Revisionist Fantasy is a genre in which you remake an existing fantasy or fairy tale with added material or a different point of view.
When I told my wife that I most loved reading Revisionist Fantasy, I thought I was being clever. After I checked the term online, I found that it was (a) not new and (b) not typically used when discussing fiction. Political blowhards use it to discredit one another when they disagree on historical facts. It is the next step up from the insult of saying someone is relying on revisionist history.
So much for my wit.
Even so, the genre has an important place in fiction.
Revisionist Fantasy allows characters other than the hero to shine. Unlike politics, in which there are no villains (or heroes?), fiction has a clear protagonist and antagonist. Generally, the protagonist is presented with challenges and has to overcome them to get what he or she wants. This is the basic conflict of the story and it plays to one of the appeals of fantasy, which is the clarity of good vs. evil.
In reality, however, we are all the heroes of our own story. Revisionism allows the antagonist, and other characters, to demonstrate what their goals are, which makes them more interesting adversaries. With added points of view come added layers of conflict because more is at stake. Instead of a single story line multiple tales are strung together, making each turn in the plot more meaningful.
Even if the perspective of the villain is told in a separate story, reading it changes the undertone of that character’s motivation throughout his or her fictional lifetime.
The most popular modern fictional revision is that of Gregory Macguire’s Wicked, in which the life of the Wicked Witch of the West is exposed. This story takes place years before the events in the Wizard of Oz and makes the famous villain sympathetic and heroic.
Another great example, and one that has been highly influential to me as a writer, is John Garner’s Grendel. Unlike Wicked, this story speaks from the monster’s misunderstood and lonely perspective during the events of Beowulf. Grendel is never made heroic, just sad and tragic.
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel takes the perspective of Superman’s adversary and makes it oddly logical. All of the gadgets and plots to take down the world’s greatest hero are born out of a fierce, humanistic belief and a mistrust of the largely unknown alien.
No, Revisionist Fantasy isn’t new, but it isn’t the sole claim of political pundits and angry bloggers either. Although it has never really been named, the genre has been present throughout our fictional history. Everything from Paradise Lost to “Once Upon a Time” has attempted to enrich existing stories. Sometimes they are pale reflections of the original, but when they are done well, they change the whole tone of the source reading and make us question our own perspective of right and wrong.