Unlocking the magic of literary fantasy

What is your favourite flavour of fantasy?

Fantasy is a broad spectrum. So long as it includes ‘magic’ in some form, it’s probably fantasy. This includes low fantasy, high fantasy, science fantasy, dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic fantasy … you get the point.

Over the last few years, I’ve realized that what I really crave in my fantasy isn’t necessarily a recognized subgenre, and I thought I’d write about it today. What I think I should call it is literary fantasy.

I can already hear the eye rolls. Hang on! Bear with me!

When I say ‘literary’ here, it doesn’t (necessarily) come with an artistic judgement. I don’t agree with the dichotomy that presents genre fiction as ‘lightweight fun’ and literary fiction as ‘serious art’. For one thing, ‘serious art’ can be fun! For another, genre fiction can be serious and have artistic merit.

Perhaps what I’m talking about is more a style than a subgenre, or its about particular concerns that might not be important in other kinds of fantasy. I’ve tried to categorize these elements below, possibly ineptly. By all means clarify what you think I might have meant in the comments.

I mentioned above that literary fantasy might be a style. I think Matt Mercer demonstrates this well in Critical Role. It’s hard to dissect, but it’s a style of narration that is perhaps more poetic, rhythmic, or layered, with thoughtfully selected vocabulary, perhaps even metaphors or similes. It might move at a slower pace, with careful consideration given to tone, syntax, viewpoint. It might be more playful or experimental with its use of narrative structure (eg, flashbacks, foreshadowing). This is much easier to do with prepared descriptions, like boxed text, but it’s not impossible to come up with these sorts of descriptions on the fly, and I’ve seen DMs do it. But it’s certainly a skill.

For me, literary fantasy is also concerned with serious themes. It’s so silly to dismiss this as pretentious. Consider Final Fantasy VII, a video game concerned with environmentalism and industrialization, corruption and abuse of power, life and death, identity and memory. Or The Last of Us, a study in loss and grief, trust and betrayal, the cycle of violence, the grey-and-grey morality of human survival. These are games with moral complexity and social commentary, games that provoke serious thought. Why can’t we aspire to this? And what says a game can’t do this and still be fun?

And if there’s one theme for me which is arguably more important than any other, it is an interest in what it means to be human (sometimes called ‘the human condition’). It doesn’t really matter if we’re actually writing about humans, or about elves, dwarves, orcs, or halflings: if it’s about what it means to be, as Hamlet puts it: to exist, to die, to love. Tolkien understood this. When interviewed about The Lord of the Rings, he said:

If you really come down to any large story that interests people, holds their attention for a considerable time, human stories are practically always about one thing, aren’t they? Death. The inevitability of death.

So in addition to some kind of thought-provoking theme, literary fantasy has psychological and emotional depth: complex characters who evolve over time.

Is this at odds with the nature of RPGs? With action and adventure, improv, randomness? Maybe. These aspects certainly make our stories more unpredictable, harder to plan. Is literary fantasy ‘less fun’ than other kinds of fantasy? Not at all. If anything, it might lead to some of the most memorable, moving, inspiring stories we’ve ever told.

Tips for players and DMs:

  • Together, talk through the themes of the story you’re telling. Lean into them.
  • Embrace moral complexity and ambiguity. Create characters who grow and evolve.
  • Experiment with flashbacks, foreshadowing, and other narrative structures.
  • Pay attention to tone, rhythm, pace, and word choice in your descriptions.
  • Balance improv with planning, seriousness with fun.

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