This is part rant, part how-to. One reason I think not very much domestic fantasy is written is the sheer lack of models; it’s much easier to walk the paths of, say, the save-the-world plot because there’s so much of it out there to show you how to do it.
How do I define domestic fantasy? Very simply, as centering on home and family. The home doesn’t have to be a house or the place where the person was born; you can make excellent stories out of exiles returning home, or people migrating or immigrating to new countries. And the family need not be blood kin; it can be a chosen family or an adopted one. One thing I think doesn’t make the story necessarily domestic is falling in love. That will give the protagonist a spouse, but not parental or sibling figures or an extended family, and usually no children on-stage in the story.
And there are models out there, though it’s rare compared to the world-saving stuff:
- Pioneer novels (for example, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and books like Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which deal with the protagonists traveling into newer and wilder country to establish homes). Also, pioneer nonfiction, like Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, which chronicles the journey of an English gentlewoman into the Canadian countryside; she both loved and hated the land, and her family had to face really harrowing poverty.
- A lot of nineteenth-century “realist” fiction is closely concerned with marriage, inheritance, bastardy, family fortunes, and other plots bound to the house (Austen, Eliot, Dickens and Trollope all wrote novels like this, and even “sensation” novels by authors such as Wilkie Collins dealt with intrusions into the family circle by lower-class impostors).
- Some animal fantasies, like Watership Down, which has a quest at the heart of it—but it’s a quest for home and safety, not for power.
- Ursula K. LeGuin’s Tehanu (I used to think I hated this book. But, after thinking about it, I realized I hate the ending. It’s a deus ex machina, and it betrays the themes of the book so far, which concentrated on what happens in the home while the “hero’s” gone and after he “comes home.” Ignore the last chapter, and it’s quite a fine domestic fantasy).
All of these have various points in their favor, and if one isn’t to your taste and you want to write a domestic fantasy, another might be.
Below are more general points that might be useful.
1) Family, home, and domestic labor is not inherently boring.
As I mentioned before, it might be easy to write about sword-fights, magical training, final battles, and romances because you’ve read about them more often. But they’re not inherently more exciting. Ask anyone who’s been dragged through a long battle sequence that spends more time dwelling on tactics and gore than infusing a sense of emotion into the scene. And romances that use clichéd dialogue and the exact same means of characters falling in love with each other that a hundred other novels do are just treading the ruts more deeply.
Think deep. Think about the collective secrets in a family, the in-jokes and shared experiences no outsider can understand, the vagaries that people live with or idly chide each other about without expectations of ever making a permanent change in the family members who have them, the power politics that come into play, the fact that three siblings can have six different bonds depending on the views of each person, the small wounds that fester untended for years, and how the family faces the world.
Think about what does make a place home. Many fantasy heroes are so eager to escape home that I wonder how they’ll ever choose a place they actually want to dwell in. No, it doesn’t have to be the place they were born—in the case of a chosen or adopted family, it probably won’t be—but few fantasy plots contribute much to letting the character develop a sense of home. He discovers his heritage, his magic, his love interest, himself if he’s really lucky. But where he ends up living is often enough just the place where he needs to be to rule the country or where his ancestors lived, whether or not he ever has a personal feeling for it. Thus it’s a complicated question that many fantasies ignore altogether. (In this sense, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana might also qualify as a domestic fantasy, since it deals with the notion of “home” for many characters born in the titular country, and what people are willing to do for a place they haven’t seen in years. Likewise, the Lord of the Rings establishes the Shire as a home the hobbits will fight to protect).
And finally, domestic chores. Yes, they’re the bane of dreamy young teenagers who just want to go somewhere and be someone else, but so? They can also form bonds between people (see point 2), and they’re necessary to make sure the dreamy young teenagers can eat, stay clean, sleep, and be taken care of. And the description of chores that the protagonists do to stay alive can be fascinating if it’s done with technology that isn’t that familiar to modern readers, the way it is in lots of pioneer novels, or if it’s braided together with amusing incidents. I think what makes it so boring in a lot of fantasy novels is actually a combination of the uninterested viewpoint character and the writing style, rather than because it’s not an interesting subject.
2) Domestic fantasy lets you have roles for characters based on their relationships to multiple people, and their activities.
Consider “mother.” This implies that she gave birth to children, and/or takes care of them. It doesn’t imply that she’s evil, or that she’s thoughtlessly self-sacrificing, or that she favors one child over the other. That only comes when you start forcing the character into the stricter role of “evil stepmother,” or “abusive parent,” or “mother who makes home life so odious with her complaints that the protagonist is glad to get away from her.”
I find that second set of roles uninteresting. Start out describing the character that way to yourself, and you’re much more likely to write her as a stock stereotype. Evil stepmothers are not considered in terms of what they might be to the husband. Nor are the mothers who favor one child over the other ever treated as though they had a reason for it; no, the favored child is always stupid and/or ugly, and the talented, beautiful child is the one ignored. There’s the wish fulfillment aspect again, and I wish to shove that aspect out the window.
The same thing often happens with adoptive parents. Somehow, the people who raised and tended and loved the child are not the “real” parents; the couple who died or gave her away as a baby are. This makes me bang my head against the wall. This is the same mindless valuing of blood that turns “peasant” heroes into the secret descendants of royal lines. It as good as says that nothing anyone does for the heroine is enough; only what she carries inside her matters. And then the adoptive parents are said to not love her enough or to be massively abusive (which makes me wonder why they wanted to adopt her in the first place; usually, there’s no motive given), to make it easier to get her out of the house and on the quest. Cue an equally massive rolling of my eyes. I refuse to read any more adopted child stories unless someone can reassure me that the child parts from her adoptive family with a heavy qualm. The pitting of the dead against the living is never a fair contest.
Likewise, I’d like to see more sibling relationships developed in terms beyond “jealousy of the protagonist’s talent ohmygod.” I may be the only fantasy reader in the world who finds jealousy boring—unless the protagonist gets jealous, too, sometimes, and has an actual cause—but if so, I’ll stand up as a minority of one. Sibling relationships should have more than one dimension, I think, and brothers and sisters can certainly be a mixture of playmates, enemies, caretakers, unwanted tagalongs, and pains in the ass. The careful working-out of a really complicated sibling bond is as fine and fit a subject for fantasy as saving the world.
3) Limitations and living with weakness are an inherent part of the genre.
If you keep a protagonist in the family, he can’t just assert his will every time he wants to and escape contradiction. (At least, I hope not. I suppose a domestic fantasy modeled on Heathcliff and his relationship to the rest of the family in Wuthering Heights could be interesting, but I’d hope that the character acting out then ended up getting at least the comeuppance that Heathcliff did). The trend of many fantasies is towards power, the individuation of the protagonist, the acceptance of free will—well, the protagonist’s free will; that of the people who oppose him is regularly ignored. The trend of domestic fantasy leads somewhere else. To keep the family revolving and the home intact, the characters need to learn to live with compromises and doing things they won’t always like.
Does this mean that you can’t play politics, or deal with power? Heavens, no. The parent-child bond, the bonds between spouses—and between men and women, if you’re dealing with a society where the genders aren’t equal—the bonds between siblings, the environment, and factors that will be disparate among the family members, like age, degree of freedom, and personality, will give you a boiling nest of power politics. What it does mean is that one character shouldn’t accumulate all the power to himself, as that will severely unbalance the story. Some fantasy novels are rigged like contests; who will become strongest in the end? Who will have the most magic talents? Who can do the most awesome things? The characters who “win” are most often the heroes and the people approved by the narrative. I don’t think a domestic fantasy can be set up this way.
If you have contests in the family, try to have them constantly changing, with some people winning most of the time but not all the time, or power passing back and forth almost daily. The adults may create certain models for the children even without realizing they’re doing so. A bond may form between two people that’s atypical of, or impervious to, the ongoing war of the rest of the family, like an older sister doing her best to cheer up and take care of a younger brother who doesn’t have a playmate because their other siblings are twins. And, once again, as per point 2, two people may have two very different takes on what their relationship actually is. Add group dynamics in again, like the relationship between three siblings, or between two children and one of their parents, and the balance shifts yet again.
This wouldn’t function in most fantasies, because travel and the constant meeting of new characters work against establishing balance. But if you’re writing a relatively closed home circle, you can have fun with it.
4) The family can give protagonists rare experiences in fantasy, such as comfort and happiness.
The sense of home might also go here, but I’m saving that for point 5.
Comfort and happiness are not incompatible with conflict. If a fantasy writer thinks they are, she’s probably tumbling headfirst into the well-worn track of, “The only way to do conflict in fantasy is BATTLE. And running through the wilderness! And making them angst! So, no comfort and no happiness.”
Oh, bullshit. There’s no need to go to extremes (the last rant on managing angst loses its complexities if I summarize it as, “All things in moderation,” but there are ways in which that’s accurate). You don’t need melodrama and constant tortured passion to write fantasy. You can have drama, but that’s a different beast. Drama can spring from perfectly innocent and perfectly humble origins. Think back on your own life, and how much of the drama actually came from things like people dying as opposed to spats and bad days.
Nor do you need abuse. You really, really don’t. The majority of fantasy heroes don’t have comfortable relationships with their families, but even if the requirements of the story say things have to be strained, there are other ways to do it than abuse:
- Silence. A great one. Two people can both believe something horrible when they interpret each other’s words wrongly and then don’t talk about it openly. And contact in a family gives lots of chances for misinterpretation.
- Growing apart. The child might have chosen a career the parents didn’t approve of. The parent might have married a spouse the children don’t approve of. The sibling might have gone wild, or started to run with a crowd the other sibling thinks is bad.
- Inherent distance and lack of time spent together. Maybe one parent was a workaholic, for example.
- A grave disappointment. If the family lost all its money suddenly—this happens in Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda—and had to grow up with a different mode of life than they expected to have, the children might resent their parents for not making as much money as the parents of friends do.
- An argument. You can have a family argument in a fantasy novel about something other than abuse, I promise you. The original object may be quite small and stupid, but a storm that’s been building for a long time can pierce all those silences and drag the hurtful words out.
And the relationship doesn’t really need to be strained, does it? Nor do the parents need to be dead. That’s often done for ease of plotting, but such plots are usually falling victim to those things you “need” to have in a fantasy novel, like a protagonist with no attachments to anyone. Try writing with the attachments instead.
Try writing a protagonist who cares for her family. Try writing one who loves her mother. Try writing a teenager who’s got beyond the rebellious stage and is now playing smugly at “trusted adult” with his younger siblings, combining with his parents against them. Try writing a parent harassed by the cares of many small children in a frontier setting. So many things are possible when you discount that small insistent voice in the back of your head saying, “But her mother must have died of childbirth and smallpox at once! Because her life has to be SAD!”
5) Rooted protagonists are neat.
They’re neat for the same reasons as duty-bound protagonists are: because the limitations are what create the story.
Say you start out with someone not in the midst of establishing a home, but with one already established. That’s the position of Tenar, the protagonist of Tehanu. She’s had her time of excitement and danger; once she was a priestess, and had the option of letting the hero of the Earthsea Trilogy live or die. But she came to the island of Gont, far from her own home, and married, and had children, and now she’s dealing with an established home. She adopts a horribly burned girl in the course of the story, but that’s not her first experience as a mother, and it doesn’t necessitate her creating a completely new home life.
This protagonist won’t pull up stakes and gallivant off at a moment’s whim. The people and the place around her are important to her; her stake is in their future welfare, which is also hers. Her connections to people in the nearest village, town, or country farm are in need of tending. She can have friends already, instead of needing to make them along the way. She can think about things other than where her next meal is coming from—or, if that’s still an overriding concern, as in a pioneer novel, she knows what means to get it are at her disposal, and she usually has other people who’ll share the meal. Work is involved. She has roots.
That does not make her boring. How can it? I would wager that, to most authors, not only rootless wanderers are interesting, or more fantasy protagonists would go on wandering instead of rooting at the end of the novel. Don’t let sheer lack of practice—because the heroine’s home life is usually beyond the purview of the novel—deter you. Try writing someone who has a home. Once again, you can find experience in your own life. This is the place where “Write what you know” can make a smashing good fantasy.
6) Domestic fantasy is bound to larger cycles.
The largest is probably the cycle of the seasons. When and where and how you plant, harvest, herd, and gather on a farm are products of the season involved. I’ve mentioned before how some fantasy authors seem prone to ignoring nature altogether; their protagonists are forever traveling or making war in winter, eating whatever food comes to hand, and are perfectly comfortable no matter what the temperature. Domestic fantasy demands you pay attention.
The environment has equal influence. A farm in Nebraska is far different from a farm in Canada; Susanna Moodie’s experiences make it clear how hideously hard some of the soil there was to work, and traveling through the woods to reach home will mean different kinds of transportation and different concerns than traveling across open plains. If this is a herding or village economy—as Tehanu is, for example—some commodities may be immediately available, such as wool from family sheep, while others, like cheese and butter, have to be bargained for from people who have cows, and still others, like spices, have to brought from a long distance. The protagonists can’t just have whatever they want, whenever they want. A domestic fantasy is also highly likely to be a fantasy of economy.
Then there’s the human round of the year: festivals, holidays, funerals, weddings, births, the intercourse of neighbors, local scandals, trips to town—which can be momentous indeed when your protagonist lives far out in the country—rounds by doctors and businessmen and preachers, parties, social alliances, gossip… I can’t possibly describe it all. The communal mind hums in domestic fantasy in a way it can’t when the protagonist leaves it all behind to travel.
These cycles are opportunities for development, not wasted chances to give the protagonist a flaming sword.
I think there should be more of this kind of writing, if only because it would vary the deeper parts of fantasy novels—plot structure and pacing, for example—as well as the kinds of events and protagonists available.