When people think of Fantasy, usually the first thing that comes to mind are swords and sorcery, dragons, monsters, evil empires – you know the usual. In fact, pick up most RPG game set in a Fantasy world pretty rely on this trope to build their story and characters. But here is a question that I’d like to put forward to you all – can Fantasy deal with real life issues? Can you have a story that deals with problems like, for example, family problems? Lost love? Lack of direction in life? Or maybe just something basic like trying to fit in with the in crowd?
I believe that the best Fantasy stories aren’t loved because of how fantastical and magical they are (although that does play a part) but how BELIEVEABLE they are in terms of their story and characters, because it helps us relate to the characters much easier if they go through the same problems as we all do.
In actual fact, Fantasy has included a lot of real-life issues in it over the years if you look carefully at them. Take the Harry Potter series for instance. That intercuts the idea of magic and mixes it with the idea of going through school life, and the stresses and challenges it can present. Though I’m not a fan of Harry Potter, I must concede that this is a brilliant idea and one that a lot of children can relate to – the magic element just adds a whiff of imagination and the Voldermort story serves as the main challenge Harry must overcome.
Another example of real life issues in a Fantasy context is the Spider-Man movies/comics. That is a coming of age story about a teenager (who is by all accounts a loner and very unpopular) who learns about power and responsibility. But even though he has great abilities that can help him fight villains, he still has his own problems to deal with – also adding to the fact that some people hate Spider-Man, despite the good he does, it’s a real life lesson and shows the reader that sometimes you have to make tough choices for the greater good. And when you add into the mix the amount of people who have died thanks to Spider-Man (Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborne to name a few), the pressures of life can really get to Peter Parker, making for a rather depressing story on occasions!
I personally love it when a story (Fantasy, Sci-Fi or otherwise) puts in real drama into the piece and makes the characters more than just the usual archetypes. So many Fantasy stories I’ve read just seem to go with traditional tropes and go with the idea that the characters should only perform their duty within the plot. But by adding in real issues and needs that the everyday human has can certainly do it’s bit to help the audience appreciate and support your characters. I always try and add in some real issues to my Draconica novels and usually my books have an underlining theme to them that is relative to the real world. Trapped on Draconica had an underlining theme of friendship and that no one was above redemption. In future books, I intend to focus on the theme of family and the bond between mother and child – and in a future book it will be a kind of social commentary on the effects of war on the families of the soldiers fighting for it.
I’m not saying that stories have to necessarily be “Authors Tracts” (which TV Tropes list as basically an author using a story to put their own belief systems across rather than tell a story), but taking inspiration from real world issues can be a powerful writing tool and give your story a more accessible hook and will entice your readers in. This will help them accept the characters as they are and even become emotionally invested in them. As such, they will suffer the same pains as them and revel in the same joys that they do.
A couple more examples I’d like to use to show that Fantasy can be used for real life stories. In Lord of the Rings, the best character is (in my opinion) Sméagol/Gollum. Corrupted by the ring, he is as treacherous as they come, but he is also so sad and tragic a character that we both hate and feel sorry for him at the same time. Gollum can be considered a metaphor for drug abuse, in the sense that he needs “the precious” ring in order to be happy, but at the same time he wants to do good, but keeps slipping into his wicked ways. His character is a mixture of humour, treachery and heart wrenching sadness – all perfectly captured by Andy Serkis in the films. The Hobbit film’s best scene by far is when Bilbo meets Gollum for the first time and I actually remember a few in the audience being moved to tears by the performance. Much like a drug user, he isn’t a bad person per say, but he is forced to do bad things due to his desire to be with the thing he needs the most. He’s not a villain in my eyes, but a victim.
One final example I want to use is Robert Baratheon from the A Song of Fire and Ice novels and the Game of Thrones TV series. I actually find Robert Baratheon one of the most interesting and tragic characters in the book that I wish could have got more mileage in the story in some way. Robert is king of the Seven Kingdoms and is generally a good king (despite making some poor choices), but is quite a tragic character that has let himself go considerably. In his youth, he was a strong, handsome man that had a great sense of humour and a knack for battle – but in recent years he has become fat and lazy, often doing little more than eating, getting drunk and screwing women. But behind all this is a sad, tragic man that is still pining for his lost love, the sister of Ned Stark whom he loved from afar and lost during the rebellion that won him the throne. Though he defeated the Mad King and brought peace to the land, he is forever haunted by the fact that he can never been with the woman he loved. It’s a good character trait in the sense that he has to deal with his own problems – whilst at the same time dealing with the stress of running the kingdoms.
So, in answer to my earlier questions, yes I do believe that Fantasy can deal with real issues beyond the usual “good and evil” trope and can help create interesting and believable characters for the reasons I’ve listed above. If you need further proof, check out the writings of Mysti Parker – she writes a lot of stuff in a Fantasy setting, but the characters still have real life needs and desires. She has a couple of books out already so be sure to check them out.
Hope you enjoyed reading this, please feel free to leave a comment below if you agreed or disagreed with me; or if you have any other examples I might have missed.