The Fantasy Problem

I’m in the middle of the fourth Dresden Files book and I’m trying to figure out why it bores me. I liked the first book, but every book after that has taken a lot of effort to finish, without much reward. The annoying thing is, I don’t even dislike it – I never take issue with the plot or characters as I’m reading it. They’re good books. I just don’t enjoy them very much.

Maybe part of the issue is that it doesn’t make sense. But wait, it’s fantasy – it’s not supposed to make sense. And I’m a massive fan of Harry Potter. So that can’t be it, right?

Here’s the thing about fantasy. The idea of “supernatural” is only about a century and a half old; before that, it was just… well, natural. People who burned witches were pretty certain that witches could exist. Fairy tales and romances involved spectacular and fantastic events, but no one said they were impossible. Wikipedia dates the origins of fantasy, in the modern sense, to the late 19th century. This chart makes me think they aren’t lying. Fantasy couldn’t exist until it was, you know, fantasy.

So how do you write about magic for a world that no longer believes in it? I’ve categorized fantasy stories based on how they overcome this hurdle.


Type 1: The Tolkien Method. The story takes place in another universe, without ever acknowledging that fact. Most High Fantasy is this. Most shōnen anime are also this. Too many examples to list; this might be the most popular method.

Type 2: The Narnia Method. Magic exists in another universe, but characters travel between the real universe and the magical one. Though I haven’t read it, the His Dark Materials series apparently uses this method. Bleach, and a few other anime, partially qualify (depending on the arc). Oh, and The Wizard of Oz. And maybe Alice in Wonder Land, if you ignore the whole “it was just a dream” thing.

Type 3: The Hogwarts Method. There’s a magic world within the real world – the two settings exist in the same universe. Artemis Fowl comes to mind. I guess Peter Pan qualifies. I think C.S. Lewis sort of killed this method, with help from Tolkien, because it still isn’t very common even after being used by the best-selling series of novels in history. Part of Harry Potter‘s success might come from the sweet spot it hits between Types 2 and 4, taking the appeal of both.

If the story doesn’t make a distinction between “world” and “universe”, Type 3 can easily blend in with Type 2. I haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, but it sounds like it’s basically Type 2.5. Also, a Type 3 story will almost always have a sprinkle of Type 4.

Type 4: The “Fuck it” Method. The magic is in our world, and we just haven’t noticed because… um, don’t think too hard about it. Basically anything with vampires, werewolves, etc. will be this. Extremely popular; perhaps even more popular than Type 1.

4A: They’re hiding from us. Vampires don’t want us to know they exist, after all – our ignorance makes them safer, and allows them to catch us off-guard. Harry Potter fits this whenever muggles get involved, which, thankfully, is not often.

4B: They don’t make much of an effort to hide – we’re really just that oblivious. Examples: The Dresden Files, American Gods, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Type 5: The Old Fashioned Method. Magic exists in the real world and people have noticed and never even doubted it. This includes Historical Fantasy and… nothing else. Seriously, I can’t find a single example of this method being used for a modern setting. That’s a little disappointing – but on the other hand, you’d have to completely rewrite the progression of society from the scientific revolution onward, so I understand why no one wants to make the effort.

Technically, almost all fairy tales are Type 5, but they were written before “fantasy fiction” was a thing. In fact, any work written before the Victorian era that has been retroactively labeled “fantasy” will probably be Type 5.


But let’s go back to Type 4. For a few good reasons, some stories rely on this method. One reason: symbolism. The magical elements exist to demonstrate something about the real world – which is why the story must be set in the real world. Often, the symbolism is about the past vs. the present – how would the present handle ideas and myths from our past? Neil Gaimain loves playing around with that question. Even Dracula has some of this (…apparently. I haven’t actually read it.) Buffy has more mundane symbolism about growing up. The second reason, and perhaps the most popular: fear. Magical monsters are scarier if they’re dropped in a setting where they aren’t supposed to exist, or even be possible. This reason’s confined to the horror genre. Besides symbolism and fear, other reasons to use Type 4 probably exist, but I can’t think of them. Teen Paranormal Romance is trendy right now, but fuck if I have any idea why. Something to do with falling in love with outsiders? Or like, is it a gender-swapped version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope? I don’t have a goddamn clue.

But still, modern fantasy can work under the right circumstances. I’m just not sure those circumstances apply to The Dresden Files.

Take Harry Potter as a counter-example. The series is full of unanswered questions. How does magic even work? Why are wizards and witches so adamant about staying secret? (Hagrid basically shrugs off the question in the first book, and it never gets asked again.) Why aren’t these kids learning math or literature – or hell, science? Actually, why is everyone in the magical world ignoring science, even though the muggles have used it to surpass them and pretty much make magic obsolete? Well, not everyone. Arthur Weasley notices, and he gets mocked every time he points it out. Arthur Weasley is the smartest wizard in the Harry Potter universe. Also, what’s up with the “moving” paintings? They don’t just “move”, they seem to be freaking alive, which is a little unsettling when you consider that a lot of them are of dead people.

Everyone knows about these issues, and no one – myself included – cares. The unanswered questions don’t harm the series because they’re also unasked questions. Those problems just aren’t what Harry Potter is about. You can leave holes unfilled if you know you’ll never have to walk over them. It helps that Harry Potter is a Type 3 fantasy; I did feel a bit awkward every time the muggle world and the magic world interacted. But that’s not the main reason; Buffy the Vampire Slayer is Type 4, and its list of unanswered questions is even longer (don’t even get me started). And, just like Harry Potter, no one cares, because the questions never need to be asked.

All Type 4 fantasies, and many Type 3 fantasies, have one common issue: how the hell have we not noticed all these magical shenanigans going on all around us? There is no good answer. If, as too many stories (including The Dresden Files) do, you justify it with some version of “people refuse to notice things they can’t explain”, then your story is inhabited by the exact opposite of human beings. People don’t ignore the abnormal; we look so hard for the abnormal that sometimes we ignore the normal. Any story that claims the opposite is putting a huge limitation on itself – it can’t do too much world-building or else people might notice that the world is kind of bullshit.

The first Dresden Files book throws a whole lot at you without expecting you to think too hard about it. It’s a fun book. Every book after that (at least, the ones I’ve read) focuses more intently on certain parts of the Dresden universe and attempts to build it up further. And then I stop caring.

Part of the problem is that this is a mystery series – its genre is all about finding the truth. Mystery heroes from Sherlock Holmes to Gregory House have defined their genre by explaining the inexplicable and disproving the paranormal. Harry Dresden is an anti-science wizard whose profession is to get to the truth of matters; and I don’t see the series playing with this contradiction in any interesting way. Actually, I have a theory: mystery, hard sci-fi, and stories that rely on world-building (including certain types of fantasy) all appeal to the same parts of the brain. They’re logic puzzles; they challenge you to consider how things work, what goes where, whether X necessarily means Y. The Dresden Files, because it’s set in a universe that ignores a crucial aspect of human behavior, can’t adequately accomplish this; and the more it tries, the less interested in it I become.

This problem isn’t unique to The Dresden Files, which may explain why sci-fi seems to be on the rise. If your plot needs a lame excuse, “Science did it!” (The Dr. Who Method) is so much easier to justify than “Magic did it!” Just like old-time fairy tales and romances, we know such things don’t exist, but we don’t think they’re impossible. That’s fantasy’s real problem: science fiction can take the appeal that stories about magic once had and re-fit it for the modern world. Harry Potter saw unparalleled success, but I think that’s a magic trick that can only be performed once. I predict fantasy will lose a lot of ground to science fiction in the coming years.


One thought on “The Fantasy Problem

  1. Jeyna Grace

    Fantasy has to make sense in my book… at least to a certain extent. You can have a dragon soaring the sky, but you can’t have a dragon riding a unicorn soaring the sky. Those two scenes are fiction and fantasy, but one makes sense while the other doesn’t.


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