What Can Fantasy Teach Me About Reality?

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Who doesn’t love a good story?

Fiction is an indispensable part of the human experience. Without it, the world would be a dreary place. Imagination is essential for one’s sanity and happiness. But we always go into fiction with the understanding that what we’re experiencing isn’t real. Though we choose to suspend disbelief, there’s always that part of our brain that maintains the distinction between reality and fantasy. A vast unbridgeable chasm exists between the two: one is real, the other is not.

You might reasonably ask yourself, “what can fantasy teach me about reality?”

Fantasy teaches us about real people.

Though fictional characters are spun from the thread of dreams, their underlying natures are based on real people. Authors must always draw from a massive catalog of real-life experience; if what they want to write about can’t be found within its pages, it must be labeled as unbelievable and cast aside.

Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity. It offers lessons from three unique angles:

  1. We learn about the characters. We’re privy to their thoughts, we observe their actions and we witness the ways in which they relate to others.
  2. We learn about the author. The way a storyteller’s characters think and act is a reflection of the storyteller himself. They can teach us about his cultural heritage, his upbringing, his prejudices, his interests, even how he might have gotten along with others. An artist’s creation is as much an expression of the artist as it is of the art itself.
  3. We learn about ourselves. Given that a realistic fictional character is based on authentic human nature, and that we are in fact real people, it stands to reason that we would find ourselves at least partially reflected in their image. We experience bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters we encounter, and we have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. As a result, we discover more of who we are.

Fantasy teaches us to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary.

All good fiction no matter how whimsical is rooted in reality, because we can only relate to something that aligns with our understanding of the universe and how it works. There might be magic, but that magic is always governed by rules, and the basic laws of nature, though extended, always remain backward-compatible with our own. People don’t walk through walls or breathe under water unless they possess special powers, and in such cases they are the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, we take reality for granted. Because it’s something we interact with every day, because it’s no longer new as it once was when we were children, we disregard it. Thankfully, fantasy reorients our perspective.

Free from that thin veneer of mundanity that ordinarily coats the surface of reality, we’re involuntarily struck by the raw beauty we encounter in the world of our dreams. We take these experiences with us and assimilate them into who we are. Gradually, we become accustomed to seeing things through the lens of childlike awe. Eventually, without ever realizing what’s happened, we rediscover the extraordinary that lies hidden just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

We become sensitive to the great emotional epics that play out within the confines of real relationships. Our hearts are smitten by the jaw-dropping beauty that manifests itself in real landscapes. We become aware of the magic that’s existed all along, operating under the name of Science. We become sensitive to a hidden splendor that’s always been accessible to us, but was until recently outside our once narrowed field of vision. Imagination is like a mirror: the mystery and wonder we encounter in fantasy is reflected back onto our perception of the world, flooding it with new light so that we can see the world anew.

Fantasy teaches us to accept difficult truths.

There are uncomfortable realities we prefer not to think about. We’re faced daily with poverty, hunger, war, mental illness, even the evil within ourselves. Life is much easier when we allow ourselves to forget that the world is a dark place. As a result, we erect mental walls when sensitive topics are broached. Our eyes glaze over and we assume the mental stance of a three year old, covering his ears and singing “la, la, la…”

Reading fiction is one way to become more receptive. Because stories aren’t real (at least on the surface), we have a much greater tolerance for controversial ideas. We open the gates and we allow the author’s beliefs to make a home inside our hearts.

Because good fiction is grounded in reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to apply these beliefs alongside our own. Like Inception, the ideas communicated through stories bubble up into our conscious minds as if they were our own. In this regard, artists wield a very real and profound power over the rest world, and therefore have a grave moral obligation to always tell the truth.

Fantasy teaches us how to approach and solve real problems.

Simply put, fantasy makes us better problem solvers. We observe how different kinds of characters respond to adversity, learn from them and apply what we learned to our own problems. Fantasy teaches us to be creative, to think “outside the box,” to be more adaptable.

Neil Gaiman cites an interesting example. In an article for The Guardian called Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, he writes:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Conclusion: Fantasy is reality remixed.

Fantasy is only fictional on the surface. Humans may be capable of imagining things outside their immediate scope of experience, but they can only do so by forging new connections between existing ideas. Like so many songs on the market today, stories are nothing more than reality remixed.

If it’s not real, it won’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t connect with what we’re reading. And if we don’t connect with what we’re reading, we’re going to get frustrated and put the book aside.

In order to concoct convincing tales, authors must resort to unabashedly plagiarizing reality, and in the end all they can do in their never-ending quest for originality is to hope and pray that they were clever enough not to get caught.

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Why I Write

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Why do I write?

Writing isn’t easy, especially for those of us who work full-time in a completely unrelated field. You come home from work exhausted. Those very rare moments of explosive inspiration aside, you have to force yourself to sit down and work some more, when all your body really wants to do is eat and go to sleep. You have to face the demons of self-doubt, which hover over your shoulder in the darkness, whispering that you’re not good enough, that you’re a hack, that today is the day everyone will discover you’re a fraud. You have to recognize that you will fail, and you have to do it anyway.

You then have to be brave enough to confront the crap you wrote the next day. You have to take this rough source material, this hunk of dark grey clay forged from the jumbled stilted dreams of the insubstantial mind, and mold it into something half-way decent. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After the number of revisions rivals even the number of stars in the galaxy, you have to break out of your shell and share your work with others. You have to not only accept but embrace rejection. You have to allow your heart to be broken, and then you have to pick up the pieces and try again. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

If you intend to publish, your not even close to finished. If you go the traditional route, you still have to send out hundreds of query letters to agents, be rejected over and over again, and hope that at least one will take an interest in your work. And whether you go through traditional channels or self-publish, if your book is to have a prayer of succeeding, you’ll still have to hand your work off to an editor, who will point out all the many things that are wrong that you didn’t catch in the first bazillion and one revisions. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After all this, there’s nevertheless the very real possibility that nobody will want to read what you spent months or years writing. Bookstore shelves are littered with books that will never be purchased, books which will be returned to the publisher for a refund, books written by authors who will never have an opportunity to publish again. The Amazon Kindle store is bursting at the seams with self-published titles that will all suffer a similar fate. And if your books do sell, they likely won’t make anywhere near enough to financially justify all the blood, sweat and tears that went into your writing.

Why would anyone subject themselves to such a torturous and thankless routine? I can’t answer for all writers, but I can answer for myself.

I write because that’s who I am.

It doesn’t matter if I have an audience of one million, one thousand, one hundred, one or even zero. I write for my Creator, the author of the cosmos, because it’s what he called me to do. I in turn write for myself, because it’s my purpose, because composing new stories is what fulfills me as a human person. I feel compelled to write, even when it hurts, when I’m busy, depressed or lacking inspiration. It’s built into my DNA. It’s written indelibly upon the mandates of my soul.

I write because it’s in our own pale and imperfect reflections of the universe that we come to know and love the universe itself.

I write because beauty is important to me. I know that nothing I create will ever be perfect, but I strive for perfection anyway.

I write because I’m haunted when I don’t. The days I spend away from my notebooks and computer are days that I feel anxious and restless. Ideas back up in my mind like a clogged up sink, and their continually increasing weight begins to burn my soul like wild fire. I eventually have no choice but to huddle up in the dark after hours and yield to this all-consuming force.

I write because I have a passion for creating things. I liken the difficulties encountered when crafting a new tale to the pangs of childbirth. When the pushing is over, when you’re finally laying down in bed exhausted, sweat beading on your forehead, when the challenge of giving birth to an idea is finally over, you can at last gaze upon the child of your mind with stupid giddy love and wonder. It doesn’t matter that your child isn’t perfect, because the child is yours and you love it anyway.

In short, I write because I’m a writer. In the end, that’s the only reason that should matter.

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Friday Freewrite

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What’s Friday Freewrite? Find out here.

Climbing. Searching. Always seeking, never reaching. I lift my eyes, wretched creature that I am1, shielding my vision lest my eyes be blinded by the searing fire of distant perfection.

I’m nothing but chaffe2. I’m nothing but ore; gold riddles my innards, but only sparsely.

Yet, let me be smelted. Let me burn in your fire, so that I may be pure, so that what is gold is3 within me may sparkle and shine with the radiance I have longed so much to see.

Footnotes

1. At the time I wrote this, I was waiting inside a church to go to confession.

2. Should be spelled chaff.

3. Even though I’m not supposed to pay attention to structure while I’m freewriting, when I have a very concrete idea in my head that I want to flesh out, I do usually briefly backtrack to make tiny corrections that would otherwise obscure the meaning of what’s trying to come out of my head.

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