I have theories. Some people, they don’t have theories; they just write. But I have theories.
To me, fantasy is psychology.
When you decide what a story is about (the theme, if you will), you gather information by reading the story, getting a synopsis of the story, or listening to someone else’s analysis of the story. You don’t just look at the facts, you look at the patterns.
For example and among other things, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about growing up.
It’s not as simple as that. But then again, it is. Is is about growing up. It’s also about other things. But Buffy wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying if it were about the monster of the week, all the time, with no further meaning to it.
If we didn’t need meaning in our stories, then watching people get kicked in the crotch would suffice for our daily entertainment.
Meaning = psychology, because meaning comes out of our souls, and for all that psychology can seem cold and soulless, it’s the study of souls. Can a soul be studied? Yes; if it can be measured, it can be studied. Measuring, despite all panic to the contrary, doesn’t suck out your soul any more than taking a picture of it does, which is to say – perhaps it does, psychologically speaking.
Fantasy comes out of myths and legends.
Myths and legends are what we had, before we had psychology (although studying the soul hasn’t stopped our craving to create more of them; see Buffy).
With a pantheon of gods, what you have is a collection of personality types that you can use to explain people’s behavior and determine what type of people – what values – are most desireable. Zeus is a cheating son of a bitch, but that’s okay; he’s in charge and keeps things running (no Ragnarok for that guy). Ameratsu is vain and hysterical, but without her, nobody eats. Woden is has no ethics whatsoever other than doing whatever it takes to eke things out a little longer, despite being doomed.
Batman keeps everyone safe by doing things “for their own good” and plotting against everyone. Willow never believes in herself and therefore craves, always, a bigger skill set. Vizzini is the smartest man in the world, but cannot anticipate another person’s acknowledgement that he really is the smartest man in the world, and using it against him.
And so on.
Our heroes, our villains – they are how we tell each other what’s acceptable and what’s not.
When you’re dealing with fantasy, you’re dealing with myth and legend. Sometimes you’re dealing directly with gods, but you’re almost always dealing with people who are larger than life.
You’re also dealing with “normal” people who go from the realm of the mundane into the realm of the immortal, either because of literal immortality, or because of deeds that will never be forgotten, in that world. That is, heroes and villains.
So, when you’re writing anything with magic in it, take a look at the gods inside of what you’re doing. Or, as Jung would have it, look at your archetypes.
Being a myth or a legend means you’re just a little bit off in the head, a little bit tilted off the normal axis; otherwise, nobody would remember you. Crazy. There are no perfectly sane heroes. There are a few everymen who try to be larger than life only when they’re out in public, but they have a few cogs loose, too. They have to run as fast as they can to stay in one place (that is, to stay “normal”).
The hero has flaws, not just weaknesses (the only one who doesn’t is Superman, except in the hands of some writers who use him as a symbol of unthinking obedience).
A hero’s nemesis isn’t the opposite of the hero, but a mirror image – most things about a good villain are the same as the hero. There are only a few differences. Otherwise, it’s not a nemesis. Lex Luthor, although not an alien, is strong, smart, attractive, admired by most people, and has a great deal of power (if he were weak, stupid, ugly, hated, and powerless, why bother?). However, he thinks he knows better. He makes his own decisions about how the world should work; he knows that if he were in charge, the world would be a better place. A lot of Superman’s villains are entities who think they know better. Superman tends to put what other people want first.
And Joker just wants people to be happy. Really. Batman has this rule about not killing people, but otherwise, they both deeply, truly believe that the ends justify the means.
When you see a Scooby gang, you’re looking at a collection of traits that are valuable. The smart one. The brave one. The strong one. The fool or scoundrel who makes everything hold together. Every Scooby gang has a touch of pantheon.
So please, please – don’t write fantasies with villains who have no good traits, no heroes with bad ones, no friends that never fight, no brothers who never come to blows, no lovers who never sneak around behind each other’s backs and say, “I didn’t cheat on you; I was tricked!” It’s not just that you’re not writing rounded, interesting characters. You’re writing boring gods.
Neither fantasy nor psychology forgives that.