What Is Fantasy?

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Fantasy –noun
1. imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
2. Literature . an imaginative or fanciful work, especially one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters

What constitutes “fantasy” has changed a lot over the years. It means a great many things to many people. Once upon a time, there were stories about wolves in women’s clothing, horse’s heads that could warn their former masters against danger and spells that kept princesses asleep for hundreds of years. Soon enough came Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, and then the master of epic fantasy, J R R Tolkien, bringing with him elves and orcs and trolls from mythology into the mix. But that was only the start…before long authors were throwing off the limitations of dragons and unicorns and medieval-ish landscapes and inserting magical elements into the concrete and steel of modern cities. Depending on how we use our imaginations, we can find fantastic elements wherever we look.

We here at Magical Words are considering a site redesign, with the intent to make it clear that while the writing advice we offer is pretty much suited to all genres, the focus is on the fantastic. So we’re coming to you, our readers. What says ‘fantasy’ to you? Is it vampires that sparkle? Or don’t? Dragons soaring overhead? Singing swords and dancing fountains? Or maybe magicians that use concrete dust and Krazy Glue to work their will? And where do you think fantasy is headed?

Talk to us.

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21 comments to What Is Fantasy?

  • I draw the line between fantasy and non-fantasy with this simple rule: Does it alter the rules of nature/reality as we know them? Magic is against the laws of physics. Mythical creatures do not exist in our natural order. If it’s changing the rules of the natural world, to me, it’s fantasy.

    I think, however, that where the confusion comes in is the blurred lines between Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the more vague Speculative Fiction. However, I think my guideline above holds true still. If it is extending the natural rules into areas that are yet unproven or undiscovered, or bending the natural rules, but still applying the changes to another discovery that hasn’t been made (yet), then you’ve got sci-fi. Par example, we do not at this time have faster-than-light travel. Our current understanding of the laws of nature don’t say we can’t travel faster than light, we just don’t have all the details worked out yet. So FTL transport is sci-fi. (Nemo’s submarine was sci-fi when it was written. Now, it’s just fiction.) Turning a person into a toad by waving a wand of willow-birch does not conform to our rules of nature, and, in fact, our rules pretty much forbid that from several angles (change in mass, altering tissues, control of matter without contacting it, etc). Now, could we make a case for a slower, genetic alteration in which we inject a virus that attacks the DNA, forcing it to adjust, and thus, to alter the design of the host’s body based on normal or accelerated replacement of cells and the healing processes of human tissue? (AHem, nobody steal that one; I’m already writing it.) That is a case not of breaking the rules but extending and bending them, while still technically playing by the rules of science. Thus, sci-fi not fantasy.

    As for where it’s going, I’m rather hoping it’s going in my direction! Almost every author out there is trying to figure what hasn’t yet been done, and then do it. The future of Fantasy lit, in my opinion, is even more fantastical than it has ever been, by it’s very nature. (Of course, it does tend to break laws of nature, so who knows?)

  • This is sort of a tough one for me to answer because I tend to see fantasy as an ingredient, taking an example from cooking. I tend to use the genre in ways that sort of enhance the final product, or I’ll mix it with other genres to get something different, and hopefully good, out of it. I rarely write straight fantasy anymore. I think I have two or three on the back burner that are straight epic fantasy. Everything else is some form of cross-genre or something that looks like fantasy on the surface until you start looking deeper. I guess you could say that at times, I write what you could call Fantastic Science Fiction, following the old line that, “Any technology beyond our own would seem like magic to us.” I even have a Fantasy/Sci-Fi cross-genre awaiting fleshing out.

    I could actually see fantasy going in the direction of things that push the envelope of what makes fantasy, as urban fantasy did when it boomed.

  • As long as this site continues to be a place where business knowledge and experiences are shared, craft approaches and technical methods are openly discussed (and sometimes debated), and good writing is always the central focus, my definintion of “fantastic” will be “Magical Words”.

  • I like the format. I get a lot of great writing advice here, regardless of genre. Fantasy to me is a good story that uses magic and mythic creatures within a well built world.

  • Razziecat

    I think of fantasy as fiction in which magic plays an integral part. There don’t have to be mythical beasts, but magic must be a part of the natural laws of the world in the story. I find the idea of crossing SF and fantasy very intriguing, too, and I think it would be tricky to do it well enough that both the science and the magic would be accepted by the reader; but I’d love to read it!

    I write space opera as well as fantasy, with a heavy focus on the plot and the characters; and I find the advice on Magical Words to be just as suited to this genre as it is to fantasy.

  • Razziecat: You should read some Piers Anthony. He does an excellent job of melding sci-fi and fantasy in his works. Especially look at the Incarnations of Immortality and Apprentice Adept series. Betting you’ll love them!

  • I think there will always be a place for fantasy, because to me, fantasy is dreaming. It might not be *possible* in reality, but it’s sure fun to imagine. Fantasy is other (magical) worlds; magic existing, period; mythical creatures and spells and items of power; anything else that might not exist, but that we could dream about. Dreaming is what keeps me sane.

    As far as site revamps go, maybe you could change the colour scheme, and have a few more fantasy-themed images/icons? Also, the tag-line just says “Writing tips and publishing advice for aspiring novelists.” Maybe put “fantasy” somewhere in that?

  • I’ve come to an interesting awareness of fantasy vis-a-vis science fiction quite by accident. Just the other day, I was having some thematic discussions with some fellow writers and deep thinkers. During this discussion, I brought up the fact that the formerly mystical idea of bilocation has now been physically (yes, pun intended for those science minded among us) proven in a lab. I further commented on how, in my mind, this opened the door to many things that were previously considered only viable in the fantasy realm. Bilocation isn’t just all fuzzy and mystical anymore, why shouldn’t far-seeing or shapeshifting or even more “fantastical” concepts be given a chance for honest consideration… *cricket* *cricket* *cricket*

    Apparently, I had reached that “bridge too far.” I had gone from the scientifically plausible in the mind of the science guys to right over into that “fanciful imagination land.” (their words) So these days I guess I am looking at the fanciful imagination land test as a good gauge as to how I should position my story line from a genre standpoint. Interestingly enough, I still believe that SciFi and Fantasy distinctions are fuzzy for a reason.

    The reason that all magic may one day be science and science may one day give birth to magic. Wait, it’s already happening…

  • I think David has a good definition going. I’m tempted to say that fantasy is anything the publishing industry wants to call fantasy and send me a check for.

    To expand on David’s definition, a lot of the magic systems we see in current fantasy have their basis in ancient science. The idea of the 4 elements or that stones, herbs, and other objects have specific mystical resonances that give them power which can be accessed have roots in pre-empirical (often Aristotelian)systems of thinking. Ditto the idea of true names, words with power, etc. So perhaps the divide between sci-fi and fantasy is that in sci-fi we employ the language of an empirical scientific model and speculate on it and in fantasy we employ the language/mindset of a pre-Englightenment (or pre-empiricist) view of the world. In either case the world we build has to be rational and systematic because we writers (generally) perceive the world to be basically rational and systematic, even if the system is beyond our comprehension or control or even if it’s hostile to us. Nihilism doesn’t work or sell well in either genre, though certain types of existential thinking do. (Terry Pratchett’s moral imperative existentialism works in his books.)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Fantasy is the opportunity to explore new places and what-if’s. It is the chance to make real something strange or frightening or subconsciously powerful and explore it directly, interact with it. Fantasy is possibility and wonder.

    Hmmm, perhaps not useful from a site-redesign perspective. Fantasy is literature with a strong component of awe and/or wonder from the perspective of the reader, coupled with may a dash or two of suspension-of-disbelief.

    Of course, a lot of this applies to science (not just science fiction) too.

    In terms of the future, I firmly believe that, while “gritty realist” fantasy has been really taking off lately, a centrally important aspect of fantasy is it’s ability to explore morality and to help guide (through exposure to lots of what-if’s) one’s moral development. (though I’m not sure if I’ve phrased that quite right.)

  • Blend genres, and adding a dash of the impossible, but the impossible that *is* possible if I do my job right.

    Myth and Mayhem. Mystery. Justice. The evolution of the human mind. The journey into a better or worse place. Reaping what my characters sow. With that dash of the impossible.

  • Monique

    I would agree with David’s comment — if the “magic” is explained in the context of the story using science, then it’s sci-fi, and if there’s an unexplained leap from person to frog, it’s magic.

    Tangential to the subject, I would really like to see an article from one of the esteemed contributors discussing the current industry usage of sub-genres. People keep asking me what sub-genre I work in, and I’m honestly a bit baffled by the labels.

  • Monique, we all think that’s a great idea. Misty will take a shot at it in a couple of weeks. And the rest of us have agreed to join in with a spirited discussion. 🙂 Really. That’s I’m calling it!

  • I was just in a discussion with a fellow writer who was advocating the writing of fantasy stories “without magic”. (The reason for this writer’s challenge was a perceived disapprobation of his religious beliefs for even contemplating the idea of magic; a stance which I, as a fantasy writer and a religious person both, found confusing and troubling.)

    This lead, in part, to a discussion of whether or not a story that lacked magic, or some element of the supernatural, could even be considered Fantasy in the first place…

    My conclusion: Fantasy is stories where the magical, the supernatural, the divine, the numinous, or the mythological somehow inflect or touch upon the story. If it lacks this element, then I would be hard-pressed to call it Fantasy.

    That said, while I consider myself a Fantasy writer, I’m a fan of Speculative Fiction more generally – that being the definition of Spec Fic that treats it as inclusive of all Fantasy, Sci Fi, and related genres and subgenres.

  • I believe the term Fantasy has become so broad that it is almost useless for defining a genre. That’s why we have to have “sub-genres” now. The purpose of a word is to get across an idea. If that word means different things to everyone who hears it, it isn’t communicating an idea any more.

    When I think of fantasy, I stick pretty close to definition #2 that Misty presented at the beginning of her article. The story needs to involve supernatural forces and/or creatures.

    As for sub-genres, one of my concerns has been how authors are starting to describe their stories as a blend of sub-genres. I wrote an article about this subject on my blog (www.danielrmarvello.com/archive/2011/06/11/genre-confusion.aspx). The bottom line of the article is that I think characterizing your novel as a YA/Urban Fantasy/Romance is alienating potential readers from *all* of the sub-genres you list.

  • Razziecat

    Stephen, I really like your definition of fantasy. And to your friend, I would pass along this quote from one of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels: “How odd that most people did not think of their religion as magic.”

  • Tom G

    I find it odd that so many (if not everyone) thinks that magic and/or mythical creatures are required to make a story a “fantasy.”

    I contend that if you write a story, with a medievaleque setting, with knights, kings, warhorses, and whatnot, but not a SINGLE instance of magic, or of a “god” actually intervening, or any ghouls, goblins, dragons, other mythical creatures, that it is still a Fantasy story.

    Indeed, the first fantasy story I ever wrote didn’t have any magic system, no wizards or dragons, nothing. Just warriors, kings, and kingdoms.

  • Tom G

    And let’s be honest. Any story that is not based on hard facts, is a flight of fantasy by the writer. So…one could argue that all fiction is fantasy.

  • Tom, that’s applying the definition of fantasy as imagination, but here, we’re talking about fantasy as a genre.

    Also, while I respect your contention, I have to disagree. A medievalesque story (lacking other fantastical elements) isn’t fantasy, it’s historical. Those times did exist, and existed with kings and kingdoms and warriors. There is no ‘suspension of disbelief’ required to read the story.

  • Guess it depends on where it takes place. If it took place on Earth it could be historical fiction, but if it was in the land of Lazatria in the Kingdom of Diaros, it’s no longer historical, since it’s not happening on our Earth.

    We also can’t forget Science Fantasy, which I take to include anything that cannot be explained by our current understanding of the laws of Physics and the Universe (and this also fits in my idea of fantasy)–things that we consider impossible through that understanding (limited though it may be) now. This would include, at this point in our understanding, hyperdrives and FTL. Our current understanding of speed and mass says that the faster we go, the more mass we take on. The theory is that we’d never achieve light speed, due to the fact that we’d tear ourselves apart under that exponential mass. Still doesn’t stop us from using it in sci-fi as a way to get from point A to point B. Also, explosions in space, ships stopping dead in space, turning on a dime, etc…the Force (midichlorians aside…). Evidently, I write and enjoy something closer to Science Fantasy and Fantastic Science Fiction, than straight Sci-Fi.

    There’s a couple interesting links for Science Fantasy here. The first is an amusing read. The second is wiki and has the normal issues.
    http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/non-fiction/is-it-science-fiction-or-science-fantasy/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fantasy

  • Yeah, I disagree with Tom G’s assessment as well: a medieval setting, even a secondary world medieval setting, does not a Fantasy make. If it were in fact a secondary world, that would certainly qualify the work to rest within the greater Big Tent of Speculative Fiction, and probably in one of her sub-genres, but it wouldn’t really be a Fantasy, I don’t think.

    A more borderline case, I imagine, are stories which explore real-world myths and attempt to give them a realistic, rational, non-magical explanation. I’m thinking, in this case, of something like the 2004 “King Arthur” movie, which drained all the magic out of the legend of King Arthur. It may or may not be more historically accurate… but since it takes its cues largely from the magical, mythical treatment of King Arthur we’re familiar with, it seems to rub shoulders closely with Fantasy without actually being Fantasy.

    I, as a fan of Fantasy and mythology, at least, felt compelled to see it.

    Regardless, it was still some flavor of Spec Fic, to be sure.