Does Fantasy Lit Have to Be Real to Be Fantastic?

Joshua Grasso
May 19 · 9 min read

When submitting a story to a speculative fiction magazine recently, I got a surprisingly fast rejection — we’re talking hours, compared to the usual 4–5 weeks. I was stunned, hoping that I had some formatting issue that made it auto-reject, or that the editor was so taken with the first few sentences that he/she thought, “hell with it, I’m accepting it on the spot!” (ha).

The reality fell somewhat short of both scenarios: the story received a curt rejection, with the following tip for revision: “characters lack inner depth, need to relate to them more, feel their conflict.” In other words, your characters aren’t three-dimensional, fleshed-out beings whose emotions and inner turmoil feel relatable to my own. Which is a fair criticism, since my intention wasn’t to develop characters in this story as much as explore the implications of the story/theme itself. Rejections have a habit of weighing on you, though, and this one gave me considerable food for thought.

So I continued to ask myself, do protagonists in every story or novel need to be three-dimensional? Fleshed-out? Familiar? A vessel you can climb into and work all the gears and levers and feel that, yes, this could be me, I could understand this. And if so, doesn’t this render more than half of the world’s literature (especially its fantastic literature) null and void?

For example: fairy tales, myths, and ancient literature of all stripes contain almost no three-dimensional characters, even though all are arguably relatable and quite interesting. Few of them, however, have a dark night of the soul on their journey. Beowful, to take one example, is a fascinating character and presents the reader with a prototype for so many protagonists to come: the self-made warrior who believes in the doom of fate, but still faces death with a smile in the hope that fate (or wyrd, as the poem calls it) will spare him. He’s also a bit overconfident, insisting on fighting Grendel stark naked (as the beast is), and facing off with a dragon when he’s considerably long-in-the-tooth as far as dragon hunting goes (and this time, fate doesn’t spare him).

That said, we never see Beowulf brooding in an introspective monologue. We don’t learn about his family life, his childhood. We are deprived of any intimate conversations between him and his wife. In the end, he’s just a type, or an archetype, who is himself a major theme of the story. Even so, the poem works and is a dramatic, exciting piece of literature — we don’t need to know these things. Indeed, you might argue that knowing too much about him would dispel the cryptic atmosphere of myth and legend — like the commentary track on a Star Wars movie that seeks to upstage John Williams’ music.

Realism (or lack thereof) is a significant dilemma in the genre of fantasy writing, which has become one of the widest-read forms of literature in modern letters. Fantasy concerns itself with the world of myth and legend, drawing on the traditions of many cultures. Yet the watchword is myth — worlds that never were, sprouted from the collective imagination of societies that were trying to explain the how and why of the universe without science. For this reason, the ancient wellsprings of fantasy are largely allegorical in nature, composed of symbols and metaphors, ideas and archetypes. If the ancient gods and heroes of lore psychoanalyzed each other or went on extended existentialist rants, the allegory would wash away like so many sand castles.

Instead, their characters and stories gave us a way of talking about the natural world, so we can see our surroundings in the terms (and language) of these ancient tales. To this day, we talk of opening up a “Pandora’s box” of problems, or discuss someone’s “Achilles’ heel,” or even guard against “Trojan horse” computer viruses. That’s the beauty and power of fantasy — it adapts to each new civilization using the building blocks of symbol and metaphor. You don’t have to be Greek to see Odysseus’ voyage as your own; and not because you can see yourself in the peculiar make up of his character, but because every aspect of his struggle is symbolically relatable to your own.

So where does this leave the modern writer of fantasy? If you’re paying tribute to the traditions of the genre (if we can call something as vast as fantasy as genre), you have to walk a very fine line between realism and allegory. Having clearly-defined, believable, plucked-off-the-street characters in your heroic epics might be counterproductive, if not deeply unsatisfying to the reader. After all, fantasy works best when it begins elsewhere, in another world, with other people — and not just ‘us’ wearing masks and costumes.

Metaphors work because they relate two dissimilar things and forge a connection between them. If someone talks like a modern-day teenager in a medieval castle, it’s like someone holding up a sign that says, “hello, I’m like totally a metaphor here…can we move on?” For some, this is the weakness of genre fiction and fantasy in particular: that it’s not sufficiently literary…or that it’s not literary at all.

For this reason, most speculative journals have made a big push toward embracing literary fiction that merely pays lip service to genre traditions, or worse, treats them ironically. Many traditional writers, sensing a shift in the market, have also flocked to writing science fiction, horror, and fantasy, but without truly embracing the core of these traditions — just the surface sheen of the style. This has a ripple effect for the market, since if Writer X who sells a lot of books and has a lot of clout starts writing “realistic” fantasy, then everyone follows suit — and magazines start soliciting it more and more — and before you know it, it’s how you write fantasy.

And there’s nothing wrong with approaching speculative fiction from the perspective of realism. After all, this approach has become synonymous with the novel itself, and therefore, serious literature (which can redeem speculative fiction from its humble, pulp origins). You start with character and their inner workings, and the story comes from their interaction with the world and the people around them. Unfortunately, this is often at expense of the plot. Plot has (almost) become pejorative, and most literary fiction has no plot per se, or at best the most generic, loose-limbed attempt at it.

I would argue that this is a particular problem for fantasy, since its very DNA is plot and event. Allegory itself is plot; that is, the events and characters all stand for something larger, something narrative, something beyond the mere “I” persona of one character’s ego. Achilles might throw a fit and demand Agamemmnon’s respect, but that doesn’t make him a ‘self’ in the same way as a character in a short story by Chekhov or Raymond Carver. The great tales of Arthurian legend or the Indian Ramayana aren’t meant to be like me or you. We can relate to them as archetypes, symbols of the choices we make in life, but they can’t literally be us. If they are, the story doesn’t make sense, and certainly isn’t as interesting as these stories are supposed to be (because we see one self rather than many — or we mistake the finger pointed at the moon for the moon itself, to use a Buddhist metaphor).

Case in point: look at any modern-day film or recreation of the King Arthur legend. Say the 2004 version with Clive Owen as Arthur. It’s not a bad film, and is visually stunning, but otherwise it’s a clunker. It lacks any sense of mystery, majesty, or allegory. It’s mythology shorn of all its metaphors and made to look ‘real.’ Yet when you strip away the myth and magic, there’s not much left. Just some guys fighting against some other guys and calling it ‘noble.’ Lancelot isn’t Lancelot; Arthur isn’t Arthur. And Guenevere, despite a nice attempt to make her a pagan queen, doesn’t seem all that inspiring (not like the Celtic Helen of Troy she truly was).

Some people would argue that we’ve simply moved past literature that deals in symbols, or maybe poetry fulfills that role exclusively; that only realism is relevant since we’ve become an utterly literal civilization that doesn’t have time to unpack its symbols (let a man be a man, a horse a horse, a castle a castle). This is similar to the argument Burton Raffel makes in his 1968 article, “The Lord of the Rings as Literature,” where he argues that Tolkein’s famous work is “great storytelling” but “not literature.” In the essay, he compares Tolkein to D.H. Lawrence, claiming that Lawrence “has a story to tell, but he is interested in more than the story and the stark facts of good and evil…Lawrence sees complexities, complications, subtleties, which Tolkein does not admit” (Isaacs, Zimbardo 223). In other words, instead of being blinded by the story, Lawrence uses the story as an excuse to examine a character and all the complications therein.

To be fair, Raffel goes on to admit that “It would destroy The Lord of the Rings if Tolkein wrote as D.H. Lawrence did, and vice versa. But Lawrence was writing literature, his style suited his aim. Tolkein is writing in a separate genre” (Isaacs, Zimbardo 223). So there’s the rub: speculative literature isn’t literature — only realism can achieve that. Does this mean that Beowulf, The Iliad, the Ramayana, the Tale of Genji, etc. are similarly “a separate genre” for not seeing the so-called “complexities [and] subtleties”? If we don’t write like Lawrence, are we merely acknowledging that we prefer to tell a good story at the expense of writing great (or even adequate) literature?

Obviously, many have proved Raffel wrong in the decades since this article by doing both: writing great speculative fiction that brims with realistic, introspective characters. Yet even this begs the question, is the only way to justify writing speculative fiction to combine the two approaches — Tolkein and Lawrence? Can one still write like Tolkein and be taken seriously? Is the style he draws from no longer valid? Do modern readers not respond to the epic, allegorical style of writing that lasted thousands of years and virtually jump-started the culture of every civilization on the planet?

If so, it doesn’t explain the continued popularity of Tolkein’s works which continue to be discovered and devoured by readers who have never read a word of D.H. Lawrence. While we naturally like to follow a protagonist we can relate to, we also enjoy the opposite approach: exploring strange new worlds with people we don’t fully understand. Indeed, the initial appeal of fantasy and science fiction was that sense of adventure and disorientation. Even when the works turned out to be allegorical or symbolic, the connection came not through the characters (who in H.G. Wells and Burroughs are never fully conceived) but the plot and theme of each story.

To go back to Raffel, if Tolkein wrote like Lawrence, The Lord of the Rings would have foundered in Bree, taking twice as many volumes to get as far as Rivendell. In the same way, modern-day introspection and character development would totally derail classic works like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, or A Princess of Mars. Some dismiss these works as sub-literary, but that seems to be a convenient excuse to avoid the more obvious issue: that realism isn’t the alpha and omega of serious literature. It’s an approach, a perspective, even a school of thought; but dare I suggest, not even the most ideal one for speculative literature?

Demanding that speculative fiction begin and end with character is a valid take on the genre, but it’s hardly the solution to the problem of form. If there are still thousands — millions? — of stories out there waiting to be told, then how can we assume there’s only one way to tell them? Or that realism itself, a creation of the 19th century, won’t be superseded in its turn, replaced by another style or perspective? Of course, that’s why we study literature in the first place: to preserve the works of the past and better understand the discourse of the present. Too often, we try to erase everything that’s come before like ransacking barbarians defacing the pharaoh’s likeness. But in books we can all live together, sharing each other’s stories without proclaiming a single, controlling narrative.

For that reason, I decided not to substantially revise the story I had rejected for its supposed ‘flat’ characterization. I could certainly flesh out the characters, give them more conflict with one another, and of course, with themselves. In this case, however, I felt the characters really did take a back seat to the story itself; that this was more a “we” story than an “I” one. Not every story has to affirm our existence as the center of our own tortured universe. Sometimes, we need to step back and see the individual as part of the whole. After all, don’t we get enough affirmation and self-identification through social media posts and the relentless stream of memes and tweets? Is the only truth hiding behind other cultures and worlds as simple as “look at me — I exist?” Or is there something greater than ourselves, that ironically, we can still relate to? Perhaps the answer is both, but we can only find out by asking both questions, and writing both stories.

Joshua Grasso

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English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books