The most beguiling promise of fantasy fiction is that of self-knowledge. At some point the protagonist discovers, with the force of a calling from God, that he is no mere mortal, but a wizard, a dragonslayer, a king. It is an irresistible idea for adolescents particularly, who are in the midst of discovering themselves and trying on different identities. How much easier everything would be if the choice were essentially made for you! And how amazing it would be to find that you were, as you might have secretly hoped, special, that you could speak to animals or move objects with your mind. It puts the “fantasy” in fantasy, and is one reason this genre is often associated with young adult fiction.
That certainly describes my own early experience with fantasy and science fiction. When I was a kid I wanted to be as cool as Captain Kirk, or Don from Lost in Space. I wanted to be as smart as Hari Seldon or Reed Richards. But that didn’t end at adolescence as Ryu Spaeth seems to imply. The older and better educated I got I still looked to fiction for entertainment, even while also adding the other two “Es”: enlightenment and experience. I wanted to be as significant as Paul Atreides or as courageously curious as Will Navidson. All the while understanding that I won’t actually ever be the emperor of anything and my house will never turn out to be bigger on the inside than the outside.
I think it’s fair to say that anything that can be described as “entertainment”—absolutely including science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels—depend on some degree of wish fulfillment. Even in the bleakest horror novel, the darkest dark fantasy, or the dystopianist dystopian science fiction story we wish for something: to be less fearful or more ethical or more capable than some poor beleaguered protagonist.
I touched on this idea when I wrote about Ramsay Bolton from Game of Thrones and how we need to show our villains being villainous. Sometimes we, as readers, need bad guys bad enough that we wish to be the person who defeats them.
So then even if you aren’t writing purely “heroic fantasy,” if you have a protagonist more like Mad Max than Luke Skywalker—and who doesn’t want to be Mad Max, for a couple hours anyway?—your readers will still find some wish to be fulfilled there.
Pulp master Lester Dent, quoted in “Doc Savage: The Genesis of a Popular Fiction Hero” by Will Murray, said:
I didn’t realize how many people wanted to be a superman. It’s more clear to me now. A man comes in from driving a taxicab all day to find his wife threatening to throw him out on his ear for not bringing home more tips to turn over to her. Naturally he wants to be a superman. Or a barber who has to vegetate in his shop all day, don’t you think he yearns for a chance to get out and reorder the life of whole continents? Doc is sort of the what-I-would-like-to-be dream of everybody, including me.
If someone tells you that genre writing is somehow bad or unserious or juvenile because it depends on “wish fulfillment,” laugh that off and keep writing. I’m ready to wish to be your protagonist, and so is every cab driver or barber out there in the reading world.
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