What Fantasy Stories Are Actually About, And Many People Don’t Notice

Since my previous post explaining some of the unique trappings of post-apocalyptic fiction went over so well, I thought I’d come back for round two to explain to you what one of the oldest forms of fiction is about. If you’ve been paying attention to my analysis over time, you’ll start to notice that there’s a common theme amongst my posts: People.

So, this is me, slapping the pen out of your hand before you sit down and say, “Oh man I’m going to write this story that has wizards and fairies and dragons and huge crazy magical explosions and dancing brooms because it’ll be COOOOOOOOOOOL!” Stop. Just STOP right there. If you don’t know WHY you’re writing it, you’re already doing it wrong, and I’m going to show you how to do it right.

Let’s start with the most common thing that we see in fantasy fiction: A medieval setting or even a little further back. It’s initially a little odd trying to figure out why we keep going back to an age long past, and it’s not because it’s fun. So, here’s your grand reveal:

This period of time is as far back as we can go and be JUST on this side of being feral, barbarian creatures. Don’t believe me? Let me ask you this, then: Outside of the hilarious movie Caveman, how much caveman fiction have you actually experienced? Not much, I’d be willing to reckon. Does this mean it doesn’t exist? No, but it does mean there’s not a whole lot of it!

If you think about and study the time period, you’ll notice that there are significantly less “rules” and “laws” among the people that tend to inhabit a fantasy world. It pretty much comes down to “Murder, and get murdered”, “Steal and we’ll fucking kill you”, and “Stay away from my horse or I’ll fucking kill you.” Things are looking pretty bad for you. Stepping on the wrong person’s toes could get you killed in a quick fashion.

Because there are fewer social rules, it’s far easier to expand on the different aspects of human nature and behavior in an observing method, simply because so much of it is NOT TABOO in this time frame. How many fantasy stories have you read where there are plenty of slaves around,  rape occurs probably more than once, or girls barely older than puberty age marrying some guy twenty to thirty years her senior? All of these things were considered AT THE TIME, PERFECTLY NORMAL AND SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIORS.  Let me know when you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, and we’ll continue.

Let’s move on to the next common theme of fantasy stories: The supernatural, the mystic, and the folk lore.

There are some pretty crazy cool monsters out there, but they’re NOT MONSTERS FOR THE SAKE OF BEING MONSTERS. They are manifest, personified representatives of the various aspects the human emotional spectrum as well as behavior. Tentacles, claws and more a monster do not make. What the monster DOES, is what makes the monster. Let me give you an unexpected example from modern day:

He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids, he kills their wives, he kills their parents and their parents' friends. He burns down the houses they live in and the stores they work in, he kills people that owe them money. And like that he was gone. Underground. Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. "Rat on your pop, and Keyser Soze will get you." ~Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects (1995)

A spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. Hrm… give him a couple of scary-ass horns, or hoofed feet, or just have him drink blood, and you’ve got yourself the modern day equivalent of a classic monster. The character of Keyser Soze represents two things in this fictional context: Wrath, and Brutality. Neither of these things are considered positive human traits. Creatures such as demons, trolls, ogres, orcs, and more fit exactly this stereotype and they have physical features that help to amplify the intent of  this behavior. Various poltergeists, ghosts, ghouls and more tend to represent unfulfilled earthly desires, eternal anguish,  and so forth. When you see the signs of representation, it’s hard NOT to notice them afterwards.

To give you a more crystal clear example of monsters in fantasy, let’s look at the one monster that almost everyone knows about in today’s day and age:

Gollum from Lord of the Rings literally represents the avarice and greed of people. The Ring drove him beyond the point of madness, turning him into something not even resembling a hobbit or even a person any longer as he lusted after it. Gollum became as ugly on the outside as Smeagol was on the INSIDE. He is the most extreme example of the effect of the Ring within the books.

Don’t feel bad though, there’s still plenty of good aspects represented in fantasy about people  through creatures also! Take fairies and sprites, for example. They tend to represent innocence, mischief, and/or purity. Other higher end supernatural “good” creatures show up, but did you ever notice that they don’t stay around for very long, but the monsters tend to stay for a LONG TIME? Because it is the same way internally for humans. We seem to focus on the ugly, messed up portions of our lives, and it always SEEMS like the good parts are just so fleeting and over far too quickly, with these creatures acting the same way. We almost always seem to be disappointed when they leave, too. However, the impact of a positive creature encounter in fantasy seems to last for far longer than an encounter with a dark creature.

The last two big things about fantasy actually are pretty simple to explain and are fairly straight-forward: Magic, and travel.

Magic merely represents a desire by man to exert control over things that he normally doesn’t have control over. Remember, back in that time period starting a fire wasn’t as simple as flicking a bic or turning the dial on a stove. It could sometimes take hours of work to build a sustainable fire. But in fantasy, characters with magic skills tend to just throw that stuff around willy nilly.

Travel in fantasy is even simpler; it is merely there to extend a story. After all, it would take months (and sometimes years) to cover the distances that we cover in hours or days today. Hell, I don’t need to tell you about the Donner Party Crossing and the problems that came along with that, and this was barely more than 150 years ago! Utilizing the unfortunate length of travel in a fantasy story gives you plenty of time for character development and side story…

But most just cheat and use teleportation powers. Why? I attribute it to laziness.

So, before you start getting an idea in your head of what you think is going to be a good convincing fantasy tale, you should stop and ask yourself WHY you are writing the things that you’re writing. Are you writing the different creatures and aspects of your story in as simple (and often times flawed) wish fulfillment, or is it rooted further in meaning and actual narrative?

So, before you ask, does this mean we’re writing a fantasy book? No. We’re writing FIVE of them. In fact, we’ve been working on the first book for over a year now. Will it rock your ass? Definitely. Maybe if you ask really, really, REALLY nicely, we might even tell you about it.

In the mean time, here’s a picture of Meg Mucklebones for no other reason than “That thing is fucking gross. COOOOOOL!


Nightmare Fuel.


    1. A good way to do that Magdalena, would be to back pedal to fantasy you’ve liked in the past, even if it means you have to go all the way back to childhood. Really sit down and examine it and find out what makes it appeal to you, and then use that as your springboard into newer material.

      I’ll be frank and honest, I can’t stand most fantasy written today because they’ve basically missed the points I outlined above. So I guess I better finish that book!

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