Thursday, October 14, 2010

World-threatening Stakes in Fantasy

Reading thuRsday

A writing friend asked, "Am I right in thinking that realistic fiction plots can be, 'I hope I get the cute guy,' 'I'm going to save my dad from this terrible disease,' etc. (i.e., major conflicts that we have in real life), but fantasy fiction plots have to involve the kingdom or the world?"

It's not that the stakes in fantasy must be world-threatening, it's that it's easier to make them so.

In the real world, nothing (except perhaps the sun exploding) threatens the entire planet; at best there are threats to our personal or social worlds. In fantasy, the author can say that Bad Guy's Frog of Doom will swallow the planet if Hero doesn't stop him and we the readers accept the threat because we accept the world.

Of course, the world we know is only one of a universe of worlds that can be imperiled. Aprilynne Pike's Wings, for example, is mostly the story of the protagonist's discovery of her fairy heritage and a rather nasty run-in she has with some trolls. But the stakes go up with the revelation that she was placed in our world to guard a gateway to the fairy land that the trolls would dearly like to find and pull apart, petal by petal.

Put another way, in fantasy it's easier to extrapolate the personal threats to a broader population and thus raise the stakes. If Bad Guy can turn Hero into a warthog, what's to stop him from turning everyone else into warthogs?

I suspect this is so because a deep, common fantasy is that we are specially significant in the larger scheme of things. We tend to bring out that theme (often as the "child of destiny") because it's much harder to indulge that fantasy in the real world (which sometimes seems to go out of its way to prove otherwise).

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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