An updated version of this blog post based on a 2017 survey can be found here.
Those of us who love reading fantasy fiction get lost in what our imaginations conjure from the words we read. The train journey passes in but a moment. Our eyes droop as we set aside the book, too exhausted to read on into the night. Our families become widows and orphans to our reading.
“Can you name six things you love about fantasy fiction?”
I asked myself this question and shared the answer to see what other readers, and in some cases authors, loved about the genre.
The responses were a mix of the expected with a couple of surprises. One surprise was the the runaway success the number one reason most people give for their love of fantasy.
Here are the reasons in descending order with a star rating and a few honourable mentions at the end.
We love heroic deeds done by hero or heroine. It’s about triumph over adversity during an adventure. It’s do or die against insurmountable odds. In what other genre do mortals to take on the gods themselves?
5. Monsters, alien races, and magical creatures
“As soon as you put a dragon in a story, it’s a fantasy.”
You would think that with so many stories out there featuring dragons the market would be saturated. But dragons appear to be as popular as ever and Anne McCaffrey can hardly be disputed as the queen of dragons with her Dragonriders of Pern series. It’s not just about dragons. We want different versions of mythical creatures, alien races – not just elves but something else with strange behaviours, appearance, and customs different from our own to explore and understand.
Tastes vary among fantasy readers on this one. Some people want magic to be in the background, the way George R R Martin does it in his A Song Of Fire and Ice series. Others want magic to be something mysterious and unknown, the way J R R Tolkien does it with Gandalf. Some people want to know how magic works. What the rules are. This is how Brandon Sanderson portrays magic in the Mistborne series with “Allomancy” as as an example. The term “Magic” could extend to superheroes and their powers and we can hardly ignore “The Force”. Almost no one needs telling where that comes from. When it comes to it, the powers or magic of the superhero is the defining dramatic concept of the superhero story itself.
However you like your magic, exploring characters with supernatural abilities making the impossible seem possible, and even fantasizing about having the same abilities yourself is all part of the charm of fantasy stories.
Perhaps it is because, in the realms of the unbelievable that exists in fantasy fiction, there is a need for characters to be portrayed “realistically” and deeply. This applies even if they are a centaur, elf or dragon, to help readers suspend disbelief. Fantasy readers demand exotic worlds populated by equally exotic and diverse characters. They can flourish in this genre like no other. When characters are relatable, their faults can be forgiven. Readers want to root for the character. Personally, I don’t think that last point is specific to fantasy, more genre fiction in general, and we must be talking about the protagonist(s) here.
I like this next quote: “Anyone can write a fight between wizards, but how many make the reader care about who wins?”
It illustrates the desire to root for the hero very well.
The villains of fantasy are not forgotten here. Rendering the villain in words in all their glory as intricately as the hero is every bit as essential. What is the first character that comes to mind for Star Wars? I’m betting it’s not Luke Skywalker.
2. Imagination and creativity
Two words feature high here. “No limits.”
The only thing limiting what goes into a fantasy story is the imagination and creativity of the author and their ability to make the fantastic feel real and believable.
“Anything is possible.”
“Every restriction is lifted.”
“Make the impossible seem possible.”
“Only bound by rules the author invents.”
In fantasy, everything is bigger and grander. Authors are not limited by real world rules.
The message to fantasy authors is, go crazy, be inventive and don’t play safe.
1. Escapism into a strange new world
It could be a castle at the top of a beanstalk, a world made of water, a world similar to our own but full of surprises, heaven, some other plane of existence or a city suspended by chains over the pit of hell (that one has been done).
Whatever it is, it is the setting, the world building or
“worlds unlike our own”.
The number one attraction of fantasy fiction is escapism into previously unexplored and unknown worlds. In all honesty, I thought it would be ahead of the pack by a bigger margin than it is.
The setting is the large part of the vicarious experience the fantasy reader is looking for. Readers want to leave behind the mundane world they already know and enter fully realized imaginary worlds brought to life in writing. Humans have a desire to explore places they have never been before and a fantasy fiction world is a place that desire can be satisfied. It’s about rediscovering that childhood sense of wonder at the world about us that we lose (or feel we lose) as adults.
Readers say they want a land that is exotic, magical and fascinating. Done well, the depth and richness of made up history and traditions can be breathtaking.
A few other terms that came up that don’t fit within those in the top six were:
- Learning about humanity through a different world
- Characters doing the impossible
- Some form of conflict a must
- Sense of wonder
Then there is the biggest surprise to me. The plot – the actual story, barely gets a mention in the responses to “Why do we love fantasy?”
Perhaps because it’s like the air we breathe. We don’t think about it, or notice it and we take it for granted until it is not there or bad.
Did we miss anything you love about fantasy?
Disagree with the rankings above?
Please share a comment below.