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This Writing Life: Drawn to the Fantastic

20 April, 2012

A few weeks ago I looked back over the list of books I’ve read recently and confirmed something I’d already suspected: nearly everything I’d read over as much as the past eighteen months has been fantasy, and particularly epic fantasy. I decided, as I do from time to time, that I was going to make an effort to read a bit more widely. With this resolution, I went to the library and took out a couple of books from the ‘general fiction’ section. It wasn’t until I got home that I realised I’d, inadvertantly, picked up books with a strong fantastical element: one is sort of magical realism, but definitely contains some weirdness. The other is about demons.

The same thing happens every time I make that same resolution. No matter whether I intend it or not, everything I read (or at least all the fiction) contains something a little bit out of the ordinary, be it a talking cat in an otherwise ‘literary’ novel, or a grand, sweeping epic fantasy set in a secondary world. Now, you could argue that most fiction contains at least a little bit of the strange and unusual, but my reading habits go beyond that. Either consciously or unconsciously, I am always drawn to the fantastic, to something beyond the everyday world, to magic and weirdness and speculation.

The same goes for my writing: everything I write has at least some tinge of the fantastic to it, no matter the setting. And that’t not because I want to be known as a ‘fantasy author’. It’s simply what I enjoy, what my mind turns to every time I come up with a story. Without that weird streak, fiction always seems to be a little bit… well, boring.

I think all writers are the same. No matter their genre, there are certain subjects, certain conceits or situations or characters, that they keep coming back to, again and again (and, in terms of style, certain ‘crutch’ words or phrases too, but that’s another post). For me it’s an element of the fantastic, but it’s also super-competent female characters, and vast landscapes, and bittersweet endings. And that’s only at the moment. Whilst some aspects (those competent female characters) have been common in my writing ever since I started, others come and go – I seem to alternate between setting novels in vast forests and vast cities, for example.

So, as a writer or an artist, what do you keep coming back to – what genres, settings, character-types or situations? Do you do it consciously, or not? And do you think there’s a value in identifying these recurring tropes – and in trying to do something different?

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7 Comments
  1. 20 April, 2012 2:50 pm

    I think that when it comes to reading and writing, we do it as a form of enjoyment and escape. For me, I like to escape into fantasy. I’m a fantasy reader/writer as well, though I’m more urban fantasy. I like the concept of blurring the lines between what is real and fantasy. I mean, how do you know the person down the street isn’t a werewolf hiding in plain sight? 🙂

    • 21 April, 2012 9:48 am

      Hah yes, I definitely have my suspicions about some of my neighbours. 😀

      I think that blurring of the lines is one of the great things about urban fantasy. The characters have jobs and families and have to face the same day-to-day problems that we do – which is something that epic fantasy never does very well – but they also have to contend with all those creatures and situations that make fantasy so fascinating.

  2. J. R. Whitener permalink
    20 April, 2012 2:59 pm

    The strange and otherworldy appeal to many as a form of escape but also a tilling of imagination. I tend to be drawn, like you, to any story that is not mudanely familiar.

    • 21 April, 2012 9:50 am

      I do sometimes wonder if people who refuse to read any form of fantasy are having a bit of imagination failure – as if they simply can’t comprehend anything outside of their own sphere of existence. And yet they wouldn’t dismiss reading about the opposite gender, or someone from another culture, which in itself requires some imagination. I wonder where that disconnect comes in?

  3. Nicky permalink
    21 April, 2012 9:52 pm

    As an artist I tend to search for fantasy a lot. Also as a writer. It just comes more naturally to me. Like my head is made to imagine tons of things at once, all of them involving magic or swords or demons!
    Apart from that, I do think that trying to go to other places in our imagination is really compelling. As it is really dificult to obtain something from the parts of your brain that you never use. (Specially if you try to make the ordinary look fascinating)

    • 22 April, 2012 10:30 am

      Yes, I think both writing and reading fantasy brings its own set of complications that you just don’t get in other genres – like being able to engage your imagination and suspend disbelief when you’re reading, and put a lot of effort into making the strange seem believable when you’re writing. Of course, like you say, if you love fantasy, those are just part of the appeal!

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