What is Fantasy?

I recently watched an old youtube podcast involving three hosts talk about fantasy. (For the intensely curious: The Story Telling Podcast #16: Writing Fantasy) It was clear that they were not particularly well-versed in the genre, and to be fair it was back from 2013. However, as I listened to them try to to define the genre, I realized that the lines between fantasy and other genres can be a bit blurry. Fantasy is my poison of choice; it is almost exclusively what I read, and thus far all that I write. So rather than poke fun at their attempts, I decided to attempt to define it myself. Let me know in the comments how successful I was.

Differing Worlds

In the simplest of terms, genres are dictated either by setting, by plot format, and even to some extent by the characters that populate them. Of course, a book can, and usually does, fall into more than one genre category. Yet the divide is, for the most part, pretty clear-cut. Either a story could happen in the real world, or it can’t. Fiction is fiction, of course, and sometimes the lines get blurred, which I’ll get into shortly, but a book can generally be described as realistic fiction or SFF (science fiction/fantasy).

Traditional fantasy takes place in a made-up world, its countries ruled by some form of monarchy, and carries magic or mythical creatures or both. Modern fantasy makes no such demands, and this is why it has grown harder to label some books as fantasy or not. Fantasy nowadays doesn’t require dragons and knights with swords. It doesn’t necessarily require an active magic system. Authors have tested narratives with democracies, with future-age feel, with guns rather than swords… the list goes on and on.

What marks SFF as SFF is the somewhat controversial question of whether or not there are setting elements that make it impossible for the story to take place on earth. For some books, the answer is obvious. Barring the conspiracies and headcannons of fantasy settings actually being “in the far future,” after the collapse and rebuilding of civilization, series like A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin and A Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and, obviously, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien are very clearly fantasy. For Martin and Tolkien’s work, the inclusion of dragons, and for all three, some form of magic, the distinction is obvious. But even removing these elements, the feudalistic setting and the maps themselves prove that the story is not taking place on earth.

Blurring the Lines: Paranormal and Urban Fantasy

Some stories are written as if on earth, and that makes the distinction a little less clear-cut, especially if one believes a certain level of magic exists in the real world. Paranormal and urban fantasy are considered low-level fantasy. Paranormal revolves around mythical beasts like werewolves and vampires existing in secret, such as the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, and urban fantasy is a little more generalized with the inclusion of low-level magic, such as The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater. Even if the town the narrative takes place in doesn’t exist, there are references to real-life cities, states, and countries.

In the end, though, even low-level fantasy technically cannot take place on earth. No level of magic or the paranormal have yet to make an appearance. I suppose if you believe in ghosts, then paranormal may not seem quite so clearly fantasy to you, but 2020 has been rough enough already without people trying to prove all those things that go bump in the night. I digress. The truth of the matter is that, yes, there is something of a spectrum, and that urban fantasy and science-fiction teeters in that middle-ground. But it’s still called fantasy, or sci-fi, because there is that inexplicable element to it that won’t exactly align with the known world.

Divorcing Science Fiction from Fantasy

When it comes to differentiating between the two otherworldly genres, it may seem like they are nothing alike. Science fiction brings with it the idea of aliens and new tech, whereas fantasy feels old and its magic, inexplicable. But in truth, the only thing that separates the two are those latter points, and it can be a fine line.

There is, in a way, a magic system involved in both science fiction and fantasy. To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” In fantasy, a person can launch a fireball using some magical force they don’t understand. In science-fiction, that same fireball comes from some advanced technology that the reader is not required to understand. You could say the same for unknown beings. In fantasy, they are mythical, and often magical; in sci-fi, they are alien, with the technology that comes from their own development as a species.

I am not as well-read in sci-fi, so I don’t know how close the two genres can get. But as fantasy authors toe the line and leave the more traditional feudal settings behind, the distinction may grow more important. In truth, it also makes the whole commentary on whether or not Wheel of Time and other series like it take place in the far future. In addition to genre-specific tropes, the mere point that WoT‘s characters consider the One Power to be some unknowable force sent to them by the Creator, rather than being sourced from some technology, makes the One Power a magic system, therefore making Wheel of Time fantasy rather than science fiction.

Genres Within Genres

In general, if a story feels like it has a fantasy setting, I would argue that the story is, more than anything else, a fantasy novel. After all, “fantasy” is a term best used to describe a novel’s setting, and what is contained within might have elements that call to mystery or romance or even historical tropes. After all, most fantasy novels do contain a love interest for the main character, or characters, creating a romance subplot. I doubt I need to list examples, but just in case, you can’t get a better one than Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo), as all six main characters have their own love interests. Some fantasy novels even contain mysteries, like in Bitterblue (Kristin Cashore), when our main character tries to learn why people are still being murdered in her city.

However, I will say that while this is generally the case, there are books whose fantastical elements are not prevalent enough to truly appeal to a fantasy-loving audience. I’ll mention a poor example first: the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. Although it takes place in a made-up world and features both magic and magical beings, the romance elements of the story seemed to overshadow the fantastical. It is even more so an issue when the magic system was not well-developed, allowing for convenient dives in power that often allowed characters to get out of impossible situations. Throne of Glass read more like a romance story taking place in some made-up setting, and less like a fantasy story with a romance subplot.

It can be done well, though. When I was young, I read a historical fantasy novel called I am the Great Horse by Katherine Roberts, a novel about the conquest of Alexander the Great from the eyes of his horse, and the story included mythical Amazon warriors and a magical knot that sent them to fight for Alexander. The characters themselves make it more history than fantasy, and the fanastical elements, from what I remember, played only a minor role. So, although it is still fantasy because of those elements, in much the same way paranormal is still fantasy, the novel lacks the more traditional fantasy tropes that would otherwise define a novel as “fantasy” over the opposing genre.


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