Writer Perspective v. Reader Perspective: Is Fantasy a Plot Element?


Holy crap, you guys, I have so many browser tabs open to read/link to/comment on and no enthusiasm for the job. I’m tempted to just create a giant link salad so I can be rid of them and their spinning beach ball of death.

But first, there’s a post I’ve been meaning to respond to for exactly one year, so I’m going to get it out of the way today, 365 days after it was posted.

My original post: Superheroes Are Not a Genre, in which I said that fantasy was defined by a plot element.

The response: Fantasy is not a plot element, by LJ user barbarienne (who not so incidentally did the interior design work for The Great Way, who helped me find a printer and cover designer, and was generally indispensable during the publication process. She’s the reason those books look as good as they do.)

My original post was about genres and how to combine them. Genres are defined in different ways: how they make the reader feel, what sort of plot question they have, where they’re set. What barbarienne didn’t like was that I defined fantasy by plot and not by setting.

Her post largely focuses on the importance of worldbuilding. For ex: But it is only in genre fantasy where the created setting is why the readers came here. [I removed a footnote from the middle of that sentence.] Note that she wrote “created setting” because there are several genres where the setting is central to reader interest, such as westerns and historicals, but those settings are re-created. Only science fiction blah blah blah, she covered that in her post, which I hope you’ve read.

And I agree with most of what she says. For the most part, fantasy readers love setting above all else, and some are seeking novelty while others are seeking the familiar. It’s why so many fantasy novels seem like travelogues. Even urban fantasy that’s supposedly set in our world contains sections that read like The Smart Tourist Guide To Secret Places.

But the thing is, I wasn’t talking about the reader’s experience of fantasy. I was talking about the issues a creator has to consider when mixing genres. For example, if you’re creating a fantasy/western, you could just add magic to a story set in Dodge City. You could, if you wanted, create a pseudo-Old West map in the way that other writers create pseudo-medieval maps, but you don’t have to. The magic a writer adds to Dodge City changes the type of story you can tell there, and while it might change some of the characters (gun-slinging wizard?) it doesn’t have to. But it will always change the way the plot progresses. Even if they’re stock western characters with nothing fantastical about them, if they’re facing a dragon or cursed dueling pistols or telepathic cattle rustlers, the fantasy elements affect the plot.

Fantasy readers, with their particular reading protocols, may not experience it that way. “It’s the old west with dragons!” they’d say, as though it was an entry in one of Rick Steve’s books. Fantasy can be defined in several ways, but among the fans of the genre, they’re looking for a interesting fantastical setting, but from the outside, readers think of it in terms of a story containing things that “aren’t real” (often with the implication that they are risible, childish, or a waste of time).

Okay. Let me backtrack a bit to my own books: when it was clear that Child of Fire was popular among fantasy readers who also loved mysteries and thrillers, Del Rey tried to push the book by sending it to mystery/crime reviewers, too. It’s a novel that crossed genres! Why not expect it to beyond the overlap of fantasy and crime into readers of crime novels?

But it didn’t. Crime/mystery readers and reviewers were mostly uninterested. (I say “mostly” because I got some very nice feedback from readers who wouldn’t ordinarily touch a fantasy novel; they only read it because they knew my wife and were surprised by how much they enjoyed it.) Why? It wasn’t the setting. It wasn’t even the general plot questions (Two people arrive in town to find and kill a very bad man). It was the fantastical elements that made up the plot: the spells, the spell book, the monsters, etc.

And if you think Spell books that summon monsters are part of the worldbuilding, you’re not wrong. But they are also elements of the plot, and powerful influences on the characters. In fact, they are all those things at once; as a writer, I can’t think of them in any other way. The temptation that Frodo feels to put on the One Ring is not just a question of character (Frodo can resist where others can’t) and it’s not just a plot question (can he resist temptation for the whole journey) and it’s not just evidence at the way magic works in the setting of Middle Earth. It’s all those things at once, and they are inextricable.

So, to sum up:

1. Speaking generally, fantasy readers read fantasy because they are looking for setting.
2. Speaking generally, fantasy readers experience fantastical story elements as worldbuilding first, character and plot elements second, because as much as they love great characters and exciting plots, setting is the commonplace attraction.
3. Speaking generally, non-fantasy readers experience fantastical story elements in a variety of ways, but typically as elements of the plot. In other words, fantasy readers -> “This is a school where kids learn magic!” / other people -> “These kids overcome their problems by casting spells.”
4. Search your feelings. You know number three is true.
5. For a creator who is combining fantasy with other genres, the fantasy elements may be related to the setting but it’s more likely that the fantasy elements will be plot-based.
6. If it’s unclear what I mean by “plot-based” well, consider questions like: “How can the characters achieve their ends?” “What obstacles interfere with the characters’ efforts?” “What goal are they trying to achieve?” Those are plot questions.
7. For example: Among all the space ships and robots, Star Wars has wizards who use telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, and can shoot blue lightning from their fingertips. When a creator is trying to decide what a character should do next, all those (fantastical) elements are on the table.
8. Some people will try to argue that the presence of fantastical elements indicates a fantasy setting. Those people are wrong. A book set in our New York City, but with jewelry thieves who are secretly dragons, is a fantasy plot in a mundane setting.
9. Which means I believe writers can/must sometimes do fantasy worldbuilding in mundane settings.
10. Those fantastical plot elements can be a tough sell to readers outside the genre, but not as tough as it used to be.

Now I remember why I put off responding to this post, because it’s so much easier to cruise Twitter reading jokes like: