The fantasy fiction chicken and egg question?

fantasy-books2In the UK there have been an interesting series of programs (on the BBC) by Andrew Marr looking in-depth at why we love reading fiction.  The first program concerned the genre of detective stories and the second Fantasy (I haven’t watched the third yet).  Now, as a science fiction writer I found the discussion on fantasy the most interesting as, in many ways, much of it could apply to sci-fi as well.  There was some talk about the escapism etc. and that so much of fantasy is set in almost an alternative middle ages (obviously does not apply to sci-fi), usually with magic added in, in some form or other.  This to me was all pretty standard.  However, what I found most interesting was the concept of deeper meanings in fantasy fiction.

So, this is where I raise the chicken and egg question concerning fantasy and to some extent science fiction.  Let me explain.  First, much of fantasy is about the fight between good and evil.  So naturally there are parallels drawn between fantasy writing and our religious beliefs.  And there are a number of works we look at as being allegorical e.g.  Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, the Narnia books, where Aslan is a Jesus parallel and of course Lord of the rings.  The question for me is which comes first the story or the “deeper meaning”.  Was the intention to discuss these issues in the story from the beginning?  Or do the stories naturally push these issues as they evolve?  Where you have magic, good and evil and supernatural beings then I might argue these parallels are almost inevitable.  After all, in any good story you need conflict and what bigger conflict is there?

There was also much discussion around Game of Thrones.  That this is a story that parallels what’s happening in the world today.  You have the breakdown of societies, the corruption of power, the desire of the powerful to hang on to power whatever the cost, people rising up against the established order etc. etc.  “Winter is coming” becomes the ultimate threat if we don’t deal with the problems of the world.  The question again is how much of this is intentional/deliberate?  Are we in danger over analysing?  Now any writer myself included is influenced by, and so draw on, the world around them.  We must be.  However, I suspect that in the beginning George R.R. Martin was trying to write a damned good story.  Then given the world and characters he was creating the conflicts and “parallels” arose as a consequence of that, rather than those being the reason.

corfeI can find a number of similar cases in my own books.  For example in my latest publication, ‘Bleak – The story of a shapeshifter’.  In a number of comments I’ve received, people enjoyed the inner conflict of the main character, Bleak and his (and I suppose his society’s) issues with what it is to be human.  This is something that I believe will be a major issue in the future as the lines between humans and machines are blurred and the rise of artificial intelligence.  Now in Bleak’s case, without giving too much away he is a “creation”.  He feels himself to be human (even if he questions it), however, officialdom doesn’t see him that way.  In some ways this parallels (in an extreme sense) how in society we treat disabilities or anyone else that in some way doesn’t fit in.  Now, I didn’t set out for these issues to be a major theme of the book.  It was something that grew out of the character I created.  If I was to be true to that character, if he wasn’t to be left as some two-dimensional sketch of a character, these were, I felt, issues he would have to confront.  These were the basis for his flaws and personal inner conflict.

So, there you have it my “chicken and egg” for fantasy and science fiction.  How much is intentional and how much are we in danger of over analysing and post rationalising?  Was this the writer’s main motivation for writing the book or did it grow out of wanting to write the best possible story?  Or perhaps, as I suspect, in some cases at least, it’s a mixture of both.

As always comments are welcome.

Ian Martyn

If you wish to read more of Bleak’s conflict you can find my book, Bleak the story of a shapeshifter, on Amazon http://smarturl.it/Bleak

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

10 thoughts on “The fantasy fiction chicken and egg question?”

  1. An interesting thought. I think that most fantasy begins with a desire to write a good story, and a general structure, and the good/evil and other conflicts arise as a consequence, rather than aiming to investigate a particular theme. That is certainly true of the authors you quote to an extent. However the general structure of some fantasy fiction is embedded in a pre-existing mythology or concept, such as the Nordic myths that are so apparent in much of LOTR. If you populate a novel with elves and orcs, then the story will follow a certain pattern, evil elves and benign orcs, though theyexist make for a confusing story. However as youhave suggested in your first book, it is possible to turn aconcept on its head with malificent fairies (but are they not always somewhat equivocal?). There are some authors who start from a theme and explore it intentionally, and the most obvious of these is Terry Pratchett and the Discworld novels. Science fiction in contrast, I think, may start from a concept which is grounded in reality or future reality, and therefore is constrained by this. Perhaps, as you say, all science and fantasy fiction is a mixture of the two approaches. Fangorn aka John Horton.

    1. John, thanks and good to hear from you. I don’t know if you watched the Andrew Marr programs? As for fairies as you say, certainly in Irish folklore they are the ‘Fae’ people and generally not very nice. Raymond Feiste wrote a great book ‘Fairie Tale’ which also shows them in a less than good light.

  2. I think I agree with you, Ian. For me, I just outline the basics – main characters, a few minor characters and the plot of the story. After that, my characters begin to tell their own stories – inner conflicts, outer conflicts, and hopeful resolutions, etc. Great post, btw 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the post. I’m sure some authors start out wanting to make a point or comment. However, first and foremost I’m trying to tell a good story.

  3. Great question, and definitely one with a variety of answers.
    For my first fantasy novel, I was simply trying to make it the most engaging story I could muster, and the ‘good vs evil’ theme that has developed really came out of my characters, and their development. It’s hard to write an evil character and still engage readers, so I think most of us write a character struggling for some sort of ‘good’ outcome.
    When I started writing urban fantasy, now with some experience under my belt, I set out to deliberately highlight current environmental issues, picking a different topic for each novel. They are still action adventure with complex characters, but (without hammering it over the reader’s head) at the heart of each struggle is a clear theme. I’m enjoying writing these immensely, as environment and ecology are issues I am passionate about, and being able to highlight them in a manner that (hopefully) goes into the reader’s subconscious, is rewarding.
    As to SF, my stories begin with either a technology or a culture as the starting point. Having said that, I still think the outcome is, at one level, good vs evil as WE see it. Perhaps a truly alien culture would see it differently?
    I’m going to check and see if the Andrew Marr series is still around on iplayer – what is it called?
    In a similar vein to your Bleak character, I’m avidly watching the Channel 4 series ‘Humans’, currently testing out the scenario of when should an AI start being treated as a conscious being.

    1. Thanks as always for the thoughtful comment. One thing we can do in scifi and fantasy is explore some of the outcomes of what we are doing to the world (and often in more extreme ways). I do this to some extent in Project Noah i.e. the reason for the project is the projected failure of civilisation. The Andrew Marr is a series of three programs: Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers, Andrew Marr’s paperback heroes

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