The best fantasy is real. This might sound like a contradiction in terms but it’s not, simply because fantasy must be believable or it won’t quite work. That doesn’t mean that the fantasy can’t be wildly outrageous and bizarre, it can, but the characters have to act and react like people, and cause and effect must operate logically and consistently within whatever world the author has created, or it simply won’t work. That’s what I mean by ‘real’.
Characters have to do things for clear reasons and in line with their motivations, otherwise the story won’t make sense. And if those characters, be they automatoms, walking plants or whatever don’t have humanlike feelings and reactions, or at least ones we can understand and feel for, we just won’t care about them, and if we
don’t care, we won’t engage with the story. But, the very best fantasy goes even further than that. It illuminates reality and highlights truth. That’s what gives books what I call ‘guts’ or ‘soul’. Beneath the fantasy, something rings true in a deep way.
The very fact that the story is fantasy means that it can show us what is real, because reality is the bits that are the same in the fantasy as in our reality eg character actions & reactions. Also by going to extremes, fantasy can stretch our usual ways of
seeing the world, so that we can see truth we would never have considered before.
We may not recognise the reality of our reality until we see it illuminated in a fantasy. ‘The Matrix’, the movie, made people look at this world with a different eye. That was illuminating reality. Did it highlight truth? In a way. We can’t accept that we are just coordinates in a giant computer, but by being presented with this
idea, we might consider that perhaps things aren’t as they appear on the surface, and that much is true. We are actually a bunch of atoms with a lot of space around them, but that’s not what we see. What else isn’t as it appears? In ‘Harry Potter’, Dementors
can be fought off by a Patronus created by your happiest feeling. For me, that highlights truth, because invoking happiness does cut through misery. In ‘Ground Hog Day’ the main
character finally discovers that making others happy is what makes a day worth living. That’s highlighting a truth, and it was achieved through the fantasy of a character living the same day over and over.
When characters, fantasy or otherwise, act in ways that don’t ring true, and things happen without reason, the story fails. If a story suggests something that is not true in terms of our basic human condition, then even if you can go along with it for the duration of the story, ultimately it will not satisfy. An example here are books where deep undying love happens instantaneously. A tempting idea that feeds on adolescent hormones and romanticism, but – lust aside – it’s basically nonsense. It surprises me how much some readers let authors get away with this sort of thing, but a
good fantasy will always ring true, and a brilliant one will open our
eyes to a deeper side of reality. That’s why I love fantasy so much, because it has so much potential to explore the mystical, the philosophical and the spiritual. It’s a shame that so few of them do.
Do you agree that the best fantasy illuminates reality and highlights truth? What fantasy books have you read that explore the mystical, philosophical or spiritual side of humanity?