(Cross-posted from The Writers’ Vineyard)
Genre fiction, particularly the Romance genre gets a lot of flak from some who prefer a more literary, ‘true-to-life’ brand of fiction. Romance, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and comic book super heroes, all suffer from the sin of being products of wish fulfillment. They allow events far from likely in reality. They allow happy endings. They give people unlikely successes and even super powers.
And you know what? Readers know the real world doesn’t generally work like that. Readers are all too familiar with frustrated dreams, failure and struggle, death and devastating losses. Every step we take contends with gravity. Every breath we draw and exhale passes irreplaceable moments of the limited time we occupy our planet – where countless lives have passed to dust, where empires have risen and fallen to be all but forgotten – look on their works and tremble, look on their works and weep for what is gone.
That’s life. That’s the reality we have no choice but to live with. We do what we can to adapt and adjust and better our world as best we can, and we move on. Readers are not apt to mistake happier fictions for fact.
But things are different in the world of imagination. We can imagine impossibilities. We can imagine anything we can conceive. We can experience the fulfillment of our desires. We have the power.
Consider how convincing a dream can be, how often we experience the wildest, most incredible events without ever questioning them – until we wake up. I have often flown and levitated and performed other magical acts in the worlds of dream. The experiences are genuinely experienced, if not in the world of our physical, consensus reality. Our imaginations can give us real experiences fulfilling real emotional needs. They can evoke real emotional reactions. They can give our minds and hearts some practice at successes we may not expect in life but are far more likely to be achieved if we strive than if we assume failure and never get off the couch.
The challenge of wish-fulfillment fiction is suspension of disbelief. People are so accustomed to the world of struggle, loss and failure that readers can’t believe fantasies of extraordinary attainment unless they include obstacles and conflicts and losses in the course of reaching for the prize.
In fantasy we can have the lover of our hearts desires, the fabulous mansion or quiet garden of our dreams – and without all the complications that reality entails. We can have the happy ending without worries about property taxes or paying the gardeners…
Critics of wish-fulfillment fantasies may claim that they give us unrealistic expectations, but we know better. We’ve lived in this world long enough – at least – to have learned to read. We’re born knowing how to cry. We learn soon enough that our dreams are much bigger than reality can generally fill – and that fantasy can bring us solace for all that reality denies.