What is the fantasy genre?
The first step in developing a passion for something is defining what that passion is. The trouble with people who are trying to pursue an interest in the fantasy genre is that there are a lot of peculiar aspects that go along with this realm of literature.
It can be challenging to explicitly define which novels specifically belong to the the fantasy reading category. I actually ran into this problem myself when I first realized my passion for fantasy.
Often times, novels do not fit neatly into one distinct reading genre. Rather, they incorporate elements of multiple reading genres.
In this article, I will be taking it upon myself to explain what the fantasy genre is in a clear and concise manner.
Definition of the Fantasy Genre
The fantasy genre is defined as a genre of theoretical fiction that incorporates magical, otherworldly components into the narrative. The setting is entirely fictional but still contains elements that resemble the real world.
Archetypical Elements of the Fantasy Genre
Novels in the fantasy genre are defined by a collection of archetypical elements. Not all of these archetypical elements are found in every single fantasy novel.
Nonetheless, the majority of the elements listed below are present in practically any fantasy story.
It is a common thread among fantasy writers to deliberately incorporate these features into their novels.
For a more informative look at the archetypical elements of the fantasy genre, check out my blog post on 11 Archetypical Elements of the Fantasy Genre. You may be pleasantly surprised at what fantasy elements that readers regularly overlook.
Original Magic System
Virtually all stories in the fantasy genre integrate what is known as a magic system. A magic system is a set of laws that oversee how supernatural powers are utilized and produced within a fantasy story.
Often times, this is the main allure that compels individuals to read fantasy in the first place. The plot and characters of fantasy narratives are frequently based around a creative magic system.
This primary feature is what separates the fantasy genre from all of the other reading genres.
Magic systems allow writers to make the impossible possible. What is unreal in our world can become real in the world of fantasy.
Needless to say, a magic system allows endless opportunities for authors to showcase their gift of imagination. It is astonishing how far renowned fantasy authors can take their magic system when granted this creative freedom.
Elaborate World Building
World building refers to the manner in which fantasy authors construct an intricate imaginary universe for the story setting.
Since fantasy writers are not confined to the laws of the real world, these fantasy worlds can be remarkably innovative. Fundamental rules of the universe can bend to the will of these writers to accomplish whatever purpose they see fit.
The fantasy genre is known for encapsulating its readers with its original settings. People are drawn to the idea of escaping into a world beyond their own. Readers can achieve just that with fantastical world building.
In fact, this aspect of fantasy has become so prominent that readers have come to expect a physical geographical map to go along with their fantasy novels.
Readers want to fully engross themselves into the story. Having a physical map to refer to allows them to pinpoint exactly where they are in the fictional world.
You will be hard pressed to find a fantasy novel that does not incorporate the world building feature. Generally, authors love to take on creative challenges for themselves.
World building is the ultimate creative challenge. It offers writers the rare opportunity to completely engross readers into their novels without having to craft a meticulous plot. If done correctly, the setting itself will be a source of appeal by its own merit.
A Dangerous Quest
Characters in the fantasy genre often embark on quests packed full of perilous obstacles and nasty villains. It is typically the centerpiece to the storyline.
Whether the quest is for a physical artifact or self discovery, this archetypical element provides exceptional possibilities in terms of what direction the story can take.
The main protagonists inevitably experience growth and development with a story structure modeled after a quest. Characters are forced to evolve as they are faced with daunting challenges that expose their weaknesses.
These weaknesses come in a variety of forms, ranging from a lack of physical strength to a bloated pride. To avoid failure, characters must confront these weaknesses head on and overcome them.
The limitless imaginative possibilities and contrived character development compels fantasy writers to employ a dangerous quest in nearly every work.
Mythical creatures are another fantastical element that writers include to further reinforce the supernatural components of their story.
Unique mythical creatures are just another means by which fantasy stories can distinguish themselves from other stories in other genres. They emphasize a distinct imaginative aura that many other novels lack.
These mythical creatures take the form of practically anything befitting the imagination of the author. Dragons, elves, goblins, and dwarves are just a few signature mythical creatures that characterize the fantasy genre.
The beauty of mythical creatures is that they do not have to fit under any one of these archetypical umbrellas. A writer can craft a mythical creature from scratch if they so desire.
Often times, these mythical creatures have a basis in reality. These fantastical beings draw striking similarities with organisms that we are familiar with.
For instance, dragons are essentially colossal, winged, fire-breathing lizards. The shared traits of fantasy with the real world helps the reader to visualize these mythical beings with ease.
Origin of the Fantasy Genre
The history of the fantasy genre stretches all the way back to ancient times with the rise of mythological narratives. This rich history provided the fantasy genre with the momentum necessary to take it all the way to the present time.
This is not to say that some creative minds helped fuel the popularity of the fantasy genre along the way.
Below is a brief synopsis of the history behind the fantasy genre.
For a more comprehensive review on the origins of the fantasy genre, check out my blog post titled The Fascinating History Behind the Fantasy Genre.
Trust me, you do not want to miss out on some of the curious facts about the founder of the fantasy genre!
The Humble Beginnings of Fantasy
The exact starting point to the fantasy genre remains a topic of controversy to this day. Although the specific origins of fantasy are incessantly debated, there are some common works that have emerged as leading candidates.
Among these prominent original works are The Odyssey and Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.
The Odyssey by Homer is argued to be the first fantasy work ever.
Individuals in this faction argue that the mythological story concepts gave birth to the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre. They certainly have a point.
In The Odyssey, you will find there are dangerous quests, unique mythical creatures, complex characters and a reoccurring use of magic. This is one of the earliest works, if not THE earliest work, to employ such elements.
Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald was published in 1858.
Although this novel was published much later than The Odyssey, individuals argue that this work ignited the spark that eventually culminated into the legitimacy of modern fantasy.
Before this work, supernatural aspects were plain and simple. They were typically reserved for children more than anyone else.
George MacDonald transformed all of this with this fantasy work. He deliberately expanded the scope of fantasy to all audiences.
The Disputed Father of Fantasy
The true father of fantasy is a largely disputed subject. Some argue for Homer, some argue for George MacDonald, while others make their case for other renowned writers.
Following my research, I am of the opinion that Homer is the father of the broader realm of fantasy whereas George MacDonald is the father of modern fantasy as we know it today.
At the end of the day, what cannot be disputed is the immense contribution both of these men made to the evolution of the fantasy genre.
The Turning Point of Fantasy
The specific origin of fantasy is a disputable subject.
What is not a disputable subject is the event that solidified fantasy as a legitimate reading genre.
J.R.R. Tolkien is the most renowned fantasy author to date for good reason. His work with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion changed the perception of the fantasy genre forever.
Despite the work of George MacDonald, fantasy was still a relatively obscure genre prior to J.R.R. Tolkien. It was only with the release of The Lord of the Rings that the fantasy genre finally began to take off.
The momentum that The Lord of the Rings kindled brought awareness to many other prominent fantasy works such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia.
People began to take notice of the increasing popularity of fantasy. This fed the legitimacy of fantasy in literature.
The acceptance of the general public is an exceptionally challenging thing to acquire. It eludes so many other upstart reading genres.
Without the brilliant work of J.R.R. Tolkien, the fantasy genre may have remained stuck in no man’s land.
Standard Themes in The Fantasy Genre
It is typical to see a common set of themes when reading through fantasy novels. As fantasy stories have accrued over time, writers have tested what themes appeal to a fantasy audience and what themes do not.
Consequently, fantasy authors have gravitated to a particular list of themes to reinforce in their narratives.
Check out my blog post on 25 Common Themes of Literature Outlined in Detail for a more in depth glimpse into the concept of fantasy themes.
Coming of Age
Fantasy stories often revolve around a young protagonist trying to find their way in the world. These characters have much yet to learn and have a vigorous desire to acquire this knowledge. Often by any means necessary.
The coming of age theme provides the author with a great many opportunities to take the story in practically any direction.
Young protagonists have a knack for trouble and getting themselves into sticky situations. As a result, there is a plethora of obstacles and conflicts that can be introduced into the story to make the narrative more interesting with a coming of age theme.
The coming of age theme also draws the attention of the younger audience.
This expands the number of individuals a fantasy novel can cater to, ultimately resulting in better success for the writer.
If a particular theme results in better success for the writer, you can bet they will be trying to utilize that theme as much as humanly possible.
Good versus Evil
The theme of good versus evil is not only a staple of the fantasy genre, it is a staple theme of literature in general.
The centerpiece of nearly every fantasy conflict is based around a clash of morals. This battle of ethics adds the elements of suspense and unpredictability that every great novel requires.
Fantasy writers relish in playing around with the morals of their characters. Loyalty and betrayal, friend and foe, love and hate all stem from the theme of good versus evil.
Fantasy writers frequently pit the personal desires of their characters against the greater good. These stories illustrate that evil tempts everyone, even the best of us.
Since the dawn of our lives, good versus evil has been a common theme.
Fantasy analyzes this relationship between good and evil not only for the sake of interest, but for the sake of perspective. Expanding your perspective on an everyday theme such as good versus evil comes in handy when tackling serious life situations.
This favorable combination of interest and perspective is the foremost reason why this theme prevails in the fantasy genre.
Individual versus Society
Readers love to cheer for the underdog. That being said, there are not many underdog situations that can top a single individual pitted against all of the vast resources of society.
Thus, individual versus society has risen to prominence in the fantasy genre.
Fantasy protagonists have an unwavering ambition. When they have the desire to see change, they throw themselves head over heels to accomplish their goal.
The undertaking of a singular individual versus the overpowering structure of society parallels the story of David and Goliath.
Readers revel in guessing and anticipating the next plan of action. Will the protagonist succeed? Or will the protagonist be left in shambles? These are the types of questions that compel the reader to keep on turning the page.
Other Common Fantasy Themes
The fantasy themes I described above are not the only common themes utilized in the fantasy genre. The list below is comprised of some other themes that fantasy authors commonly reinforce in their writing.
- Individual versus Self
- Love and Sacrifice
- Overcoming Weakness
- Quest for Discovery
Of course, these themes are not the end all be all of fantasy themes.
There are plenty of other themes that are utilized in the fantasy genre. These are just some standard examples of what to expect when reading fantasy.
Contemporary Fantasy versus Traditional Fantasy
The fantasy genre can be broken down into two categories: contemporary fantasy and traditional fantasy.
Why the distinction?
Contemporary fantasy and traditional fantasy have their own defining characteristics. This additional categorization is a useful tool for readers to identify exactly the type of fantasy they prefer.
Contemporary fantasy is also known as modern fantasy. These terms are interchangeable, however, in this article I will only be referring to this category as contemporary fantasy to avoid confusion.
Contemporary fantasy stories have a known author.
There is no mystery as to the person who came up with the fantasy narrative. This is because these fantasy stories have been constructed relatively recently.
Novels have been explicitly written out and formally published to tell these stories. The authors receive the recognition that they deserve for their work.
The characters are dynamic.
This means that the characters develop and change throughout the story. The characters are meant to be specific and distinct individuals.
They have defining characteristics that solidifies their persona within the story. There is rarely anything ambiguous about contemporary fantasy characters.
The setting is specific and thoroughly described.
Explicit, complex details about the setting are provided in contemporary fantasy stories. These intricacies are what distinguish a fantasy story from every other fantasy story out there.
Each contemporary fantasy story has a particular set of precise structural elements that differentiate it from its fantasy predecessors.
Stories befitting the criteria of contemporary fantasy still retain the magical components that define the fantasy genre. Both contemporary fantasy and traditional fantasy share these supernatural elements.
Traditional fantasy, on the other hand, has no known author.
This is primarily due to the fantasy stories being passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. None of the stories were ever recorded into manuscripts.
As a result, the true writers of these traditional fantasy works were lost with time.
The majority of details in traditional fantasy stories are vague and up for interpretation.
With each retelling of these fantasy tales, the storyteller would add their own little twist to the story.
Consequently, the stories took on a life of their own. The layers upon layers of elements storytellers would include inevitably distorted the original story details.
This led to stories in the traditional fantasy genre having extremely similar settings and plots.
As oral tradition ran its course, traditional fantasy stories blended together. This mixing established a common model for how traditional fantasy stories were told.
Consequently, traditional fantasy stories lost their individuality as these stories were echoed across various cultures and time periods.
Traditional fantasy characters are static.
They change very little, if at all, over the course of the story. This is because characters that are in the realm of traditional fantasy are meant to be a symbol.
These characters fulfill some sort of archetype instead of serving as a distinct persona.
Sub-genres within the Fantasy Genre
The momentous rise of the fantasy genre resulted in the branching off of several fantasy sub-genres.
These sub-genres have helped readers narrow down their reading interests to specific niches within fantasy. Breaking down fantasy into smaller sub-genres also allows readers to discover similar novel recommendations within their preferred niche.
I took the liberty of providing examples of each sub-genre with their Amazon links just in case any of these novels pique your interest.
This sub-genre is pretty self explanatory.
Children’s fantasy is geared more toward a child audience rather than an adult audience. This sub-genre is characterized by a younger protagonist with exclusive supernatural powers.
Violence and sexual innuendos are kept to a minimum, if included at all.
Examples: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Dark fantasy is characterized by a dreary atmosphere, centering around what are typically marked as “ominous” themes.
It is a bit of challenge to distinguish which novels fit the criteria of dark fantasy because its definition is rather ambiguous. In the years to come, hopefully this sub-genre will gain a solid foothold and clear up this confusion.
Certain authors prefer to use the term “dark fantasy” over the term “horror.”
The rationale is that dark fantasy sounds a bit less revolting to readers. Thus, dark fantasy can appeal to a broader reading audience and avoid scaring away potential readers.
Examples: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lewis, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Fantasy romance incorporates components of both the fantasy and romance genre simultaneously. The theme of love and sacrifice is a predominant theme in this fantasy sub-genre.
Certain publishers pay special attention to differentiating between the terms “fantasy romance” and “romantic fantasy.”
Although this may seem like a petty detail to the casual reader, it makes a difference to publishers in communicating what the story is primarily focused on.
In fantasy romance, fantasy is the point of emphasis with romantic undertones. Romantic fantasy, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Romantic fantasy is predominantly a romance story with fantastical undertones.
Examples: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Graceling by Kristin Cashore
High fantasy is what most readers believe the fantasy genre to be all about. High fantasy is also known as epic fantasy.
This sub-genre is characterized by grandiose characters and a fictional, monumental world that is excruciatingly detailed.
In epic fantasy, the story does not take place in a real world setting. Rather, the author elects to take its fictional elements to an entirely new level.
Mythical creatures and magical powers abound in these types of stories. Acts of heroism are also commonplace in high fantasy.
High fantasy is largely considered the most popular sub-genre of fantasy.
Examples: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Low fantasy and high fantasy draw many similarities between one another, but there is one striking difference.
Where high fantasy is set in a secondary environment independent of the real world, low fantasy is set in the real world as we know it.
Magical occurrences interrupt the natural workings of what is otherwise a perfectly normal world.
Relative to high fantasy, much less of the traditional features of fantasy are incorporated into this specific sub-genre. Thus, low fantasy leans more toward the contemporary side of things.
Examples: The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Urban fantasy is defined as a narrative that integrates supernatural facets into a contemporary (urban) framework.
Urban fantasy shows noticeable parallels to low fantasy in terms of the moderated use of magic and the lack of an epic setting.
What differentiates the two sub-genres is that urban fantasy reinforces the present-day societal setting far more than its low fantasy counterpart.
Examples: Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch, Storm Front by Jim Butcher
Young Adult Fantasy
Young adult fantasy has the specific target audience of those that are on the verge of adulthood, but not quite there yet.
As you can probably imagine, the coming of age theme dominates this sub-genre.
This theme coincides with what these young readers are going through in their own lives. It increases the relatability of the novel and compels these young readers to step into the shoes of the protagonist.
Young adult fantasy stresses characterization over plot. This trend goes hand in hand with the predominant theme of coming of age. Much less priority is given to the nature of the setting and intricacies of the plot relative to other sub-genres, such as epic fantasy.
Examples: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Prominent Examples of the Fantasy Genre
Below are some of the most renowned works of the fantasy genre. These novels will give you a thorough grasp of what the fantasy genre is all about.
The Lord of the Rings
As aforementioned, this fantasy work by J.R.R. Tolkien is what changed the fantasy genre forever.
It is a must read if you are aiming to become a full fledged fantasy book fanatic. The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies worldwide as of 2019.
The Lord of the Rings still continues to make millions of sales to this very day.
A Game of Thrones
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin was a fantasy gem even before the highly acclaimed television series came along and took the world by storm.
This novel is the first in a fantasy series titled A Song of Ice and Fire. A Game of Thrones remodeled the definition of modern fantasy, helping to usher in the next era of fantastical literature.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
Compared to the previous two novels, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch is a somewhat new addition to the fantasy genre.
Hailed as a masterpiece by George R.R. Martin himself, The Lies of Locke Lamora continues to grab the attention of modern fantasy readers everywhere.
For a comprehensive review of The Lies of Locke Lamora, check out my in depth review here.
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is another mainstay in the fantasy genre.
This novel by C.S. Lewis fed off the momentum triggered by The Lord of the Rings and eventually came into its own.
Now renowned as a fantasy classic, this novel continues to influence fantasy today with over 100 million copies sold.