What is fantasy for?
I’m probably just a chronic overthinker, but I’ve never been able to do things without interrogating my reasons. If I’m writing fantasy—and I am, I always am—then it must be particularly suited to my tricksy purposes. But how?
I used to have a good answer: fantasy is a laboratory for thought experiments. You establish your counterfactual parameters, like setting up a rat maze, and then run your characters through it and see what happens. Fantasy is intellectual exercise, where you rigorously think through every implication, where every effect must have its cause—an overthinker’s dream!
My first book, Seraphina, was written this way. Dragons could take human form, which meant there were thousands of questions begging to be answered. I dove in head-first and answered as many as I could.
Running thought experiments, however, is not the only thing fantasy is particularly suited to. Over the years my interest has shifted, and my approach has become increasingly emotional and intuitive. Fantasy, I’m learning, can also be a tool for mythologizing your experience, for writing an emotional autobiography, as it were. Symbols and metaphors incisively cut to the heart of things, allowing us to be emotionally honest without telling our literal life stories; readers can recognize the emotional arc as real, while mapping their own experiences onto it.
That’s a lot at once, I realize. But let me show you how I got there.
* * *
I overthink emotions, as one might predict, and I have an idiosyncratic theory about what they’re for. Several years ago, two things happened in close succession that formed the core of my understanding.
The first was that I had a terrible fight with one of my sisters, which ended with her calling me a bitch. This was not a normal occurrence, by any means—we usually get along quite well—but that’s what made it so memorable. I was hurt. The word bitch was burned indelibly into my brain. We made up later, but she didn’t apologize for calling me that.
I finally confronted her about it. While she apologized for hurting me, she also insisted that she would never have used the word bitch—she considers it misogynistic, and it’s just not part of her vocabulary. Maybe she called me something else?
I was shocked and appalled. Here was this vivid, vibrant, flame-etched memory, and she had the gall to tell me I was mistaken? I looked to other witnesses for confirmation. My husband backed me up, but my other sister couldn’t remember the specific word. She only remembered feeling scared that we were so angry. My father couldn’t remember either; he only remembered feeling embarrassed that we were fighting in front of our new stepmother-to-be.
A smidgen of doubt began to creep in. If she could remember incorrectly (giving her the benefit of the doubt that she wasn’t simply lying), then it was within the realm of possibility that I could also be wrong. In the absence of a recording, all I could really be certain of was that whatever she’d said had hurt me. It had felt just like bitch.
Around the same time, my mother told me an anecdote about my grandmother, who was suffering from vascular dementia. Apparently grandma couldn’t remember the name of her own husband, the father of her children, the man she was married to for more than fifty years before he died. “But she sure remembers how she felt about him,” said mom, “and boy is she bitter and resentful of old what’s-his-name.”
Grandma remembered how she felt. Everything else may fall away—epithets, spouses’ names—but we remember how we felt.
Emotions serve a lot of purposes, of course, but this connection to memory particularly intrigues me. Feelings are like push-pins in the maps of or our lives, marking specific events. The inked roads, cities, and inscriptions may fade over time, but the bright hard nubs of emotion remain as bumps that we can run our fingers over. They help us trace the paths we’ve taken and remember where we’ve been, however imperfectly.
* * *
Mythology is another kind of experiential map, and I suspect the two are interrelated.
I was having lunch with my friend Arwen (a doula, not an elf), and she was telling me about childbirth classes she was teaching. These weren’t quite the usual flavor of childbirth class; they didn’t just focus on breathing and what to pack for hospital. She also taught the mothers-to-be about Jungian archetypes and the Hero’s Journey.
I was skeptical. I’d learned all about the so-called monomyth back in college, and I was sure that it was by dudes, for dudes. Dude hero goes out and performs dudely heroics and comes back some kind of super-dude. For a supposedly universal story, it was awfully gendered. What on earth did it have to do with pregnant women?
“Ah,” she said slyly, “think back to your own experience of childbirth, and you will see that the Hero’s Journey is an apt and excellent way of understanding it.”
She was right. In childbirth (as in any other Hero’s Journey), you are called to perform a task that seems too big for any human to handle. Once you’re on the road, there is no turning back. You undergo an ordeal and must surrender to it; if you fight it, it hurts even more. At times you think you might die—or that death would be a wondrous relief. You return from darkness with a great gift, which is a new light for the world. The world itself feels transformed afterwards, and you will never fit into it the same way again.
The Hero’s Journey isn’t about the specific tasks the hero has to perform. It’s an emotional map, and one that can be applied to a variety of struggles—even novel writing. This pin marks the place where you felt hopeless and alone. Here’s where your heart was eased when help came from an unexpected quarter, and here’s the terrible final push that you despaired of having strength enough to accomplish. Many of you reading this have never given birth—or taken the ring of power to Mordor, for that matter—but the attendant feelings, and the order in which they’re felt, are still familiar. You know about moving through fear toward grim determination, arriving at euphoric relief. It’s well-travelled human road.
It occurred to me then that I could make maps of other experiences. I could talk about deeply personal things, the hardest things I had ever been through in my life, without actually talking about myself at all. If the emotions underpinning the story were real, if the map was honest and complete, it followed that the story would feel true. This would be emotional autobiography: all the feels, none of the reals.
* * *
That makes it sound straightforward and simple. I was pretty naive.
But I had already done this on a small scale (no pun intended) in Seraphina. Seraphina’s dragon scales had begun as a little joke with myself, a way to talk obliquely about a private shame without anyone knowing what I really meant.
Here’s the punchline of that particular joke: I have a patch of eczema on my ankle. It flares up; I scratch it; it gets ugly; I feel ashamed. Yes, I know having eczema is not a moral failing, even if I sometimes make it scabby. If I were to write a memoir about this specific shame, I suspect that only the small subset of eczema sufferers who feel ashamed of it would find the book remotely relatable. Everyone else would be like, Huh. Poor you?
I didn’t want to talk about eczema, though. I wanted to talk about shame. Dragon scales were a mythological metaphor, not for my specific skin condition but for the feelings it gave me.
I even included a scene where Seraphina is so disgusted with herself that she pries up one of her scales and makes herself bleed. It’s a very personal scene, very close to the bone for me. I have lived that moment, if not literally. Making it about dragon scales gave me enough distance that I could be absolutely honest about the feeling.
Readers bring their own emotional maps to books, of course. Seraphina’s scales represent as many different secret shames as there are readers, and I think that’s one reason the book is particularly relatable. Seraphina’s shame tells her she’ll be hated and ostracized if anyone finds out what she’s really like; this may not be a universal teen experience, but I suspect it comes close.
* * *
I need to interject a caveat about metaphors: don’t use real-world identities as metaphors. Other people are not life lessons.
Even fantasy-world identities, like being half-dragon, come with baggage. It’s good to be cognizant of that. I wasn’t, entirely. That is, I knew enough to insist that my UK publisher remove an honest-to-god slur from the jacket copy (ye gods, I’m so glad they sent me that for approval; they don’t always). And I knew enough to include other human races and LGBTQ+ folks so that readers wouldn’t assume the dragons were merely a stand-in for race, sexuality, or gender.
Still, we bring ourselves to books, and it was inevitable that some readers would see half-dragons as a metaphor for being biracial. I didn’t intend that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. The responses have varied widely; some readers found my depiction not just wrong but laughably, ham-fistedly wrong; others thought I magically got it right. I say “magically” because I can’t take credit for something I did by accident.
I was writing about shame. If shame wasn’t part of an individual reader’s emotional map, then my book wouldn’t fit at all. I can see feeling insulted by the implication that shame could or should be part of that experience, if it wasn’t in real life.
We’re taught to look for “universality” in books, that texts are authoritative and prescriptive, but how can they be? There is always more than one way to feel about any given circumstance. No map—even the Hero’s Journey, which has quite a lot of wiggle-room—is going to fit everyone’s lived experience.
* * *
I wrote my third book, Tess of the Road, by starting with the emotional map. I wanted to tell the most personal story I had in me—a #MeToo story about a big-hearted girl growing up under Purity Culture, falling into despair, and finding her way back to herself—without, of course, telling my literal story. This map is not so much a Hero’s Journey as a Healing Journey; I’ve filled it with gender-fluid lizard people, World Serpents, road workers, courtesans, and singing nuns.
Telling you how I did it would take another two thousand words; the writing was a perilous journey in itself. Starting from the emotional map was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t necessarily recommend it. My map didn’t correspond to anything my editor had ever seen or experienced—of course it didn’t—and sometimes he reacted as if my protagonist were an incomprehensible space creature, having feelings no human would ever have had in her circumstances. I finally had to say to him, “If Tess is having a feeling you can’t understand, assume that I am right. Pretend it’s a math problem, and that I haven’t shown my work sufficiently.”
He buckled down and did it, bless him. Thanks to his diligence, I was able to make my personal, idiosyncratic map clearer to people who’ve never seen it before. It’s the emotional autobiography I’d dreamed of, and a delightful paradox, both true and not-true.
This was how it felt to be me.
Originally published in February 2018.
Rachel Hartman played cello, lip-synched Mozart operas with her sisters, and fostered the deep love of music that inspired much of Seraphina. Rachel earned a degree in comparative literature but eschewed graduate school in favor of bookselling and drawing comics. Born in Kentucky, she has lived in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, England, and Japan. She now lives with her family in Vancouver, Canada. Her new book, Tess of the Road, is now available from Random House Books for Young Readers. To learn more, please visit SeraphinaBooks.com or RachelHartmanBooks.com