It’s a strange word, no?
When you first hear it you probably think of it as a compliment. It means a performance that someone loved, and would want to see again. Something that sets you above the crowd, something that you absolutely loved.
Or at least, that’s one of the meanings. However, according to Merriam Webster, at it’s core it refers to something grounded in pure fantasy or something so extreme as to beggar belief. Something so eccentric that no one would ever expect to find it in their lifetime, or the lifetime of anyone else.
In genre terms, fantasy is a part of science fiction. I don’t agree with that (and sooner or later we’ll cover why, genrely speaking) but there is definitely some overlap.
However, if science fiction serves to illustrate the nature, weaknesses and strengths of human ideas, fantasy serves to illustrate the nature, weaknesses and strengths of humanity itself. There’s all kinds of subgenres in fantasy. High fantasy, low fantasy, political fantasy, urban fantasy, Harry Potteresque, most webcomics, most of the offerings of DC and Marvel publishing, the list goes on. However, one thing unites them:
Once you’ve finished a truly outstanding specimen you will sit back, totally sated, and think to yourself, “That was fantastic.”
There is nothing so extreme, so eccentric, so drenched in personality as the fantasy story. It’s no wonder David Eddings claims that fantasy writers crank out better stories, everything about fantasy is about pushing the limits to bring you the sharpest, best defined stories possible. Fantasy stories sometimes take the trappings of sci-fi, as in James Cameron’s Avatar, one of the things that contributes to the confusion between the two so-called genres. (The opposite can happen as well, sci-fi sometimes hides in the disguise of a fantasy tale.) But at their core, they’re about different things.
So if you’re going to write a fantasy story it has to have, at its core, something truly fantastic. And it can’t be something that market research shows is going to get a fantastic reception from the public, it has to be something you find fantastic or the story just isn’t going to come together. As an example, no matter how popular they are no vampire story I write is going to sell well. I just don’t like them for far too many reasons to go into in here. While vampires are hot stuff right now, no one is going to want to read a story I write featuring one because it’ll be halfhearted, and that will show.
(Note: It’s far more likely that you’ll find a random vampire getting steamrolled by my main characters. After all, the early accounts of vampiresque creatures suggest they were actually a lot more like zombies. Not that I like them either. In fact, don’t look for the undead in my stories period, save for perhaps the occasional ghost…)
Instead of trying to find some idea that everyone seems to love, find something that appeals to you and then push it and push it until it’s so great, so brilliant, so right that others can’t help but love it too. You’ll never get a 100% success rate, of course, but at least you’ll be creating something you love and enjoying it with other people.
The most fantastic image I have ever come across was from C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. In that book, he introduced the Wood Between the Worlds and showed them a passage between the myriad incredible possibilities that existed beyond the two worlds his stories were focused on. With those possibilities came questions. Why couldn’t Jardis turn things to dust outside of her own world? What other ways besides the magic rings could one jump from place to place? With time flowing separately, how different could technology levels become?
Of course, many of these questions were firmly outside the scope of The Chronicles of Narnia. But still, I wondered. And over many years, the idea of a wood eventually turned into a sky. A single, unbroken expanse that stretched across countless worlds. If a person could just walk far enough or fly high enough, perhaps you could find a totally different world just beyond that endless horizon.
Worlds upon worlds to explore, full of interesting people, who knows what state of development, what could be more fantastic than that?
If you can’t think of anything better either, or even if you can, I hope you’ll join me on Monday to take that first step over the edge of the earth…
“The Fantastic” is actually a literary genre in which both a natural and supernatural explanation are possible. For example, in Alice and Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, both an explanation that the main character was dreaming and an explanation that the main character actually traveled to a far off place of wonder are possible explanations. As for movies, Pans Labyrinth by Guillermo Del Toro falls under this category.
I think it is a really fascinating genre, with its inherent ambiguity.
The type of fantastic you are talking about is interesting and exciting to – places of wonder and fantasy to explore are always fun.
I wasn’t aware that was what it was called! Very interesting. I can’t help but notice that a lot of fantasy still draws on that trope, but now as a way to keep the fantastic elements from being obvious to the world at large. It’s as if the world is now the dreamer and the person experiencing the fantastic is awake…
It’s more than just a dreamscape. There’s a story by Prosper Mérimée called La Vénus d’Ille where a murder occurs. The murder may have been committed by a statue who came to life, or by one of the human characters. I read it in a class in college. It’s interesting and frightening – a precursor to Doctor Who’s weeping angels.
That sounds exciting and creepy. Do you remember if it was a short story or a novel? I think I would like to read it.
It’s a short story.
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