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Mary Robinette Kowal – Eight Simple Rules for Talking About Fantasy


This, my dears, will be my final Reel Fantasy column. I hope you’ve enjoyed our sojourn through the wonders of fantasy. But before I depart, there are a few lessons I’d like to impart so that you can speak knowledgeably about the genre — particularly if you’re trying to convince others to give it a shot. We’ve spent the last year picking fantasy apart and looking at the pieces. Here’s what we’ve learned.

1. What are the sub-genres?
Everyone thinks they know what fantasy is, and immediately turn to elves and magic. Fantasy is broader than that. You can talk about steampunk, dark fantasy and epic fantasy but the thing that all fantasy has in common is that it breaks the rules of nature in some form. There are some movies, like Big Fish (2003), which look like fantasy, but aren’t. It’s good to know the difference.

2. What’s the history of fantasy?
Fantasy and movies have been linked together almost since the beginning of cinema, the history of which is peppered with seminal works not just in our genre, but in the larger field. Flicks like King Kong, Lost Horizons and Beauty and the Beast are milestones in movie history that worked to define the fantasy genre.

3. How do they do those cool tricks?
The number of tricks that special effect wizards can bring to bear on making movie magic is truly spectacular these days. Make sure you know the difference between puppetry, stop motion and cgi. The short form: Puppetry is the only one that happens in real time; CGI happens on a computer; Stop motion happens at glacial speed.

4. What stereotypes plague fantasy?
As much as we love fantasy, it is often troubled with stereotypes. Be ready to question the lack of racial diversity in fantasy’s heroes. Pay attention to the role of women, the elderly and of course, think of the poor orphaned children.

5. What are the essential elements of an epic fantasy flick?
If you are talking epic, you need a quest in which the hero can prove herself by overcoming adversity. You need an iconic weapon with which to oppose the forces of Eeevil. Of course you need the forces of evil to oppose in glorious battle. And the element everyone overlooks? You need a sidekick.

6. What should you wear (and not to wear) in fantasy movies?
The clothing in fantasy ranges from fantastic to just plain dumb. Personally, I think it’s important to be able to talk about the wardrobe choices since that’s one of the things the folks who don’t get fantasy tend to naysay. Sure, there are chicks in chainmail and men in ill-conceived loincloths, but there’s also a whole range of really luscious clothing to consider.

7. What fantasy movie fits what occasion?
Make sure you are ready with a fantasy flick for any occasion. Got stress? Check out The Neverending Story. Ready for Christmas? How about Scrooged. Heading out for a date? Why not check out Stardust. The point is, there’s a fantasy movie to meet almost any need.

8. What’s coming up next?
You should always stay on top of what’s coming down the pike. This means not only looking at the flicks coming up in 2010, but also keeping an eye out on the books, like Acacia, that might make for the next big fantasy franchise.

That’s all you need to know, folks. And with that, I will exeunt, pursued by a bear.

Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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