If you read a lot in the genre, recognising a book or film as “fantasy fiction” is probably something innate and automatic. However, if you’re not familiar with it, or if you’ve wondered where the lines are drawn, a definition might help to clarify things.
But how do you define something as slippery and changeable as a genre?
Well, you start by accepting that no definition is going to be perfect or unanimously agreed upon. You also accept that a book may fall into several genres, not just one. (If you’re interested in the ins and outs of genre classification, I discuss them a bit more here: Genre is Not a Dirty Word)
Many people – scholars and authors alike – have attempted to define fantasy. From the definitions I’ve seen, the one I’ve found to be the most accurate is offered by W.R. Irwin in his book The Game of the Impossible:
“a story based on and controlled by an overt violation of what is generally accepted as possibility”
This definition has sometimes been criticised for being too broad, but I think it successfully gets to the core of the fantasy genre. It’s also not too restrictive, as many other definitions have been when they only label as pure “fantasy fiction” what is in fact just one fantasy sub-genre.
Irwin’s definition also manages to distinguish fantasy from its close relative science fiction, because science fiction novels often go out of their way to prove that the elements of the story and world are scientifically possible.
How Do You Recognise a Fantasy Novel?
A definition like Irwin’s is nice to have, but ultimately I find a fantasy novel or film is easiest to recognise by the presence of one or all of these three elements:
- imaginary worlds
- magical powers
- supernatural creatures
If it has one of these, chances are it’s fantasy fiction (though if these elements are presented as the dreams or delusions of the character, it’s probably magical realism).
Thus the current Wikipedia definition of fantasy is also an apt one:
“Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting.”
The titles and covers of fantasy novels also tend to follow certain trends and styles, making it easier to spot a fantasy book before you’ve even read a word of it.
The “Core” of Fantasy
Like many genres, fantasy has a “core” of what would be considered typical or pure fantasy, probably best represented in epic high fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings, Earthsea Cycle and Mistborn, and fades to fuzziness at the edges, with works such as The Dresden Files, The Discworld Novels and The Scorpio Races representing more unusual sub-genres (in this case, by blending fantasy with the crime, comedy and romance/young adult genres).
Fantasy Sub-Genres and Genre Blends
The fantasy genre is a broad one, and as such, fantasy novels are often further categorised and described by a wide variety of sub-genres: urban fantasy, fantasy romance, young adult fantasy and paranormal romance, just to name a few. For example, I would consider books like Angelfall, Vampire Academy and Fallen to be fantasy novels in the broader sense, but more specifically paranormal romances.
Each of these fantasy sub-genres has their own interesting trends and tropes. If you’re interested, I define some of the common ones I’ve encountered here: 17 Common Fantasy Sub-Genres.
5 thoughts on “What is Fantasy Fiction?”
I like the central focus of magic, the supernatural and imaginary worlds. I don’t think that definition fits perfectly with the “not physically possible” definition. I prefer the former; a lot of fiction could possibly defy science without crossing into one of the three categories you mention.
Yes that’s true, the two definitions don’t really fit perfectly together. Actually after I wrote this post I was trying to think of a book I would consider a ‘fantasy’ that doesn’t have supernatural creatures, magic or imaginary worlds in it, but that stills fits the impossible definition… and none came to mind. So either I’ve missed something, or the presence of one of those three elements is vital to me considering something a fantasy (in which case I agree it is probably the more specific and helpful definition).
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I really have a problem with “The Buried Giant” being toted as fantasy. What is your opinion?
I haven’t actually read it so can’t really say – I remember it certainly didn’t look or sound like a fantasy when I first heard of it (it sounded more like magical realism – which I personally tend not to think of as fantasy), but I know it’s won fantasy awards. Does it have magic or invented worlds?