Sunday, 30 September 2012

Fantasy entities other than dragons, fairies, kings and queens

At a recent speculative fiction convention, a panel of fantasy writers discussed the topic of other fantasy entities:

Done with dragons? Fed up with fairies? What’s next. Three authors who’ve seen it all before talk about the other possibilities for fantasy creatures.

Lily Mulholland, an ACT writer of short stories which have appeared in local and international anthologies, one of the panellists, made a very interesting observation that applies to young adult fiction, however, at 4.30 in the afternoon of Day Two of a cram packed convention, I’d lost my train of thought and couldn’t get the observation that I wanted to express out of my head correctly.

Lily's point was that short stories need to be succinct due to the restrictions in word count. She can’t waste 500 words describing a creature or a plant if it isn’t the central point of the story, so one method she uses to tell fantasy stories is to draw on entities that the reader is already familiar with. This is also possibly the methodology behind the  done to death’ titles that line many bookshelves. When one entity works, the readers makes themselves familiar with that entity, thus writers are free to tell stories on a subconscious level.

This is especially true of young adult fiction. When you look at the list of fantasy creatures provided to the panel as topic points, dragons, fairies, kings and queens are very much junior fiction entities. Young adult authors use entities their readers are already familiar because we generally need to weave a lesson amongst our work, and this lesson needs to be ‘the lesson that doesn’t look like a lesson’. Teenagers can sniff an ulterior motive a mile away. The way I weave a lesson through the story is to use a familiar entity (I used guardian angels in The Bird With The Broken Wing, and ghostly possession in Feedback) so that the load on the subconscious is lightened. This doesn't mean that the story is dumbed down, but the human brain best handles one task at a time.

By using familiar entities in young adult fiction, readers are able to pick up the thread of the lesson because the subconscious brain doesn’t spend precious time learning the rules of new and fantastical entities. In adult fiction, lessons aren't always necessary so fantasy writers can freely create strange worlds and characters that awe their readers. Perhaps the need for children and young adult writers to rely on familiar fantasy creatures is the reason that adult fantasy writers need to create the un-familiar. An analogy might be that the difference between a pony and a horse is the difference between a YA fiction writer and an adult fiction writer.

Many writers will pick apart Twilight, but you’ve got to remember that the intended audience was teenagers, not adults. Yes, vampires might be ‘done to death’ excuse the pun, but the reason they feature in a lot of YA fiction is because they are familiar. Perhaps this is the reason publishers can't confirm yet if vampires will vanish back into the crevices of darkness they crawled out of.

Generally, the entities in YA fiction need to look and act like humans because children are transitioning into adult, not into aliens. And if we do feature alien entities, then our aliens tend to have human traits. These alien entities still need to be able to explore the dark and light side of teenagers such as loneliness, isolation, bullying, rebellion, so writers can connect with our reader. That is first and foremost the job of a writer – connect with the reader.


  1. "That is first and foremost the job of a writer – connect with the reader."

    Exactly! Wow, I could saved myself a lot of words on Sunday :) What I should have also said, and perhaps didn't, is that there are a lot of books out there *about* dragons or other mythical creatures that don't have any subtext - they're just a rollicking good read about dragons. While I have nothing against this, I have read hundreds of short stories that don't say anything about the human condition and they don't stay with me. The ones that have a subtext are the ones that last in my imagination. This is what I am trying to do with my writing (although not always succeeding!!).

  2. Second last panel after two did a great job of getting the message across to me. Your two points resonated with me. 1) the story determined the entity; and 2) connect with the reader. I'm thankful for you for stating this, otherwise I may have gotten off track and not drilled down inside my head as to why vampires are so prevalent in YA fiction. And it's because of the 2 points you made.