I once received the following question in the mail from one of our readers, “I am hoping to take one of your workshops soon, and I wondered if you might have time for a general writer’s question about the fantasy genre. I was told there are core questions for every genre. Such as in mysteries, the question is always WHO did it? In thrillers it’s more HOW can the hero save the president’s life, etc? And in romance it’s: How can the two characters come together in spite of their great differences? I wondered, can you think of such a core question for fantasy?”
I’ve heard this “core question” idea before, and it is true that there are certain questions that strike at the heart of just about any genre.
For fantasy and science fiction, we almost always have to deal with questions of power for our reader. So if a protagonist is a young wizard like Harry Potter, the core question becomes, “What is the right use of power?” In short, science fiction and fantasy always have to deal with ethics.
I know that some writers suggest that in the future, morality will be irrelevant. This is a philosophy that has been put forward by a number of agnostic or atheistic futurists in science fiction, but I suspect that writers who believe this will instead find their own work to be irrelevant in the future—completely forgotten despite their literary panache.
The truth is that morality is hardwired into the human anatomy. Each of us as organisms must survive individually, and so we have the basic need at times to put our own wants and desires ahead of those of all others. In short, we may want—or even need—to steal, to lie, to cheat, to kill.
Yet we are also herd animals with a need to mate and rear children over a lifetime, and so we must sacrifice our own wants for the betterment of society. We go to work each day and earn our daily bread. We struggle to find time to play with our children. We give up a day of fishing in order to spend time with a spouse. We let an old woman take the parking stall closer to the door at the grocery store.
We are all angels and demons. Thus, on a daily basis we are thrust into this eternal war of self vs. society, and we struggle to figure out how to live comfortably within a moral framework.
So the moral question is the core of science fiction and fantasy. Because of this, Algis Budrys used to say that “Speculative fiction is the last great bastion of moral and religious fiction.”
As you consider the core question for your genre, please remember too that there is always a “core emotion” that you must arouse in each audience. In speculative fiction, we typically arouse a sense of wonder. In fact, I’d much rather get rid of genre tags altogether. Romance, horror, and thrillers are already called after the core emotion that they arouse. We could have genres of wonder, comedy, lust, justice, and so on.