Yesterday I started naming ten reasons every writer could benefit from adding some fantasy to his or her reading list. Now, I know I’m biased. I don’t deny that. But fantasy literature really can teach us a lot about pacing, tone, character, and language, even if it’s not the only place we can go to experience examples of these things done well. Read on:
6. Fantasy literature will show you the importance of easing readers in, of helping them find their footing in your story. Basically, pacing is really interesting to study in fantasy. Some of the best fantasy novels, like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings, start off a bit slow in terms of plot. The authors have to draw you into their world before too much can start to happen, and yet, they manage not to bore you. If as an author you worry about making too much happen, too fast, or want to learn more about how to write a slow moment while still being interesting, then fantasy can teach you a lot.
7. Fantasy will teach you the joys of playing with language. Fantasy authors use language like a toy. Whether it’s clever and meaningful names for people or places, J.K. Rowling’s use of Latin in her spells, or Tolkien’s masterful use of poetry within his work and single-handed creation of multiple languages, fantasy literature has a richness in its use of language that is hard to find elsewhere.
8. The focus on the “everyman” in contemporary literature across the board is very evident in recent fantasy lit.
The shift away from the classic heroes of the Round Table—knights and nobles defending the everyman—really hit fantasy in the 20th century. You can see the change in the most famous fantasy epics from our time: the children heroes in Narnia, the frail and humble Frodo Baggins, or Harry Potter protesting to Hagrid, “I can’t be a wizard. I’m just Harry. Just Harry.”
Even fantasy on television follows the trend: think of Emma Swan in “Once Upon a Time,” a normal woman working as a bounty hunter. She was raised in foster care. (This trend is also striking in Sci-Fi. Consider “Doctor Who” and how the Doctor, an example of a classic, god-like hero, always has a normal human being, like you or me, as a companion.) Somewhere, western culture shifted from a tendency to want to read about “great people” to wanting to read about normal, humble people doing great things despite the odds. This brings us to a fantastic quote from Shakespeare:
9. “Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Honestly, it’s a rare really GOOD work of fantasy that won’t give you examples of all three types Shakespeare talked about here. That means some contrasting and powerful examples of character development to learn from. Take “Harry Potter”: You could say that the Malfoys are born great, with influence, wealth and power. Dumbledore has achieved greatness. Harry has greatness thrust upon him.
In the Lord of the Rings, Sauron is born (or created) great. Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” tells us he is the equivalent of a fallen angel from the Christian tradition. I would say that Gandalf and Aragorn achieve greatness, as does Faramir. Frodo has greatness thrust upon him, even if he willingly accepts the burden.
10. Few genres could produce scenes where tones and interpretations vary so much from what would usually be expected than fantasy does.
One example is the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Lord of the Rings. The movies completely change the tone of the battle scenes from the original in the books. I watched the movie first, and was SHOCKED by how calm and whimsical the tone is in the book “The Two Towers.” It’s a battle, but the tone isn’t desperate or dark or tense at all. The character are unconcerned, almost flippant at moments. And yet, the unexpected WORKS. It seems to fit, and it makes you question what about death we really consider dark and evil.
Another example comes from Harry Potter. (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t read the last book). When Lupin shows up at 12 Grimmauld Place to tell Harry he’s become a father, it’s a moment of great and rare joy in that book. The tone is happy. Things are okay for once, for a moment. And yet I was SOOO upset. I knew it was a marker of death for Lupin, who was my favorite character. I wanted to scream, “WHY? WHY did you have a kid? Don’t you know you’re doomed now? You have him and you’ll live on in him and now you’ll die because he exists to carry on your legacy. You’re a dead man walking!” And I was right, sadly.