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14 June 2010 @ 07:49 am
TOTW: What does Fantasy teach us?  
If you read a lot of fantasy, you see a lot of cataclysmic battles between good and evil. The conflicts are often on a grand scale, and many characters resonate with certain archetypes. The Hero. The Dark Lord. It’s so familiar the legendary Diana Wynne Jones even wrote an entire Tough Guide to Fantasyland to document many of these tropes.

But how do these epic conflicts impact readers? How do the trials and triumphs of hobbits and wizards and swordmaidens inform our mundane lives? If a fantasy world has a clearly delineated Good and Evil (not that they all do!) does that make it more or less applicable to our real lives?

For my part, I believe that the fantastical can teach us just as much about life and the world as gritty realism. That it can help us learn to be better people, allow us to explore injustice and cruelty and beauty and hope. That fantasy can teach us about the real world.

So what is it about this fabulous mirror that allows us to see our mundane lives more brightly? And do writers of fantasy deliberately set out to put "meaning" and "message" and "morals" into their books? When the setting of a story includes a strongly defined “good” and “evil”, does that weaken or strengthen the moral weight of the story?

Author Shannon Hale has a pertinent post up on her blog over here that's about morals in fiction (specifically books for younger readers). She makes the statement "As an author, I cannot be the bearer of morals, cannot create morals in my books but can only be true to the story and allow the reader to create her/his own morals" and then invites responses from a number of movers-and-shakers in the kidslit world. I’m more of a nudger-and-jiggler myself, but I will post my own opinion here, and invite the rest of you, watchers and Inkies alike, to do the same in the comments!

I think, like so many things, it all comes down to being true to the characters you are writing about. When I wrote my most recent novel, I started with a simple concept: a witch-girl who couldn’t curse, who gets thrown out by her family until she can learn to be a proper witch. I didn’t set out to write a book about "dealing with the expectations of your family and being your own person." I just wanted to see how this specific character dealt with the expectations of her family and figuring out her own future. Now that reviews are coming in, I've been kind of bemused to see how many of them mention the "lessons" incorporated into the book. Because I didn't set out to give anyone lessons. I just had some characters with a story to tell.

Fantasy may play out against an epic backdrop of good versus evil, but it’s the individuals that make it matter, that connect these fictional experiences to our own day-to-day life. Sure, in my real life I may not be fighting against a Dark Lord, complete with glowing red eyes and black cloak, but I do encounter evil and injustice and self-doubt and despair. And when I do, it is the specifics of my favorite fantasies that I look to. It’s Harry and Ron and Hermione coming together in the bathroom to fight a troll. It’s Sam going with Frodo, leaving the Shire. It’s Aerin doggedly working to teach herself to fight dragons, even when no one else seems to believe in her. Fantasy may not change the world, but it changed my world.

For more discussion of whether it is an author's responsibility to include moral lessons in books for youth, check out this recent article by author Dan Gutman in School Library Journal.

Now I ask you, watchers and Inkies alike: What you think? How has fantasy impacted your real life? Do you prefer fantasy that has a moral lesson? Do you, as a writer, consciously put “meaning” into your stories? Do you prefer fantasy with a strongly defined “good” and “evil” side?

Deva Fagan
chris_brodien on June 14th, 2010 01:05 pm (UTC)
Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion, Deva! I have to agree with Shannon Hale's statement that, as an author, she can't be the bearer of morals, but can only be true to her own vision.
Steven King echoes these thoughts in his book ON WRITING, when he says "there is no moral to THE STAND, no 'We'd better learn or we'll probably destroy the whole planet next time' - but if the theme stands out clearly enough, those discussing it may offer their own morals and conclusions. Nothing wrong with that; such discussions are one of the great pleasures of the reading life."
I think fantasy, like any literary genre, is more about clarity of vision and, as you succinctly put it, "being true to the characters you are writing about."
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
I was not familiar with that Steven King quote, Christine, so thank you for including that! I do think that the best way to learn something is often to figure it out yourself, which is why I suspect many of us don't want books to hit us over the head with lessons, but rather to provide us scope to ask questions and discover things for ourselves.
patty1943: pic#85360854patty1943 on June 14th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC)
Even in the Lord of the Rings, the characters face temptations and are human, not simply good. I learn a lot from fantasy, and one things is that life has consequences. Frodo suffers from what he lived through. In my other writing, I write about PTSD for soldiers and other trauma survivors, so I love it when through fantasy I can see the reality more clearly.
The Golden Compass has a delightful, dirty, wild, "bad" heroine and watching her grow through the three books is a delight. Her development does not seem moralistic, but an outgrowth of her character.
I get a lot out of a well written fantasy where the characters are human, not all bad or all good.
Thanks for bringing up the subject. It is good to think of as I add to my WIP.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for stopping by to comment! Lord of the Rings is definitely one of the examples I kept thinking of while considering this topic. I am glad the discussion here might be useful to you in working on your WIP!
Kate Milfordkatemilford on June 14th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
I agree. As a reader I don't enjoy stories as much if I feel like they're out to teach me a lesson. However, I do feel like I've walked away with something from every book I've truly loved or even just truly enjoyed. I'm trying to find a good way to put this...maybe you can teach a lesson or you can tell a story. In the first place everything is subject to the lesson, including the story. In the second, everything is subject to the story, and if the reader finds something meaningful to think about after the story's over, well, good for the reader.

As a reader, I like the second approach both because it's more pleasurable for me and because it allows me to find my own meaning. As a writer, I like the second approach for a few reasons: because my main goal is to tell a good story; because I don't see myself as having the answers to anything so I don't want to be perceived as presenting answers to anybody else; because I'd rather have readers thinking afterward and asking questions of their own than closing the book and saying, "okay, got it, next book"--which is what I did as a kid when there were lessons involved. Got that, let's move on to the next thing I'm supposed to learn and get it over with so I can go read something fun.

So long story short, I'd rather read a great adventure and be moved by great conflict, great danger, great emotion...and come to my own conclusions afterward (or not) than read something that has its own agenda.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
I definitely think that the knowledge we figure out for ourselves can stick with us much more than what we are simply told. Thanks for commenting, Kate!
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on June 14th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
Great post!! So true. It is the characters that matter and they are the ones with stories to tell. Although there is nothing quite like a good epic battle of good vs. evil, I find it interesting of late, when those gray areas are examined a little closer. Especially in YA where teens are realizing that the world isn't always black and white. That seems to be where my own writing is taking me in any case.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
I do love a well-done gray character myself, Lisa! Especially villains -- much as I love epic good and evil conflicts, I find it much more engaging when the characters are at my own level - flawed and human. Frex, I find Snape a much more compelling character than Voldemort in Harry Potter!

Thanks for commenting!
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Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:41 pm (UTC)
I love what you say in your first paragraph Cindy. I do definitely see fantasy as a mirror for real life, not just an escape as some might call it.
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annastanannastan on June 14th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
I find the one requirement I have for fantasy is that it make me think. If the story is imparting familiar lessons, I don't know if that will make me ponder much of anything. But, as you said, if it's about specific characters dealing with specific situations, it's much more likely to hold my interest and make my brain churn a bit.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 04:42 pm (UTC)
Yes, exactly. I think the best stories stay with us and make us think and wonder after we close the book. Thanks for commenting, Anna!
(Anonymous) on June 14th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
This is a great and much-needed discussion. Thanks!

I am of two minds about this subject. First, I agree that authors must let the story be an outgrowth of individual characters. Stories which are built around the "moral" rather than around how the character would act turn readers off very quickly. Trust me--I've read enough of them to know.

At the same time, I think it's a little naive to assume that no author is taking ANY responsibility for delivering ANY moral message in their work. None of us can get away from our own worldview in the things we write. Our beliefs about what makes life better or what makes life worse will slip in subconsciously in a thousand different ways, whether we intend it to be there or not.

For example, think of HARRY POTTER. If you had to guess, would you say that J.K. Rowling is for or against the idea of loyalty to your friends in hard times? I'd say she's for it. This is, in itself, a "moral" lesson that is presented pretty clearly in the book...but it is an outgrowth of Rowling's worldview, not a heavy-handed ATTEMPT to drive that particular message into our skulls.

What about Libba Bray's GEMMA DOYLE trilogy? Gemma lives in a world that sees women as feeble-minded and fragile. The fact that Libba Bray creates a sound-minded, courageous, strong female character into such a world tells us that Libba Bray herself believes women can be like this even in the face of male oppression. If she didn't believe that, she would have written a story in which the women WERE feeble-minded and fragile. Again, she's not trying to force a lesson down our throats; her writing is simply responding to the personal beliefs that she herself holds.

In short, I don't think any of us can get away from our own personal beliefs when we write. But that doesn't mean that we set out to tell a "moralistic" story. And it certainly doesn't mean heavy-handed speeches or discussion questions at the end of every chapter. :)

Rachel Heston Davis
Up and Writing
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Rachel! And yes, I agree with what you say:

None of us can get away from our own worldview in the things we write. Our beliefs about what makes life better or what makes life worse will slip in subconsciously in a thousand different ways, whether we intend it to be there or not.
A Deserving Porcupine: voldemortrockinlibrarian on June 14th, 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
I see fantasy as closely tied to mythology, even an extention of mythology itself. And mythology is all the deep inner truths of the ages, the roots of religion, the spiritual captured in narrative form. So I think moral "lessons" are inherent in fantasy-- they aren't something anyone does on purpose, they're just THERE because the stories touch us in that deep mysterious inner place where we're tied to the universe. When someone gets didactic about it, it feels LESS true, and it actually makes the lesson HARDER to learn-- it's just somebody spouting off what they think, whereas with the morals inherent in the story, you actually FEEL the moral dilemmas and learn from them more.

Good vs. Evil gets a lot of flak, and I think the problem is when either a) people try to fit other apparent dichotomies into good vs evil (ie black vs. white or whatnot); or b) people assume that because there is a good side and and evil side to the story, that means everything on one side is all good and everything on the other side is all bad. There can be gray, but that doesn't mean Wrong doesn't still need to be Righted or whatever. I think the outer Good vs. Evil conflicts mirror internal struggles, to overcome your own Dark Side, like. It isn't all about We're Good, They're Bad after all.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
I really love how you put this here:

So I think moral "lessons" are inherent in fantasy-- they aren't something anyone does on purpose, they're just THERE because the stories touch us in that deep mysterious inner place where we're tied to the universe.

Exactly! Because stories are about understanding the universe around us and what it means to be alive. Thank you for commenting!

Silversilver_elena on June 14th, 2010 06:19 pm (UTC)
What I love about fantasies is the quest, the challenges our heroes and heroines have to face to reach their goal. That no matter how terrible things get they still choose to move forward, to believe in themselves to do what they think is right. My favourite characters are persistent, they persevere and refuse to give up. They stand by their friends and family, the ones they love and they refuse to let them down.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:22 pm (UTC)
Persistence is definitely a quality I admire in my literary heroes! Possibly because I needed the inspiration to keep going in the quest for publication, heh!
kikihamiltonkikihamilton on June 14th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
Great topic Deva! I think what fantasy provides us is the opportunity (as the reader) to truly experience both good and evil, in a more direct way than we do in real life. With and through our MC we are faced with unspeakable actions that could never (hopefully!) occur in our day to day. We can be faced with possibly life and death consequences, and through a fantastical story it allows us the opportunity to BE good, to make the right choices through the actions of our characters. Which then reinforces our belief system that we can make choices that change the world for the good.

Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:25 pm (UTC)
Yes, I agree that one of the strengths of fantasy as a medium for exploring moral issues is that it sets everything against a different backdrop, which may make it easier to see and explore such things -- it's like rockinlibrarian says above: a mythic space.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on June 14th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
I think that in great books, the lessons come from the characters' experience... when an author's characters ring true for me, I feel like I can learn from their experiences almost the same way I can learn from my own experiences. This is true of all fiction, but one of the great things about fantasy is that you can learn not just from experiences you never had, but from experiences you never could have
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting, Leah. I really like this bit:

one of the great things about fantasy is that you can learn not just from experiences you never had, but from experiences you never could have.

Yes! Like dreams can help us work out subconscious troubles.
R.J. Anderson: G.K. Chesterton - Plotrj_anderson on June 14th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
As a child I read a number of "Christian" fantasy books which were so heavy-handed on the sermonizing, and so comparatively weak in terms of characterization and plotting, that the whole story was spoiled by it even though I agreed with the moral/theology being presented.

I inevitably found myself comparing these fantasy-coated sermonettes to the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and MacDonald -- which were all written from a Christian moral and philosophical worldview, but didn't fall into the same trap of preachiness. Because instead of starting with a moral or a lesson and constructing the story to teach that lesson, they wrote for the love of Story itself. They treated the art of storytelling as a virtue and a worthwhile thing, and allowed any morals or philosophical statements to arise naturally "from the whole cast of the author's mind," as Lewis put it.

Of course, mileage will vary. There are those who find Lewis horribly preachy, while I know others who read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe without even an inkling that Aslan was anything more than a big magic talking lion. I've found a similar diversity in the reactions to my own Wayfarer (which touches on questions of faith and doubt in a way which is either beautifully sensitive and well integrated into the story, or intrusive and unnecessary, depending on who you talk to).

But still, even if not every book or author's worldview is palatable/tolerable/invisible to every reader, I think there's a fairly obvious difference between a story that stands up as Story and a book constructed solely for the didactic purpose.
Devadeva_fagan on June 14th, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting Rebecca. I like that Lewis quote. I think it's like a lot of other things in life -- if you internalize certain things, they shine through in everything you do.

And for the record, I am in the "beautifully sensitive and well integrated into the story" camp. :-)
(no subject) - natalieag on June 14th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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Madison: professorkadharonon on June 15th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
Fantasy may play out against an epic backdrop of good versus evil, but it’s the individuals that make it matter, that connect these fictional experiences to our own day-to-day life.

I think this is the core of it, for me. I have a hard time connecting to fantasy for the sake of fantasy - what's the point of having an epic battle of good versus evil if all the protagonists fall into the same cookie-cutter mold of "I am on the side of GOOD, complete with handy dandy COLOR CODING*!" without any other defining characteristics? That is a boring battle of good versus evil.

I like having stories with lots of layers. I like watching the little interactions between characters that completely change how they feel about each other. I like my good guys to not be entirely good - heck, Mordion Agenos from Hexwood is one of my favorite characters ever, definitely a good guy in the book, and that doesn't stop him from being scarily good at making things dead without a second thought. Actually, Isabel from Mistwood also falls into that same general category. Cassel from White Cat, while not BAD necessarily, is not exactly a model citizen. And one of the reasons I love The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle is the way that both Prunella and Barnaby have complex motivations that don't necessarily stem from making the world better for their fellow humans.**

I like to read about people, I guess. I appreciate it when the people have a well-thought-out world surrounding them, and I don't think I could read a book that was ENTIRELY people, but I appreciate a character in a book who seems like a person. If that makes any sense at all.

*I currently own three versions of the Tough Guide to Fantasy. I may have possibly been flipping through the Toughpick section earlier today.
**Also, they snark. I like the snark.
katecoombs on June 15th, 2010 01:40 am (UTC)
Kadharonon--Great examples! Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series also gives us characters who are good yet flawed and don't always act the way we think they should.

I only own two copies of Tough Guide. :)

Deva--Thought-provoking post and comments! I believe the best fantasy makes us think and feel, and I find it tends to cheer for the "good guys" without pretending they're perfect people. The good guys being the ones who are against full-scale enslavement and/or oppression, in most cases. My favorite recent example of wonderful storytelling with some messages tucked in is Laura Amy Schlitz's The Night Fairy.
(no subject) - kadharonon on June 15th, 2010 02:03 am (UTC) (Expand)
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patty1943: pic#85360854patty1943 on June 15th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
One thing I love about this is the list of new books I get to look for!
Devadeva_fagan on June 17th, 2010 11:45 am (UTC)
Me too! I've already added two!
Chuck, The Pizza Snobreynaud on June 15th, 2010 01:58 am (UTC)
Books that have a point of view that they try to push tend to be boring. I stopped reading one popular fantasy author because I became tired of every major male character of hers being a sensitive artist-type who was brutally abused by a macho-society until he found love and acceptance in his "group;" the first few times it was good trope, but eventually I got tired of the sledgehammer. Interesting books fall into two categories: either a "good story, told well," or stories which make me think about moral choices that the characters make.

I find that Epic Fantasy, in the Tolkienesque style, tends to be limited to the "good story" type; how much moral choices can you make when the other side wants to destroy/enslave/horribly torture the world? There can be some of that, but often as not, it's more about making an interesting world, telling about it, and having cool scenes.

It is the less than epic fantasy that is best for posing questions or situations for the readers to ponder. It's easier to connect morally with some who is trying to help her family our of a fix, or find their own way in the world, than to a person who is battling The Dark Lord [insert ominous thunder clap here]. That's because we all have to help our friends or family out, but the chances we will be able to save the world are slim.
Devadeva_fagan on June 17th, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
Thanks for commenting!

how much moral choices can you make when the other side wants to destroy/enslave/horribly torture the world? There can be some of that, but often as not, it's more about making an interesting world, telling about it, and having cool scenes.

Yes -- it seems to me that in books of this sort, the moral/character questions come down more to personal choices about sacrifice and bravery and so on. The lines of good and evil are fairly strongly drawn, so it's more about what each character chooses to give up to stand on the side they've chosen.