What is fantasy? Specifically, what defines fantasy in writing?
Okay, so, I didn’t realize the scope of this when I set out to write this post. To get an idea of what I mean, here is a list of fantasy’s subgenres and it’s not even finished!
This will be a very high-level post covering fantasy as a whole and not devling into subgenres (although that grimdark looks right up my alley, so that was a fun find).
Let my first say that I’m not going to be looking at this from a marketing perspective, like I did with YA. Plenty of books include strong elements of fantasy and are shelved elsewhere. The debate rages about what “fantasy writing” really means, so let’s just look at what elements make up a fantasy story.
If I could distill fantasy down to one sentence, I would say: Fantasy writing describes those stories that include settings, and/or occurrences that cannot and will not be possible in our world. This may describe other genres but I think every fantasy story includes some major element that does not exist in real life and cannot be explained by technology (sometimes, this is a main separator between fantasy and science fiction).
So what makes fantasy, fantasy?
Typically, establishing a fantastical setting is crucial to a fantasy story. Even urban fantasy is defined by its supernatural world overlaying the “real world.” Without a good fantasy setting, it’s difficult to bring other elements of the genre in. I think this is one of the reasons that some novels which include fantasy elements but aren’t really in a fantasy setting are not classified as fantasy. You can have magic or supernatural occurrences but not a fantasy setting.
Classically, most fantasy takes place in a completely fictional world that may sometimes be inspired by real time periods or places (this will be the focus on next week’s post). Medieval European technology and social practices are often heavily-used as a foundation. Personally, I’ve set mine in a dystopian future (which I admitted, much to my own chagrin, a few months ago) with limited tech advancements and an interdimensional border to another planet. However, my fantasy worldbuilding comes mostly in my alien races and the societies I’ve built within the physical constraints of my world. While this isn’t obvious, I have it on good authority that SAAFire is still fantasy.
Heroism is a MAJOR THING in fantasy. Every story has a protagonist (or more than one) but in fantasy, you generally have a hero. This lends itself to the action/adventure parts of fantasy that have become more popular recently.
Another thing about fantasy is that you can often include fantastic beings like elves, fairies, vampires, or werewolves. A lot of high fantasy draws on fae folk while urban fantasy tends to rely more heavily on popular urban folklore like werewolves, vampires, and ghosts.
SAAFire includes werewolf-like characters AND heroism!
Magic is a well-known, often used element of fantasy. It’s not always called magic (I call my characters’ magic something else), but if it looks like magic and it can’t be explained away by genetic mutation (looking at you, X-Men) it’s probably magic.
Fantasy doesn’t always use magic itself, but it almost always includes elements of the magical. If you don’t have actual, functioning magic that characters use, it might be mentioned in the background. Normally-magical creatures (such as fae) may exist in the world even if they do not actively use magic. In more urban settings, where the worldbuilding of fantasy relies more on the existence of fantastical laws or forces and less the actual surroundings, these laws/forces may be stand-ins for magic.
Essentially, fantasy typically includes beings who can do things that humans cannot do as a result of having control over/being influenced by extraneous forces (Harry Potter wand magic, werewolf transformations, etc.).
A number of themes and tropes are commonly used in fantasy and may help a reader identify a fantasy story when they read one. I use these to really define a genre, especially when you have something like Star Wars that draws from so many different genres.
Fantasy stories are often easily identified by their use of a Hero, a Dark Lord, a Quest, and Good vs. Evil. Patricia Briggs, who writes the Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series (among others), typically constraints an antagonist to a single book. Her hero, Mercy, persists as the protagonist and main character (the series is named for her, after all). There are some muted magical elements, but with these roles, we can see that Mercy goes on a Quest against a Dark Lord in almost every book. And, in almost every book, the antagonist is rooted firmly on the side of Evil and Mercy on the side of Good.
It doesn’t have to be as obvious as it was in the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings. An “Evil Lord” trope is just a personified “forces of evil.” In SAAFire, I have my forces of evil collected under an organization called Red X 9 and I’m still working on finding one person to be the face of the Evil. Fantasy stories are very, very good for wrestling with big universal themes like Good vs. Evil, Honor, and Friendship in a setting that lets readers detach from the real world for a little while.
Plus, having a hero go on a quest in a brand new world you’ve never read before is just it’s own kind of fun.
Next week, I will expand on world building in fantasy in Explore Genre: Fantasy Part 2. I have a half-formed thought about the “historical authenticity” argument commonly used to explain why many fantasy stories include Medieval-based technologies and societies that oppress large portions of the population. Specifically, why does “that’s how it was back then” seem to work for worlds that are completely made up?
Leave your own ideas about what define the fantasy genre in the comments below!