Genre 101: Fantasy

“At last!” you say.  Yes, at last.  It’s time to discuss one of the current literary monster genres.  [Which also happens to be my favorite genre, in case any of you blog readers are wondering.]

Fantasy is a hugely popular genre of speculative fiction, and the one with the most sub-genres, with new ones being added as writers combine elements of other sub-genres into a style so unique that it needs its own sub-genre to be explained.  Whether on library shelves or in bookstores, fantasy abounds, with thousands more books coming out every year.

But what is it really?

#21 genre FANTASY

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines fantasy as:
an idea with no basis in reality; a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world

With few exceptions, Fantasy as a genre has two key elements:

Magic
Magic is the English word used to mean ‘supernatural power’.  This can be good, bad, or of any type from elemental to blood magic.  It can also refer to natural laws of another world that would be scientifically impossible in our world.

An Alternate World Setting
Often this alternate world will contain races that Earth does not, and/or settings that are impossible on Earth.  Portal fantasy books may start in this world but then they switch to an alternate world.  If a book has magical elements but takes place in this world, technically it qualifies as ‘magical realism’.

In addition to these two foundation criteria, there are several other story elements often identified with fantasy, including, but not limited to:

  • royalty being involved
  • a quest of some kind
  • tests of character and skill
  • a society made up of levels of financial and/or social classes (also called the ‘caste system’)
  • elaborate, sometimes detailed, fictional world building
  • humanoid and non-humanoid races of people in addition to humans
  • mythical or invented animals
  • adventure everywhere you look  (If you don’t believe me, pick up five fantasy books and skim through them.  See?)

The primary tool needed to read fantasy is suspension of disbelief.  You cannot go into a story expecting that world to behave like ours.  Believe me, you will be disappointed and then what is the point of escapist literature?

But, as writers, our job is to balance creating a world that requires a suspension of disbelief, with keeping the story and the characters’ actions plausible enough that the readers don’t throw the book across the room in disgust.  It’s sometimes a tricky balance to walk, but it’s rewarding when you find it.

Of course, there are plenty of guidelines to learn about how to find this balance, and how to apply good writing principles to the other elements in the story, as well as the big picture of the story as a whole, but in simple terms, that balance is the most important component of writing fantasy.  After that?  The possibilities are, literally, almost endless.

NOTE: A word about Mythology and Fairy Tales.  These were the predecessors of our modern fantasy genre and still share many aspects with what we know as ‘fantasy’ today.  Some people consider these to be sub-genres of fantasy, but they are in fact, two other genres, which will be covered separately.

Next Friday we’ll begin looking at the sub-genres of fantasy, a list that is incredibly diverse and ever-expanding.  Until then, Merry Writing!

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