The Fantasy Genre
According to “Cliffnotes,” Fantasy fiction is a genre of writing in which the plot could not happen in real life (as we know it, at least).
As “Cliffnotes” is wont to do, a very succinct description. Factual but an injustice to this wonderous genre. The very word conjures up mysterious adventures, characters, creatures and most of all magic. Fantasy is a tale about the impossible.
The fantasy genre is part of speculative fiction which includes science fiction, superhero fiction, and horror/paranormal fiction. These speculative subsets differ from fantasy in one major component, plausibility. The characteristics of these genres need to reflect a familiar world. We measure the concept of space travel against our knowledge of physics. To have a superhero character, people of “normal” abilities must exist. Fantasy does not need that restriction. Trees can talk. Horses can fly. And magic exists.
Neil Gaiman in Stories: All New Tails writes, “I love the word ‘fantasy’… but I love it for the almost infinite room it gives an author to play: an infinite playroom, of a sort, in which the only boundaries are those of the imagination.”
Fantasy need not be realistic. However, there are common characteristics that must be present.
Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre
- Magic: Fantasy must include a system of magic and that system have established rules that are followed. This element of the story alone separates fantasy from other genres. Creating a unique magical system is one way to set a story apart from others. Remember, magic is a character in your story, create a memorable one.
- Characters: The development of characters, while very important in all genres, is paramount in fantasy. The scope of a fantasy story lends itself to larger than life characters and to quite a few of them. While you will always have your hero and evil villain, you may have many main characters and strong secondary characters to drive the story.
- The Challenge: The core of your story is the challenge facing your characters. Conflicts that both drive them toward and keeps them from their goals create tension and interest in your reader. With an extensive cast of characters, conflict can be internal, between friends or between enemies. To create a cohesive story, there should be one arcing storyline which includes all your characters striving for the same goal.
- Environment: Where does your story exist? When you create your imaginary world consider its terrain, flora and fauna, its social structure, educational systems, entertainment, military, and how it is governed. The more intricate you construct your world, the more drawn your reader will be to it.
In addition to these basic characteristics, fantasy also has many sub-genres, each of which brings unique characteristics of their own. Marcy Kennedy compiled a list of the most popular fantasy subgenres on her webpage, www.marcykennedy.com.
Historical Fantasy – Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real-world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.
Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVs, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.
Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what makes superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.
Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e., not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an iconic sword and sorcery fantasy.
Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)
Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually usually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.
Regardless of the type of fantasy that you choose to write, remember the world you are entering is full of magic, wonder, and the impossible. It is your job to take your reader there with you.
Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A lifelong mystery fan, her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published soon and a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. She has also written numerous articles on writing. Deborah serves as an administrator for the Facebook group, “Writer’s Unite!,” with 41,000 + members from around the world.