The “portal fantasy,” where somebody walks through a magical door (or wardrobe) into a fantasy world, has become a terrible cliche.
Nowadays, writers often begin describing their books by saying, “It’s not portal fantasy.” What most of them mean is that their portal fantasy stories don’t follow the old rules of the medium, such as those found in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz, in which the youthful protagonist(s) is sucked into an amazing alternate world.
Is Gamelit or its subgenre, LitRPG, portal fantasy? Not exactly. In most portal fantasy, the protagonist spends most of the book trying to find a way home. In Gamelit / LitRPG, however, after the protagonist enters the game world – usually through a digital or virtual portal – he or she usually spends most of the book trying to achieve some task, attain some item, or level up in the game world.
While many portal fantasy stories are cliché, some of the most powerful stories have been portal fantasies, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Even science fiction has gotten in on the action, such as the hit television series Fringe, with its portal between Earth and Alternate Earth.
What’s useful about the portal scenario is that it’s a quick and often beautiful way to signify that our characters have moved from the realm of the familiar into the unfamiliar. The problem comes in when authors refuse to question the definition of “familiar,” or build fantasy worlds that are unsustainable monocultures (“all women are slaves” or “everybody is happy here”).
Our lives are full of portals, both literal and figurative. We’ve divided up the planet into nations whose conceptual boundaries are magically concretized in maps, in fences, and more dangerous barriers. We enclose museums and universities and laboratories in buildings whose doors truly lead to alternate worlds where new things become possible. Every time you walk over the threshold of a library, or through a door into a party, you open yourself up to the strange and previously unknown. That’s what makes the portal such a powerful and enduring metaphor. It’s based on our everyday experience.
And, when done right, it takes us out of that everyday experience in unpredictable ways.
In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, the portal isn’t a doorway to a better world, but a worse one. Here, a young girl discovers a secondary world that has a home eerily similar to her own from which she must rescue herself and the souls trapped by her “other mother.” The portal between our world and the other one is literally a doorway – a locked door in a downstairs room – bricked up but still the object of young Coraline’s curiosity, despite a warning to not go through it.
In science fiction, portals tend to be ways for characters to move great distances. The idea of a portal in a scientifically plausible setting inevitably leads to the idea of a “star gate” through which ships can travel vast distances in the blink of an eye.
A science-fiction book in which the portal is not meant to move people over great distances is The Shining Girls by Lauren Buekes. Here, a serial killer discovers the portal that allows him to move through time to perpetrate his dastardly deeds. This mechanism adds tension to an already-harrowing tale; how do you stop a killer who has the perfect getaway?
In my latest novel, The Beatdown, the heroine, Remi, enters the fantasy world of Ki Khanga through the Universal Reality Engine, a video game console that allows players to experience the game with all 14 senses. Here is the synopsis:
The coolest videogame you’ll ever READ!
“A Single Link NEVER Breaks!”
Remi Korede is a martial artist and a fan of THE BEATDOWN, a popular MMORPG set in the fantasy world of Ki Khanga.
In The Beatdown, players fight each other in the circles of sand and soil to prevent full-scale wars and the wrath of a vengeful Creator who almost destroyed the world when war on earth spilled over into the Heavens.
Players experience every punch, every throw, every kiss and every sip of honey wine in The Beatdown, so the stakes of every encounter, violent or not, are high.
After suffering a brutal assault at the hands of a martial arts champion in the game, Remi decides that, to gain closure and empowerment, she must face her attacker in the first professional fight between a man and a woman.
Remi, fighting as ‘The Single Link’ – because a single link never breaks – becomes a symbol to the people of Ki Khanga – a symbol of courage; of standing against oppression and discrimination; of freedom.
Join the fight in THE BEATDOWN, the epic tale that brings together the very best in Sword and Soul and Gamelit/LitRPG!
So, what is your favorite portal fantasy story?

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

2 responses »

  1. Fujimoto says:

    Interesting topic. I had no idea there was any backlash against portal fantasy. Not going to stop me from writing one at all though. I’ve saved too many ideas to give up on that now.

    I simply must read The Beatdown; I’ve wanted to see more of Remi for a while now!

  2. BrandonSP says:

    I suspect portal fantasy is popular because it’s fundamentally about “relatable” modern-day characters exploring new and unfamiliar worlds. The theme of exploration is more difficult to implement when you’re stepping into the shoes of a character who’s already a native of that world and already takes their surroundings for granted. On the other hand, when your protagonist is a visitor to that world, you can describe more of the world and its history because the character is discovering all that stuff as they travel through the world. It’s a formula that appeals to the adventurer in many people.

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