The Human Side of YA Fantasy

aaronBy Aaron Gansky

Ever wonder why YA fantasy is so popular, and has remained so for so long? Why is it that fantasy readers are so rabid, so committed to the genre? Here’s the way I see it.

YA fantasy, by tacit consent of the genre, features teenagers or young adults as the protagonist. They will often have few friends, or no friends at all. But through their journey, they find loyal companions. Simply put, fantasy often features the outsider—something readers can empathize with. Even if they’re not completely unpopular, readers understand what it is to be alone, what it is to be shy and timid, to be afraid, to be mocked and ridiculed. It’s something we can all feel, and that empathy breeds a connection to the protagonists that other genres simply don’t always have.

And these outsiders are thrust into situations that are far larger than they are. Often, the fate of nations and kingdoms, worlds and dimensions, rest in their hands. Though they may feel overwhelmed, our heroes pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get to work, no matter the odds. They inspire those around them, and by extension, the reader as well.

Bdwarvesut perhaps the most intriguing aspect of fantasy is the familiar comfort of the unfamiliar. Think about elves and dwarves, two common staples in the genre. They are not human on the outside, but they do seem to reflect our humanity. While elves may worship nature and dwarves their metals, they both worship, as do humans. Some elves fall in love with humans, some humans with dwarves. Regardless, they all fall in love. Some dwarves betray their brothers; some elves are betrayed by humans. Regardless, we know what it means to be betrayed.

This is the true heart of fantasy—its humanity in all its unfamiliar packaging. Yes, there are more than a handful of rabid fantasy nerds who fall in love with that packaging—they want to know the entire history of the kingdom of the elves, the entire lineage of the dwarf nobility, the deep, rich history of a strange and foreign land. They want to know cultures and customs, rituals and religions. Why? Because it helps them to better understand the humanity of the creatures. They want to ascribe familiarity to the unfamiliar.

And what can be more human than the quest for power—or more specifically, the quest to overthrow an evil power. It’s a particularly American ideal, isn’t it? When you consider our nation was founded in direct rebellion to a corrupt government, it makes perfect sense that so much of the genre has that at its heart. The Declaration of Independence makes it very clear: when a government becomes tyrannical, it is the right and responsibility of the people to overthrow it and institute a new government that will care for its people, rather than exploiting them. Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

Whether it be Katniss overthrowing the capitol, or Luke Skywalker striking down the emperor, or Frodo destroying the ring—they all have one thing in common—an outsider finding a loyal group of friends who help him (or her) overcome insurmountable odds and rally an entire people (or peoples) behind them to establish a just government.

No matter how strange and unfamiliar the setting or the people within it, it is their humanity that keeps readers coming back for more.

These are tenants to which I sought to ascribe while writing Hand of Adonai: The Book of Things to Come. The main characters, Oliver and Lauren, are outcasts in their schools. They have few friends, save for each other, and soon find themselves in a strange land where they are loved. But, of course, the stakes are high, and the world they created together now faces an incredible threat from overwhelming odds.

mistbornIf you’d like to read some great books in this genre (other than my own), try the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. Or, if you’re up for an incredibly long journey, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is beloved by its fans.

WRITING PROMPT: Develop a race of people (other than elves or dwarves) who are uniquely inhuman on the outside, but who possess very human hearts. Then, let them interact with normal humans.

The Hand of Adonai: The Book of Things to Comehand of adonai

At first, Lauren Knowles is thrilled to wake up in Alrujah, a digital fantasy world she created with her best friend, Oliver Shaw, but the exhilaration of serving as a magical princess fades when she senses a demonic force lurking in the shadows. Though they designed a world of wondrous beauty, blue-leafed forests, shimmering silver rivers, and expansive medieval castles, Lauren and Oliver soon find their secret realm to be an ever-changing land of dark oppression and deadly sorcery. With the help of Aiden Price and Erica Hall, two friends from their high school in North Chester, the four teens must find a way out, a way that can only be discerned from the dusty pages of the ancient leather-bound tome, The Book of Things to Come. Faced with questionable allies, invisible enemies, and increasingly dangerous levels of difficulty, the four must learn to work together, to trust each other … or be forever lost.

In addition to being a loving father and husband, Aaron Gansky is an author, novelist, editor, mentor, teacher, and podcast host. In 2009, he earned his M.F.A in Fiction at the prestigious Antioch University of Los Angeles, one of the top five low-residency writing schools in the nation. Prior to that, he attained his Bachelor of Arts degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing where he studied, in part, under Bret Anthony Johnston, now the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. His first novel, The Bargain, was published by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas in December of 2013. The first book in his YA fantasy series, The Hand of Adonai: The Book of Things to Come, was published in August of 2015. The second book, The Blood Sword, is due out in 2016. He can be reached at or on Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, he hosts a weekly podcast called Firsts in Fiction.

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