Creating fantasy worlds can be an excellent means for social critique because writers have the opportunity to imagine worlds that are entirely different from our own. This allows highlighting its quirks and issues through contrast and similarity. Here’s why it is important for writers to do so and how you can address issues you care about without resorting to ineffective polemic:
How to use writing fantasy for social critique: Don’t preach
In 2014, fantasy and science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin received a National Book Foundation award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In her acceptance speech, Le Guin warned that “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” Furthermore, Le Guin pointed out, “resistance and change often begin in art.”
Writers who, like Le Guin, see creating fantasy worlds as a means to address the issues that concern them have the choice of either creating a different type of world in order to examine those issues, or of creating a fantasy world in which those issues are present (and even amplified). The challenge is to approach those issues thoughtfully while still keeping the story in focus. People don’t generally pick up novels in hopes of being preached to, and preaching in fiction tends to only draw in the converted anyway. However, many writers are successfully integrating real-world issues with fantasy as the examples below demonstrate:
Some fantasy novelists set out to address issues such as racial justice. Many commercial fantasy novels written in English traditionally tend to have mostly white characters, and some novelists have used the milieu to challenge ideas about race by creating fantasy worlds in which most or all characters are not white. Le Guin did so herself in her Earthsea series of novels. More recently, as fantasy writers writing in English increasingly come from more diverse backgrounds, writers such as Nalo Hopkinson, Sofia Samatar and Saladin Ahmed have moved the genre away from the clichéd pre-industrial, vaguely medieval, northern-European influenced fantasy world and populated their worlds with diverse characters. Simply through setting and characters, writers like these have initiated challenges to the status quo.
Talking about gender in fantasy fiction
Fantasy novelists have also used the genre to question gender assumptions. This is the case in novels such as Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series, in which genders have completely equal position, or the Children of the Triad series by Laurie J. Marks, in which the concept of gender is fluid. Some novels that question gender assumptions are not specifically about gender issues, but for readers, they may widen the scope of what they imagine is possible despite popular ideas about gender. Some fantasy writers have chosen to bring feminist issues more to the forefront in their fiction. Fantasy writers who deal explicitly with feminism include Elizabeth Bear in her Eternal Sky trilogy and Kameron Hurley in her Mirror Empire series.
Creating fantasy worlds that imagine other political possibilities
Fantasy novelists have used the genre to tackle other major issues. Across the political spectrum, fantasy writers have used the opportunity to build a new society from the ground up to experiment with different types of political systems and examine the pros and cons of those systems. Steampunk is a fantasy and sci-fi hybrid subgenre that has been accused of upholding the status quo by romanticising a Victorian era when class differences were rife, poor people suffered greatly and colonialism was rampant. However, increasingly, more writers are beginning to write steampunk that challenge those elements of 19th century history or that are set in non-Western societies or in other eras.
Some fantasy writers make particular plot choices rooted in their political beliefs. For example, while the trope of the character in fantasy who has been chosen for a great destiny or who is of royal blood without knowing it is so popular it has become a cliché, some writers also avoid it because of the possible interpretation that some people are inherently born ‘better’ than others. You might consider other common fantasy conventions and whether those conventions fit your personal values and beliefs and whether you wish to challenge them. While the traditional fantasy world is often a monarchy or a sort of feudal system, fantasy writers can also challenge these types of systems and the assumptions that underlie them.
Social critique in fantasy writing: Terry Pratchett
A novelist who is particularly well-known for his satirical fantasy novels and the ways in which he used fantasy to comment on the real world is Terry Pratchett. Unlike novelists who have used the fantasy genre to envision entirely new worlds, Pratchett’s characters behave very much like characters in the world we are familiar with. He used tools like satire and parody to comment on everything from religion to bureaucracy to finance to human behaviour in general and more. By transferring those familiar institutions and actions to a fantasy land, Pratchett highlights their inherent absurdity. Pratchett also tackled gender issues and misogyny in his fiction with works like Monstrous Regiment. In this novel, Pratchett took a tale of a woman disguising herself as a man in order to join the military and used it to highlight stereotypes and assumptions about both men and women. A similar premise was the central story idea for Tamora Pierce’s popular Alanna series, about a girl destined to become a magician due to her gender who disguises herself as a boy so that she can become a knight instead.
Critique and entertainment: Striking a balance
One of the biggest challenges in writing a fantasy novel that critiques society is balancing entertainment with addressing social issues. Here are some things to consider when creating fantasy worlds that explore issues dear to you:
- One decision to make is how explicitly the issue will be dealt with. For example, if you are concerned about the environment you might choose to set your fantasy novel in a world where environmental degradation has taken place. This is a more overt approach to looking at an environmental issue. On the other hand, you might choose a more metaphorical approach. For example, some critics feel that in The Lord of the Rings, Mordor represented the industrialisation of England.
- One way to avoid being preachy is to present an issue from all sides. A writer does not have to agree with a point of view in order to be able to present it fairly and empathise with it. For example, you may be a staunch environmentalist and this may be the issue that you wish unravel in your novel. However, the novel will seem more well-rounded if you acknowledge ways in which the issue might be more complex. For example, one character might oppose efforts to protect the environment despite the clear benefit of doing so because it is the only type of work that character can get to feed their family. Another character might genuinely think it is in the best interest of the fantasy world to continue the activities causing the degradation. This doesn’t mean that the novel can’t have bad guys, but having characters who are along a continuum of ideas about the issue is a more subtle and effective way of slipping in a message about the choices people make and the many complex factors that motivate ethical and unethical choices.
- Avoid having one character act as your mouthpiece. Most stories have a viewpoint character or characters with whom the audience most identifies or has sympathy for, but those characters should not simply serve to preach the writer’s message to readers. Using multiple characters to tease out your message is likely to be more powerful.
- Avoid muddling the message. For example, if you set out to demonstrate that misogyny is wrong and women are as capable as men, the book should not be peppered with female characters who constantly need to be rescued. Often message is more subtle than this blatant example, and having beta readers and critiquers specifically look out for ways you might unintentionally contradict your own desired message could be wise.
While fantasy is traditionally viewed as an escapist genre, it is also an excellent genre for looking at social and political issues. Among other things, it can destabilise an audience’s ideas about how things should be, it can use metaphor and allegory to tackle real-life issues, and it can imagine a world from the ground up in which poverty, racism or sexism has been eliminated and see what that world can look like.
Alternately, a fantasy novelist can take real-world problems to their extremes and show a society devastated by forces such as environmental shortsightedness or one in which class issues or racism are rampant and destructive. Furthermore, fantasy writers can take settings or subgenres such as fantasies set in traditional feudal societies or steampunk and question the assumptions of those settings and subgenres. Fantasy also leaves room for parody and satire such as in the works of Terry Pratchett, and humour can be an excellent way to tackle issues and show readers a differing perspective. However, it is important to avoid preaching to the reader. Take a subtle approach to the message of the book. This is crucial for creating fantasy worlds that have all the nuance of our own.
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