There are two reasons people read fantasy. No, really. There are dozens of reasons to read, from escapism to information, spiritual growth to titillation. You can find these and more within fantasy, but in other genres as well. What brings a reader to fantasy specifically is one (or both) of these two factors.
Walking through a wardrobe into another world.
Riddling with a dragon.
Talking with a cat that can vanish into thin air.
Fantasy can stretch the imagination. It can recreate that feeling of childhood of breathless wonder at finding out some new thing about the world. All it takes is an author’s words and the power of a reader’s imagination. It thrives on the unexpected, the (previously) inconceivable, and the impossible. Anything is possible within the pages of a fantasy novel, and that speculative expectation is what keeps many readers turning pages.
A reader looking for wonder is hoping to read something he or she has never read before.
Elves and dwarfs.
Farm boy heroes who save the world.
Wizards with pointy hats and long beards.
Nostalgia is the comfort food of literature. You can find nostalgia in other genres, of course, but it is a particular sort of nostalgia that fantasy fans seek. This nostalgia is for the tried and true, the bedrock tropes of fantasy. It has its roots in fairy tales and The Hero’s Journey. Like comfort food, you know what you’re getting as soon as you order it; the only question is how well it’s done. Since it’s not new ground, the nostalgic fantasy has a higher threshold for success in terms of prose and character–premise and novelty can’t carry it.
A reader looking for nostalgia enjoys the tropes of fantasy and wants to read more about them.
Mixing the two
Of course, you can still have a mixture of both. Even the moldiest old plot (farm boy hero saves the world, marries a princess, lives happily ever after) can get gain something from a fresh coat of wonder. And fantasy fans are far from monolithic in their desires for either Wonder or Nostalgia. Most came to fantasy because they enjoyed some seminal work of the genre, but stayed because they fell prey to the lure of wonders around every corner.
- Any time you complain about another “save the world” story or another book about elves and dwarfs, some eager fan is finding their comfortable nest and settling in for a good read.
- Any time you complain that a story is too large, complex or strange, remind yourself that someone out there was just looking for their mind to be stretched a little further than you found comfortable.
Neither is right. Neither is better. They are two sides of a coin that lands on edge more often than not.