Guest Post: Why Most Fantasy Novels Have The Same Setting

katniss fan art
The character of Katniss has inspired a wide range of fan art such as this drawing by yulss

by @thesk3tchbook, my daughter


It is curious to me that today many young adult novels take place in a rural world where people live in villages and hunt to find food and live in a state of lawlessness. It is very much unlike our current state of existence in which our daily lives involve forcing ourselves to get up in the morning to go to work and navigating various enclaves of the internet for both social and business purposes, and where much of our entertainment is from a screen. The rural poverty-stricken village of centuries ago becomes attractive as a scene for a story, first of all because it is exotic.

Characters in this kind of universe deal with severe hunger, disease, perhaps raids from invaders; and there is a lack of structure, predictability, or a middle class in this lawless storied environment.

Why do young readers romanticize such a place so much?  It seems a lot of people don’t realize how much happier they are in the modern world than they would be in such a crude setting. Or are they happier?

Decidedly one thing that distinguishes the rural world from the modern is the context in which skills are exemplified. It is much more interesting to highlight a character’s attributes through an exotic or centuries-old environment than today’s. For instance, let’s say the author wants to point out how intelligent a character is. Which is more interesting to read? “Thomas was known for his clever disposition all throughout the village due to his expertise in creating and placing hunting snares to maximize on prey,” or “Thomas got a perfect score on the SAT so his fellow students knew he was smart”? Let’s say the author wants to highlight a character’s beauty. The average reader would much rather read “She was indeed pretty; rumor had it that she had been pursued by many knights due to her astounding beauty” than “her beauty was undeniable; her selfie on instagram received an astounding five hundred likes!”. A rural old fashioned scene is just more interesting. In fact, we might even go as far as to want to live there instead of our own world due to the excitement.

Many popular novels in this type of setting center around a character we wish we could be: in the hit novel and movie series The Hunger Games, female heroine Katniss is a pretty and strong girl with a brave spirit and two handsome boys in love with her, and despite her humble background she rises to be an icon for rebellion against oppression in the book due to her generous and self-sacrificing nature. Is this book so popular due to its wish-fulfilling nature?  Most likely.

Modern youths (and probably youths in the past as well) are likely bored with modern life: after all, where is the excitement, the exhilaration, the passion that is so prevalent in these books with rural and fantastical settings? Ultimately escapism is the goal of everyone, not just novel readers. You see this frequently in video games as well.  We like these kinds of settings and storylines, I suppose, because we get to experience the excitement and wildness up close but the pain and suffering of any character is only imaginary.

So why are poverty stricken villages from the medieval times so popular in stories? It’s simple; they’re more interesting to write and more interesting to read. People don’t want to read what they already know and experieenc; they want to read what they know they want to experience. Besides, it’s much, much easier to watch excitedly from the sidelines than to experience it yourself.

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