The Fantasy genre is pure escapism. Very often the author creates an entirely new universe or world, unique to their story, in which they make the rules and determine the mechanics of existence, behaviour, and interaction. It could be only a slight change to reality, or vastly and almost incomprehensibly different.
Fantasy differs from Science Fiction in that what may be considered “impossible” scientifically is rendered standard behaviour or ability in Fantasy, without requiring scientific explanation. For example, in Harry Potter being able to fly on a broomstick is accepted as a normal ability for characters who are witches or wizards.
There is a huge range of different sub-genres of Fantasy, along with blends of two or more sub-genres, and blending of Fantasy with other genres.
The Quest is one of the most popular Fantasy themes. Moving characters from one part of the fantasy world to another allows the author room to describe and use all the creativity they put into building their unique world.
Hazards, adventures, and challenges on the way to the characters’ destination tests their personalities and skills and allows for unlimited exploration of psychology, friendship, loyalty, honour, innovation, and intelligence.
Many quests take place over land either on foot, horse-back, or using a fantasy beast like a dragon as part of the story. Sea quests are much less common in this genre than in pure adventure stories, but Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy is a good example of Pirate Adventure blended with Fantasy.
Sword and Sorcery
Swords as weapons and the use of magic are so intrinsic to fantasy writing that the Sword and Sorcery theme is often blended with even the most modern fantasy twist. Even Star Wars made use of the sword-like Light Sabre to introduce the romantic, swashbuckling action that sword-fighting allows.
Mythology and Folklore
Since various periods in our own history prior to the industrial revolution offer great inspiration for the atmosphere and environments of many fantasy stories it’s only natural that some writers have also found inspiration in the myths, legends, and folklore of the same periods. Arthurian fantasy has been popular for a long time, as have various fairy tales, and a lot of fantasy and horror-fantasy has come out of stories from around Eastern Europe, (including those involving vampires and werewolves).
Many fantasy creatures, such as dragons, unicorns, and flying horses, also have their origins in mythology and folklore.
An entire comic-book and graphic novel subculture has developed around the Urban Fantasy and Cyber Punk Fantasy sub-genres. These stories are set in modern cities rather than the rural villages popular with other fantasy stories. Technology and computers feature heavily, but the genre differs from Science Fiction in the use of magic and superhuman powers.
Some writers offer some scientific explanation (or pseudo-scientific) for these super powers, such as in X-Men and Spider-Man, making them a Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy cross genre. But unexplained powers are widely accepted in this arena and writers have plenty of artistic licence.
Fantasy lends itself well to parody because it is highly identifiable and many clichés have developed over the years which can be exploited to good effect for humour. Terry Pratchett is a well known fantasy parody writer.
This article was first published on BellaOnline in December 2006. © Elsa Neal
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel by Diana Wynne Jones is a fantasy parody that illustrates the most popular fantasy clichés. Essential reading if you want to avoid these.
Also try The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy edited by Tom Dullemond