tentacles instead; and why bother with boring human legs at all when they can have the body of a horse, or at least a horse-shaped creature. Used sparingly these things can again be used to the creative writer’s advantage; but go too far and the reader won’t know what to think when he reads “and Syngul the gollub scratched his shug with a nibbling and sucked his dinner through his proboscis, thinking, now that’s a tasty pile of vaguely horse-shaped beast poo.” We need our characters to be mostly human, and to think in mostly human terms for us to relate to them, otherwise we won't care about them, and then the story's as good as lost.   

The thing is that there must be familiarity of a sort in fantasy or it becomes science fiction (a genre which has to deal with these problems in its own way), so that the reader can orientate themselves and feel comfortable with the story, its strange setting and the fantastical beings that inhabit it. Thus most fantasy novel worlds are mirrors of our own worlds, viewed through a haze of a green hose, damsels in wimples, heroic knights and dragon fire. Days are approximately twenty-four hours long, a mile is a mile (a kilometre is too modern) and many of those things are named as we name them, as if by the magic of translation. Culture is mostly Western European, although not explicitly locked to a certain time, while stealing ideas shamelessly from many ages. This culture has been “filtered” via myth and legend and historical adventure novels to a sort of short-hand culture that everyone can feel comfortable with. Within those boundaries the fantasy author can pull the details a little here, stretch them a little there; experiment a little.

So, how much fantasy is in the fantasy novel you’re reading or writing? In a way it’s a subject that shouldn’t be looked at too closely because fantasy is a fragile thing. Prod it too hard and it falls apart. Science fiction builds its house on solid scientific fact (or at least it should) but fantasy builds its house on the quicksand of weirdness, and all it takes is one miss-step, one erroneous detail, and the fantasy sinks into the quicksand, weighed down by the sheer abnormality of the world. The writer of fantasy must tread lightly, deciding how far she can push the fantasy without turning it into something that it is not, and that is a tough balancing act to follow.

Copyright © 2013 P. T. Mayes

Copyright © 2012 2016 P.T. Mayes. All Rights Reserved.