Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Fantasy (sometimes spelled phantasie) is identified as “play of imagination and invention…”

You can remember it using the acronym:

P.I.In (pin it to your mood board)

  • play
  • imagination
  • invention

Let’s investigate each ingredient of “fantasy” and let’s get started with play…

What is Play?

  • Play is an activity that’s done purely for recreational pleasure & enjoyment
  • Play is intrinsically motivating (i.e. it is a behaviour that is driven by satisfying internal rewards, especially autonomy. Control of one’s destiny is essential)
  • Play is done to learn new skills or hone skills already learned
  • Play is done to reach desired goals
  • Play is done to aid self-efficacy (i.e. to believe in one’s strengths)
  • Play is done with an inspiration to master the subject or game (rather than just get by in it)
  • Play is done without pressure, nobody’s making you do it, it’s done to satisfy an interest

Play is consciously outside ordinary life…

So, if your writing is freely expressed, intrinsically motivated, efficacious for you, and inspiring and satisfying too, then it will be 1) fantasy and  2) it won’t be a chore because it will be highly rewarding and fun!

If your writing ever becomes fruitless and joyless, it could be because you’re not playing! (check the list above, to be sure you are having fun!) Think about what it’s like to be forced to write an essay for homework and compare that feeling with choosing to write a poem about rain. The first is a chore, the second is play.

There is a quote from the brilliant Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga that perfectly sums up the concept of play and my interpretation of Huizinga’s quote (below) should resonate within the skull of every budding fantasy author:

Play is consciously outside “ordinary life” in the sense that it is deliberately “not serious” … yet the game is intensely and utterly absorbing. Play is an activity that should not be connected to any material interest or any profit. Play proceeds within boundaries of space & time and according to fixed rules and the play proceeds in an orderly manner. Play promotes the formation of social groupings that surround themselves with secrecy and stress their differences from the outside world”.

The National Institute for Play (ha ha! yes, there is such a thing) has described seven play-patterns that you might like to utilize when you are playing with fantasy.  Here goes:

1. Attunement Play — this is play used to establish connections with others (J K Rowling chose attunement when she used schoolchildren as her main characters) This is the type of ‘playground’ activity that kids do to build friendships

2. Physical Play  — this is play that explores & interacts with the world by discovering what happens when things interact (come into contact) with each other. Touch reveals whether contact might be repulsive/delightful. Babies do this with teddies and building bricks, but you can do it to by introducing sensually evocative episodes into your storytelling

3. Object Play — this is play that involves banging things around, handling physical objects, or toying with curious articles. All these things help bring understanding and satisfy wonder. You will do this in your fiction by introducing action scenes — thrills and spills — and allowing your readers to “live through” the thrills vicariously (the hero’s adventure feels like their own.)

4. Social Play — this is the play that involves others in group activity and so it builds and shares connections with others outside your sphere. Most sports are social play. An example is Quidditch. Harry meets people outside his own (smaller) group because he’s involved in the Quidditch team. As an author you will want to be involved in social play-patterns by reaching out to your readers and asking their advice on things such as character motivations, back-stories, maps, clothing designs etc. Using your fiction as a catalyst, you will build group activity and you will “play” with ideas.

5. Pretend Play — these are invented scenarios that help a person “act out” something they would never achieve for themselves, or ever dare to do, inside their “real” world. Think of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan taking The Darlings away (flying into the night.) The Darlings then take part in pirate play, but would their parents ever have allowed them to do this inside their “real” world? No, it’s a flight of fancy! Or think about all those budding little secret agents, who strut around with fake guns, after they’ve seen the latest James Bond!

6. Storytelling Play — this learning and language play and allows for re-telling. Like a fairy-tale, nursery rhyme, or folktale, your story (or at least episodes within your story) should be memorable… can you honestly say this is so? If your story (or episodes from it) can be re-told effortlessly and effectively, you’ve achieved storytelling play. Most people can recount how Harry first encountered Lord Voldemort or how the Pevensie children entered Narnia, and they like to tell and re-tell these narratives over-and-over. Be sure to add memorable scenes and episodes in your book that can be re-told

7. Creative Play — this is play that takes those involved into a higher state. For example, playing a musical instrument brilliantly well, or becoming highly proficient at a sport or pastime takes the player beyond themselves! You will add detail and facts to your books so some of your readers (your most enthusiastic fans) will gain insights and specialized knowledge from your narraative. You might even run quizzes and competitions, to hunt such readers out, and then you might award them with special certificates, signed by you, to recognize their achievements as experts! If they draw pictures of your characters, or suggest back-stories, they are engaging with you in creative play!

So that’s the play part of phantasie. What about the next component:

What is Imagination?

Imagination is the ability to produce and simulate novel objects and ideas in the mind...

To use “the mind’s eye” to tackle problems and/or complete tasks, for example: using abstract conceptualization before beginning any experimentation, experience or reflection, is not something that everyone can do. Some people are natural imaginers, others are less capable of “make-believe.”

Hopefully, you are a make-believer… if you’re not a “natural” you’ll probably focus on “invention” which I will turn to in a moment…

English author Geoffrey Chaucer came up with the concept of the “Mind’s Eye” to explain what imagination is, and it’s a good way to explain a rather tricky idea. In his Canterbury Tales, he introduced three men who lived in a castle, but one man was blind. This man could only see with “the eyes of his mind” in other words “with the eyes which all men see after they become blind...” Nevertheless, this man could “see” outcomes as well as the other men in the castle… if not better. How come? It’s because the blind man saw all possible outcomes, using his mind’s eye… while the other men could only see what was right in front of them: i.e. a stone wall… They were imprisoned by their lack of wider vision!

The condition of not being able to visualize things internally (that is, the lack of Chaucer’s “mind’s eye”)  is known as aphantasia and I think, from observation, that the condition has a spectrum of impacts: from having “no imagination at all” to having “poor imagination” to having intermittent imaginative capacity. Of course, at the other extreme, some people are pathological fantasizers. But if you are able to use your “mind’s eye” to work things out “in your head” then you ought to be able to write fantasy fiction. 

Though I urge you to be sure to use imagination every step of your way on your journey into fiction: from the cover art on the front of your book, the blurb on the back and even the epilogue at the end… please be sure to use your “mind’s eye” and continually “think outside the box.”

“Phantasie is imagination and imagination is phantasie…”

The last component of fantasy is INVENTION and, I think, this component will help you get to grips with the nebulousimagination” element because it provides direct & practical ways to exercise an imagination …

Invention has to do with novelty. Does your playful imagination possess that unique ingredient known as novelty?

What is Invention?

“To be a genuinely inventive writer, I urge you to incorporate invention into your writing routines…”

Neil Mach

They came up with a novelty test and you can use it to assess whether you have achieved novelty in your fantasy. Here is my own interpretation of the novelty test:

  • Can your narrative be (honestly) described as groundbreaking?
  • Does your story achieve what it promises?
  • Is your story clearly & unequivocally different from all the others in similar storybooks?
  • Does your narrative give the end user (the reader) what they wanted when they started reading?
  • Is the story understandable to a person of ordinary knowledge?
  • Does the narrative produce an appropriate end result? Is there a satisfactory conclusion? (In the case of a series, has the successful conclusion been planned and promised?)
  • Is the entire narrative contained within one useful fabrication? For example, have you created a holistic world in which these explorations take place? (think Narnia, Middle Earth, or Westeros)

Here are some ways you can add depth to your inventions:

  • Use drawings and pictures to stimulate your inventive mind and help readers visualize & understand your ideas
  • Play with ideas through trial and error, perhaps through short stories and poems as you continue to write your lengthy prose or before you begin a project
  • Make or play with models and/or use music to kick-start originality, share your music choices with your readers
  • Experiment with ideas by testing them out for your own amusement, just for fun, and perhaps share “test ideas” with readers
  • Keep a notebook, jot down any random thoughts about your story, occasionally share your notes with your readers
  • Keep a scrapbook, save evocative pictures and images, take photos and share them with readers
  • Work on multiple inventions at the same time (this helps revitalize fantasy flights). Tell your readers what else you are currently working on and get them to join in
  • Become an open and curious thinker: don’t be confined by boundaries & stuck inside pigeonholes. What are you reading right now? Is your reading choice “outside” your usual genre. Share the books you are currently reading with fans on your social networks and request feedback
  • Merge concepts or elements from different contexts, look around and see what multidimensional things you can add to your work and play
  • Try to re-imagine the things you once took for granted
  • Explore your insights

Good luck, let me know how it goes! Tweet me @neilmach

And honestly, if you must copy an idea, be sure to improve it! So, in conclusion, fantasy involves play, imagination, and invention. If your written work isn’t playful, imaginative, and inventive, it (still) might be fiction, but trust me, it won’t be fantasy!

This is an extract from: “So You Want to Write Fantasy?

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.

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