What is fantasy? What makes it different from other kinds of speculative fiction?
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Last week, we compared fantasy, science fiction, horror, and paranormal. Today, Iet’s take a deeper look at fantasy.
At its simplest, fantasy is fiction about impossible things. The impossible could be magic, mythical creatures, imaginary races, or whimsical worlds. Fantasy pushes the boundaries of speculative fiction more than any other genre, limited only by an author’s creativity.
Where does it come from?
As long as stories have existed, storytellers have embellished them as much as they thought they could get away with. Sometime around the fourteenth century, these embellishments began to be seen as an intentional and desirable element to add to stories. The popularity of such stories ebbed and flowed for the next few hundred years. In fact, the existence of the genre today is owed in part to fantastic elements ceasing to appear in mainstream stories. Instead of a little whimsy featured everywhere, most novels eliminated it, while the ones that didn’t—mainly fairy tales—doubled down on the fantastic.
In the nineteenth century, authors like George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and William Morris created longer stories that looked much like the modern fantasy genre. They combined the deeper, fleshed-out characters of mainstream fiction with the mythical features normally relegated to the shorter fairy tales of previous centuries.
But it wasn’t until the mid-twenty century that the term fantasy began being used specifically to refer to these kinds of stories, around the time J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were publishing their high fantasy novels. As some of the first books to be labelled such, they are highly influential in modern fantasy. Despite a wide variety in the genre today, the subgenre of high fantasy is usually the first thing—or in some cases the only thing—those unfamiliar with fantasy think of.
Aren’t these stories for children?
Not all of them. In the modern age, more and more fantasy is being written for older audiences. It’s true that early fantasy writers often wrote for children. Remember how I said that mainstream stories had shifted toward realism? When fantasy began taking shape in its current form, like most new things, it was more easily accepted by younger audiences. Naturally, authors who wanted to be read wrote for this accepting audience. And as their books continued to be written for children, it reinforced the notion that the genre was for them.
However, as generations of children have grown up reading fantasy, the demand for works which appeal to them as they age has increased. Readers have realized that adulthood hasn’t destroyed their love of magic and whimsy; they just want to see it in more mature and complex settings. And many modern authors are more than happy to provide these stories.
Kinds of Fantasy
There are many, many, subgenres of fantasy, and they’re constantly being redefined. To simplify things, we’ll look at some of the different factors that can be used to classify a fantasy story.
- Contemporary and most urban fantasy is set in the real modern world with added magical or mythical elements.
- Historical fantasy is also set in the real world but in the past.
- Second-world or alternate universe fantasy takes place in a fictional reality and may resemble the past, present, or future of our world in terms of culture or technology.
- Portal or invasion fantasy features a crossover between real and fictionalized settings, either because a person from our world travels to a fictional one or vice versa. These stories can share many similarities with time travel fiction due to the common fish-out-of-water themes.
- “Hard” fantasy has a rigid, almost scientific magic system. Who can perform magic, how they can use it, and the expected outcome conform to a set of rules.
- “Soft” fantasy more typical of classic fantasy and fairy tales. Magic is mysterious, and may have a few rules or guideline, but ultimately, readers can expect the unexpected.
- Non-magical fantasy has no magic and instead, uses a fictional setting, mythical creatures, or fantasy races.
- Epic fantasy has large, sweeping stories and plots which affect large populations, possibly even whole worlds, at high stakes. High fantasy is also sometimes defined this way.
- Sword and sorcery or heroic fantasy stories are smaller in scale than epics, often revolving around a single protagonist or party, but stakes are still high. These particular subgenres tend to be historical in a low-tech fictional setting.
- Low fantasy and magical realism are typically small in scale with lower stakes. It’s not uncommon to see such a story take place with a single house or room.
- Grimdark fantasy is gritty and violent,with a pessimistic view of its world.
- Noblebright fantasy focuses on the heroic ideal for its main characters, with an optimistic worldview.
- Romantic fantasy (romance), comic fantasy (humor), and dark fantasy (horror) all bring the thematic elements of their crossover genres with them and change the overall tone accordingly.
As you can see, fantasy is a fluid and varied genre with a long history. What are your favorite kinds of fantasy? Let us know on our Facebook page or leave a comment below!
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