Defining Fantasy Fiction

Currently I’m going to SFSU for my MA in English w/creative writing, with the intention of not only becoming a better writer, but to become a great teacher! One class that I’m taking to is Teaching Creative Writing, which is probably one of the bet classes I’ve taken. Essentially you’re creating a syllabus for a creative writing class or workshop, and my teacher has been extremely flexible with what kind of class we created. Naturally, I created a class that is basically an Introduction to Fantasy Writing class.

In Teaching Creative Writing, we have a 5, 10, 15, and a 20 minute presentation on the different elements or processes of craft we want to teach. Yesterday was my 20 minute presentation in which I attempted to define fantasy fiction.

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Pictured: Myself prepping for this presentation

Luckily most of my classmates don’t know a lot about fantasy (making them perfect guinea pigs for this presentation) but had some experience with speculative fiction, and one classmate is as knee-deep in fantasy fiction as I am. Before I handed out my handouts, I had asked my classmates to think of an adjective to describe fantasy. After I wrote down “the fantastic,” “portal fantasy,” “immersive fantasy,” “intrusive fantasy,” and “estranged fantasy,” I went down my list of classmates and received a wide variety of adjectives describing fantasy (from “Justin Trudeau” to “silly”). This was a perfect segue to hand out my handouts:

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I talked about the aspect of the fantastic and how Farah Mendlesohn’s essay attempted a taxonomy of fantasy by creating four categories of how the fantastic is incorporated within the story. My main goal was to show why the fantastic element is important in fantasy stories, and that if that fantastic is taken away, the story can either change dramatically or just completely fall apart. This is where William Joyce’s Jack Frost came in handy.Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 4.21.51 PM.png

Spoilers for Jack Frost, btw.

For those who haven’t read the story, Nightlight is a “creature of light” who is sworn to protect the Man in the Moon (MiM). He saves MiM from Pitch, but falls to Earth and is frozen in a comatose state long enough for him to forget his previous life. When he awakes, he’s now changed into Jack Frost, but is lonely and purposeless. MiM helps Jack by helping him remember who he use to be. Jack remembers his oath to protect MiM, but now amends it to protect the children of Earth, and is much happier with renewed purpose.

First, I related his story to the four categories. Jack Frost could be interpreted as a portal fantasy because our protagonist Nightlight falls from the world of the fantastic and into our reality, but it could also be interpreted as an intrusive fantasy because his magic, the magic of the Man in the Moon, and Pitch have also intruded on our reality.

Second, I made sure to point out how the texts guides the story while the art takes Jack’s internal feelings and makes them external. For example, let’s take a look at one of my favorite and most heartbreaking pages in the book:IMG_2667.JPG

Jack is tiny and sitting next to a dead tree, staring out into the nothing of snow blindness. The story guides us by telling us that Jack’s name is now Jack, but the pictures really emphasis Jack’s loneliness and possibly depression (or I could be projecting since this story feels like a fantastical version my life in the past five years):

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Pictured: the Giddy Owl after she finished her BA with high honors.

Thirdly, I explained how the fantastic is necessary for this story about losing one’s purpose, wandering, and regaining that purpose. I feel I didn’t explain myself as clearly as I could have, but I do recall saying that what fantasy does is separate the reader from the problem, and because of that the reader is able to look at the problem differently than they may have done if the story was told straight naturalistically. Here we can see our protagonist physically change from his old life Nighlight to his new life Jack Frost, see his emotions being illustrated by how snowy everything, and most importantly, see how he keeps his purpose once he remembers it, but he changes it to fit his new life.

Anyway, once I finished my presentation, I received feedback and answered questions with my classmates that I’m just going to summarize here. Here’s the crux of the matter with defining fantasy: it’s essentially undefinable and can be applicable to just about anything and everything. In a classroom setting I can apply rules and categories to give students structure and focus to create effective and engaging fantasy. However, attempting to define or even categorize the fantasy genre can lead to generalizations like all magical realism stories would fall under estranged fantasy or portal fantasies are quest stories. Another issue with defining fantasy is that ultimately, the author decides how they want their story to be identified. With my experience in academia, there is still a lot of negative stigma against the term “fantasy” (which I have personally experienced) but not so much with “magical realism” (and that…that is a whole ‘nother rant).

All around though, my classmates and teacher really enjoyed the lesson. My teacher suggested that the four categories would be really great for writing exercises, and I completely agree! I was also told that even though the categories ran the risk of generalizing, they really are a great way to think about how fantasy works and why it is the way it is. So over all a great success, and now I’ve got a syllabus to work on!

Special thanks to William Joyce. Your books make for great presentations!

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