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J OHN STEPHENS
On Fantasy
Fantasy writer, John Stephens, discussed
the crafting of fantasy with attendees
of the 2012 CLA Master Class.
IMAGINE A YOUNG FARMHAND. Call him Bob,
parents dead in a tragic accident years before. As Bob grows
into young manhood, he feels this odd yearning, a sense
that he has a great destiny. One day, this old, long-bearded
wanderer comes to him saying, Im giving you a quest.
Awesome, says Bob. The old guy says, I want you to write
a story. Its about a young, dumb, orphaned farmhand like
yourself who has to go and save the kingdom from the evil
guy whos taken it over by means of his magical thingy. On
the way, the farmhand meets dwarves, elves, trolls, and
ofhor monsfors nnd hnnIIy Ionrns hIs fruo, nobIo horIfngo.
I feel like Ive heard that story before, says Bob. Probably,
dodo, says the wanderer, But youve got to make this
story feel fresh and familiar. Fresh and familiar, says
Bob. Isnt that kind of oxymoronic? Well, kid, said the
wanderer. Theres the rub.
I was asked to talk about my approach to writing fantasy,
and thats kind of it in a nutshell, to make it feel familiar
and fresh. The question is, Why make it familiar at all?
Why not make it all fresh? Why not write a story that
doesnt dredge up all those hoary tropes, that doesnt insist
on pulling in those well-known narrative pit stops, but
which is completely and wholly original? I would argue
that no one comes to
write fantasy who is
nof, hrsf nnd foromosf,
a lover of fantasy, who
does not know its ins
and outs, the various
plot stratagems, the
characters who insist on
popping up. It somewhat
stands to reason that
when that person goes
to write his or her own
fantasy bookas I did
they dont immediately
set about chucking
everything that came
before; rather, they
embrace those tropes, decide what their own spin will be,
how they will breathe new life into the genre that they
loveknowing that is also what the readers expect.
Story
In the context of story, I present one of the hoariest of
honry chosfnufs: fho quosf. A grou of ooIo, or ono
2012 CL A MASTER CL AS S : FROM THE AUTHOR
The Journal of Childrens Literature, 39(1), pp. 42-46, 2013. Childrens Literature Assembly ISSN 1521-7779
I would argue that no
one comes to write
fantasy who is not,
rst and foremost, a
lover of fantasy, who
does not know its ins
and outs, the various
plot stratagems, the
characters who insist
on popping up.
John Stephens On Fantasy
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VOL 39 NO 1 SPRING 2013 JOURNAL OF CHILDRENS LITERATURE
person, go off on a missionto get the gold, to kill the
dragon, to save the town, the country, the girl, to kill the
enemy. Theyre tested in various ways in the course of
that quest, have to overcome many obstacles, and change
themselves along the way. In the end of every self-respect-
ing quest, our hero or heroes discover that the prize they
were after was not the real treasure; the real treasure lay
within. The external journey was mirrored by an inward
one. Lets take one of the most famous examples from
fantasy literature, Bilbo going off with Thorin and the
dwnrvos fo sfonI fho goId from Smnug In J.!.!. ToIkIon`s
(1977/2004) The Hobbit. (Obviously, you cant talk about
fantasy literature very much without talking about J.R.R.,
so I might as well get it over with.) At the beginning of
The Hobbit, Bilbo very much does not want to go on the
quest. He tells Gandalf, thank you very much, but no,
Im not a hero. However, in the course of the novel, Bilbo
hnds doo sfrnIns of courngo nnd horoIsm InsIdo hImsoIf.
Indood, by fho ond of fho novoI, Smnug`s goId Is fnr Ioss
important than the changes Bilbo has gone through
himself. Every quest story is, at its heart, a bildungsro-
man, a coming-of-age story.
I have a real yen for coming-of-age stories. Before writing
fantasy novels, I wrote for television for 10 years, and
in all the shows I wrote, there were young protagonists.
The inescapable fact is that every time you write about
young people, youre writing a coming-of-age story. Think
of Huck IInn, or HoIdon CnuIhoId, or Scouf In Hnror
Lees (1960/2010) To Kill a Mockingbird, or Harry Potter.
Were watching these characters become aware of the
world around themmiddle school, high school, the racist
nnfoboIIum Soufh, fho rncIsf osfboIIum Soufhnnd fhoy
wondor, Whoro do I hf Info fhIs worId Who nm I goIng fo
be? We watch them make the choices that will determine
the kind of person theyre going to become. They are quite
literally on a quest to become the people theyre going
to be. I think young people, consciously or not, read and
watch these stories almost as handbooks or how-tos. How
did this person do it? How did they become an adult?
For writers, the situation is ideal because writing drama
is all about having your characters make choices. You
want to catch them at the moment of crisis, in the process
of change, when theyre making these big decisions that
affect not only the world about them but also themselves.
Thats the state of a young person, their personalities and
chnrncfor In ux. Thoy`ro rondy-mndo for wrIfors of drnmn.
When I turned to fantasy literature, I knew from the start
that the protagonists of my novels would be kids, and I
would be writing about them being forced to grow up. What
better way to have them grow up than by sending them
on a quest, which just so happened to be the most popular
story construct in fantasy literature. Its nice how things
work out, isnt it? From that decision, everything fell neatly
into place. The children in my books, Kate, Michael and
Immn, wnnf fo hnd fhoIr nronfs. To do fhnf, fhoy`II hnvo
fo hnd fhoso fhroo mngIc books, nnd fo hnd fhoso books
and master them, they will each have to overcome personal
obstacles and leave their child selves behind.
One of the main pitfalls of the quest story in fantasy litera-
ture when its done poorly is what I think of as the video
game trap. In video games, there are all these levels you
have to complete and things you have to gatherclues,
magic rings, and so forth. Many fantasy writers mimic that
rogrossIon wIfh fnfnI hdoIIfy, fho robIom boIng fhnf fhoso
levels in a video game are emotionally void. They dont
mean anything. You can feel that in a book, when its just
things happening. This is when the coming-of-age element
comes into play, because you as the writer ask, What do the
characters have to do to grow up, and then you must make
sure that each of the tests actually tests that particular
thing. That way, the events will have emotional resonance.
As nn oxnmIo, In fho book I jusf hnIshod, The Fire Chroni-
cle (2012), Michael bears the burden of the quest; he is
the one who has to grow up. I struggled a lot with what
omofIonnI Inddor ho wouId hnvo fo cIImb, unfII hnnIIy I
gave him the one I myself had to conquer in order to grow
up. When I was 20 or 25or 30, I was pretty emotionally
battened down. It was a big struggle for me to let in the
pain of life so I could also feel all the good things about life,
nnd whon fho book hnnIIy cnmo nIIvo for mo wns whon I
gave that journey to Michael.
Character
Next, Ill discuss my approach to character in fantasy. As
a jumping-off point, I again refer to my good friend Bilbo
Baggins. At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo is not at
all a hero. Throughout the adventure, he spends a great
deal of time thinking about when hes going to get lunch
nnd dronmIng nbouf fho wnrmfh of hIs hro bnck homo.
That dichotomy between the classic quest adventure story
and the character who thinks about being warm and dry
and well fed and who loves nothing so much as a good
pipe, and who bickers with his companions, made a huge
impact. In an article in the New Yorker last year, Adam
Gopnik said that Tolkiens genius was this pairing of the
classic Norse adventure myth with Kenneth Grahams
(1908/2012) The Wind in the Willows, with its cozy British
characters. Bilbos humanity was the key to what made
The Hobbit work.
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character is human
and real, then within
your coming-of-age
story, youre constantly
ticktacking back and
forth from the mythic,
hero-creation story to
the personal, becoming-
an-adult story.
Socond, hnvIng n fuIIy
human main charac-
ter creates a point of
entry for the reader.
In my books, the children are the readers guides through
the books. The readers have never met a real-life dragon or
dwarf, but theyve been an 11-year-old boy or girl and been
hungry, tired, scared, and happy. They have had friends
and lost them. When youre writing fantasy literature, the
importance of that kind of emotional touchstone for the
reader cannot be overstated. Bilbo and the other Hobbits
provided it for Tolkien. You only need to read Tolkiens
(1977/2004) other Middle-Earth stuff, The Silmarillion,
where its all about elves and heroes, and therere no
hobbits, no real humanity, and it reads like cement. You
dont care.
Theres nothing new or unusual about this. Harry Potter
is a wizard but was raised in the nonmagical world. Alice
is the human girl who falls through the rabbit hole. We
need Bruce Banner to sympathize with the Hulk. I know
this seems blindingly obvious. You only have to go to the
bookstore and see rafts of middle-grade and young adult
fantasies about an ordinary boy or girl who gets whisked
away in another world or is granted powers. One of the
things that distinguishes the stories that are special is the
attention and craft paid to the emotional and psychological
construction of the main character or characters.
Last, in trying to create these 3-D, real human characters
in my books, I took advantage of one element in particu-
lar. In my books, the kids range from ages 10 to 14, and
one of the wonderful things about writing about young
ooIo Is fhnf fhoIr IIvos nro hIIod wIfh such drnmn (oh,
the poor things). They feel everything so intensely, and
thats because for them, everything is happening for the
hrsf fImo: fhoIr hrsf kIss, fho hrsf fImo fhoy fnII In Iovo,
fho hrsf fImo fhoy hnvo fhoIr honrf brokon. ThInk of how
HoIdon CnuIhoId Is n rnw norvo, or how dooIy IoIIn fooIs
fhIngs In SfohnnIo Moyor`s (2008) Twilight, which I think
goes a long way toward explaining the success of that
series. Adults reading that might say, Really, I think you
That was a lesson I took to heart when I began writing
The Emerald Atlas (2011). I wanted the kids in my novel
to be real kids. I wanted them to get cold and tired and
hungry and irritable. I wanted their reactions in given
situations to be as close as possible to the reactions real
children would have in those situations. I grew up with
two sisters, and I knew that we argued a lot. I wanted the
book fo roocf fhnf, fo hnvo fho kIds squnbbIo, fhon bo
there for each other when it mattered, and then squabble
again. I wanted to have the brother and sister dynamic be
the brother and sister dynamic that I knew from my own
IIfo bocnuso for mo, fho IIfmus fosf for nII hcfIon, fnnfnsy or
otherwise, is whether it feels emotionally true. I dont care
If fhoro nro drngons, wIznrds, or yIng cnrs. o fho chnrnc-
ters feel real?
It seems like a no-brainer to have your characters be
as human or real as possible, yet frequently in fantasy,
that seems to be overlooked. I think sometimes writers
of fantasy feel the need to have their characters be more
heroic than people normally are, when Id argue the exact
opposite is true. Fantasy, more than most genres, demands
your characters be as real and three-dimensional as you
can make them. There are a couple reasons why this
attention to character is so important in fantasy (and Ill
oxInIn fhIs bocnuso If ronIIy Inuoncod my own docIsIons
about characters in writing my books).
IIrsf, much of hcfIon nnd sforyfoIIIng Is nbouf soffIng
up and developing contrasts. In the case of my books, its
about creating this large epic, fantastic canvas, peopled
by magical beings, the fate of the world hanging in
the balance, and placing very real children, with real
problems, faults, and virtues, inside of that. Doing this
brings both elements into relief, the humanity of the
characters and also the magical, fantastic, epic elements.
The more human your characters are, the more magical,
frightening, and dramatic your world is, and vice versa.
This idea of contrasts plays nicely in the coming-of-
age quest because this part of the story then becomes
bifurcated, and you the writer have to be aware that youre
foIIIng fwo sforIos: You`ro foIIIng fhIs myfhIc sfory, fho
creation of the hero, and youre telling this very personal
story of growth. For example, I was a big fan of the show
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the one hand, Buffy was
called to defend the world from the forces of darkness.
Over the years, we watched her become a herothe same
way we watched Bilbo or Harry Potter. On the other hand,
she was a 16-year-old girl wondering why her boyfriend
hadnt called her (turned out hed been turned into an evil
vampire) and learning about relationships. If your main
I think sometimes
writers of fantasy feel
the need to have their
characters be more
heroic than people
normally are, when
Id argue the exact
opposite is true.
John Stephens On Fantasy
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need to put this EdwardJacob thing in perspective, but
teenage girls are likely to say, I totally get it. Romeo and
Juliet had to be teenagers to do what they did. When youre
writing about adolescents, each event is freighted with
incredible emotion. As a writer, youre dying for characters
who feel strongly about things because characters who
feel strongly about things make things happen, which is
what stories are about. Not to mention, being adolescents,
they can change their feelings on a dime. Again, think of
!omoo: Ho bogIns fho Iny dooIy In Iovo wIfh !osnIInd;
then, a moment later, he is head over heels with Juliet.
I have a sister whos 12 years younger than I am, and I
remember how in the morning she would hate her best
friend, and by evening, they would be nattering away on
the phone. I thought it would be interesting to put that
kInd of InfonsIfy nnd uIdIfy of omofIon nf fho honrf of n
fantasy novel. Just think about Lyra in Philip Pullmans
(1995) The Golden Compass, who lived right out there at
the edge of her feelings. That worked pretty well.
Secret Commie Plot
Every good fantasy novel should have a secret commie
plot. That was a phrase told to me by a producer once
about why certain television shows worked better than
others. While the show seemed to be about this one
thing, there was actually this other thing going on, the
so-called secret commie plot. Now I realize that what he
was talking about could be called theme, although thats
not quite right, or metaphor. For example, in Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, heres Buffy, this young, California girl,
going to high school, trying
to get by, get into college,
have a boyfriend, but her
high school happens to be
on top of the Hellmouth,
and every week she has
fo hghf somo nnsfy Ioco
of undead business. What
really elevated this above some monster-of-the-week
show, besides the excellence of the writing, was Joss
Whedons secret commie plot. The show was a metaphor
for the way so many kids feel, like high school is hell,
nnd fhoy hnvo fo hghf domons ovory dny, or fho guy fhoy
thought they loved turned out to be totally evil. In Buffy,
that was just explicit.
This was a lesson that I took to heart in writing my books,
and I thought it was important, especially in writing a
trilogy. In each book, one of the kids goes through his
or her own coming-of-age story, growing up, but what
was going to tie all the books together (apart from the
actual plot mechanics of defeating the bad guy)? Well, it
was the overarching secret commie plot. Once I had that
and imbedded it into the DNA of the books, I found that
I suddenly had a compass for the entire series; I knew
where north was, and all the stories needed to point in that
direction.
Hollywood, where I worked for a long time, has gotten the
rap, fairly deservedly, of being very reductive about story,
of only telling stories that can be described in one sentence.
While that can be very limiting in some respects and not
admitting of a great deal of ambiguity, I think that after
nII fho sword hghfIng nnd soIIs nnd drngons, you shouId
be able to describe in one sentence what your story is really
about, on a bedrock level. If you cant, then youve got a
robIom. So, n socrof commIo Iof, gof yoursoIf ono.
Setting
I dont have too much to say about settings in fantasy. I
dont even mind it when people do the straight-up medieval
thing from Tolkien. Whats important to me is how real
it feels. Michael Chabon (2011; whose fantasy novel,
Summerland, I fhInk Is gronf) snId fhIs wondorfuI fhIng:
fhnf n hcfIon wrIfor`s job Is fo mnko worIds fhnf nron`f ronI
seem real. It doesnt matter if your story took place on one
of the moons of Jupiter or in suburban New Jersey, your
job is to make people believe it. In The Golden Compass,
I believe in Lyras Oxford. I know how cold the rooms are,
what the crypts below the university smell like. The world
is tactile. I can feel its weight. My books take place in both
the real world and a magical world that exists alongside
of ours, but I did everything that I could to make that
mngIcnI worId, whofhor If wns nn undorground dwnrhsh
mine or a forest at the bottom of the world, feel real, to
mnko suro If smoIIod rIghf, fhnf fho sounds woro socIhc,
that I described it in a unique and expressive way, that it
foIf socIhc nnd nof vnguo.
Point of View and Style
The last two things I want to address are, to me, the most
important and the slipperiest, and they are somewhat
InforroInfod nsocfs: oInf of vIow nnd sfyIo. I nIso fooI fhnf
I have to discuss them at the same time because its hard
to separate the double helix of style and point of view. In
fnIkIng nbouf oInf of vIow, I don`f monn hrsf, fhIrd, cIoso
Every good fantasy novel should have a secret commie plot. That
was a phrase told to me by a producer once about why certain
television shows worked better than others.
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Childrens and Adolescent Literature Cited
Chabon, M. (2011). Summerland. (B. Oldenburg, Illus.). New
York, Y: HyorIon.
Grahame, K. (2012). The wind in the willows. (P. Bransom, Illus.).
!oxIngfon, KY: SImon & Irown. (OrIgInnI work ubIIshod
1908)
Lee, H. (2010). To kill a mockingbird. ow York, Y: Hnror.
(Original work published 1960)
Le Guin, U.K. (1973). Iron 1lfonJ /o Pougl/eepeie. Portland,
O!: Iondrngon.
Moyor, S. (2008). Twilight. ow York, Y: !IffIo, Irown.
Pullman, P. (1995). The golden compass. ow York, Y: Knof.
Sfohons, J. (20ll). The emerald atlas. (G. McFerrin, Illus.). New
York, Y: Knof.
Sfohons, J. (20l2). Tle [re clronicle. ow York, Y: Knof.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (2004). The silmarillion (C. Tolkien, Ed.). Boston,
MA: Houghfon MIfIn. (OrIgInnI work ubIIshod l9??)
Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012). The Hobbit. Iosfon, MA: MnrInor.
(Original work published 1937)
third, omniscient. I mean the writers point of view on
the world, how he or she sees the world, which I think is
fundamentally what draws us to certain writers over and
over again.
Its the same way it works with people in real life. You
hnd yoursoIf drnwn fo ooIo who hnvo nn InforosfIng
point of view on the world, who tend to see the world in
a unique way, in a way no one else sees it. When you are
wIfh fhnf orson, you gof fo bo n nrf, howovor brIoy, of
that world. I think that is the pull exerted by great writers.
Were here to talk about fantasy, but you could also say
that Hemingways world is not the real world. Nabakovs
world is not the real world. Nor is Dickens. Although their
stories, for the most part, would never be called fantasy.
And we return to them again and again because we want
to live for a while in Dickens London, or we want to go
hshIng wIfh HomIngwny In SnIn nnd fooI how cIonn fho
air is, how cold the water. The great fantasy writers, like
Tolkien or Pullman, belong to that category. Its not that
there are orcs, dragons, or demons in their worlds; its the
completeness and forcefulness of their visions. Tolkien has
hundreds of imitators, but theres only one Tolkien, and
its not just because of the clarity of his storytelling but
because his world is his worldand for as long as the book
lasts, we get to live there.
The rub is, when youre sitting down to write your fantasy
novel, this isnt something you can force. You cant decide
on a point of view. Your point of view is you writing in the
most honest way possible, and that, of course, is a natural
outgrowth of style. In her wonderful book-length essay
Iron 1lfonJ /o Pougl/eepeie, Ursula Le Guin (1973) talks
about the singular importance of style in writing fantasy.
Sho ounds homo fho oInf fhnf fho sfyIo Is fho mnffor. If
isnt merely the delivery form of the story; the style is the
substance itself. I would agree with that and say that it
couId nIso bo cnIIod hndIng your voIco. Too much fnnfnsy
fooIs oIfhor nf or jusf bInfnnfIy ImIfnfIvo fo mo; fho wrIfor
hns nof dono fho work of hndIng hIs voIco. If Is work, nnd
in my own life, it took me years and years to get there, but
whon you do hnd If, you know. And suddonIy, fho worId
youve created feels just as real, if not more real, than the
one youve been living in. Indeed, it seems to have existed
all along.
John Stephens spent 10 years working in television and was executive producer
of Gossip Girl and a writer for Gilmore Girls and The O.C. He holds an MFA
from the University of Virginia. John and his wife have a dog named Bug and live
in Los Angeles. For more information, please visit www.randomhouse.com/kids/
emeraldatlas.
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