I have a fantasy story I'm writing and several other fantasy ideas, which treats (in-depth or almost) some serious real life problems, such as diseases (mental or corporal), mental health degradation (like losing sanity), death, war, suffering, violence, sexual abuse and/or rape, prejudice, sickly envy, human being's cruelty and the horrors they are able to do/cause, etc. (all portrayed negatively). Of course, it's not all of these subjects in one single story, just 1-4 of them in each one, and the rest of the story is the story per se, and considering these stories are not dark fantasies, some of them include some lighter and relieving subjects. I like the habit I have of creating some stories with such heavy/dark subjects (not that that's exclusive to me only).

However, I have doubts if that's a good idea after I heard that most of the readers who like the fantasy genre are escapists, i.e., they like to escape from real life, not read more of that but with a fantasy setting.

That's a big problem and a dilemma, since I like fantasy settings due to the freedom they offer to shape and paint the world however I need or like, different from realistic settings, that requires to follow all of the real life's rules. And including such subjects is a characteristic I have, and I wouldn't like to amputate my story to please the readers, because then I would be the one displeased, as the story would end up not being what I initially wanted it to be, but I also don't want to limit the public to just a few readers, so I'd need in some way to please the reader, consequently displeasing myself.

But the question is: Would it be a shot in the foot a fantasy to have such subjects? Would it really be a turn off for most of the fantasy readers if the fantasy have these bits of reality?

Just clarifying: these subjects are not just put there and that's it. Instead, they are treated in-depth accounting all the consequences and sufferings connected to these things. For example: fantasy wars have little weight per se ("Wow, yet another fantasy war... Such darkness!". No). But what about the impacts, the consequences of such war? What about the innocents brutally killed, and the lives destroyed because of mere territorial interests? Things like that.

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    When I want to escape, I'm more of a scifi than fantasy guy, but I have read a few fantasy books in my time. One of the fondest memories is for books like the Wizard's First Rule (the very first book of the series). It has what you call mental health degradation, suffering, violence, mind rape, cruelty in it. At no point did I have the impression that that kept me from enjoying the book (these things are here, also, portrayed negatively). The Lord of the Rings has (arguably) mental health degradation, death, war, suffering, violence, envy, cruelty, horrors. So... no problem at all!
    – AnoE
    Feb 17, 2017 at 10:11
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    Exhibit A: Game of Thrones. Feb 17, 2017 at 12:29
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    "I think the habit I have of creating some stories with such heavy/dark subjects is maybe a peculiar characteristic of mine." Nooooo, this is totally standard. Not even slightly special, sorry. ;) Feb 17, 2017 at 15:07
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    Exhibit B: Most works of William Shakespeare @LaurenIpsum :-)
    – Lew
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:11
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    Just be careful that if you use real-world problems in a fantasy world that these problems are actually still valid in the context of the world you've built. For example, death loses most of its dramatic value the moment you establish that it is possible for dead people to turn back to life (or even turn into sentient undeads).
    – Philipp
    Feb 17, 2017 at 16:13

6 Answers 6


1. Everyone takes a time out from real life every now and then. That is healthy behavior.

We only do it in different ways. President Obama did not think of foreign politics when he played basektball. Does that make playing basketball "escapist"?

As long as normal everyday functioning is not hindered, the label "escapism" is not useful for a behavior. Reading fantasy is no more "escapist" than dancing, meditation, cooking, or any other activity that takes our minds away from our problems for a while.

2. Fantasy does deal with real life issues.

Fantasy has its origins in utopian literature. The Romantic medieval revival was an implicit criticism of British industrialisation. Tolkien developed much of the Lord of the Rings under the impression of the Second World War. Later writers have directly tackled such issues as homosexuality, open relationships, racism, sexual abuse, adolescence, and so on.

Fantasy is often idyllic or fascinated with intrigue and war, but other genres do not deal with real life issues more often. Much of crime fiction is simple suspense, much of science fiction is simple exoticism, much of romance fiction is simple love stories, and much of literary fiction is nothing but the excitement of watching other lives go wrong.

Once you read outside the mainstream (in any genre), you will discover many intelligent observations and analyses of present day real life.

3. As long as you satisfy genre conventions, you can use them to tell any story you want.

Readers turn to fantasy expecting certain things. They want a medieval world, magic, and knights. If you supply these ingredients, you are free to use these conventions to tell any story you want. There is no limit to what fantasy fiction might be about.

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    One characterization of some fantasy is "idyllic", but another interpretation is that it's a thought experiment on the nature of good and evil. How does someone who is unambiguously "good" confront something that is unambiguously "evil"? What's the bounds of their actions, and how much of that is driven by having to do good versus choosing to do good? - Just because it doesn't bludgeon you over the head with it and hides it within a compelling narrative doesn't mean it isn't there.
    – R.M.
    Feb 17, 2017 at 13:28
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    That is absolutely correct, @R.M. I focussed my answer on the more overt and specific "serious" narratives, and I am glad that you reminded me and pointed out the fact that some fantasy takes a more abstract and moral philosophic (or theological) approach.
    – user5645
    Feb 17, 2017 at 13:46
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    @R.M.: Actually, my favorite fantasy stories are about nuance of "grey". I love Abercrombie: his heroes have dark pasts, scars, etc... I mean, one of his "heroes" was an inquisitor with well-honed torture skills! And yet, the characters are attaching, because we see their turmoils, their struggle against the hand fate dealt them, ... Feb 17, 2017 at 15:59
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    I am pretty sure Tolken was influenced by the 1st world war,as he served in it
    – Andrey
    Jun 18, 2018 at 20:50
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    Fantasy is more than just medieval knights and magic. I dislike how your last paragraph implies that all readers of fantasy are expecting those elements. Jun 19, 2018 at 13:45

Fantasy readers may indeed be looking for entertainment in a world that is different from their own. It does not mean, however, that fantasy world should be conflict free, or that those conflicts should follow established canons like fighting against a dark lord or eternal squabbling between dwarves and elves.

Your question is actually not limited to fantasy, it's common for all popular genres - how do we create an entertaining story that touches a serious subject? First of all, I think, the author should make sure that the story is entertaining, and reader would be engaged until the end.

Let's start with an example of Jonathan Swift, whose "Gulliver's Travels" is, in my opinion, an iconic example of fantasy book dealing with the real life's issues. The key to its success is that those issues, while introduced throughout the book, never "break the character" of the story. Reader can either focus on comparison with real life, or completely lose himself in the story - each way of reading is possible, and each is rewarding in its own way.

J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is often thought of as an allegory for World War II, and even if the author himself denied that, nobody can deny that "Lord of the Rings" highlighted many serious issues.

So, you certainly can talk about serious issues, just make sure that they are a part of a story. Otherwise, those issues will be seen as a "payload" that was artificially attached to it.

  • "allegory for World War II" ...Surely you mean the first world war? Since Tolkien fought in it. That comparison at least seems consistent with the presentation of industrialisation in Middle Earth as an imposition of literal evil against the timeless good of the bucolic Shire - the first world war sometimes regarded as the first really industrial war, in terms of the scale of manufacturing and death. Feb 17, 2017 at 14:05
  • @inappropriateCode There is probably no limit on which wars Lord of the Rings might be regarded as allegory for. We're talking about readers' interpretations here.
    – jpmc26
    Feb 18, 2017 at 0:07

I heard that most of the readers who like the fantasy genre are escapists, i.e., they like to escape from real life, not read more of that but with a fantasy setting.

Such phrasing is an easy way to offend a fair share of fantasy readers ;)

On a more serious note, tastes differ, and like in any genre, you have fantasy works that are pure entertainment, those that attempt to touch upon serious issues, and a whole field in between. Like, I suppose, in any genre, the 'lighter' prose may be more prevalent on the market, but there are many authors who successfully write about, as you called it 'real life problems' - look to Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, or Orson Scott Card, off the top of my head.


Every story (I am talking about genre fiction, not high-end purple-prose literary exploits) needs a conflict. Any conflict, even in fantasy settings, needs to be believable, and allow your readers to relate to it, and the only way to achieve that is to base the events in your story on what happens in real life, or the extrapolation of those, with an optional involvement of magic, elves, knights, and so on--to appease your audience, for it is what that audience expects to find in a fantasy book.

Fantasy as a genre is in fact often much more violent, then, for instance, romance. Your knights have them, swords, for a reason, and if they are just walking around and talking politely about the weather without hacking anyone to pieces, why bother to write (and read) about them?

Write the story you have, not the story you think your audience expects from you. That is a proven recipe for failure.


Escapist fiction can deal more or less directly or indirectly with real problems. Western movies, for example, are highly escapist. But take a look at Pillars of the Sky (1956) a fairly little known Western.


People speculate that if advanced aliens came to Earth our society would be changed drastically just like many societies on Earth have been revolutionized by contact with higher civilizations. H.G. Wells, in The War of the Worlds (1897) directly compared the Martian invasion to European invasions of primitive societies.

Today, almost everyone in the world is a member of the worldwide technological civilization, so nobody has to face how to react to much more advanced societies - until advanced aliens discover Earth in the future.

And Pillars of the Sky give some attention to the problems faced by American Indians dealing with a much more advanced society. In one scene tribal leaders debate peace or war, with both sides making eloquent speeches and strong cases.

So even an action filled genre movie can have aspects relevant to a real life problem that many humans faced in the past and all humans might face in the future.

And a high fantasy story could, like a western movie, depict a small stone age hunter gatherer tribal society facing contact and possible conflict with a much more advanced medieval society (like in the Caribbean in 1492), or perhaps a medieval fantasy kingdom facing contact and possible conflict with a 19th century industrialized society as a more or less prominent plot point, perhaps based on real such events.


Just stop trying to make something marketable and write from your soul, all readers love that! The modern day consumer (especially consumers of books such as these) tend to be pretty smart and savvy; that is to say, readers will smell the stench of marketing analytics a mile away if you keep over-thinking things like this. I'm not saying you should not consider your markets, but in my opinion this sort of conundrum arises from the mind getting sort of tied in knots by worrying too much about these sorts of issues, which is easy to let happen in such a competitive arena. Just write from your soul my friend!

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