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The Elements of Fantasy
Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 5:38 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Greetings folks,

The various discussions in the genre related forums have gotten me thinking a little. I know, a dangerous thing. I can't help it.

When you write a 'fantasy' novel, do you sit down and think, 'Today, I am going to write a pure fantasy!'?

As I thought about life, the universe and everything today, I quickly came to the conclusion that I have never read a single fantasy novel that was a pure fantasy. There is always some other element of another genre tightly intermingled with the 'fantasy' part I so love.

This made me wonder just what, really, made a fantasy stand apart as a fantasy. What are the elements of a fantasy novel or short story? Fantasies seem to be limited only by the imagination of their creators.

My opinion tends to be setting. While I read the occasional modern fantasy, my heart truly belongs to those brand new worlds where there is no connection to Earth. But, I find that I want more than just a pretty world and a nice magic system. I tend to want action! Adventure! Mystery! The occasional thrill and chill of a scary story.

What are your thoughts on what makes a fantasy a fantasy? What sub-genre of fantasy do you enjoy most? (The political thriller, the epic war...)

Personally, I like a mix of politics, action, adventure, mystery and romance. Preferably lumped all together into one.

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 6:09 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 15

Well, as you said, if you're talking "pure fantasy" then I tend to think of a story with no relation to our own world. Brandon Sanderson is one example of an author who writes extremely well in this genre. He has numerous worlds, all with strong systems of magic, all with their own detailed mythologies that have no connection to anything you'd find on our island of Earth.

There's also plenty of action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, religion...all those sorts of things in his stories. Highly recommended.

At the same time, you might say that those elements are also connections to other genres. Political thrillers. Romantic comedies. Action/adventures.

Can you give some examples of what you mean by other genres being mingled with "fantasy"? Are we talking urban fantasy? Paranormal romances?
Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 6:30 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite 'newer' authors that I have had the pleasure of reading lately -- this REALLY embodies what I view as a great fantasy. And I agree, very close to being as pure as it gets.

It also portrays, very well, how there is so many other genres thrown into it while still remaining a true fantasy.

Urban fantasy and paranormal romances were the two major categories I *did* have in mind as I was writing this, truth be told. (I fear a witch hunt now, I know these two are popular... but I have a hard time viewing either of these as hardcore fantasy...)

I suppose what I am asking is this: At what point does the 'fantasy' lose out to the secondary elements of romance, paranormal, urban, etc?
Mahesh Raj Mohan
Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 11:14 PM
Joined: 2/28/2011
Posts: 60

Hi RJ, good topic. I tend to only read what is defined here as "pure fantasy." Currently reading Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear. I've only read Elantris by Sanderson, although I own a MMPB of Mistborn.

My all-time favorite fantasy writer is Guy Gavriel Kay, though. He weaves all the things you mentioned together and his prose sings.
Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:54 AM
Joined: 3/3/2011
Posts: 15

Hi, Mahesh. I'll talk Guy Gavriel Kay any time you like! As you say, his prose absolutely sings. What makes it do that, though? That's what I have difficulty pinning down.
Mahesh Raj Mohan
Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 6:16 AM
Joined: 2/28/2011
Posts: 60

Hi Eliza! Yes, totally agreed, it's hard to point to any one thing. I think he is a master at making the third person omniscient as immediate the first person, like you are inhabiting someone's brain. It's the main reason why I like to write in third person omniscient, because he inspires it.

I also think it's his sometimes mischievous ways of holding critical info away from the reader and then he slams it down at just the right moment.
Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 4:55 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 15

Rothfuss is another great example, as is George R.R. Martin.

As far as the fantasy getting overwhelmed by the other elements...well, I think that's going to be left up to personal taste. Some readers like having just a smidge of fantasy elements in their romance novels...like time travel bringing a modern woman and ancient lord together, and then it's a basic romance story from there. Others want the fantasy as an integral part of the story all the way through.
Danielle S
Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 8:18 PM
Joined: 3/15/2011
Posts: 6

This is a really interesting topic, and one that I think about often, so I apologize if this is a little long. One way I think fantasy can be defined is by examining the protagonist's initial relationship with and subsequent reaction to the strange.

In a lot of traditional fantasy, the characters and, by proxy, the readers encounter something alien to their experience; Lucy Pevinsie goes through the wardrobe and meets a faun; Daenerys Targaryen goes to the desert and finds some thought-to-be-extinct dragons. These creatures (or cities, or magical powers) may be beautiful, awe-inspiring, hideous, or even dangerous, but the overarching sentiment that the characters feel is a sense of wonder at the world around them. (Your kindly caretaker is a wizard! Dragons exist!)

Supernatural horror is, I think, similar to fantasy. The unsuspecting protagonist still stumbles upon or is forced to face something alien (Your neighbor is a witch who wants to kill you! Demons exist! ) only instead of a sense of wonder, their ultimate response is disgust and fear.

In urban fantasy (and some paranormal romance), however, the "alien" becomes mundane. The reader may not be used to interrogating vampires or the etiquette of the Unseelie Court, but the protagonist usually is. S/he is already keyed into the secret that monsters and magic are real. (Your neighbor is a witch, and you're dating her! Demons exist, and you hunt them professionally! ) The protagonist may even BE a monster. And because of that, s/he doesn't feel the wonder or disgust that the traditional fantasy or horror protagonist feels when facing the same problems. Something even more alien has to come to town to rattle their cages. (Your witch girlfriend's warlock ex is back with a blood vendetta! The demons you've been hunting have left town with no warning!)

Looking at it this way, the setting, time, costumes, magical systems and monsters don’t need to be defined. A novel about a contemporary woman who discovers that there are fairies in the woods behind her house might be fantasy if she joins them on an adventure to save their lost queen, horror if she is stalked by the queen’s giant spiders, or UF if she learns she’s half-fairy and goes to work for them as their giant spider wrangler

Robert C Roman
Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 9:31 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Danielle - that's fantastic!

I'd tend to disagree a *little* with the idea that setting, time, costumes and monsters don't matter, because there are some combinations that imply or restrict certain subgenres, but I'll grant that they're less important than the plot and treatment.

Again, beautiful examples!
Posted: Friday, April 8, 2011 5:40 PM
Joined: 3/31/2011
Posts: 11

Good questions RJ!

I think Danielle's deconstruction of the themes of genre is spot on, and I tend to want to think that when we refer to something as fantasy we are simply providing a more clear indication of setting/theme when trying to better describe our paranormal, urban, or epic stories (or whatever other stories!).

I have an issue with the notion of some fantasy being more pure than others, since that seems to presume that fantasy has a very particular construction; that if it is to be pure it is only allowed to have this kind of story, or these kinds of themes (which we define based on some subjective and arbitrary perceptions of fantasy's past). I think genre provides us with a vocabulary to describe the different elements of conflict and setting that occur within our stories, and while we gravitate towards one or two words to best describe the genres of our stories, usually far more than that can be found between the pages.

So, what do I like... I like good characters dealing with terrible and fantastic things! I want to get to know the mythology of the world as it lives and breathes; I want to watch a character rise and fall and rise again, and I want to see the world changed. This can be epic, or not so epic (I think they call that "traditional" [whatever that means...]).
Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011 9:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224

These are some fantastic responses! I love how everyone has such varied responses yet have similar reasons to like what they do. The real beauty of people!

In my novel writing lately, I notice that *culture* plays a significant role in the motivations of my characters and how they respond to certain things.

For example, my main character is born of a kingdom called A! (its not really, but I type these words all of the time and A is just.. A! Shh.) At this one point in the novel, he is heavily involved in the war acts of a different kingdom, B. He often doesn't understand (or even get along) with most of them... because he doesn't understand their cultures. A people give each other gifts for anytime they feel they have received something of worth from another person (be it emotional or an actual gift.)

B people never give each other gifts. The concept of presents is foreign to them. If someone is offered something, something else is presented in exchange. Their views on life are similar (they both give something back to one another in their societies) but they are drastically different in how they handle it.

Things like this make writing the novels in this world so much more interesting (though complex to keep track of in the background.) It also makes interactions between these two people a lot more fun to write *and* read when editing.

For me, writing fantasy is exactly that; submersing myself in a world of fantasy outside the wear and tear of our daily lives.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 11:55 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this up for the new members to see!

Timothy Maguire
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 8:43 PM
Joined: 8/13/2011
Posts: 272

Personally, if I had to define fantasy, it's where an extraordinary power challenges the main character. In an urban fantasy, the MC's knowledge of the secrets of the world endangers them. In a fantasy world, the MC becomes the focus of unusual powers and forces. In a paranormal romance, the MC becomes involved with a person with an extraordinary secret. etcetera, etcetera.

In general, I tend to think of Fantasy and Sci-Fi as settings, not genres. When you look at it, you're really just telling a story about a bunch of characters, that's all. Whether they're on a journey of discovery, falling in love or fighting a war, it's the characters' reactions to the challenges that define the story, not where it is.

Cas Meadowfield
Posted: Saturday, September 12, 2015 5:17 AM
Joined: 8/19/2015
Posts: 31

This is a very interesting discussion.
 Urban fantasy I think, is having magic, eleves or something strange and wonderful in a city... 
Having vampires and werewolves is a recent idea, of turning what was elements of horror into fantasy ingredients.
Well that's my thoughts, feel free to disagree



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