Over the next week and a half, I’ll be focusing on the idea of hope in the fantastical, how it’s used, and why it’s a common theme throughout the history of science fiction or fantasy. I’m excited to be joined by DH Willison, author of the Tales of Arvia.
WS: Thanks for joining me, DH!
DH: Hi Jodie, thanks for inviting me. The subject means a lot to me, because I’ve had ups and downs in my life, and while I don’t ever remember thinking, “You must now be like [favorite heroic character] and carry on when all seems lost,” There were times positive self-talk helped me get through some difficult times.
But let’s start with the basics—I’ve heard terms like noblebright and hopepunk, with some asserting they are wildly different from each other, distinctly different from more classic heroic tales, etc. But honestly, like so many genre ‘definitions’ much is in the eye of the beholder (as an aside, one of my favorite D&D creatures).
My personal opinion: ‘hope’ is a character attribute, not one of setting. And the world/setting has to have some darkness in it for the value of said hope to shine through. After all, if you live in a paradise, you don’t need hope.
How about you? Since you suggested this as a topic, it must have personal meaning to you.
WS: It has a personal meaning in that I have depression and there have been times when fantasy books really were sort of a way to experience a happy ending or that thread line of hope when my own mental well-being wasn’t great. Hope in fantasy, for me, is all about balance. I like stories where there is something to strive for. And of course, you can find hope in all sorts of places, even in grimdark. As you pointed out, the world/setting has to have some darkness for the value of hope to really show. That being said, I’ve always been drawn to books where I know that “good” will, if not win per se, at least survive in some form even though I don’t yet know how.
DH: I know! And to me, that’s what can make a story even more interesting—there might not be a total victory, a happily ever after, but there is hope. The hero survives, some things get better, and there is hope for even more in the future. And on a related note, that’s kind of a big theme for my coming novel—the idea that in life you will never have a perfect resolution to everything. But if you’ve tried your best, you should take the time to appreciate the successes you have, while at the same time acknowledging the future may bring more challenges your way.
WS: Ooh, tell me more! Is it a character that carries that theme of hope or is it the tone of the book? Both?
DH: Hmm. Kind of both. I think it’s the characters that drive the tone. Let me start with a question I get asked a lot—why harpies? In mythology they’re often portrayed as dangerous, evil creatures. And sometimes a punishment from the gods for deceitful or unfaithful characters. I take this to the extreme: on Arvia they are giant, with an appetite for human flesh—essentially a bad-tempered dragon with feathers. Yet the series revolves around a friendship between a human and a harpy—about him seeing the good in her, and her eventually seeing it for herself. In Arvia: Heart of the Sky I’ve really leaned into this, with the villagers learning to see the flip side of the harpies’ personalities. And what would the positive side of a bad-tempered creature that despises deceitful or unfaithful characters be? Exceptional loyalty toward those who display honesty, courage, and compassion.
In an era where we are ever more pushed into camps of extreme positions, where everyone is either ‘with us’ or ‘against us,’ the ultimate expression of hopefulness for me lies in being able to bridge great chasms, to understand those different than ourselves rather than defeating them in some epic battle. So I suppose it’s no surprise that every book I’ve ever written features a mix of human and non-human characters. Or in some cases human and true monster characters. Who usually have some very positive attributes for those who take the time to look for them.
WS: I think it’s interesting in that what with *gestures at everything over the last few years,* there seems to be a rise in popularity for books that are either in the cozy fantasy subgenre or have strong themes of hope. Have you noticed that and do you think the last few years actually have anything to do with it?
DH: I don’t know. I mean, yes, it would seem to make sense. But in my opinion, it’s also generally easier for more dramatic, epic, and gritty stories to get people’s attention, especially given the way things spread on social media. Basically, anger sells. So I think there’s a pent-up desire for more hopeful stories that’s been hidden beneath the angry surface for a while. But while we’re on the subject of ‘cozy,’ this may be a new term, but it seems to mean different things to different people. Some think in terms of slice of life or low stakes. For me it’s more about tone—there are relatively fast-paced stories that feel cozy (e.g. The Princess Bride). How do you see it?
WS: Oh, that’s a tough question! I think that’s where terms like “noblebright” and “hopepunk” come in, that idea of tone vs. lower stakes or slice of life. I would probably put Legends and Lattes or Miss Percy’s Pocket Guide to the Care and Feeding of British Dragons in the cozy fantasy category (both wonderful books, by the way) but it is entirely possible that I’m missing the definition of cozy fantasy completely. I see books like The Princess Bride or the Redwall series as hopeful but not necessarily cozy. And, again, what I view as cozy fantasy might not be the textbook definition or even what other people would call it.
You mentioned the pent-up desire for more hopeful stories and I can definitely see what you mean! I love the way fantasy and science fiction can fill so many roles, including adding themes of hope. Are there books you’ve read that really have that great hopeful tone?
DH: I’ve always been a fan of the Discworld novels, and I think most of them qualify. I would also add the underrated Myth series by Robert Asprin, which may not have the sophistication of Discworld but makes up for it with a lot of heart. Oh! And a more recent one was called Cinnamon Bun. A cute litRPG.
WS: I’m sold on Cinnamon Bun already, based solely on the title. Thank you so much for unpacking the idea of hope in the fantastical with me!
D.H. Willison is a reader, writer, game enthusiast and developer, engineer, and history buff. He’s lived or worked in over a dozen countries, learning different cultures, viewpoints, and attitudes, which have influenced his writing, contributing to one of his major themes: alternate and creative conflict resolution. The same situations can be viewed by different cultures quite differently. Sometimes it leads to conflict, sometimes to hilarity. Both make for a great story.
He’s also never missed a chance to visit historic sites, from castle dungeons, to catacombs, to the holds of tall ships, to the tunnels of the Maginot Line. It might be considered research, except for the minor fact that his tales are all set on the whimsical and terrifying world of Arvia. Where giant mythic monsters are often more easily overcome with empathy than explosions.
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