Fantasy as a Child’s Toy Box

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The techniques at a writer’s disposal have been likened to a toolbox, craft techniques judiciously deployed to create effects in the reader: a metaphor that rings true or a cunning turn of phrase; the rhythm of a sentence or a dissonant syntactic tic.

As I gradually read less and less fantasy (and most of that re-reads) I often wonder what still draws me to it as a writer. Partly, it is familiarity—I grew up reading it, I’m comforted by its tropes. Those strange worlds (even their very unfamiliarity) are strangely familiar.

But it is the freedom the genre offers: the only limit is imagination. Where realistic fiction and the essay are limited to describing what we understand as physical reality, genre can stretch those boundaries, shaping anew the known. Realist fiction seeks new ways of describing the familiar; fantasy revels in the unfamiliar.

This castle has a slide!

The possibilities inherent in this freedom are often disregarded. In some ways it is not enough to create and describe the unfamiliar; it must be done with consistency and veracity. The fantasy I do still read gives more than just the sense of places or the genre tropes. Those stories are harmonious in their use of metaphor, and at different levels, and they are conscious of them.

Fantasy allows the writer to take a metaphor, a concept or a hypothesis and make it real. It can be a testing ground for possibilities. To take an aspect of a culture or society and stretch it to its logical extreme, to construct an entire religion or civilisation around a simple idea—the writer can just build it and see.

To create and not consider the broader implications of these symbols, if not exactly irresponsible, certainly can make them feel hollow. Mere tropes, generic adornment with no purpose beyond the wish to create an unfamiliarity (whose actual aim is familiarity—placing the reader in the genre). Too often books begin with a neat concept or an interesting setting, as if that in itself is enough, but fail to fulfil its potential because it is not explore from all angles, in all its depth.

If writing provides tools, then fantasy can be likened to the imaginative possibilities in a child’s toy box. Simple things can mean anything, only limited by the creative imagination. That freedom has a purity, a nostalgia to it—and no wonder the young are drawn to tales of strange worlds, magic castles, odd creatures. This doesn’t mean the mindset is regressive, rather it is unsullied and unrestrained. We like to hold tight to our invented social and cultural structures—they do, after all, give shape and meaning to our lives—but we bemoan them with the same breath. How many people cite escape as reading’s purpose?

(This is not to say such creation is limited to fantasy. While I’m not well-versed in science fiction, the same applies. Taking a concept or trend and bearing it forward in time to explore the possible outcomes around it. Iain Banks’s Surface Detail is a great example of taking a concept and building stories and characters around various aspects of that, seeing how many approaches to the idea can be taken, and creating something disparate yet whole. Horror, perhaps, is the metaphorical extension of our superstitions.)

Even child’s play has rules. Limitations are built organically into play, and children are adept at inventing complex rules to their fantasies on the fly. It is necessary for writers to create worlds that retain some sense of how we understand our reality—our physics, the seasons, gender (though all these have been confounded at times). The strangeness doesn’t have to have meaning from the outset—writing affords discovery throughout the process.

In fantasy we can revel in the unreal. The only limit is the internal consistency of the world we create—and even then, inconsistency within the world can be meaningfully built in and explored. Keep pushing the limits, as readers and writers, use fantasy as a space for mental exploration. The only real limit is our mind, and as far as I can tell those boundaries are distant still.


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