The fantasy genre is one of the most unique reading genres out there. To qualify as a fantasy novel, a book must fulfill a certain set of distinct criteria.
The other day I was attempting to nail down what these unique specifications were. There were some curious revelations that I came across that really made me think.
Today, I will be sharing with you a list I compiled of 11 typical elements of the fantasy genre.
The primary elements that comprise fantasy books include the following: a signature magic system, a unique world and a complex cast of characters. There is more to fantasy than these elements alone, however, these characteristics are universally considered to be fundamental to fantasy.
Fantasy authors do not incorporate these elements into their books just to fulfill a checklist.
There is a whole host of reasons why fantasy authors specifically employ these elements in their novels. Furthermore, novelists utilize features beyond these three elements to make their novels go from good to great.
1.) Signature Magic System
One of the staples of the fantasy genre is the magic system.
But what is a magic system?
A magic system is a collection of rules that govern how magical powers are generated and utilized within a fantasy narrative.
An original, exceptionally constructed magic system is what makes a good fantasy novel stand out.
The underlying appeal of the fantasy genre is mainly attributed to the incorporation of magic. It energizes the story, opening up an endless array of possibilities when it comes to the story itself.
When people read fantasy, they want to be taken into an otherworldly atmosphere. What better way to do so than to twist the laws of reality?
A well written magic system has a multitude of moving parts. Depending on the style of the author, the magic system may have a strict set of rules or a loose concept that is largely up to the interpretation of the reader.
Either avenue of magic, strict or loose, can work if done correctly.
It can be difficult to thoroughly explain a magic system within the span of a single novel. These authors are quite literally bending the laws of the universe to their will.
Consequently, authors can take a variety of approaches when going about these descriptions.
A standard explanation of a magic system typically dives into its explicit use and who its users are first. This gives the reader the general gist of the magic system. This is done deliberately before overwhelming the reader with too many details about the particulars.
Following this initial introduction, the author may delve further into the restrictions of the magic system. This is to demonstrate that its users are not all powerful. From there, the potential hazards of the magic system can be clarified.
If the author wants to quell all potential areas of ambiguity, the history behind the magic system may even be discussed.
In short, the magic system is the platform of operations from which all other literary aspects launch.
It can be found in nearly every fantasy novel out on the shelves.
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2.) World Building
World building is another iconic aspect of fantasy novels.
The fantasy genre is known for having some of the most memorable settings ever written.
In contrast to other reading genres, fantasy settings can venture away from reality. Consequently, authors can write a setting that is completely original to their book.
A well-written world can attract the likes thousands upon thousands of readers to flock to your book.
There is a lot that goes into writing a world that completely integrates the reader into the story. A tremendous amount of detail must be poured into the description of the setting to create this otherworldly atmosphere.
An author must not only describe the world through the eyes of the protagonist, but must also hint at a world beyond.
Readers love to be taken into a vast world with an intricate web of uncommon details woven into the story.
An author may hint at towns or cities in the their debut novel of a series. It may turn out that these places will not even be physically displayed until much later down the line.
Even giving original, beautiful names to the towns and cities of a fantasy novel can be tough. And that is only naming the setting!
Having a far-reaching world that seemingly has no bounds can be an excellent tool to engross the reader fully into the story.
The vast expanse of the setting can influence the overall direction that the story will take. The definitive nature of a particular setting can serve as an opportunity to either help or harm the main characters.
Take a big city that operates as a haven for criminals and thugs for example.
This can obviously present a host of problems to the protagonist. On the other hand, take a headquarters for an allied coalition. This setting could convince the reader that the main characters have entered a seemingly “safe space.”
In short, the influence of the setting must be factored in when formulating the plot of a story.
Although certain aspects of these fantasy worlds go beyond what is possible in the real world, the author does not have to get too cute with it. Tying in elements of the real world can be just as powerful as incorporating the fictional elements.
A deliberate blend of reality and imagination does wonders for the overall charm of the setting. It provides an escape from reality to the reader without needlessly sacrificing the relatable aura of the narrative.
In summary, the construction of the world is a major player in the realm of fantasy. It is hard to write a good fantasy novel without this noteworthy feature.
3.) Sophisticated Characters
There is a considerable amount of depth given to the main characters of fantasy books.
Giving surface level descriptions to characters is a sure way to lose the interest of the reader. The primary characters of a novel serve as a way for the reader to live vicariously.
A complex cast of characters is a necessary component of any fantasy novel.
Whether the novel is told from a first person perspective or a third party perspective, character introspection is one of the strongest elements of the fantasy genre.
Repetitively throughout the narrative, the character pauses to think. The reader experiences the thoughts and the emotions of the main character secondhand.
For this reason, character introspection is one of the best ways to connect to the reader. Developing an emotional fixation between reader and character is an irrefutable way to get the reader to keep turning the page. It is why so many writers employ this technique in their own fantasy novels.
Characterizing the protagonists and antagonist with strong viewpoints is a fundamental element of fantasy characters.
Stubborn opinions sets the stage for internal and external conflict that can change the course of the story. Overcoming conflict is why people read in the first place. Without conflict, there is no story.
Headstrong characters that want to bend the world to their will form the basis of these conflicts.
They argue, fight and sacrifice to generate the change they want to see in the world. If characters have no genuine interest in their ambitions, it is much more challenging to set up a clash of wills.
It is standard for fantasy characters to feel bitter resentment to society and the circumstances they are forced into.
These strong feelings of animosity fan the flames of the desperate actions the characters eventually takes to bring about justice. Above all else, this ill will makes the story plausible.
The reader is able to comprehend why the characters resort to such drastic measures. This relatability encourages the reader to cheer for the cause of the protagonists, even if it may spark mass anarchy.
4.) A Treacherous Quest
The protagonist embarking on a treacherous quest against all odds is one of the trademarks of the fantasy genre.
A dangerous quest incorporates an assemblage of ingredients that all bold readers want a piece of.
The adrenaline rush of adventure. A threat of danger. The hope to change the world for the better.
These are all fundamental aspects of a quest. It adds a whole different dynamic to the narrative that the plot can be based around.
The call to adventure opens up a whole set of opportunities for the writer to put their creative prowess on display.
Rather than simply trying to make the most out of a limited set of characters and a cramped setting, the protagonist is forced to abandon home.
Thus, the author can practically have a clean slate to work with.
New unforeseen obstacles can plague the protagonists. The threat of unfamiliar territory can be exploited. Additional unpredictable characters can be introduced where the reader is unable to surmise whether they are friend or foe.
The prospects are limitless with the story structured around a quest, which is why so many fantasy authors utilize it.
5.) Strict Hierarchy of Power
For fantasy characters to pursue change in the world, there must be a problem to fix.
That problem consistently has to do with the way society is organized. It is for this reason that fantasy novels routinely institute a strict hierarchy of power. This way, the discrepancy between the elite class and the less fortunate is magnified.
A hierarchy of power establishes a clear problem where justice must be served.
This imbalance of power is typically clear to the reader and the protagonist, but is indiscernible to the rest of the characters in the novel. Consequently, the protagonist sets off on their own to bring attention to the problem and rally people to their cause.
This type of external conflict is a common avenue for the fantasy genre.
It affords an easily understood mission for the protagonist. A corrupt hierarchy of power provides specific reasons for why the protagonist is tearing down the existing way of life.
It is also the perfect set up for possible internal conflicts. One major example is a situation where the protagonist must choose between their ambitions for a better world or the duty of protecting their loved ones.
6.) Good Versus Evil
The structure of good versus evil coincides with the element of the strict hierarchy of power.
The controlling class typically has one individual in particular that acts as the face of the corrupt faction. This individual is portrayed as the villain, doing everything within their power to hold on to their position. This routinely entails suppressing the rising tides of those less fortunate.
This is a common avenue of fantasy authors because it gives the protagonist a clear target to take down.
It is much easier for the reader to comprehend the story when the source of all the grief and strife is a singular person.
It can be difficult to follow a story where evil has no face. With no distinct villain, the mission of the protagonist is vague. By centralizing all of the evil on one person, the quest is specific. It puts the quest into simpler terms for the reader.
In addition, the villain can then be intensely characterized, adding another dimension to the story.
The author has the ability to play around with the ambitions and motivations behind the antagonist. The author can even dive into the backstory behind the villain.
Details such as these will help to establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the antagonist. This way, it confuses the reader as to which side to cheer for. It pulls them into the story even further to decide where their loyalties lie.
In brief, evil villains are a cornerstone of the fantasy genre.
7.) Mythical Creatures
Mythical creatures add some unique flair to the domain of fantasy.
Otherworldly creatures opens up the imagination floodgates to further compel the reader to break away from reality.
Like world building, these mythical creatures may draw some inspiration from reality. For example, a pegasus draws many similarities to a horse. When you analyze it closely, a pegasus is just a horse that can fly.
Mythical creatures go along with the world building aspect of the fantasy genre.
Readers like weird, original ideas that are different from the norm. Mythical creatures are about as different from the norm as you can get in literature. For that reason, mythical creatures have been put to good use in the fantasy genre.
8.) High-Flying Action
Fantasy stories are built on action. With worlds built on magical powers and mythical creatures, people want to see these unique characteristics on display. What better way to showcase these features than in battle!
Action is also a fantastic way to keep tensions high and bring about culmination to a fantasy novel. With a clash of arms, there is a definitive build up and climax to the fantasy novel. The good guy versus the bad guy.
Action is the pinnacle of conflict and is the ultimate resolution to those vying for power.
Some of the best fantasy novels to date utilize action to add intrigue to their stories. Many fantasy novels have followed suit, establishing it as one of the pillars of fantasy.
9.) Forbidden Romance
The protagonist always falls in love with the most troublesome of the lot. As the old adage goes, people yearn for what they cannot have. Fantasy protagonists are no exception to this.
This forbidden romance typically gets the protagonist stuck in complicated situations. As aforementioned, conflict is the foundation of any good story.
Romance adds another conflict that the author can toy with throughout the novel.
It can be even be a subplot if the author so desires. In the end, more opportunities for mayhem favors the author. This is why forbidden romance has been commonly been incorporated into fantasy novels.
10.) Common Set of Themes
There is a laundry list of themes that writers can choose to focus on when writing their novels. In the fantasy genre, writers typically concentrate on a particular set of themes that they rarely stray away from.
What are these themes you may ask?
Fantasy authors routinely consolidate their efforts into conveying the following themes:
- Coming of Age
- Good Versus Evil
- Man vs. Society
Of course, there are other themes involved in fantasy. This is simply to provide an idea of what sort of themes fantasy authors focus on.
11.) Exclusive Words and Phrases
A subtle element commonly involved in fantasy that can be easily overlooked is the special jargon corresponding to the fantasy world.
Special terms and phrases are concocted out of thin air to describe the magical nuances of the unique, fantasy environment.
This is certainly more petty compared to the other fantasy elements on this list. Nonetheless, this innovative language reinforces the imaginative ambience of the book.
Exclusive words and phrases enhance the originality of the work.
This special language could be used as small, minute details to add some flair to a passage.
A prime example of this is seen in the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks.
Rather than referencing coffee as coffee, Weeks elects to allude to coffee as ‘kopi.’ In the glossary of the novel, Weeks describes kopi as the following:
“A mild, addictive stimulant, a popular beverage. Bitter, dark colored, and served hot.”
On the other hand, special names could be administered to more significant aspects of the novel, like the name of a city or a community.
There is a perfect instance of this in Red Rising by Pierce Brown.
There is a select distinguished group of guerilla assassins frequently alluded to throughout the novel. Brown explicitly labels this special group of individuals the ‘Howlers.’
These uncommon terms and phrases provide an opportunity for the writer to showcase their creative talent. Furthermore, it is also a small freedom for the writer to have fun with their novel.
Authors, especially ones in the fantasy genre, rarely pass up opportunities like this. Thus, weird language is commonly found in fantasy.
Benefits of Knowing the Elements of the Fantasy Genre
For readers, the most rewarding benefit is that you figure out what turns you on or off to fantasy novels.
Knowing these different features will allow you to have the keenness of mind to identify these elements when they come up in your reading organically.
You can then decide whether or not the fantasy novel is up to your standards or below your standards.
For example, when the author begins to go into the magic system, you can analyze its quality from an objective perspective.
You can ask yourself is the magic system strict or loose? Is the concept behind the magic system original or have I seen this before?
Answers to questions like these can help you to identify whether or not a fantasy novel is worth the read.