Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasy or portal speculative fiction is a story which transports the characters into a magical world via a gate/wardrobe/magical tree or anything else the author might imagine. As a child, this was my favourite kind of story, alongside the everyday humorous category of middle grade fiction written so well by Beverly Cleary.

WHY USE PORTALS?

  1.  It literally gets your character from one place to another.
  2.  It is a kind of decompression chamber, allowing your audience to make the transition from the realistic to the fantastic. It tells the audience that the rules of the story world are about to change in a big way. The passageway says, “Loosen up; don’t apply your normal concept of reality to what you are about to see.” This is essential in a highly symbolic, allegorical form like fantasy, whose underlying themes explore the importance of looking at life from new perspectives and finding possibilities in even the most ordinary things.

A PORTAL CAN BE ALMOST ANYTHING

  • Rabbit holes (Alice In Wonderland)
  • Keyholes
  • Mirrors (Through The Looking Glass)
  • Cyclones (Wizard of Oz)
  • A wardrobe (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Aunt and Amabel by E. Nesbit)
  • A Chimney (Mary Poppins)
  • A painting
  • A tunnel (The Cabin In The Woods)
  • A wall at the train station (Harry Potter)
  • A computer screen
  • Television set (Pleasantville, Poltergeist)
  • Rope swing across a river (Bridge To Terabithia)
  • A tall tree in the middle of the woods (The Magic Faraway Tree)
  • A science lab (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Back To The Future)
  • A maze of back alleys in your own neighbourhood (The Cat Returns)
  • Under water (Ponyo, Begone The Raggedy Witches)

WHY ARE THERE SO MANY PORTALS IN FANTASY STORIES?

Fantasy is another story form that places special emphasis on this technique of matching the world of slavery to the hero’s weakness. A good fantasy always starts the hero in some version of a mundane world and sets up their psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where they live and of who they can be, and it is what propels them to visit the fantasy world.

— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

TIPS FOR WRITING PORTAL FANTASY

DO: Ideally, you want your character to move through the passageway slowly. A passageway is a special world unto itself; it should be filled with things and inhabitants that are both strange and organic to your story. Let your character linger there. Your audience will love you for it. The passageway to another world is one of the most popular of all story techniques. Come up with a unique one, and your story is halfway there.

[…]

Fantasy is another story form that places special emphasis on this technique of matching the world of slavery to the hero’s weakness. A good fantasy always starts the hero in some version of a mundane world and sets up his/her psychological or moral weakness there. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of where they live and of who they can be, and it is what propels them to visit the fantasy world.

— Notes from John Truby, The Anatomy of Story

In Interstellarfor instance, we spend quite some time in the wormhole thing that allows our hero to push books off the bookshelf in her bedroom in an earlier era. (Interstellar is an example of Science Fantasy.)

 

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH PORTAL FANTASIES

Are we no longer willing to go Through The Looking Glass? from io9 asks why publishers have decided not to publish any more portal fantasy. There are several reasons I’ve heard, regarding why agents aren’t interested in representing authors of portal fantasy:

  1. A lot of first time authors write portal fantasy and first time authors don’t tend to be ready for publication.
  2. The reason a lot of first time authors write portal fantasy may also be to do with the fact they grew up on portal fantasy, when it was big. This may be a bad sign that they haven’t read anything since their own childhood.
  3. Even if agents do request a full for a portal fantasy they tend to get sick of the whole rigmarole of going into the new world from the real one and being told everything that’s new about the world. This gets same-old, same-old and is rarely as interesting as the author thinks it is.
  4. Also, once you stop the action to describe the new world, the pace flags.

As someone says in the comments: “Who cares what the publishing industry wants? If you want to write a portal fantasy, write it. Share it with people, polish it as best you can, and put it up on Amazon.”

NOTES FROM A WRITER/EDITOR

As an editor specialising in YA and MG, I tend to see a lot of portal fantasies (stories where the protagonist finds themselves in another world, where most of the conflict then takes place). And I’ve found that sub-genre to have some very common problems.

The most common problem I see with portal fantasies is that the conflict is impersonal. The protagonist is transported to another world, one they usually didn’t know existed, then required to save and/or escape it. My question: why should they (and therefore we) care?

Questions to ask to avoid your portal fantasy having an impersonal conflict:

Why does this world matter to the protagonist in a deeply personal and unique way? What does it mean to them that it doesn’t to anyone else? Why/how will it continue to matter after they save/escape it?

Another common problem with portal fantasies: negative goals. By that I mean, the MC typically wants only to get home or to avoid being captured/killed on this new world. Without a positive goal to back this up, it ends up making the conflict feel stagnant and, again, impersonal.

As you write your portal fantasy, ask yourself what your character wants beyond escape or survival or to save this other world just because that’s the right thing to do (or because “fate”). Could saving this world lead to him/her getting something they want, maybe in their own world?

Another way to make a portal fantasy personal if the character’s central goal is to simply survive or save a world they have no reason to care about: work that growth arc! How can they change while hiding from the evil alien monkeys on Earth-2? How does that impact their future?

Another common flaw in portal fantasies is poor world building. Don’t be afraid to dig deep, get wild, think about how the differences between that world and your character’s world would stand out and affect things at a level your readers might not have realised.

A well-done portal fantasy: Ready Player One (the movie specifically). The Oasis (the “other world”) MATTERED to Wade, and the stakes, though Oasis-focused, were grounded in the real world. The Oasis’s salvation was deeply entwined with Wade’s growth arc. Great world-building too!

@NaomiHughesYA

Query Shark has said about portals: “Stumbling through a portal is one of those devices you use cause you haven’t figured out how to get them to a different world in a more interesting way.”

EXAMPLES OF PORTAL FANTASY IN CHILDREN’S FICTION

  • Bridge To Terabithia — a swing rope across a river
  • In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis has Lucy (and Edmond) go to the wardrobe multiple times. We know exactly what it’s like in there.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia — a wardrobe
  • Alice In Wonderland — a rabbit hole
  • The Magic Faraway Tree — a magical tree in The Enchanted Wood where a different land swings round at random times
PORTALS IN PICTUREBOOKS

Many picture books are of the structure Home-Away-Home, in which the child starts the journey at home, leaves for an adventure then returns safely. In these books, there is often an image of the front door, or perhaps of a window. This behaves in a similar way to a portal (door or otherwise) in a fantasy novel.

There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy's bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.
There are a lot of images of the front door and the boy’s bedroom window in The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

Is it still a ‘portal fantasy’ if the doorway takes you back into the mundane world but with extra powers? If so we’ll add

FURTHER LINKS

The Portal Fantasy entry at Wikipedia

Portal tropes are heavily utilised in video games, of course. A part of me wonders if this is what has turned good children’s writers away from the device.

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 12: Evaluation Of Fantasy In Literature For Children

notes from lecture by Prof David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

  • Ida Rentoul Outhwaite was an Australian illustrator who for a short time was probably the best paid illustrator in the world.

  • Next, Beagley talks about the Cottingley Fairies, which was influential in a resurgence in interest around fairies.
  • Enid Blyton made use of these tropes — fairies good, goblins bad, little in size, based in nature
  • The whole idea of fantasy is not just this type of greeting card fairy. There’s a lot more to it. The secondary world is inextricably linked to the primary world: It is often a commentary on it, and is a way of looking at our own world.
  • Modern fantasy genre: sequential. They kind of have to be a trilogy, at least. A lot of the time this is a marketing tool, but there are positive aspects. There is now time for the world to be established. The reader truly understands the full world of the story, which may be very different from our world. Second, enthusiastic readers repeat-read (especially young readers). So rather than reading the first HP fourteen times, they read the entire series twice. There is real encouragement to keep reading through the books.
  • Supplementary reading list for this course: Artemis Fowl. Not a very nice person. A 12 year old genius super-criminal who wants to set up a worldwide criminal network, but using what he has discovered about the fairy world. The fairy world on the other hand are determined to keep themselves secret to avoid being exploited by humans. So they want to stop Artemis, but after a while Artemis becomes integral to protecting them.
  • Rowan of Rin series: Not grand, high-fantasy. Rowan is a little boy who lives in a village like so many other ones: medieval, non-industrialised (why do so many fantasies take place in non-industrial circumstances? — perhaps if those things were present it would be science fiction, not fantasy).
  • One of Beagley’s favourite authors is Garth Nix, especially his trilogy. (Nix is an Australian author.)
  • Nix has several other series too.

  • Philip Pullman is a well-known British author, especially for his Dark Materials trilogy. Northern Lights in Britain and Australia is The Golden Compass in the United States. Pullman very specifically states that he has written them to attack the Catholic church in particular and Christianity in general. He has a very specific intention in these books. This has generated a lot of heat, naturally. He sees C.S. Lewis and Narnia as the devil he has to destroy — he thinks they’re the worst propaganda to children and he hates C.S. Lewis. In doing so he has written his stories. Interestingly, there are a lot of Christian people who oppose C.S. Lewis because they don’t think authors should play with the biblical stories. And then Pullman comes along. Now Narnia looks a lot better.

  • Tamora Pierce: One of Beagley’s favourites. She has managed to create immensely powerful and effective female heroes. It’s so engendered, the idea of hero in our culture. He has to be an alpha male, the white knight on the fiery steed, dripping with testosterone. But Tamora Pierce has created characters such as Alana, who is a knight.

  • Pearce has also created the character of Beka Cooper, who is a dog. (The series is called Provost’s Dog.) Beka turns into a stronger and stronger dog as the series progresses, until finally she is a mastiff. These books are a well-written mixture of crime and fantasy.

  • Diana Wynne Jones, Anne McCaffrey and Jane Yolen are all modern writers also creating good female characters. Yolen tends to write about unicorns and myths and legends, rewriting them very well.
  • Lloyd Alexander and Sue Cooper write on British folklore, Merlin, that sort  of story — Welsh and Scottish legends, rewritten into modern novels (all tend to be some decades ago, 60s onwards. John Wyndham, Peter Dickenson, same thing.
  • Jane Aiken (Hodge?) does some very interesting time slips, looking at an alternative Queen Victorian age, in the genre that is now called Steampunk: an industrialised world but with steam driven cars and floating airships and titanic sized technology of the late 19th century. Jane Aitken was one of the first writing in this style.
  • Christopher Paolini is a modern example of this kind of story.
  • Some authors write specifically for the child/adult/teen market, particularly Australian writers. Emily Rodda targets more the primary school age than the secondary. She goes a little younger, to 8-10 years old — still enthusiastic about their reading. Patricia Wrightson’s Wirrun Trilogy is one of the best known Australian one, dealing with indigenous stories, putting them into the landscape.
  • Wirrun is a hero like Harry Potter — he doesn’t want to be a hero, just wants to live a quiet life but he has to deal with world-threatening people. There are three types of people: people in the know (indigenous), in in-landers (who have an inkling of what’s going on — farmers) and then there’s the happy folk (who live on the edge of the country — completely oblivious — the bulk of the Australian population.)
  • Isobelle Carmody is another really interesting one, all other-world fantasy. The series is still going, started about 20 years ago, returned to it more recently.
  • Kate Constable — the Chanters of Tremaris has a very interesting take on the nature of magic. Magic there is sung. (The ‘chant’ from enchantment.) Men and women sing different magics because their voices are different, and also children, especially boys.
  • Carol Wilkinson’s dragon series goes back to ancient China and looks at the nature of the ancient dragon, who is a water spirit not a fire spirit.
  • Michael Pryor is the editor of a large series of books — James Maloney, Gary Crew, major writers around Australia contribute. There is a city but each person then writes their own story within that city, so the setting is shared. The people writing later have to go along with the earlier stories even if they don’t like it. [His website is called Narrative Transport.]
  • Victor Kelleher, originally South African, wrote Taronga in which the animals in the zoo take over after an apocalypse.

  • Sophie Masson divides her time between France and Australia and delves into the Grimm’s fairytale type world.

  • These books tend to have toys, animals, family rather than the high fantasy swords and sorcery. They include what matters to a younger child: home, play, toys. Narnia is basically the kids trying to understand the world. Also Winnie the Pooh and the little woodland spirits of Mae Gibbs, Blinky Bill. E.B. White wrote about animals/toys.
  • Anna Fienberg’s Tashi books are based on old folklore from Europe, and the Tashi series is a cat. They are a brilliant bridge from the picturebook first reader where the picture does most of the work, to the full-text type of novel. It’s half in half. They’re not quite comics with text but every page has illustration, usually black and white, and is done in a sort of comic frame (though with no line) and three or four sentences to a page.
  • So many movies fill this area of storytelling: Flushed Away, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life. [Beagley loves Flushed Away and spends some time talking about it, but I don’t like in the slightest.]
  • Older reader movies: Pan’s Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s Storyteller series, using muppet-like characters to tell Grimm (and plain old grim) fairytales. These tales are very dark.
  • Some recent adult movies Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland are very much adult takes on these tales.
  • The key to any evaluation of a particular genre, regardless of genre and subject matter: Is it good literature? Is it good writing? Does it extend the readers? Does it draw them in? Is it a good intellectual and creative product? How believable is the secondary world? Does the fantasy therefore encourage you to say, ‘Oh no, this is ridiculous?’ or are you intrigued? How effective is the opening? Are you encouraged to read on and forget that this is a made-up world? Is the story consistent? Is magic used to get out of plot holes, or is it used more as an embellishment? Does the fantasy world make you look afresh at your own world?
  • One of the metaphors you can use for the fantasy author is that they are playing with lego. They’re taking established blocks but putting them together to make their own creation.
  • It is very easy to write cliched work. What has the author done to make their fantasy fresh and intriguing to draw you in? Cliche isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Young readers will read the same style of book over and over again. Young readers can be delighted to have 27 stories in the same series, even if it’s basically the same story each time.
  • Literary elements: What aspects of literature helps us determine good fantasy from the bad?
  • Character: Can you picture the main character straight away? Do you get a full view or is the character one-dimensional?
  • Setting: Especially in medieval stories, it’s easy to simply get facts wrong. Do you have a sense of the light? (The Australian light is very different from the light in a tropical forest.)
  • Plot: Do you know what happens? Are you able to figure things out from the details given? How does it end? (A lot of people don’t like the ending of Harry Potter, but endings are hard.) What causes the problem to emerge, what happens?
  • Who are we listening to? An external narrator, or through the eyes of characters? An issue with long series is that the reader is now more familiar with the world than the characters in it, so the reader will pick out inconsistencies easily.
  • Terry Pratchett’s series are humorous and satirical. He picks on the cliches and makes fun of everyday life. For example, he looks at the postal service, looking at the issue of lost mail.

Related: 10 stories where technology is indistinguishable from magic from io9

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 10: Defining Fantasy In Children’s Literature

As Fanny Howe reminds us, the fairy tale is a form in which, like Midas’ golden touch, a simple wish conjures up a reality that was all along potential. Not better, just possible.

Emily Carr, Fairy Tale Review

David Beagley, LaTrobe University, available on iTunes U

  • Fantasy is the biggest area in children’s literature, and close to being the biggest area in adult literature too, eclipsed only by crime.
  • This didn’t start with Harry Potter, though the popularity of that series has given it a huge kick along recently. Since there there has been A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl, Dark Materials, Eragon, all of these big, best-selling series just in the last 15 years, every since HP revolutionised the world of publishing.
  • Twilight is now challenging Harry Potter in the amount of marketing that is being done, from movies to pale make-up for teenage boys.
  • With movies such as Red Riding Hood, fairytales are now being returned to adults.

  • But fantasy is far from new. Works such as Peter Pan have been around forever. Fantasy has always been here and is here to stay.

Reading Material

  • Refer to Literature And The Child for a good basic book on children’s literature, by Lee Galda and Bernice E. Cullinan
  • For an Australian focus refer to Maurice Saxby: Books In The Life Of A Child (1997) and Give Them Wings have some very good explanations of fairytales and fantasy as a genre written by different people and gathered by Saxby.
  • Fantasy is very clear on morality. Fantasy goes for extremes rather than shades of grey. Villains are very villainous, heroes are very good and heroic.
  • Refer also to the work of Natalie Babbitt  (1987) Fantasy and the Classic Hero, in Innocence and experience: essays and conversations on children’s literature, ed. Barbara Harrison & Gregory Maguire. Boston: Lothrop, Lea and Shepard

Primary and Secondary Worlds (The Perilous Realm)

  • If we call where we are now the ‘primary world’, a parallel/secondary world may be influenced by the primary world but it is different in some way. The earliest use of the word fairy comes from 1393 from a writer called Andrew Gaury (sp?). Tolkien pointed this out as a mistranslation — it was supposed to be ‘of fairy’ not ‘a fairy’ and reflects a prejudice about fantasy and the fairy world. Fairy is a place. Fairy is the world of Rip Van Winkle, about a man who out in the woods meets some people, has a party and wakes up to what he thinks is the next day but is actually 20 years later. The secondary world is not inferior to the primary world. Another term used is the ‘perilous realm’. This is a world of danger and darkness, of the forest, through which Red Riding Hood walks. In the Twilight Series it’s the world Bella discovers, of vampires and werewolves.
  • Hollow Lands is about how children are taken off to a place to grow up differently. Fantasy is a dangerous, threatening place that ‘takes’. It is not just an escape into something, though it can be. It can be the world of little toys in Winnie The Pooh (as in Toy Story). These stories are humorous but they are also sad — the loss of childhood.
  • How do secondary worlds operate? (PM = primary world. SW = secondary world.)
  • One option: PM and SW are totally separate. (Rowan of Rin.)
  • Another option: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It is not here. Completely separate from this world. (The Hobbit, Eragon, The Wizard of Earthsea, Deltora). Even in the derivative worlds such as the steampunk ones, ‘This is what the world would be like if we did not have things like electricity, computers, nuclear power, in which computers are made out of wood with brass keys.) What happens when the two worlds get closer together? It’s possible to move from one world to another through a portal. (Narnia, Magic Faraway Tree, Magic Wishing Chair, Alice In Wonderland, Oz, Monsters Inc)
  • [RELATED: 10 KEY TERMS THAT WILL HELP YOU APPRECIATE FANTASY LITERATURE from io9]
  • A third world: Characters can cause things to happen in each other’s world. Although they occupy the same place they are kept separate. (Harry Potter, Peter Pan.) There is overlap but they are still largely separate.
  • Fourth way: Worlds are the same world: We are completely oblivious to whatever’s happening under our very noses. (Toy Story is a classic one, Indian In The Cupboard, The Borrowers, Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh — Nimh is a real mental health organisation)

  • The key element in all those four kinds of secondary worlds is imagination, creating an image, an image of things which are not actually present. So the author and the reader are both creators of these worlds. Imagination is the key to all human understanding. All our learning is extending into the unknown. At some stage everything we learn must be a leap of faith into the unknown. As Lao Tsu put it: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Even as scientists, as rational observers, we must for a moment think what could, what might, what if. And that’s when we start taking those steps. We must dream the future, then step into that world. So the experimental scientist is no different from the author writing a story and just wondering, or the person daydreaming about what could be. When we dream of these future truths, while they don’t exist now except as fantasies, we aim to create them as realities. We explore the boundary between the knowledge we have and the possibilities we have.
  • If we accept only that which we see, we go nowhere. We need to have someone taking us into the unknown. That which can be measured and organised is limited to what the human can see now. Imagination, on the other hand, takes us past the probable (though we can predict things based on what we’ve already seen) and into the unknown.
  • Fantasy stories use our imagination to understand what is happening here in reality. The term ‘speculative fiction’ is used to describe stories that consider what is not… yet. This enables exploration of great, broad concepts.
  • Cosmology vs Cosmographycosmology is the whole universe and cosmography is how it’s created/written down.
  • Tolkien is a master of cosmography. He had a real talent for languages and started inventing them as a teenager. During the first world war he created languages as a means to keep himself sane during battle. Tolkien’s languages are studied by academics today. Then he started wondering who would speak these languages, so he created fictional characters and the rules of their society. Lord of the Rings came from this thought experiment.
  • 100 years ago relativity in physics would have been seen as a fantasy story as in fantastic as in ‘non-existent’. Tolkien argued that fantasy worlds exist because we can’t prove otherwise.
  • Fantasy stories are usually asking ‘what if’? What if animals could talk? What if children could fly? What if toys could come alive? What if you could travel across the galaxy and turn left? What if you could become invisible? What could happen? What if magic was a human skill?
  • Types of fantasy stories stem from the what if question: Wish fulfilment (Harry Potter – what if I could escape from this horrible world from being at the bottom of the heap to the top?), Time travel stories (Madeline L’engle), Anthropomorphic Stories (animals operate as humans — Peter Rabbit), Utopia (the perfect world — Gulliver’s Travels is one of the earliest one), Dystopia (the horrible world — Z for Zachariah, The Lake At The End Of The World — particularly stories that happen after a nuclear holocaust).

 

Fantasy vs Reality In Children’s Stories: A hard balancing act

Fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves.

– Susan Cooper

“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

– Forget why fantasy matters. Why does realism matter? from io9

See Also: Four Techniques To Mix Fantasy With Realism from The Write Practice


 

In some ways, kids like things to be rightHere is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.