If you were to ask most people, they would tell you that fantasy and science fiction has little or no place in literary novels. It may well be that it is a lot harder to convince someone that your fantasy novel is “literature” but that doesn’t mean you should avoid tackling the “human condition”; you may find it impossible to avoid it.
Literature and art
Often we talk about literature, as opposed to pulp fiction entertainment, as being a window into the essence of humanity. An artwork, book, movie, song, painting or what-have-you could be thought of as a kind of mirror. When we look into it, some aspect of our humanity is reflected and illuminated. We can, through the artist’s imagination, view a portion of our inner world or synthesise the hidden aspects of other people. Fantasy fiction is just as capable as non-genre fiction. Often it is just “good vs evil”, the eternal struggle of morality, that we read about in fantasy, but there can and should be more to it. This is where analogy and thematic mirroring comes into play (I just made that up, nice though isn’t it?)
The monster without as the monster within
Nietzsche, a rather sombre philosopher, spoke about the study of “the void” and monsters. He famously said, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster” This is a theme easily explored in fantasy. Buddhism would say there are no true monsters external to the self; all evil comes from within. As an example, I am currently reading a draft novel about a monster trying to fit in to normal life and avoid a monster hunter. The irony is that it is her human compassion that eventually leads the monster hunter to come for her. In so doing we see a reversal of roles where the human is destroying that which shows compassion and love while the monster is not undone by its otherness, but by its humanity. Caught in the middle is the human lover of this monster who initially wants to be a monster hunter, to be a hero, but through his relationship discovers that heroes are often the real monsters. Nice and circular. It is a nice twist in what would otherwise be a rather humdrum fantasy romance. It is the spice that turns a basic stew into a delicious curry, if you will excuse my metaphor.
Making it work
When we think about our story, whether short or novel length, we usually think only in terms of the plot progression. The story moves from point A to point B through crisis C. It is helpful to take a second look at the story and see if we can highlight the basic human struggle involved. For example, in The West Queen I have a story about a princess growing to womanhood and becoming a queen and the story of a young man trying to rectify a past injustice. Behind it all is the struggle between selfishness and selflessness, the questioning of the basic assumptions that murder is wrong and life is always right. Can killing one person to save many really be justified? It is a question of morality and spirituality that nations often have trouble with. Be careful not to overdo it, of course. In the end, a novel is supposed to be entertaining. You might win a zillion art awards, but that doesn’t mean much if no one reads your book and no one enjoys it.