So if fantasy isn’t just dudes with swords rescuing maidens in a forest, what else is it? What can it be?
If we took away all the overused tropes, the clichés, the ethno- and gendercentric privilege, what remains?
What remains is the core of what makes a fantasy story a fantasy story.
What remains is what broadly defines an entire genre. Everything else is mutable.
Unless we can point to common elements that are true for fantasy stories regardless of anything else (settings, protagonists, technology), we have no genre at all, let alone one capable of evolution. These core attributes must also be true regardless of what subgenre of fantasy you’re writing or reading: from urban to grimdark, it doesn’t matter, these core attributes should be present in force in any fantasy story.
Try these on, see how they fit:
- Interesting, complex, kick-ass protagonists
- Settings that inspire wonder and a longing for something that not only never was, but could never be
- Creatures and monsters that fascinate and awe
- Heroism combined with sacrifice
- Magic which is central to the resolution of the story
Fantasy shows us bravery against frightening adversaries, awe-inspiring settings, amazing monsters, cool magical spells and artifacts. Fantasy stories are the stories that become legend and myth generations later. Fantasy stories deal in the wondrous, the mysterious, and the epic. Fantasy trips a lot of our entertainment and wish-fulfillment triggers. And there’s nothing wrong with vicariously experiencing power fantasies and wish-fulfillment per se. That, after all, is often a big part of fantasy’s appeal, otherwise we’d read mysteries or romances or literary or historical fiction.
Monsters or magic?
Perhaps it could be argued that not all of the above list items are necessary, but for a work to be fantasy, I’ll argue you at least need to have creatures/monsters or magic. You’ve at least got to have one or the other (I prefer both, but of course that’s a matter of individual taste).
Technically, you could craft a story without monsters or magic that occurred in a world we know doesn’t exist. If the technology level was less advanced than that of a contemporary first world nation, it could still be classified as fantasy. There are very few of these (link goes to about the only good link I could find about it) and for good reason: it’s not why most of us read (or want to write) fantasy.
We tend to want monsters and magic, or at least monsters or magic in order to classify a story as fantasy. If you include neither, you are left with only human and environmental conflicts. No monsters or fantasy creatures means only fauna with which we’re familiar. Anything else would be a monster or a fantasy creature. Monsters and magic are a big part of what makes fantasy… fantasy.
Horses? Yes. Unicorns? No.
Komodo dragons? Yes. Fire-breathing, flying dragons? No.
Now, if you’re going to go through the trouble to build a world that has peoples, cultures, continents, and a history, why, for fuck’s fuckity sake would you also not make up some unique creatures to inhabit this world? Do they only count as monsters if they reach a certain size? What’s the difference between monsters and a “race?” Take the classic orc, for example: are orcs a race, or are they monsters? But that’s actually beside the point.
Why would you do all that and then draw the line at monsters and magic? Historical fiction would’ve probably been less work in the end. Maybe someone wants to do it just for the sake of the challenge. Hey, write what you want to write. Write what you have in you to write. Don’t let anyone stop you.
But I’ll be over here playing with my monsters and magic, and having a blast (oops, fireball to the living room curtains, again, sorry!).
To be continued
I could write a monster (you see what I did, there) blog post that includes everything, but better, I think, to spread each core attribute to its own post. That way, you don’t have to spend all day reading it, and I can bloviate more on each single attribute.
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