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Photo by Mark Bowsher

Fantasy: of course it’s not only for introverts

Essay | 11 minute read
Readers of fantasy are all introverted book worms who rarely leave the house, right? Wrong, says Mark Bowsher, fantasy aficionado and author of 'The Boy Who Stole Time'

Fantasy fans. There’s a certain stereotype about us. We’re vitamin D-deprived introverts who like to spend our days indoors with our heads stuck in a book, shutting out a world that’s all just too much for our delicate little souls.

Except that’s not entirely true.

My experience of fantasy, and speculative fiction in general, is that it attracts the open-minded. And the open-minded are often, but not always, extroverted people.

The assumption that lovers of fantasy literature or the wider world of speculative fiction, TV and cinema being solely for people mentally trying to block out the world, is frustratingly misleading. In 2010 a Daily Mail article stated that many moviegoers who enjoyed the spectacular visuals of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning film Avatar left the cinema depressed at not being able to visit the world of Pandora in real life. What made me furious about this article (apart from it being based on a single online post which happened to receive quite a few comments) was that there are so many places that are breathtakingly spectacular on our own planet that people are able to visit.

Perhaps it was my own upbringing that led me to use all the escapist literature I’ve always been attracted to as motivation to travel myself. I’ve always walked a fine line between introvert and extrovert (a line which is finer than many may imagine) and in the handful of decades I’ve spent on this planet so far I’ve encountered a large number of like-minded people. People who escape into fictional worlds that are so much more alive to them as they’ve seen a lot of the real world or been encouraged to by many influences, including fantasy works.

My own book, The Boy Who Stole Time, is very much a culmination of all this experience. It started through an utter fit of depression, as October arrived four years ago and summer seemed to merge seamlessly into winter, hardly giving autumn a space to breathe. I was struggling to find freelance film work. I needed to escape. I started writing with a furious speed as I was cast back to my own largely introverted childhood.

I was brought up on adventure stories. Looking at books I’ve kept from my childhood there’s always a physical journey at the core of the story, with characters exploring a realm previously unknown to them. Whether it’s whole new worlds in Roald Dahl’s The BFG or C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew or simply exploring your own surroundings in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or Graham Greene’s The Little Train. I could have become addicted to escapism as a form of mental shelter from the challenges and drudgery of everyday life but my response over time has become far more proactive. All literature has the ability to transport us from our own lives and fundamentally it’s the reason we read. But it’s what we do when we put the book down that is the vital step.

This idea of escape can lead you in one of two directions. Firstly, you read a book set in a world full of magic and intrigue, you see a 3D blockbuster movie with an incredibly well-realised planet full of colourful flora and fauna, you sigh and conclude that the real world is boring. You cannot visit beautiful places. There is only the boredom and inevitability of the landscape you see every day. Moving from home to work and back again; living your life between two boxes with only a blur of concrete and tarmac in between.

The second direction sees many people use their introverted habits to motivate them to seek out the awesome (literally awesome) sights of the real world. Reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights could make you want to see the aurora for yourself and then on re-reading, the story’s settings are enriched with experience. Imagination can lead us to explore our own planet or even just our own backyard, searching for that secret garden. I use these two examples because I recently spoke to someone who had travelled to Svalbard because of Pullman’s book. A friend I made while travelling in Cuba was reading The Secret Garden when we met, a tale she had read as a child. She had started by exploring her back garden and now, here she was, travelling solo for 14 months, making new friends everywhere she went.

The Northern Lights. Photo by Lightscape

And it is the world of travel where I have encountered most people who, like myself, have crossed from the introvert to the extrovert camp. It has been a slow journey to get here though and it’s something I’ve channelled into my lead character, Krish, in The Boy Who Stole Time.

Unlike me, Krish isn’t very imaginative and he loves sport. I am sick of bookish characters in children’s fantasy who adore the kinds of stories they end up inhabiting. But Krish is someone who, like me, learns confidence. He keeps himself to himself most of the time. But on family holidays in the countryside he feels free from any inhibitions. It’s here where he first learns that the world is bigger than the two boxes of home and school. This was inspired by all the family holidays I enjoyed as a child. Every Easter, every summer holiday, every half term, my mum, my brother and grandparents would head out to the country in the caravan and explore. Chapter two of The Boy Who Stole Time is very much based on those family holidays; my first steps away from being a committed introvert.

As I grew up I discovered a world of fellow dreamers: Actors from my days in school plays who had found a way to channel their love of fictional worlds and characters into something physical. Filmmakers (I am now one of them) who are imaginative to the point where they must dream up a world, find physical locations to commit their vision to camera and then create something in post-production which may be far from the experience of being on set. So it is not surprising that many of the actors and filmmakers I’ve met over the years, whether they were starring in stage musicals or directing kitchen sink drama films, read widely. And that speculative fiction has been a huge part of their literary diet. It is fuel for the imagination.

But the place where I have met most former introverts is on my travels. Those caravanning holidays as a child made me realise the world was already a much bigger place that I’d ever thought and adventure stories left me hungry to see the world. And as with actors and filmmakers, fantasy and science fiction novels were huge favourites amongst backpackers.

These were people with plenty of free time to read on long journeys, on beaches, in forests or on quiet nights at hostels without the distraction of TV. People who saw the variety that planet Earth offers to those willing to venture out into it regularly as something just as fantastic, if not more so, than the landscapes of other worlds in books. Backpackers dream of adventures, often because of the stories read when young, when we see no reason not to fulfil those dreams by exploring some of the 194 countries out there, beyond our own.

As adults, some may dismiss any concept of adventure as deluded, childish, unrealistic. Others come to embrace the fantastical and become determined to channel the wonder of these books into a lifelong love of travel. Exploring the real world can embellish fantasy tales. The more you’ve seen of it, the more tangible these worlds can become. And this is where us authors have a responsibility to make our fantasy landscapes real.

I wouldn’t say that it’s spoilery to tell you that the final chapter of The Boy Who Stole Time addresses this point. I don’t write books for readers to put down and feel like those viewers of Avatar in 2010. I used my memories of real places to create landscapes I hope will seem so vivid that you will wonder if they are based on the real. And the terrain of Ilir is very much based on actual deserts I have walked across, mountains I have climbed and depths I have dived into.

The landscapes in my book were based on real places. The descriptions of the desert in Krish and Balthrir’s journey across Ilir is inspired by the five days I spent trekking with nomads in the Sahara. I pilfered details from a four day boat trip on the Nile when writing about the crossing of The Scar. Even the man who Krish sees burning an image of the Black Palace onto a piece of wood using the sun and a magnifying glass, is based on something I saw on the streets of Aït Benhaddou in Morocco.

Mark Bowsher trekking with nomads in the Sahara

Creating convincing worlds was so important to me, and I wonder if some of my favourite authors feel the same way. Certainly, in my time directing films for Unbound I met writers with a love of the travel and exploration. While filming Tom Cox in the Peak District, I found that he had a habit of wandering off into the countryside if left unattended for a few seconds to gather more inspiration from his surroundings. The hangings on the walls of the delightfully grumpy Brian Aldiss’s house, which I assumed were novelty tea towels, turned out to be rugs collected on his travels around the world.

Then recently I spotted a note on the back of The Amber Spyglass which, when referring to the artwork, read:

‘Landscape from a photograph by the author.’

I got rather excited. I am a huge fan of Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials were a big influence on The Boy Who Stole Time. I decided to tweet him about the picture. I asked where he took it and he replied:

‘It was at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, in Alberta, Canada.’

Was I onto something? I’d read that he had never been to Svalbard but what about Cittàgazze or the world of the mulefa? Were they inspired by places he had visited?

‘No. I don’t travel much. I sat at my desk and made it up.’

Apparently there had been a similar exchange on the set of Marathon Man. After hearing that his co-star Dustin Hoffman hadn’t slept for three days to portray his physically and emotionally exhausted character, Laurence Olivier allegedly remarked, ‘My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?’ (Disclaimer – No, I don’t think I’m like Hoffman.)

The point is, whether writers of fantasy have based landscapes on places we have visited ourselves is in many ways irrelevant. It is what the reader decides to do with those dreams of travel and adventure that is important. What we as fantasy writers must continue to do is make our worlds feel within your grasp. Make you feel you could stand there, taste the food or feel the grit of the sand in your eyes. To make you feel like this really is a place you could visit, not a far off world of blue aliens.

The final and most salient point is this: We must not shatter the verisimilitude of these worlds by forgetting empathy. Many of us fantasy writers are influenced by myth and folklore that has a tendency towards grand, sweeping tales, skipping through time, hopping from place to place and from character to character. This can leave readers feeling distant or even alienated from the characters and by extension the worlds they inhabit.

In The Boy Who Stole Time, there are two sections in which the backstory is explained through ‘fire-side tales’; stories that may be more legend than truth. Krish hates stories and doesn’t find the first he is told at all believable (about the essence of time itself). I want these tales to be in stark contrast to Krish’s experience of Ilir, where so many of his thoughts and experiences are explored in explicit detail, because we should feel close to him if we are to believe Ilir could be real.

Good, well-observed characters are an integral part of world-building. If your characters don’t feel like someone you’ve met, someone you can picture, someone you can empathise with in some way, all that world-building is useless. How could you visit a place that seems so real if you can’t picture yourself in it? I have tried to put as much of me, my friends, family, as much of human nature, into the characters. The experience and understanding of other people that I have channelled into my fiction hasn’t come from spending time shut away from the world with only the pages of a book for company.

So to dismiss most fantasy fans as introverts, living adventures through other people, is just wrong. However we create our worlds, through experience, through imagination or, as is probably most common, through a combination of the two, we have a responsibility to inspire. Fantasy fans are often proactive dreamers who have the imagination, motivation and open-mindedness to venture out into countless landscapes contained on this small blue-green dot, which have inspired countless literary worlds.

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