This week: Fantasy For The UninitiatedEdited by: Elle
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Fantasy can be a daunting genre, especially when you consider some of the serious, passionate fans. The genre seems to cover such a broad range of possibilities, yet the fans seem to have a definite idea of what can and can't be done within the genre. I decided to interview Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC , the founder of Writing.com's leading fantasy group, the "Fantasy and Science Fiction Society" , for his thoughts on the genre.
Although the "Fantasy and Science Fiction Society" was only created last year, it has already won two of the prestigious Quill awards, for Best New Group and Best Fantasy, at "The Quill Awards" . The founder, Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC , has been running fantasy groups on Writing.com since 2011 when he took over "The Coffee Shop for the Fantasy Society" . In addition to the recent Quills, he also won Best Fantasy in 2012, and with his various contests, newsletters and activities, he is doing a lot to promote the fantasy genre on this site. He kindly consented to be interviewed and answer a few questions about the genre.
Elle: Is there a definition of what is, and what is not, fantasy?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: I looked up 'fantasy' in the Oxford Dictionary of English and it says this of fantasy fiction: a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world. I disagree with everything but the first part of this definition. Fantasy doesn't have to involve magic or secondary worlds. Nor does it need to be an adventure story. You can have romance, crime, humour, horror, etc. fantasy stories. The key thing that identifies a story as fantasy is the imagination part of it. All fantasy stories must include something that doesn't exist. This can overlap with science fiction, but the difference is that sci-fi deals with improbable possibilities and fantasy with plausible impossibilities (to para-phrase Miriam Allen de Ford).
Elle: There are subgenres of fantasy, such as epic fantasy, high fantasy, etc. - are you able to explain these a little?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: Epic fantasy almost always takes place in a secondary world (think Middle Earth, Westeros, etc...) and is very heavy in world-building. High fantasy is often less focused on world-building, but that still plays an important part. Very often high fantasy stories are set in medieval Europe style settings. Then there's urban fantasy which is often set in the real world or an alternate version of our world (some definitions of urban fantasy state the story should take place in a city or other urban environment). Contemporary fantasy focuses on modern issues, but can be placed in any setting, typically in the real, or alternate version of our world.
Elle: Is it possible to write fantasy without creating new worlds, species and/or languages?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: Harry Potter almost does this. It is set on Earth. The wizarding world is hidden from the real world so it could be our real world. Wizards and witches can mate with non-wizards and produce viable offspring so are technically the same species. The spells are based on Latin and the mirror of Erised is just the English word Desire backwards. Rowling does use dragons and basilisks and some other creatures so it doesn't quite work. But you could tell the story of Harry Potter without those new creatures with just a few changes and it would still be fantasy.
At the end of the day, you don't set out to write a fantasy story which doesn't do this and that. You set out to write a story you are passionate about. If it doesn't include certain fantasy tropes then so be it. If it includes all the tropes and it works for your story that's great, too.
Elle: We all know how important it is for writers to read. How important do you think it is to read books in the same genre or subgenre as what you write (or want to write)? Can you write a fantasy short story or novel without ever having read fantasy?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: I don't see how you can write fantasy without having read fantasy. I suppose, technically you could but it would be hard to do so. I've read online some authors swear by not reading the subgenre they're writing in (at least whilst writing the book). The logic is that you don't want to accidentally muddy your style with the author you're reading. Other authors say you must read in what you’re writing so you can learn what the reader looks for. Just be careful you don't try to mimic an author inadvertently.
I should say that it is also important to read out of your genre. Read non-fiction as well. It can often inspire you.
Elle: What's the most important aspect of writing, in your opinion?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: Getting words down on the page. If you don't do this, then you can't call yourself a writer. I went several months not writing. I was thinking about what I wanted to write but never actually wrote anything. Then last week I started work on my new novel (I know I never finished the first one, and didn't get past chapter one of the second one) and am now half-way through chapter 2. Once you're into the writing of a story, then the most important aspect I think is characterisation. Strong characters can allow a standard plot to shine.
Elle: Do you see a lot of repetition in the fantasy you read here on Writing.com, or are people still creating unique worlds, characters and plots?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: I'll be honest, I rarely review anything longer than 4000 words on WdC. In short stories people are limited as to how much they can fit in, especially with fantasy. For that reason the best stories, in my opinion, are those which take a single great idea and distil it down to its purest form and run with it. A well told story about a powerful artefact corrupting a character's soul will almost always be better than the story that tries to fit tens of fantastical creatures into a story heavy on the world-building.
I have read a lot of contest entries. To be completely honest many entrants are trying to write a novel in 5000 words. It isn't going to happen. You may have created a unique world but 5000 words is simply not enough space to describe the world in sufficient detail and to tell a story within it. Pick a small part of the world that intrigues you. Then pick a couple of characters with differing and conflicting personalities. Pit them against a single, unique antagonist. If you're writing a short story then don't waste words describing parts of the world that do not directly influence your story.
To properly answer your question, it is a mix. Some authors are writing the same old tropes over and over. Some authors create something completely new. Some authors can take a trope and put a unique spin on it. To be honest, there is nothing wrong with any of these approaches. There is an audience out there who will read stories about elves and orcs over and over again. Other readers hate that stuff. Find your audience and ultimately write what you want.
Elle: Has fantasy literature changed in recent years, or is it still being written the way it was twenty years ago? Fifty years ago?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: I was born twenty years ago, and have read very little from before my time (shameful, I know). I have read Fahrenheit 451, though. Compared to modern fiction, that is a really weird book. Utterly compelling but told in a completely different way. The way Bradbury structures the story from the large scale plot to the low level sentences is different to how contemporary authors write. A Song of Ice and Fire is the big thing right now. I would say it is similar, if not bigger in scale than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But they have a completely different tone.
To be honest, I think Tolkien is a bad example when looking at fantasy literature. He was a linguist. He designed the language and world long before he wrote the books. Middle Earth was an exercise in creating languages and worlds and histories and cultures. It was not created for the purpose of having a story told in it. I've read that he simply browsed through all his writings on the world and chose a part of the history to set the story in. For that reason the actual story-telling techniques aren't as good as the world. His pacing is unusual and you can tell he loved the world. The protagonist isn't Frodo or Bilbo or Gandalf. The protagonist is Middle Earth.
George R R Martin, on the other hand has to call up a super-fan on occasion to fact check his own world! He rings this fan up to check the colour of a character's eyes or the gender of a horse. On that basis fantasy has changed radically. Plot and character have become far more important than they used to be.
Elle: Are there particular things people should keep in mind when reviewing fantasy items, or is it the same as reviewing any other genre?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: When reviewing any item, remember that you are a reader. The author wants to know what you thought of their story as a reader, not what you would do if it were your story. Make suggestions, but don't say that your way is the only way (many reviewers do this, despite their overly long disclaimers). For fantasy items in particular make sure you mention the world. Tell the author what you liked or didn't like about their world. Check for continuity errors. If the author says there is no moon, then double check for any lunar references (for example a character described as having skin soft as moonlight).
Elle: Do you have a favourite fantasy author, book or series?
Matt Bird MSci (Hons) AMRSC: I love Harry Potter. I have read those books so many times! I appreciate George R R Martin, but can't get into the books for some reason (love the series, though). The FSFS often talks about Brandon Sanderson. I'm a big fan of his Mistborn series. Recently I started reading Neil Gaiman. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great example of taking an idea and running with it. Stardust is an interesting read, and is quite different to the film. I'm currently reading On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds (book 2 of Poseidon’s Children). It's a great sci-fi series with lots of really cool technology.
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