Monday, June 8, 2009

What is fantasy?

To get some discussion going on fantasy, I’d like to start with the basics. When you hear the word fantasy, what comes to mind? When I think of fantasy, I think of fairies, elves, dwarves and characters like that. I think of magic and wizards and a quest to save the world from a dark and evil force. Sound familiar to you?

Webster’s dictionary defines fantasy as:
1) imagination or fancy; esp. wild visionary fancy
2) an unnatural or bizarre mental image
3) an odd notion; whim; caprice
4) a highly imaginative poem, play, etc.
5) same as fantasia (see below)
6) a daydream or daydreaming, esp. about an unfulfilled desire

Fantasia is defined as:
1) a musical composition of no fixed form
2) a medley of familiar tunes

The only part of these definitions I wasn’t familiar with was caprice, so I looked that up, too. The definitions are:
1) a sudden, impulsive change in thought or action
2) a capricious quality or nature
3) music same as capriccio (a lively musical composition of irregular form)

Hmmmmm … I don’t see anything in those definitions that fit in with my thoughts of fantasy. But let’s take a closer look. Any kind of fiction takes imagination, of course, but fantasy even more so. Fantasy writers need to come up with new worlds and characters. My WIP has fairies, dwarves, humans, a witch, a dark lord and characters of my own creation. And now that I think about it, a bizarre mental image is needed to picture them. Guess Webster's isn't too far off. :)

What about you? How does your story fit in these definitions? I look forward to your thoughts.

Check the progress of my fairy garden to the right
I’ve added Fantasy Photo Fridays. Send me your fantasy-ish pictures and I’ll post them, adding new pics every Friday.


  1. Wikipedia has a pretty good definition of literary fantasy, IMO.

    "Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes...

    The identifying traits of fantasy are the inclusion of fantastic elements in a self-coherent (internally consistent) setting...

    Beginning perhaps with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the earliest written documents known to humankind...fantastical adventures featuring brave heroes and heroines, deadly monsters, and secret arcane realms have inspired many audiences. In this sense, the history of fantasy and the history of literature are inextricably intertwined."

    That sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Rather lifts our kitchen-table scribblings to a higher realm.

  2. Elements of magic or the supernatural, alternate worlds, races of beings that don't really exist: I think you have to have at least one of those elements to qualify as fantasy. Alternate histories get tricky; they're neither fantasy nor science fiction, but do fit nicely under the speculative fiction umbrella.

  3. Yes, we do want magical elements or why call it fantasy? People love to imagine the what ifs ... what if I could fly ... what if I could make myself invisible ... what if there really were fairy creatures I could befriend? It's what makes fantasy so much fun.

    And Janet is right about other subjects that fall under speculative fiction. Right now, I'm only writing what could be deemed as "high fantasy," but anything we want to talk about that falls under speculative is fine with me.

  4. OK, so what distinguishes "high" fantasy from other kinds? Elves?

  5. According to Wikipedia (again)

    "The term High Fantasy (also Epic Fantasy) generally refers to fantasy that depicts an epic struggle between good and evil in a fantasy world, parallel to ours...

    The moral tone and high stakes — usually world-shaking — separates this genre from Sword and Sorcery, while the degree to which the world is not based on a real-world history separates it from Historical Fantasy....

    Sword and sorcery (S&S) "is a fantasy subgenre generally characterized by swashbuckling heroes... Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus mainly on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters."

  6. Therefore, "Harry Potter," "LOTR" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" are all high fantasy, because the literal fate of those worlds depends on the heroes succeeding. I can't think of a S&S example off the top of my head, because I don't read it. "The Hobbit" could possibly be considered an example of S&S, because there are wizards, dragons, trolls and a quest, but not the end of the world.

  7. I think you're right, Christine. Terry Brooks writes high fantasy AND S&S fantasy. Sometimes he weaves both with the hero struggling internally WHILE saving the world. :)

    Fantasy can be on an earth-type planet or something more far out. But the quest/struggle is contained there. In sci-fi, aliens are key. Even on an earth-based planet, there's always beings from outer space involved.

  8. However, Sci-Fi is a separate genre from fantasy, although it is another branch of speculative fiction.

  9. Well no, aliens are not key. Isaac Asimov almost never wrote about aliens and his place in the SF canon is indisputable. SF deals with the future, technology plays some kind of role (it can be very muted in soft SF), and often deals with the sociological effects of changes in technology and/or encountering alien races.

    Sorry, I know this isn't a discussion of fantasy, but I'm anal that way.

    Personally, I rather prefer the term speculative. What do you do with someone like Andre Norton, who liberally mixed outer space and magic? They called it science fiction when I was reading it as a kid, but you could make a strong case for some of her books being fantasy too.

  10. Janet ~ don't be sorry ~ you are right. Sci-fi doesn't have to have aliens. I wasn't thinking it through. Guess that's why I write fantasy and not sci-fi. :) And yes, if all falls under speculative fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, time travel, anything not "normal."

    That's why I'm excited about Marcher Lord Press. Is anyone else familiar with this house? Jeff Gerke had a vision for Christian Speculative fiction and began Marcher Lord Press (the link is to the right under Fantasy Related Sites). The first set of books came out in Oct. 2008 and the second in April of this year. Jeff is coming to the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference in August, and will be teaching a continuing session on writing fiction.

    I love good discussion, so don't ever worry about disagreeing with me. Especially when I'm wrong. :D

  11. I looked at Marcher Lord Press and emailed Jeff a few times about it. I'm not convinced MLP can produce the sales to make it worthwhile to go with him. Unless you are happy with a small, targeted audience, or have given up trying to publish elsewhere. Not that he doesn't have a good idea, but I'm not sold yet.

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  13. My fantasy is "inspirational" and it is a tough sell. I have elements of Christianity in it - although not *in your face*. I've worked hard to make it a natural part of the people/story. I've tried all the other CBA houses that publish fantasy (they turned it down because they're not publishing *new* fantasy authors) and feel pretty excited about the opportunity to show Jeff Gerke my manuscript. You gotta start somewhere and it might be pretty cool to get in on the ground floor and be an established author with them someday.

    But I see what you're saying. It's taking quite a chance ... not for everyone. Me, I'm willing, so I'll let you know how it goes! :)

  14. I have another friend who has been roundly rejected by larger, secular publishers and agents who is thinking of submitting to him, as well. So, best of luck! I'll be interested to see how it goes.

    It seems to be one step above self-publishing, but not a very big step.

    I'm hoping my book will appeal to a wider audience than MLP's, though there is some inspirational symbolism in it. I really have to pray about what to include and how to present it.

  15. Hi Pam & Christine,

    Quite a conversation you've got going. I'm working on my first Christian Fantasy novel (61K words and counting). I've been into Science Fiction and fantasy since I was a kid. I'm taking a stab at something in between the two in my story. It is defiantly a fantasy story with spell sling magic users and clerics, and lots of monsters as well. But instead of creating a whole new universe for my world to be in, my world is just in a different star system. They have the same God that we do, not our God mapped into some other form.

    While it's fantasy, I'm trying to write it like it is fact. It's been a bit tricky, but the people who have read parts of it have been moved by it.

    I guess from the definitions above, it is more of an S&S story. It is about the personal struggles of two of the characters. One is dealing with loss. The other is wrestling with God.

    I'm just about ready to go lie with my web site, I'll post a link when it is up.

  16. hi Doug! Welcome!! I hope you'll be a regular part of the discussions here on Fairies, Fantasy and Faith. I'm looking forward to seeing your website.

  17. I keep popping back in to see if anybody else wrote anything. So addictive, blogging is.

    Regarding the original question... I think that fantasy is any fictional work in which an imaginary reality is either a)superimposed upon or b)replaces a real-world setting, and in which magic plays some role. By (a) I mean works like Harry Potter, where the real and fantasy worlds are mixed.

    I don't think magic has to be explicit, but every single movie or story that I can think of that is classified as fantasy has at least an implied magical element (such as Mary Poppins, for example.)

  18. I've read a couple of books classified as fantasy that had no magical or supernatural elements at all. They just took place in fictional lands at an unspecified time. Because the setting was invented and clearly wasn't futuristic, it was classified as fantasy.