The fantasy fiction viewed through the lens of psychology of literature

Pavol Štubňa


The study deals with selected literary and psychological aspects of fantasy fiction which can significantly influence expansion of cognitive, emotional and social competences in readers. The topic is viewed through the lens of a new interdisciplinary science called psychology of literature founded mostly on the assumption that both disciplines – psychology and literature – explore and explain the brain´s motivational circuits which determine the human behavior and emotions in interaction with the environment or with other agents.

Key Words

fantasy, literature, psychology, motivation, possible words, fictional worlds

Fantasy as a literary genre

Based on the categorization used in literary sciences for decades, the fantastic literature or fantastic fiction or the fantastic is divided into the following genres: fantasy, horror and science-fiction. According to Todorov, a story belonging to one of the categories of fantastic fiction has to fulfil two main prerequisites: it has to take place in the real world, and there must be an event that cannot be explained by the laws and principles which apply to it (TODOROV, 1975, p. 26). In other words, "the sine qua non of such mythopoeia is the making of a world that resembles ours but is not ours, a world that possesses internal logic and self-consistency to the same degree that ours does, but not the same logic: it must have its own rules, rules that are peculiar to it and that generate consequences also peculiar to it" (OAKES, 2003, p. 121).

While the function of horror fiction is primarily to trigger readers' emotion of fear and dismay; the storyline of a science-fiction novel makes it possible to look into the likely future;1 fantasy genre brings a plot that takes place either in the real world, but there are some inexplicable phenomena (so-called low fantasy), or it takes place in a magical alternative world, reminiscent of ours, inhabited by supernatural beings (so-called high fantasy or epic fantasy) (HILLMAN, 2003, p. 21). Another division of fantasy fiction specifies three major types within this genre (MOCNÁ – PETERKA, 2004): epic fantasy is based on medieval legends; heroic fantasy originated in a heroic myth; and science fantasy is characterized by the presence of scientific elements.2

Reality vs. non-reality of "fictional worlds"

From an interdisciplinary (philosophy, aesthetics, linguistics, different branches of antropology, psychology, etc.) point of view "fictionality is no longer defined as property of texts: it is either viewed as a type of speech situation (speech acts theory), as a position within a culture, or as a particular type of logic or semantics (possible worlds semantics)" (RONEN, 1994, p. 3).

Human beings do not perceive the exogenous world as an objective reality, but they only perceive and experience its constructed and structured version (SCHWARTZ, 2009, p. 65). The inclination of human mind to selectively focus only on certain objects, phenomena or events, and to acknowledge and assess their function (or subjective relevance) based on limited input data (instincts, previous experience and knowledge, etc.) determines the subjective nature of human perception and individual interpretations of the world. At the same time it excludes any possibility to perceive so-called objective reality.3 It means that in the process of creation and/or reproduction of fictional or real "stories" (narratives) – pieces of information are connected, modified, and/or deleted in various ways.4

In addition to individual physiological (e.g. overdevelopment or deficits in sensory perception) or mental (e.g. intelligence, traits such as extraversion – introversion, empathy, etc.) dispositions, the so-called historical memory plays a significant role in how the exogenous world is perceived by an individual (ŠTUBŇA, 2017, p. 127). It is substantially moulded by the social environment in which it occurs. Focusing on the fantasy fiction and what is habitually viewed as possible, or impossible (unrealistic, fantastic) in our consensual reality let us consider a typical protagonist of Twilight saga by S. Meyer – a vampire feeding on human blood. We suppose that within the real world, vampire figures could have been inspired not only by the existence of cannibal tribes or by human sacrifice in some ancient civilizations, but also by blood-feeding animals or insects such as ticks, mosquitoes, bats, leeches, or by people with a mental disorder called Renfield syndrome5 (i.e. clinical vampirism), or by mentally deviated individuals practicing (mostly) religious rituals with human blood. In the past, some cultures even believed that consuming enemies´ blood (and meat) would gain power for their people, and in this way they would also show dominance over the adversaries (WASHINGTON, 2012). Even in some traditional Slovak rituals, the blood (specifically menstrual) consumption played an important role: "The first drops of menstrual blood were frequently used as a component of 'love potions' in so-called magical love rituals. Menstrual blood was also used for its alleged healing properties (for warts); the first menstruation blood was also applied in 'cosmetics' since it was supposed to prevent freckles, rashes or stains on the skin. Menstrual blood was also called a female flower and it was believed to increase tree fertility" (BEŇOVÁ, 2010, p. 162). Even today, blood as a symbol appears in Christian worship rituals – we can hear phrases such as "drink the blood of Christ" or "eat the body of Christ"; in the street we can frequently hear a phrase "this sucks". So it seems that at the symbolic semantic level, the "vampire principle" is clearly present even in today's scientifically and technologically advanced society.

Theories of possible worlds

Within the branches of philosophy the concept of possible worlds serves diverse purposes: "it is used as a metaphysical term, as a concept of modal logic, as a way of describing epistemic accessibility, and even as a metaphor in the philosophy of science denoting relationships between mutually exclusive paradigms. Possible worlds are also widely employed in aesthetic discussions of representations, mimesis and artistic reference […] It is also a specific term used in modal logic providing the abstract notions of modal logic with concrete content" (RONEN, 1994, p. 3).

In the literary science possible worlds stand as a general label for a set of modal and referential concepts developed by logic and borrowed by other disciplines to describe diverse issues: from universes of discourse in linguistics to fictional words and narrative multi-perspectives in literary theory (RONEN, 1994, p. 5). Consequently, fictional worlds of literary works are possible literary worlds. They represent "aesthetic artifacts constructed, preserved and circulating in the medium of fictional texts" (DOLEŽEL, 1998, p. 16).

Ronen (1994) defines the fundamental difference between possible and fictional worlds in her extensive monograph. Possible worlds are a total of all factualities – all possible variations of how the world could be. Basically, they are endless (Ibidem). On the contrary, fictional worlds (e.g. in literature) are based only on a limited number of persons and objects. They are not "universes" of infinite possibilities, but they stand only for those potentialities which realization is allowed within limits of a given fictional world.6

By contrast, Doležel considers the main difference between possible and fictional worlds to be their reference framework. Possible worlds relate to the real world – they describe or represent an alternative state of events within it. On the contrary, the reference framework of fictional worlds (in fiction) is the very fictional world itself, described in the book, referring to the objective reality of the fictional world – to what happened in it or could have happened (DOLEŽEL, 2003, p. 30).

Psychology of fantasy

Fantasy fiction is considered to be predominantly an adventure/action genre, providing readers primarily with intense emotional experiences (suspense, excitement, surprise, astonishment, awe, compassion, anger, etc).

From a cognitive point of view, the major potential of the fantasy genre lies in the ability to develop creative thinking and imagination in man. "Fantasy novels provide individuals with an opportunity to rise above the restraints set by society" (WOOD, 1994, p. 376). Readers can take on the roles of protagonists, "experience" the same situations, and/or think about what they would do in their place, as they would react.7 In other words, "one of the great things about fantasy literature is that we can be transported into worlds we do not know. We can wear skins that are not ours. We can look to the landscape through someone else’s eyes" (YOLEN, 2004, p. 332). Consequently, readers can use the acquired mental competences in solving cognitively demanding study, work or research tasks which presuppose innovation or discovery of a new solution.8

An undisputable cognitive advantage of this genre (to readers) consists also in the fact that the storyline usually takes place in an unrealistic (fictional) world, allowing the author to express the intended message without creating defense9 responses related to sensitivity of readers to certain (religious, political, worldview and others) themes and political correctness.10 "The fantastic uses fiction to make possible a deeper look under the surface of reality. The fiction actually seems to tell a certain story with the aim of telling a completely different story" (MESÁROVÁ, 2015, p. 54)

Another major area of effect of fantasy fiction on the human psyche11 is the field of social relationships. Adolescents, above all, find in extraordinary fantasy stories an opportunity to identify themselves with protagonists performing significant acts for the good of the community they are part of, as well as with characters living in an unconventional way or putting in practice their utopian ideals of social life. Indeed, the fictional world in fantasy books is often depicted as eutopia or dystopia. „Modern fantastic literature, especially science-fiction, describes the world not just for what it is, but also for what it could be. It depicts it in both good and bad, based on our hopes or our fears, the world we desire, or the one we reject (HEREC, 2005). Thus, structurally, cognitively and emotionally, the subgenre of fantasy overlaps with other genres, employing features of both low (e.g. Gothic novel) and high genres (e.g. dramatic tragedy exemplifying the Aristotelian concept of collective social responsibility and guilt resulting in intellectual and emotional identification of perceivers with the protagonist in the moment of catharsis).12

Another possible explanation for the preference of fantasy fiction is lack of relevant mental or emotional stimuli (boredom) experienced in everyday life, especially by young people. Fantasy thrills sensation and excitement seekers, i.e. personality types who primarily miss strong emotions in life. Dangerously, this can lead to an overall shift away from their being in the actual world and from meeting the requirements of their personal growth. In a way, we can say that such individuals avoid real life problems (solving) and disclaim responsibility for their choices. Secondarily, this attitude can bring an increased level of disappointment in life, when fantasy readers interacting in the real world find it not working according to the presupposed fictional world framework. Some psychologists and educators warn that fantasy is "in fact, an evasive, escapist, and coounterproductive" genre (GATES, 2003, p. 64).

On the other hand, fantasy genre is also preferred by people with highly developed scientific and abstract thinking (mental structures), who are often convinced that fantastic stories do not necessarily contradict reality, but may be just its mental alternative model – factual or symbolical. E.g. in the field of biology, we know so-called walking trees (in latin socratea exorrhiza) growing in the Ecuadorian rainforest, which in one day can move 2 to 3 centimeters (sometimes up to 20 meters in the course of a calendar year – towards sunlight spots as seasons change or in case of soil erosion).13 We can also mention the scientific fact that trees "communicate" through the air using pheromones or other scent signals to warn neighbouring trees of impending danger (e.g. diseases). Taking into account these facts, the walking trees (from the Lord of the Rings trilogy by R. R. Tolkien) seem no longer to be such an unbelievable phenomenon.

The last, but definitely not the least relevant reason why (predominantly) adolescents prefer fantasy genre is the fact that it represents an "ideological" (or perhaps even spiritual) alternative to the present-day consumer materialism (in consumption oriented society), which often leads to distress, anxiety and existential vacuum. Consequently, the feelings of meaninglessness, unworthiness and hopelessness reduce efficiency of natural inhibitors of self-harm among young people, and may lead to new extreme experiences and practices by means of which they attempt to suppress the feelings of inner emptiness, loneliness or pain (both physical and emotional), e.g. in form of addictions, extreme sports, extravagant hobbies, eccentric religious practices, etc.

In this regard, an element of transcendence is naturally included in fantasy stories as they grow out of mythical roots in some way: "Historically vague stories such as myths, epics and fairy tales are often conveyors of timeless meaning" (PETERKA, 2001, p. 152). In spite of scientific and technical progress, some psychic, or mental archetypes originally contained in these narratives persist in modern society, and fantasy writers in some way benefit from the "infrastructure" built over the course of history by both anonymous and non-anonymous authors. Fantasy genre, in this way, creates a particular tension by offering a remarkable, exotic story (and experience), and at the same time the story (and its message) is in a way familiar to readers, often archetypal – shared by the collective consciousness of the community (TRUHELKA, 1998, p. 56).


In general, the purpose of using literary texts in the educational and/or therapeutic process is to evolve readers´ cognitive (attention holding, working memory, theory of mind, anticipation, decision-making, problem-solving, emotional self-regulation, speech) and social skills (independence, empathy, coordination, social perceptiveness, etc).14 Most often the same purpose intention is spontaneously, subconsciously and unwittingly realized by the readers´ independent choice of a particular book (presumably satisfying their actual emotional or cognitive needs) in the process of leisure time reading.

Some readers may be more eager to read (fantasy) fiction than others. In general, introverts (often introspective) tend to be more inclined towards reading as such (ŠTUBŇA, 2017, p. 196). This is probably due to the fact that their „rich inner world“ (full of unusual fantasies) positively correlates with the fictional worlds depicted in the literary (fantasy) novels.

Reading fantasy fiction is also preferred by people who do not feel to be part of the cultural mainstream and feel alien in a consumer-oriented society.

Individuals whose professional occupation requires abstract thinking ability also favour this genre. E.g. many physicists, chemical or medical researchers are eager fans of fantasy or sci-fi fiction because the "magic", "miraculous potions", "energy healing" (in fantasy novels) or technical inventions (described in fantastic novels) are a kind of materialization of their research fantasies, and/or they can serve them at least as professional inspiration. Human evolution itself confirms that originally figments of human imagination can easily become everyday life reality in a relatively short time (laser healing therapy, magnet therapy, herbal medicine, wireless phone, computers, internet, holograms, etc.).

Finally, the passion for fantasy fiction can be also a reflection of specific mental structure. Already in 1981 Wilson and Barber first identified a personality type called fantasy-prone personality denoting people who not only intensively live a fantasy life, but who cannot correctly recognize the boundary between fiction and reality.15


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Mgr. Pavol Štubňa, PhD., pracuje ako odborný asistent na Katedre romanistiky FiF UK v Bratislave. V rámci svojej pedagogickej činnosti – zameranej na anglický a taliansky jazyk – sa venuje najmä implementácii poznatkov kognitívnych vied do oblasti translatologických disciplín ako simultánne tlmočenie, odborný a umelecký preklad.

Kontakt: Katedra romanistiky, Filozofická fakulta Univerzity Komenského,
Gondova 2, P. O. BOX 32, 814 99 Bratislava,

[1] Sci-fi depicts a technologically advanced world in which individual phenomena are rationally justified and thus made believable and to some extent feasible.

[2] In addition to the mainstream fantasy subgenres, there are also novels based on combination of specific genres, themes and styles, e. g. satyric fantasy, dark fantasy, celtic fantasy, streampunk, etc.

[3] Regarding the perception of objective reality and its interpretation through fictional stories, see also Introdukcia fantastiky do literárneho systému 18. a 19. storočia a modifikácia existujúcich kultúrnych modelov (MESÁROVÁ, 2011).

[4] According to Schwartz, all human cognitive processes are crucially determined by memory functions (Ibidem).

[5] As a result of trauma exposure, some children start to suck blood first from their own open wounds, later they drink animal blood or eat raw meat; finally, many people with this diagnosis consume human blood.

[6] According to Čermák (2007), fictional worlds are: a) incomplete, b) semantically inhomogeneous (natural and supernatural entities and spheres coexist in them), c) they are constructs (outcome) of a creative text-producing activity (the "worlds" are revealed to readers by the author as results of his/her creative mental activity).

[7] See also Why do we read in Thinking about literature (ŠIPOŠOVÁ – JAVORČÍKOVÁ, 2017).

[8] In plus, daydreaming, just like a true dream state, releases and regenerates the human mind.

[9] For instance, on managing fear through storytelling or reading, see also Vývinová biblioterapia u detí staršieho školského veku a adolescentov (2016) and Práca s príbehom v období predškolského veku (VALEŠOVÁ MALECOVÁ ‒ REMJANOVÁ, 2017-18).

[10] In this regard, Mesárová (2014, p. 42) adds that it is exactly the fantastic which "acts as a defense barrier against the confusion and chaos in life, but at the same time it surprises the reader and causes his/her disorientation in the monotonous and predictable everyday life".

[11] The following findings are based on the author's inquiry aimed to identify readers' motivation for preference of this literary genre among high school and college students (aged 15-27, total number of subjects: 42, method: snowball sampling).

[12] Javorčíková (2015, p. 154) believes that such connection, genre-wise, is not detrimental to the original genre features but enriches the original genres in a delicate balance of reader-attractive „equilibrium“ between fantasy fiction and other literary genres.

[13] In fact, the tree grows new stilt roots towards the light and allows its old roots to die. As the new roots settle in the new soil, the tree bends towards them, lifting the old ones into the air. Obviously, not all the individuals belonging to this species necessarily "move". In addition, they do not move continuously – only in cases of need as described above (BODLEY-BENSON, already in 1980).

[14] In their experimental research, psychologists Oatley, Mar, and Djikic found that subjects who had just read a short story achieved better results (score) in a social interaction test than those who read a popular science article (DJIKIC ‒ MAR ‒ OATLEY, 2009).

[15] Wilson and Barber set out fourteen criteria for identifying this personality type. They include: low resistance to suggestions, current identity based on imagination, over-developed sensory perception, maladaptive daily dreaming, (supposed) paranormal experiences and more.

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