Down the Rabbit Hole: The Appeal of Portal Fantasy

Portal fantasy has always been popular. From tales of fairy circles to Narnia, we’ve always enjoyed watching people from familiar places enter fantastic realms.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Seanan McGuire, Vina Prasad, Genevieve Cogman, and Kathryn Sullivan discussed what it was about portal fantasy that kept people coming back for more.

What Is Portal Fantasy?

In a portal fantasy, the main character is transported from our world to another. This allows us to see the new world through the eyes of someone with our context. (NOTE: The Japanese version is called: Isekai )

Usually, the protagonist is either young and/or dissatisfied with their life and looking for an escape.

But, the portal to go home has to be hard to reach. If it’s like flipping a button, it’s just a story about someone who lives in two (or more) worlds.

But aren’t portal fantasies just big fairytales?

Well, while fairytales are a subset of folklore, in those, you know where the portal world is and how to access it. And you choose to go there (or at least risk it).

Portal fantasies, you stumble into, and you have to find out the rules as you go along.

Introductions to Portal Fantasies

  • Most of the 80s cartoons
  • Doctor Who
  • Wizard of Oz
  • Digimon
  • Narnia
  • own daydreams
  • John Carter of Mars
  • Irish Mythology
  • Dante’s Inferno

Favorite Portal Fantasy Tropes

  • When the main character tries to introduce something they know from their own world that seems obvious… and then finds out WHY things were the way they were.
  • The kids who go through the portal are never the cool or popular kids. It’s the weird kids. And? Whatever the kids’ weirdness is, that weirdness is the reason they succeed in the portal world.

What is the Appeal of Portal Fantasy?

  • Wish fulfillment – one day, as a kid, you wake up and realize that you’re not actually going to become a unicorn/space princess
  • Being the one with the answers – you go into the fantasy world knowing so much more about technology and mechanicals possibilities, that you can actually change society.
  • Different expectations – in a fantasy world, they can value something that is a detriment, or that nobody cares about in the real world
  • Teaching the value of home/what you already have – Sometimes, home sucks and you’re better off elsewhere. But, for most of us, being reminded to look at what we have helps us see, with all our struggles and issues, it’s not that bad.

Are you a fan of portal fantasy?

What are your favorite portal fantasies?
How do people get them right… and how do people get them wrong?

Let me know in the comments below and join me next week, for more writing tips and writerly musings
.

CSI: Fantasy Edition

When you’re writing a story, there’s usually SOMETHING the main character doesn’t know and has to figure out. Sometimes, it’s what someone else is thinking. It could be, where to find the mcguffin? But often? There’s a whole mystery to solve! With a body growing cold.

At Balticon53, Gail Martin, Kim TheComicBookGoddess, David Keener, and Keith DeCandido, lead by their moderator, and retired Baltimore detective, John L. French discussed the fun and peculiarities of dealing with investigation — fantasy-style!

The Principles of Forensics

No investigation should begin without the principle of that grandfather of forensics, Dr. Edmond Locard*. His exchange principle states that “every contact leaves a trace.”

Once an incident has been found, if there is any suspicion that it was not natural in cause, two jobs have been left for an investigator.

  1. Document the scene
  2. Find evidence that conclusively leads to the culprit

Determining cause of death – fantasy style

These days, everyone’s an amateur detective buff. Things we take for granted — from fingerprints to blood splatter patterns to autopsies were not accepted until the 1900s. In your fantasy world, you should make sure that your detectives don’t use techniques they have no reason to know.

For those violent crimes? Well.

With a body? Just like in real life, if a death cannot be determined to be a homicide, the investigation usually ends right there. Either marked down as “natural causes” or “undetermined.”

Without even a body? Well, before the modern era, it was common for people to go missing. Some were restarting their lives elsewhere — voluntarily or not. And others weren’t so lucky.

Of course, in a violent world, mercenaries, soldiers, and professional killers, (not to mention medical personnel) would have reason to know the appearance of common wounds or effects of their standard weapons (or magics or poisons).

Plus, with magic, depending on your world, you could find out a lot.

  • In worlds with necromancy, you could simply raise a murdered person and ask, or at least have the body lead you to the killer.
  • In worlds with sympathetic magic, the weapon or some left item could act as a compass to direct you to the killer or thief.
  • In worlds with trauma-based illusion spells, you could have an instant replay of the scene.

Ways The Panelists Use Magic In Their Detecting

Not all of our panelists have written detectives, but they all had good pointers or examples. And reminded us, even if you have magic, it’s a better story when it comes with complications of its own.

Keith – His world has a wizard (or 2) who have mastered a ‘peel-back spell’, that can show what happened. Given no audience, the wizard gets there before it’s been too long, and has the energy to cast the spell. And things done in the shadows… remain in the shadows.

Gail – Her world has necromancy, so she can find her leads! But, she can’t let the cops know how she knows what she knows.

Kim – Reminded us that homicide detectives have to be the smartest, because their victim is dead.

David – His world has magicians who can pull memories from both the living and the dead — only, the dead’s memories are often fragmented.

John – As a real life detective reminded us that when looking for motive, often, a homicide is merely an assault gone too far.


All-in-all, a dynamic and fun panel, that I wished could have covered more. Do you have any tips of the trade that our panelists didn’t get a chance to mention? Share them in the comments below.

Thank you for tuning in, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips from my over-24-hours-of-Balticon53-programming to share!


*My notes literally had Picard Licard, not Dr. Edmund Locard. I thought that he actually had a rhyming name, and wasn’t sure it wasn’t actually just Captain Picard theorizing on the holodeck. Thank you google for correcting me.