Writing

L. Penelope Guest Post–“The Optimism of Fantasy” – Locus Online

Over the past few months, as I’ve struggled to write the fourth and final book in my epic fantasy series, Earthsinger Chronicles, I’ve thought a lot about endings. Recently, popular culture has seen the end of several long-running series: Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Two of those series ended in ways that were wildly disappointing to many fans and should serve as cautionary tales to all creators. The third finished up a twenty-plus movie arc in a spectacular way that I will always remember as one of the most fun times I’ve ever had in a theater. (The phrase “On your left” still makes my heart beat a little faster.) As I explore what I’d like readers to walk away from my series finale feeling, I keep coming back to one word: optimism.

A few weeks ago, I beta read a friend’s first novel, a delightful epic fantasy. But I wrestled with how to articulate my disappointment with the ending. There was an action-filled battle, magical forces in opposition to one another, and the main antagonist suffered—but the cliffhanger at the end didn’t leave me slavering for the next installment.

As we discussed my feedback, the conversation turned to tropes and reader expectations. In some circles, tropes are a dirty word, but as a reader and writer of romance as well as fantasy, I’ve learned that a well-done application of the expected in an unexpected way is one of the keys to reader happiness. What’s the difference between an ending that fizzles, and one that makes you text all your friends afterward and demand they move a book to the top of their To Be Read lists? The answer is certainly different for everyone, but for me it’s optimism.

I believe the default of human narrative is fantasy. From the fireside to the movie theater, from myths of gods and goddesses to superheroes and world-ending clashes, stories are hard-wired into humanity. They are how we learn, remember, and imagine. They are how societies and cultures pass down vital information.

The stories we tell to children include monsters or magic or something fantastical—that’s not an accident. Our ancestors, like children, had a gap between their experience of reality and their understanding of how it functioned. They created stories to fill in these gaps. The creatures of the heavens and the underworld were responsible for sun and rain and death and life. Learning how to interact with them was part of explaining the mysteries of the universe and placing the unknowable somewhat within our control.

And because humans tend to search for understanding and control, legends of the fantastic were cautionary tales—happy endings came to those who adhered to societal norms, followed the words of the wise woman, the elder, or the gods, and defeated the forces of evil. Personal strength, honor, courage, determination—looking out for one’s fellow man—these are the qualities of a hero and not coincidentally the qualities that make it easier for people to live in communities with one another.

Ensuring that good defeats evil reinforces our ability to live in peace with our neighbors and facilitates an expectation of an optimistic ending to our stories. Much of genre fiction deals with the problem of evil: crime and mystery readers expect that the bad guy be caught and punished at the end; horror stories are often built around the premise that the monster will be revealed and peace restored; even romances deal with the villain of loneliness by mandating a happily-ever-after.

Whereas science-fiction at times feels pessimistic in its exploration of what it means to be human, delving into the hubris of believing we can master technology and not let it master us, fantasy still reliably allows us to imagine ourselves as good and envision our journeys through life as ending in victory and greater knowledge.

And for marginalized authors, it has long been a way of rejecting despair and imagining our way out of subjugation. As a black fantasy author, I find myself in a long tradition dating back to the late 1800s of writers writing their way out of oppression. Creating worlds where slave revolts succeeded, the genders were equal, and black people ran the government. Authors like Martin Delaney, Pauline Hopkins, and Frances Harper gave us hope by creating speculative worlds that held a critical lens up to our own and ultimately demanded a happy ending.

I’ve committed to crafting a fantasy world in my novels that mirrors our own with its prejudices, fears, and failures, but I’m also hard at work creating an ending that will shine a light on these societal forces and give us ideas for a way forward on a path of optimism.

I look to fantasy to do what it has for thousands of years: provide joy and a way to exert control—even if it is magical—over real problems and allow me to immerse myself in a world where hope triumphs. That’s the ending I’m working toward.


L. Penelope is the award-winning author of the Earthsinger Chronicles. The first book in the series, Song of Blood & Stone, was chosen as one of Time magazine’s top fantasy books of 2018. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Visit her at: http://www.lpenelope.com.