I’m not mad at you, don’t worry.
But I do think you’re wrong.
There are two arguments I see people trot out when they’re bashing fantasy. They are: In a fantasy story, anything can happen, so you can’t make a plot with stakes. And: Fantasy fiction has no bearing on the real world, so it doesn’t have any social value.
Alright, I supose there’s a third one. I just don’t like fantasy, I think it’s silly. If that’s you, you’re off the hook, you can go home early. We all have our own tastes.
Anything Can Happen, There are No Stakes
In a fantasy world, anything can happen. The rules are different to ours. Dead people can come back, magic can fix lots of problems, and so the author can pull any old thing out at the end and fix the conflict in the plot, ruining it.
I mean, that’s strictly true. But it’s true of any fiction, no? In a bad plot, a writer could just cut the conflict short at the end of the story and end with a ‘and they got back together and lived happily ever after’.
Your problem here isn’t with fantasy, it’s with bad plots. And bad plots are fucking everywhere. No matter what genre you look in, there are writers who don’t understand their story’s own conflicts and plot and make a proper hash of it. There are plenty of these in fantasy, don’t get me wrong. But they’re also in thrillers, mysteries, romances, and contemporary literaries.
A good fantasy novel follows a set of rules just like any other story does. A good story sets up promises and moves towards satisfying conclusions to those promises. And there are many, many fantasy books that do this right. I just think bad fantasy plots are more noticeable than others.
Fantasy Has No Bearing On Real Life
The usual conclusion to this is: so it’s only for children.
This is the one that really grinds my gears, that made me want to write this post.
Because fantasy can reflect real life. In many ways, it can do it better than any other medium, because it allows us to take real-world problems and put them in a neutral setting that everyone, regardless of their prejudices or politics, approaches from a neutral standpoint. You can address problems like inequality, injustice, abuse of power, demagoguery, racism, insititutional oppression (and make them seem much more interesting than they sound listed like that) because you surround them with interesting characters, settings, and monsters.
Northing sums this up better than George R R Martin’s approach to A Song of Ice and Fire – also known as Game of Thrones. In fact, there’s a good YouTube video on this very subject. Look, I’ll even embed it for you so you can watch it right here:
I bet you didn’t know there was a link between the Turbulent Sixties and Robert’s Rebellion, did you? Well now you do.
The conflicts in epic fantasy – if done well, I must stress – reflect the problems of real life. The issues of power, of rebellion, of whether or not violence is justified – and if so, when – are all addressed here in a plot point that doesn’t even happen on-screen – Robert’s Rebellion is history by the time the first book starts. And yet its echo is still there in the plot. The violence of the rebellion and the massive politial changes it caused, the effects are still being felt years later when the book begins. And these are serious problems we face in the modern world every day.
But we all approach those problems with our own in-built prejudices. In fantasy, we have a blank canvas. We can get people to question their thoughts on these things without being bogged down in their real-world conceptions.