For the next couple weeks, I’m going to be exploring fiction genre-by-genre, doing a (semi? quasi? lazy?) deep dive into each one. And I’m picking one of my favorites to start: Fantasy.
So, what is Fantasy? According to Wikipedia, it’s “a genre of fiction that uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting.” Which means that fantasy involves at least one of the follow: magic, monarchs, and mythology.
Harry Potter = magic
Lord of the Rings = magic + monarchs
American Gods = magic + mythology
The Mists of Avalon = magic + monarchs + mythology
But, obviously, those elements are pretty common in a lot of books, which means Fantasy is a massive genre. And not all Fantasy is the same: some is dark, some is funny, some involve elves and unicorns, some involve iPhones and Camaros. So, like taxonomic rank, there are sub-divisions. Some popular ones are:
- Contemporary Fantasy—a.k.a. fantasy that takes place in the real world. iPhones and Immortals. McDonalds and Mages. Google and Gorgons. (Notable examples: The Mortal Instruments, American Gods, The Magicians, Tithe)
- Epic/High Fantasy—a.k.a. swords and sorcery. No modern plumbing allowed. Tis only a flesh wound, but that stuff’ll kill you, because there are no antibiotics. (Notable examples: A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, Sabriel)
- Fairy Tales—a.k.a. Disney-fabulous. Except all of those Menken-scored childhood faves have significantly darker origins. Mirror mirror, on the wall, what bedtime stories do I not want if I’m going to sleep at all? (Notable examples: Ella Enchanted, Throne of Glass, Princess of Thorns, Cruel Beauty)
- Historical Fantasy—a.k.a. Contemporary and High Fantasy had a baby! Based in the real world (a la Contemporary), but not the modern world (a la High Fantasy). Think warlocks in the Revolutionary War. The Salem Witch trial with actual witches. Magical Cold War (which, I won’t lie, I would LOVE to see). (Notable examples: Shades of Milk and Honey, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Quicksilver, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)
- Paranormal—a.k.a. attractive vampires. Generally featuring a contemporary setting and a mythic monster of the week (at least one, but frequently multiples). Common theme: they’re hiding among us. (Notable examples: Twilight, The Graveyard Book, Beautiful Creatures, A Discovery of Witches)
- Urban Fantasy—a.k.a. gritty Contemporary. Usually crossing over with the Mystery or Romance genre. Things usually get violent. (Notable examples: Dresden Files, Mercy Thompson, Neverwhere, White Cat)
Granted, a lot of these subgenres overlap. There are no clear divisions in fiction—it’s more of a spectrum. Genres can mashup and collide, and usually end up doing strange and wondrous things together.
But, given all the different fantasy combinations, certain elements recur over and over. And, when they get really overdone, they get boring. They become tropes. And tropes are kind of awful. Common (waaaaaaay too common) tropes in Fantasy are:
- Chosen One—the hero was prophesied long before birth to save the world from a great evil. They’re naturally good at everything. Yawn.
- MacGuffins—a magical object that is the hero’s only hope to save the world. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
- Kindly magical mentor—Gandalf. Dumbledore. Yoda. Aslan. #SquadGoals.
- Damsels in Distress—seriously, don’t even get me started.
If you’re writing Fantasy, please avoid those.
So what makes Fantasy great? It’s escapism in one of its highest, most imaginative forms. It’s not just disappearing into another life, but another world. It’s flipping the bird to reality. Are you stuck in rush hour traffic? No, you’re a twelfth level mage battling orcs in the Fields of Garruth. Stuck inside on a rainy day? No, you’re a medium using her powers to solve a string of gristly werewolf murders.
Fantasy readers refuse to accept the normal, the expected. They demand more.
But perhaps the greatest draw in Fantasy is how anyone can be a hero. Maybe you’re a poor, neglected orphan (Harry Potter) or a small-town farmboy (The Wheel of Time). Maybe you’re a bit of a homebody (The Hobbit) or kind of a rebel (Dealing with Dragons). Greatness can come from everywhere, and be found in the humblest of packages.
Fantasy lets us all be heroes, even if it’s only in our minds.
Want to know more about fantasy? Read it! Here’s a random list of some of my favorites:
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce
- The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
- The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
- The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
- Sabriel by Garth Nix
- The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- Peter Pan by JM Barrie
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
- Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
- Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
- The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
- Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop
- Antigoddess by Kendare Blake
- The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
- The Oracle Betrayed by Catherine Fisher
- Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
- Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine
- Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder
- Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
- Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
- City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster
Go forth and read!