The Fantasy Conceit
An odd thing happened recently, something that shook me to my writerly core: I couldn’t come up with a logline for Star Wars. Yes, despite it being around for 40 years and the franchise basically raising me, I could not adequately condense it into concise, two-sentence summary without leaving out some fairly salient bits.
This bothered me quite a lot until I realized I had trouble summarizing Lord of the Rings as well. Considering each franchise’s ubiquity and eminence within their respective genres, this seemed rather odd until I considered it through the lens of Worldbuilding.
But before we get to Worldbuilding, let’s explore my trouble a bit with my logline for Star Wars: A young farm boy intercepts a rebel message he must deliver to a retired knight to help bring down an evil empire. His family killed, the boy joins the knight, a smuggler and two robots to rescue a princess and destroy the ultimate war machine. (Please note, I’m composing this logline for someone ignorant to the Star Wars mythos as a whole. Ditto for LOTR).
Technically that’s a good logline, in that it hits all the beats we discussed before on constructing a good logline. Problem is, it really doesn’t hit the bits most folks would consider central to the Star Wars franchise, namely the Force, Jedis, aliens and screaming space battles.
The same can be said about my LOTR logline: Having inherited a magical ring, a young man of short stature and his allies must defeat an evil entity bent on conquering their world by secretly depositing the ring into a volcano in the heart of the evil entity’s lair while massive battles rage around them.
Again, a technically proficient logline, but one that misses the grandeur of LOTR, what with the wizards, elves, dwarves, eagles, ents, orcs, wraith kings, wargs and Gollum.
Now why both these loglines are insufficient is because they focus on the PLOT rather than the FANTASY CONCEIT of these franchises. Which is to say, it’s each of their worlds we love as much, if not more, than the stories themselves. They are intrinsically intertwined with the genre.
As I considered this more, I realized loglines for fantasy stories are notoriously difficult, though more so for High Fantasy than Urban Fantasy, which I now believe exists because of The Fantasy Fiction Continuum.
By its very definition, Fiction is based on untruths: Unlike Non-Fiction, Fiction explicitly deals with things that NEVER HAPPENED. In fact, Fiction can only exist once the author applies imagination to create situations that never happened, but plausibly could. The author uses the real world as his or her playground, adjusting events and characters to tell his or her story, and it is this application of creativity that I’m calling the CONCEIT. It is basically the core concept on which the story is based around, be it two star-crossed lovers from families at war or a gritty story about an ex-CIA agent searching for his kidnapped daughter.
So on our continuum of Reality to Fantastical, Fiction begins the moment an author applies a Conceit and is no longer recounting events, rather inventing them.
Fiction set in the modern age sits closest to Non-Fiction since it shares the existing real-world setting. Audiences understand and identify with the modern setting, and therefore the author does not need to inject as much imagination into explaining the world around the characters.
Historical Fiction, on the other hand, edges a little further into the realm of Fantastical because the author must describe a past world modern readers are unfamiliar with by painting mental pictures of times, locations, customs and cultures that no longer exist.
For both regular/ non-Fantasy Modern and Historical Fiction events and settings adhere to the laws of reality in terms of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Yes, the author may stretch credulity in how much physical abuse the protagonist can take and keep going, or how he walks away from an airplane crash that should realistically reduce him to pulp, but everything described in non-Fantasy Fiction is POSSIBLE.
I maintain that Fantasy as a genre begins when the author inserts an element of the IMPOSSIBLE into his or her conceit, making it a FANTASY CONCEIT. This is to say the author does not stretch credulity so much as break a law of nature by injecting a fantastical element that is impossible in our reality. Usually this entails the addition of magic, which breaks the laws of Physics, but can also involve supernatural beings or giving the characters superpowers, which also break the laws of Biology.
And once the author breaks these natural laws he or she crosses the Rubicon into the realm of Fantasy (and to a lesser extent, the other genre fictions like Sci-Fi and Horror; but for my purposes we’ll stay focused on Fantasy).
Most of my research into Worldbuilding involves Mark J. P. Wolf’s exhaustive textbook Building Imaginary Worlds, and while he maintains Subcreation—the term coined by Tolkien for Worldbuilding—demands a Secondary World that is separated from our real world, I disagree and believe Worldbuilding exists in modern, real world settings once the Fantasy Conceit is applied, which can be considered OVERLAID FANTASY because the Fantasy Conceit and real world comingle.
A major component to Overlaid Fantasy is that it is PLAUSIBLE, which is to say it still adheres to our real-world natural and societal laws with the exception of the Fantasy Conceit, at which point it diverges. In fact, I would argue, it’s implicitly understood by the reader anything not covered by the Fantasy Conceit is exactly as it is currently in the real world.
These subgenres include (but are not limited to) Urban Fantasy and the Superhero genre (read: comics), and I maintain both subgenres adhere to the rules of Worldbuilding (which we’ll get to in later posts) in that they invent their own cultures, which Wolf considers an integral component of Worldbuilding along with Biology and Physics. Anyone familiar with Harry Potter, Henry Dresden, Anita Blake, Nightwatch, or any comic book character can attest that each world sports its own unique subculture that’s as integral to the pitch as Jedis and lightsabers are to Star Wars.
Like non-Fantasy Historical Fiction skewing further to the Fantastical side of the spectrum than Modern Fiction, Historical Fantasy requires more fantastical elements than its modern Overlaid Fantasy counterparts and therefore sits a little more to the right on the spectrum as the author applies his/ her Fantasy Conceit to a bygone age.
SECONDARY WORLDS, e.g. stories where we have left our modern reality so that our story takes place in a setting that is decided not-Earth, is where we’re so far past the Rubicon that we’ve metaphorically crossed the river Styx. At this point all Plausibility that existed in our Overlaid Fantasy is out the window in that the audience no longer has the anchor of the modern world with only the Fantasy Conceit being different, but must literally discover a new world. Never is this more apparent than in Portal Fantasy, which, as the name connotes, involves a character from our world figuratively (and often literally) stepping through a portal into the Secondary World. The Chronicles of Narnia and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court exemplify this subgenre as the protagonists discover their respective new worlds.
This requires even more fantastical elements on the author’s part, who must not only tell a good story, but get across the world with its new rules pertaining to new cultures, Biology and Physics. The audience is a stranger in this new land (and in the case of Portal Fantasy, the proxy protagonist as well), and there are numerous strategies the author can apply to make this new world compelling for the audience.
Secondary Worlds contain pretty much all the subgenres that don’t explicitly take place on Earth, but I have grouped them into Low Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and High Fantasy. I do this because I maintain each a fairly arbitrary distinction given based upon how much magic and how many additional races are involved, with Low Fantasy worlds like Game of Thrones with fairly little, Sword and Sorcery like Conan with slightly more, and High Fantasy like LOTR and Mistborn with the most.
It should be noted that these Secondary Worlds should always be LOGICAL, as in they adhere to their own rules established at the beginning and remain consistent to them throughout. As we’ll discuss later, this is a hallmark of good Worldbuilding and is quintessential to the Fantasy genre.
Because once the logic disappears yet fantastical elements remain, the Worldbuilding becomes ILLOGICAL and slips into the realm of Magical Realism and Nonsense. And don’t get me wrong, One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books, but it’s not Fantasy because there’s no logical underpinnings to the fantastical events that take place in it. Fantastical things just sort of happen without any rhyme or reason, and while this may make for a fascinating, literary book, it does not good Fantasy make. Same holds true of Xanadu, where Kubla Khan and his “stately pleasure-dome decree:” This makes for some pretty poetry, but it’s ugly Worldbuilding.
In retrospect, it may seem odd to begin our adventures into Worldbuilding by examining the Fantasy Fiction Continuum and Fantasy Conceit when all sorts of weird and imaginative worlds await, but I really believe these two concepts create a great foundation on which to build. They’re also a good starting point on the metaphorical map we’ll now make.
Because you can't know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re starting from.