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Genre 101: The Fantasy Genre Explained

When you're browsing the bookstore or Amazon for a new book, what do you choose? Chances are you're looking for something entertaining that will transport you away from the struggles of reality and into a fictitious world where the hardships belong to someone else. The fantasy genre offers a wide variety of magic, action, twisting plotlines, and swoon-worthy romances. But what if you want to write a fantasy novel? Today we'll be exploring the fantasy genre from the writer's perspective and learning how to craft one for ourselves.

What does fantasy even mean?

The fantasy genre consists of magical and supernatural elements that do not exist in reality. This genre moves away from reality and scientific fact, making nonsensical concepts possible. These types of stories, while can be set in a realistic setting, generally favor the creation of an entirely imaginary universe with original takes on physical laws, logic, populations of beings, and more.

What are the subgenres and types?

To read the breakdown of each particular subgenre, check out my post Genre 101: The Complete List of Genres & Subgenres for Fiction Writing Part 1. You'll get detailed information and examples about what makes each subgenre unique.

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How did the fantasy genre come to be?

Fantasy is a modern construct, though it carries on the traditions of gods, monsters, mythical beats, and magic found in ancient mythologies, folklore, and religious texts throughout history. What sets fantasy apart from its predecessors is that both author and audience are aware that such works are completely made up, whereas during ancient times myths and lore were believed to be at least partially, if not completely, true.

Fantasy as we know it found its beginning in the nineteenth century. This came after European romances/stories featuring chivalry and fantastical elements were still considered "believable" to some extent. The shift between reality and pure fiction was made in 1858, when George MacDonald, a Scottish author, published his novel Phantastes. His work features a young man drawn into a dream world where he finds adventure. MacDonald is credited with writing the first fantasy novel, where it was clearly recognized to be all fictitious. Furthering the genre, William Morris, an English writer, wrote his medieval fantasy novel The Well at the World's End in 1896. He used a completely fictional world as the backdrop for his novel, something virtually unheard of before this time period. Shortly after, J. R. R. Tolkien penned the first high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) solidifying the fantasy genre within the literary world and inspiring generations of fantasy writers to come.

From that point on, the genre of fantasy grew more and more popular. Contemporaries such as C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956), and Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Earthsea series (1968-2001) continued to help develop the genre. By the twentieth century, fantasy stories could be found not only in books but in film, television, graphic novels, manga, animated movies, and video games. It evolved and diversified, opens opportunities within the genre. Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara (1977) became the first fantasy novel to appear on The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list while J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) became the best-selling book series of all time. Today, the fantasy genre is one of the most popular and best-selling of all literary genres, and many series have since been adapted for other media forms.

What makes a fantasy novel fantasy?

If you're writing or planning to write a fantasy novel, here's what you need to include:

While these themes aren't unique to just fantasy, they are certainly seen the most within books published in the fantasy genre category. Thanks to Tolkien's use of the unlikely/reluctant hero arc in his works The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings, which each feature tiny Hobbit protagonists, this is one of the most recognizable features of the genre.

Other characteristics that set fantasy apart from its cohorts are:

What is the difference between Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror?

While they share similarities, there are key differences that separate them.

Fantasy has no basis in scientific fact or speculation. It creates implausible supernatural and magical details, such as the talking lion in The Chronicles of Narnia, the wizards in Harry Potter, and the dragons, giants, and White Walkers in Game of Thrones.

Science fiction features technology or technological scenarios that are currently possible or those that may become possible in the future. For example, William Gibson's Burning Chrome (1982) and novel Neuromancer (1984), where “cyberspace”, a complex network of computer databases sharing information, was a precursor to the internet. Other examples include the space travel in Star Wars, and the discovery of alien lifeforms in Star Trek.

Horror is mood-based. Its goal is to create an unsettling atmosphere and provide the reader with a sense of fear and dread. The setting and circumstances of horror may be entirely realistic, as in Stephen King’s It (1986), where a clown terrorizes children. Here the setting is modern day yet the nightmare takes on elements of fiction.

Keep in mind that there is overlap within these three genres. Horror can take on elements of fantasy, and Science Fiction Horror is a subgenre in and of itself. It all depends on what you plan to do with your novel, as this determines where it falls on the genre spectrum.

What are some examples of fantasy?

If you're looking for some more inspiration (besides those already listed in this article) here are some more fantastic examples of fantasy novels. Remember that to write within a genre, you must also read that genre so that you can learn what other writers are doing and how they are doing it.

The Fantasy genre is characterized largely by its break from reality. Here the options for creativity are endless when it comes to writing. By making sure you meet the qualifications for this genre, you can determine how best to craft your fantasy novel.

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