There’s something about fantasy, magic, and dystopian novels that can really hook readers. Think about the Harry Potter books—they got millions of kids, teens, and even adults reading middle-grade fantasy—and loving them, being absorbed in them so much that they wore costumes, wrote fan fiction, put on skits, waited up in long lines to buy the books, and went to see all the movies. The same thing happened again with Twilight, and now with The Hunger Games.
There’s a lot that appeals to me in fantasy novels—and by “fantasy” I mean fantasy, paranormal, magic, time travel, sci-fi, dystopian, and anything else that can fit under that category—that I think also appeals to a lot of children and teen (and adult!) readers. I really needed to escape my life growing up—I’m an incest and ritual abuse survivor, and I was also bullied a lot at school, so books were my way to escape. Fantasy books helped me escape the best (though I also really needed realistic fiction to know I was not alone). I think we all have something that we’ve wanted or needed to escape from, and fantasy can be a powerful doorway out of our life and into another’s.
There’s so much in fantasy that can hook readers:
Magical or Paranormal Powers.
The idea of having magical or paranormal powers like the characters we read about can help us imagine ourselves as more powerful than we are, instead of being abused or a victim or feeling powerless. It can help us feel like we can change our lives. I wanted to have paranormal powers or magic so badly!
The possibility of fixing or changing problems with magic that doesn’t exist here, or with paranormal powers—the power of your own mind and your will—is incredibly appealing. It makes solutions seem more possible, and can also seem like an easy fix. Though in books often those powers create new problems in the characters’ lives, but it’s hard not to wish or dream for those powers when you read about them. Like a genie’s wishes—they’re often tricky and work against you, but who hasn’t spent time imagining “If I had three wishes, what would they be?” Or if I could read minds, how could I use it to help me (and others)? Or being able to heal someone, to bring someone back from the dead who we love and miss dearly. All sorts of need and emotion, wishes and desire can be mixed up in magic and paranormal powers. So they have a great appeal.
Escaping Into Another World.
When you need to escape the problems in your life, another world—a fantastic world or just a world that’s different from ours—can be really appealing. I think that any time we pick up a book we’re escaping into another world, but fantasy books do it much more deliberately, and often more richly and with more promise of reward. Fantasy novels with their different worlds, can feel like we’re travelling, seeing what the universe could offer. I always wanted to have a wardrobe that would take me into Narnia after reading the series.
The Magic of Fantastic Creatures.
Believing in fantastic creatures like dragons and werewolves and ghosts, imagining that they could co-exist with us and might actually be there if only we can see them, that changes the way you see the world. It also brings a sense of magic, wonder, and sometimes danger, and can make us believe that we don’t live in such a restricted or unmagical world, but that maybe anything is possible, dreams can come true, evil can be explained, hope can become reality.
Some examples of that are Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Haunting Violet by Alxyandra Harvey, Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klaus, and The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C Wrede.
Sense of Wonder.
The sameness of everyday life, the weight of our troubles, our responsibilities, can make things hard, depressing. But reading about worlds, creatures, or powers that are different than what exists in our world or lives can give us a sense of wonder, of magic, of possibility. Fantasy books can reawaken hope, the ability to dream, to think that things can and will get better in our own lives. It can help us dream of a better world, a better life for ourselves that is different than what we’re living, where there are more possibilities open to us.
Life and Death.
Often the stakes in fantasy novels are really high and the main character or the people or the world that she loves faces the possibility of death if she fails. High stakes like this help show what a character is really made of—we see them change, grow, become heroes the way we want to be. And I also think that if you’ve gone through trauma or rough times, there’s a lot of things you’re going to relate to about a life and death situation and the emotion involved, more than a book about say, a divorce or getting a boyfriend or whatever. Teens also have really intense emotions, and many have at least thought about suicide, especially if they’re oppressed in some way, or been bullied or abused. Life and death stakes in fantasy can help them go to death metaphorically and emotionally while they read, then come back out the other side with the triumph in the end of the book, and see that yes, life really is worth living.
Fighting Evil and Righting Wrongs.
In real life, we don’t always get a chance to fight evil or the people who wronged us, or we may not get an outcome that feels good to us. Our abusers may not go to jail. The murderer of a loved one may only get a year in jail. The con man who ripped us off may go free and be ripping off even more people. And it’s not always easy to fix the problems in our own lives. But in fantasy and magic books, the hero usually takes down the villain, or at least stops them from hurting others. The hero usually succeeds at righting wrongs and making their worlds better. Seeing good win, evil receive justice, can be very satisfying, can help us feel good about the world. It can give us hope that we can fight evil or bad things that have happened to us and come out with a happy outcome, too.
Most children’s and YA fantasy books have heroes who are inherently good, or who become better people through their journey, who try to make things better. Hero characters usually have strong morals and work to help others. Reading about them can renew our belief in the good in people, help us believe in someone who cares or who might try to save others. Reading about the main character who is a hero can also make us feel like we are a hero for a while. Most of us need to feel good, valued, liked, and as we identify with the hero, imagining ourselves as morally strong as that hero, someone who others like and look up to, it can help us feel better, stronger, too. A hero character may also help us with our own moral compass.
Strong Girl Characters.
In fantasy books, there seem to be so many more strong girl characters than there are in other genres, and I love that. I needed that myself as a girl, a woman, and I think it’s important for boy and men readers as well, to see strong girl characters. There is so much sexism and misogyny in our society, and we’re bombarded with it all the time through the media—TV, movies, ads, magazines, music videos. So fantasy with strong girl characters helps to counteract some of that. Strong girl characters can help girls believe in themselves, have more confidence, and know they’re strong, and can help boys know that girls are their equals, and may help them feel strong, too, if they identify with the character. Strong girl characters also make the books a lot more fun and feel-good. I’m thinking The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce, Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (Bryn), The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (Katniss); Eon by Allison Goodman (Eona); The Glass Swallow by Julia Golding (Rain)…. I could go on and on! Those are all really powerful books with kick-ass girl characters that I highly recommend.
Issues We Relate To.
Fantasy is not just about escape. A lot of fantasy books deal with painful issues. I think sometimes fantasy can tackle things that readers might not otherwise be able to deal with, or to deal with on such a deep level. That’s part of what I was doing with Hunted. For me, HUNTED is an analogy of cults, but it does it in a way that readers can relate to and see the similarities between that and our society, or things that they might have experienced or seen. Every good fantasy or magic book that I’ve read deals with painful issues beneath the surface of the magic or paranormal elements, all the fantastic happenings, like Harry Potter deals a little bit with abuse, the loss of parents, murder, oppression (think Voldemort), step-parents, and bullying, to name a few, and Raised By Wolves deals with sexism, murder, the loss of parents and dealing with step-parents. But they do it in ways that are different than our world—Harry with his magic where he’s the most powerful magician in the world, Bryn with most of her family being werewolves—and I think that allows us to not put up some of the barriers that we might otherwise put up with painful issues, especially if the issues are very close to us or trigger our own wounds and pain.
Another example is Across the Universe by Beth Revis where Amy wakens from being frozen too early—before her parents—while still on a spaceship. She has to deal with being different and “other” since she’s most recently from earth, so dealing with some oppression, someone who might want her dead, and being on her own or the loss of her parents.
So fantasy books can be both a way to escape your life, and a way to deal with the problems in your life without even realizing that’s what you’re doing because it’s so wrapped in the fantasy or magic world.
Thread of Romance.
Teens, especially, love a thread of romance woven into fantasy books. It doesn’t have to be the only thread or the biggest thread, but having some romance can hook readers. Teens are often thinking or dreaming about their own relationships, and romance gives them a way to explore that. Having conflict in the relationship also heightens the tension, and adds to the stakes, and can make the reader care about the outcome.
Some examples are Wondrous Strange series by Leslie Livingston, and Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer.
Characters We Relate To.
Many of the characters start off as ordinary people, and then they start to discover their magic or paranormal abilities. This makes them easy to relate to, and to imagine that we can be like them and may soon have magic or special abilities. Other characters start off with their amazing abilities, but like other teens, they still have to deal with school or homework, bullying, parents being parents—the things teens deal with—as well as deeper real-life issues. And this again makes it easy for us to relate to, to empathize with, and to imagine for a while that we are like them. So there’s lots that the readers can relate to, but the magic or paranormal element helps create more interest, more hope.
Some examples are Harry Potter by JK Rowlings, The Third Eye by Lois Duncan.
Uplifting, Often Happy Endings.
Many children’s and YA fantasy books have uplifting or happy endings, even if not completely happy, but many things are often resolved and there is often a sense of hope. This is especially appealing, because it makes the read a feel-good read with an emotional payoff for the reader.
Some examples are the Magic Shop series series by Bruce Coville, and Alexander Key’s books.
Those are some of the things I think are really appealing about children’s and YA fantasy books.
There’s some things we see over and over in fantasy books, so much so that they’ve almost become cliché—but they’re things that work, things that really appeal to readers, like the bullied kid who finds another world and helps shape that world (The Neverending Story), a teen who stands out or is different in some way, put down for it, that ends up being more powerful than the others around her (Raised by Wolves), the downtrodden orphan who is destined by prophecy to save the world (Harry Potter), the bullied teen is the Chosen One, is the only one who can save the world, the teen who finds out she’s got non-human bloodlines—that she’s really part angel, demon, robot, vampire, werewolf. And in most books, the protagonist starts out seeming like they don’t have much power, and ends up being the hero, saving others, finding much more power than they knew they had, meeting the challenge and growing so that they are better people. Almost all of the books have a main character who is an outsider, or doesn’t fit in in some way, or is unhappy with something in their life. I think those are things that most of us can relate to—that feeling that we’re different somehow, or “other”, or mistreated, and needing to know that we matter, and that we can take our own power, become our own person and make a difference. I think that’s part of what works in fantasy.
Why I Wrote Hunted.
Writing Hunted was very satisfying for me, because I’ve wanted to write a paranormal fantasy since I was a teen reading Lois Duncan’s books like The Third Eye and Down a Dark Hall, and Cora Taylor’s Julie so much that they became tattered. I also used to wish I had paranormal powers, especially telepathy, so that I could know what my abusers were going to do before they did it. But I don’t have telepathy—so I wrote the book.
But it also has a more serious side for me. I’m a ritual abuse survivor—my parents were part of cults—and so I wanted to be able to write about cults in a way that people could hear about them, without overwhelming readers or turning them off. I also addressed other oppression, homophobia, and racism, in the book—but I wrote it to be an adrenaline-rush read, like a thriller, to grip readers, and layering in all the fantasy elements. And I think it works.
Fantasy books are often incredibly satisfying reads. (I also think that realistic novels are, and for some of the same reasons, but that’s another article.) I’ve discussed many of the reasons I love fantasy books. Why do you? What fantasy books are your favorites?