Last time, I talked about fantasy being this weird little genre, in that its limitations both make it easier and harder to write, in flux with its own rules. But that’s on the writing side. Let’s talk about the reading, watching, playing side. The side that experiences the fiction.
I’ve talked about why fantasy is interesting to write, for me at least, but why is it compelling as entertainment? What exactly does fantasy do?
Above being about the content included in the story, I feel like fantasy is one of those genres that involves heightening and capitalizing on a particular set of emotions. So it’s a mix of type 5 and type 1 from the earlier post.
This is probably going to be contentious, since fantasy can mix with all sorts of emotionally-based genres. There’s dark fantasy, romantic fantasy, tragic fantasy, comedic fantasy, you name it. But in general, with a fantasy story that is generally played straight, A.K.A. not a satire with no sense of tension or plotting, certain emotions will prevail in importance.
Let’s talk about those.
Immersion is a strangely controversial word. People say it’s vital to entertainment, others say it’s overrated, and some even say it isn’t real.
This might really come down to something genetic in human beings, because the dividing line is too sharp. I’ve met people who get immersed in entertainment, specifically the worlds and settings, and I’ve met people who are intrigued by spectacle. These two people seem to be complete opposites, and they are not capable of really understanding each other.
Let’s get some definitions out of the way that will only be useful for the context of this article:
Immersion: the sense of a fictional setting being a real place that the audience is a part of, and/or that the viewer and a certain character are one and the same. Think of that line from the old librarian in The Neverending Story: “You get to BECOME Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.”
Immersion is typically something you look back on, thinking “Wow, that part really had me sucked in.” It effectively means that the wall between fiction and reality broke, even if for just a moment.
Spectacle: the sense of being impressed by elements of artifice in a fictional work. Consider spectacle the moments when you are entertained by something, but are fully cognizant that it is a piece of entertainment.
For example, appreciating the acting in a movie or the dialogue in a book. You haven’t forgotten that it’s a movie or book, and in fact, it’s your awareness of how movies or books are made that makes you appreciate spectacle all the more.
So that’s what I mean by immersion and spectacle.
People obviously enjoy things in both ways, in general, but it seems that you’re either invested mostly in immersion or mostly in spectacle, that one of the two is critical to your enjoyment and respect of a piece of entertainment.
Why am I explaining this? Well, fantasy is about immersion over spectacle. Spectacle seekers are never really going to be fans of the fantasy genre. Unless it’s an example that is full of spectacle over immersion.
For the most part, fantasy lives and dies on whether its world is believable and interesting. I couldn’t possibly count the number of fantasy stories I tried to read that simply didn’t grab me. I wasn’t anywhere close to immersed, so I gave up. Even if I respect the spectacle, things like a tight plot, lots of action, character growth, it has to be something I can lose track of time while reading in order to really consider it effective.
Disconnect From Reality
Another important, highly specific emotion to the fantasy genre is a sense of disconnection from reality. This is not the same as immersion, because it applies when away from the story.
When I first played Dragon Age: Origins, I was very invested in its premise. I loved the idea of a difficult, violent, doomed journey that I was taking with a ragtag team of misfit characters. Thanks to the strength of its character building and pacing, I found myself thinking about the camp, and different potential things I could try along the journey, whenever I was bored in my ordinary life.
I don’t believe any other genre is really equipped to do this for people, to disconnect them from reality. And I know that might sound negative, but it really isn’t. Sometimes we need to disconnect from the thoughts of our present reality, not necessarily to escape responsibility, but for variety.
The Safety of the Nonreal
Another appeal to fantasy that I’ve heard my readers tell me is that they feel less disturbed by anything dark that happens in fantasy stories. Their reasoning is that the world is definitely not real and could never happen, so there’s a barrier that stops it from feeling TOO real at times.
I have trouble comprehending this reasoning, simply because I love being disturbed by fiction and actively seek it out. Reading something shocking or disturbing, to me, is similar to people who skydive or go rock climbing. Yes, there’s a risk that something could go wrong, and that’s part of the thrill.
Nonetheless, this is a reason I’ve seen people use, so I figured I ought to mention it.
Connection to Childhood
Let’s face it: fantasy is inherently childish. There’s a reason that most children’s stories qualify as fantasy. Children want to believe that anything that interests them is possible, that dinosaurs are still alive somewhere or that the storm drain is an underground metropolis of intelligent rat people. I think a lot of this comes from an urge to explore.
I remember seeing wooded paths to private property while riding the bus to elementary school. I would always watch carefully as the bus passed it again and try to get a deeper look down those paths. What was down there? Something I had never seen before? My mind would spin all kind of bizarre settings based on what little I did see.
It almost makes me wonder: could the urge to imagine things and develop fantastical ideas be a way to emotionally deal with the unknown? You never know what’s going to be inside that dark forest behind your neighbor’s yard, and going inside to look might be scary, but what if you already had a good idea of what was inside? And what if it was something amazing, something that, if you went inside after all and really did see it, you’d never forget it?
If you look at the visual language of fantasy stories, especially ones that start in a normal setting, you’ll see this concept of exploring amazing places. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, the Neverending Story, all sorts of fantasy works are about a child who is not afraid of, or even attracted to, the unknown and chooses to dive down the rabbit hole.
Well, those are my thoughts on what makes fantasy so unique as a genre. Thanks for reading! Drop a comment and let me know what specifically you’re looking for when you read or watch fantasy stories.