By Jodi Forster.
Let’s be honest, fantasy is cool. Whether you’re building a complex “other” world, or just sprinkling some magic into an everyday conflict, there’s a great appeal in exploring a reality beyond our own. However, writing fantasy can be a struggle, and there are some unique challenges that the genre represents. Here is a rundown of some of those challenges and how to deal with them.
Cardboard Characters in a Magical World
One of the greatest appeals of writing Fantasy is creating magical worlds. However, careful thought must also be put into characters. It’s easy to get caught up in the wonders of magic systems and neglect character growth. A good rule of thumb is to consider how the characters interact with the fantastical elements of a story. Are they changing as a result of their exposure to them? What do they think of the different magical things they encounter?
In Lord of the Rings, the main theme of the story (true heroes come from surprising places) is worked out in both character arcs and the main magical device. The Ring sorts the “Boromirs” from the “Sams” and acts as a catalyst in all the main character arcs. In Coraline, the magical element forces the protagonist to change. Coraline’s dissatisfaction with her life is directly challenged when she gets everything she wants only to realize it’s a nightmare. In both cases, the magic justifies its presence by directly affecting the main characters, its nature reflecting the themes of the story.
Using ‘Magic’ Effectively
Magic is a staple of fantasy films, but what should it look like? There are many ways to approach magic. Some stories treat it as mysterious and fluid, while others have concrete rules for usage. Here are two guidelines to keep in mind when utilizing magic.
1) Ponder how your particular kind of magic complements the story being told.
2) Avoiding the ‘a wizard did it’ explanation for important plot points, especially the climax.
In both of these films, the villain is defeated and the day is saved by a magical rule set up earlier in the story. Additionally, both films set up the general rules of their magic systems early and clearly, making it easy to follow the magical elements of the rising action and the climax.
Reality Reflected in Fantasy
While Fantasy can just be fluffy fun, it’s at its best when used to explore real-world problems in a different context. This allows the audience to connect easier with the conflict and the mythological world in which it takes place. Moreover, engaging with reality in this way enables the writer, should they wish to, to communicate difficult messages in a way that isn’t alienating to the audience. Fantasy frequently explores issues such as prejudice, environmentalism, economics, and redemption, and the best magical stories accomplish this with great subtlety.
These two examples explore this concept in different ways. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the action takes place during a specific historical event, the Francoist dictatorship in Spain. It features direct commentary on this event in the midst of the fantasy, and the two complement each other. In Edward Scissorhands, Edward’s fantastical hands act as a metaphor for being an outsider, and the different ways society reacts to him, reflect the different ways society reacts to outsiders in real life.
Fantasy is a unique and powerful genre, and some truly great films have come out of it. Even though it has some easy to fall into traps, it’s a genre worth exploring. These guidelines are just that, guidelines to consider while writing to improve a work. There’s plenty of flexibility in the world of fantasy between them, to wander, to challenge, and to grow.