Being a Better Writer: What Makes a Fantasy?

Hello writers!

You know, if I’m honest it feels like it’s been more than a week since the last Being a Better Writer. That’s probably because I had numerous days last week where I was up well past midnight on account of editing Starforge. One week kind of stretched into two.

But, the good news, as many of you saw Saturday, is that Starforge will be going into Copy-Edit this week. Which also means that yes, pre-orders will be opening at last.

This also means that the long-promised pricing adjustment for the rest of my books is on its way, so if you’re looking to grab anything before the prices go up to reflect the last ten years, do so now. Though again, the whole point of this pricing adjustment is to bring the prices in line with inflation-adjusted prices based on paperback prices from 1994. There’s gonna have to be a new post about this to update the old The Price We Pay article.

Anyway, lots to come in the next few weeks. You know, including Starforge itself at long last. You’re all finally going to be able to get it! So keep watching this space.

But right now? Let’s talk about today’s Being a Better Writer topic.

Tackling discussion of a whole genre has always been a dicey proposition, not that we haven’t done it before. BaBW has discussed Science-Fiction, Westerns, and Mystery in posts prior, and each of those is a pretty broad genre all said and done. Especially Science-Fiction, which is both broad and controversial these days (some of the arguments I’ve seen over what is or isn’t Sci-Fi online …).

Fantasy is just as broad a genre, really, though many don’t think of it as such. Which is in part why we’re going to be talking about it today.

So hit the jump, and let’s talk about what makes something a Fantasy. I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t magic.

All right, I know that there are already some out there reaching for their torches and pitchforks after that bomb I dropped above, but it’s true. Magic isn’t what makes Fantasy. No more than wizards, or centaurs, or elves, or mythology. Yes, I acknowledge that even if you Google “Fantasy genre definition” you’ll get that at the top of the results, that Fantasy must have magic. But … that’s honestly pretty nebulous, and furthermore doesn’t really fit all the Fantasy out there at all. If anything, I think that definition—which has become pretty common—is pigeonholing and actually kind of detrimental. It’s limiting. It says the fantastic has to have magic to be fantasy … but truth be told you can write a fantasy that has no magic.

Okay, let’s dive into this a little bit. What do I suggest for a definition of fantasy, then? Well, I’m going to go back to an older definition, before the boom of things like Critical Roll, and say that a Fantasy story is a story that embraces a fantastical setting or occurrence.

That’s it. Well, mostly. It’s helpful to define a “fantastical.” I hold that a fantastical is something that we cannot have, at least with our current understanding of physics, in our reality and world.

This is, in effect, my bone thrown to “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yes, at some point Science-Fiction—which is borne out of asking what could be in times ahead as a result of science—does overlap with fantasy, sort of like an event horizon where all becomes spaghetti.

Let me clarify that a bit more: A portal between worlds is commonplace in both Sci-Fi and Fantasy. However, Sci-Fi will attempt to explain it within the confines of physical laws about reality that we know and understand. Fantasy, on the other hand, may never explain it—while still accepting it—or may create an entirely new “science” aka magic, to explain it. Again if at all attempting to explain it.

Another way to look at this may be with the nature of things. Sci-Fi builds its setting by looking ahead and reasoning out things, IE “Man invents science machine that proves the existence of a soul and allows it to be captured until the body is ready for it” (name that Sci-Fi anyone?). Fantasy, conversely, makes it a bit less scientific and more … nebulous. Man has a neighbor that is a centaur, for example. There’s no scientific reason that the neighbor became a centaur … there are just centaurs. Perhaps there’s a creation myth, or maybe there isn’t. But there’s just a neighbor that’s a centaur, and that’s treated as a fact of the world (even if the protagonist has issues with it).

Again, genres can kind of spaghetti when you get to deep, as you could absolutely write a Sci-Fi story (and I’m sure more than one person has) about people using genetic engineering to make people into centaurs. And then there’s genre-blending magitech which is Sci-Fi mixed with Fantasy, but let’s leave that alone for now.

Point is, Fantasy is a genre that is defined by it’s brush with the fantastic. A story about a parent encountering a real live monster under the bed is a Fantasy. A story in which a child’s plush stuffed animal comes to life and becomes a friend is Fantasy. And yes, stories about wizards or mermaids or any of the classic Fantasy tropes are also Fantasy. Be they set on Earth, or on some other world.

The fantastic is what defines Fantasy. Yes, that includes magic. Again, not trying to discredit the many amazing Fantasy stories I’ve read over the years. But that doesn’t mean if a book doesn’t have someone casting a spell or slaying a dragon (poor dragon; what’d they do to deserve that?) it isn’t Fantasy. A Fantasy can be set in our world, where someone discovers something magical or incredible and deals with the results. For example, what if I wrote a story about a man estranged from his father who somehow, while walking along the lake he lived near as a child, finds himself transported “back in time” to speak with his much younger father without realizing it, and over the course of several evening walks, inadvertently changes his own history and heals the gap he’d made?

Well, that’s a Fantasy. Somehow, magically—even if it’s never addressed as such—this man has found himself transported back in time when he takes walks along the lake. It’s never explained, and it may never even be addressed outside of the realization that it’s happening.

It’s fantastic. It’s something we don’t understand, or can’t conceive the workings or cause of, but it’s happening anyway. A monster under the bed. A mysterious encounter with the personification of Death. An encounter with one’s childhood self. An ant farm that begins building civilization and rising through the tech tree.

All fantastic, and all Fantasy, linked by that element of the fantastic that can’t readily be explained. Or at least, not by our rules.

Okay, so I’m sure some of you are little annoyed right now that I’ve spoken about this element of Fantasy rather than the Fantasy you were hoping I would speak about, which is Fantasy, IE the most common elements everyone thinks of, from wizards and princesses to magic and swords. Yes, that’s also under the umbrella of Fantasy. But I spoke about all those other examples of what Fantasy could be above to widen our nets. Too many people think of Fantasy as just wizards, swords, and princesses, when in fact that’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet of a genre and just eating one specific dish, ignoring all that the buffet of Fantasy has to offer.

And it’s not that said dish is bad, either. It’s just limiting to never look at anything else and ignore it. You may find that you really enjoy egg rolls or peppered steak. Then again, you might not, but that doesn’t mean that you should campaign to get them removed from all buffets (referring to the practice of gatekeeping Fantasy to try and make it one person’s specifications of likes and dislikes).

Fantasy is the fantastical. Whether it’s rescuing a princess or falling in love with a neighbor that’s also a dwarf (yeah, sorry Romance people, but a lot of Romance stories are also Fantasy, despite the disdain for the title) … it’s Fantasy.

Okay, with all of this said then, why care? Why be concerned with this definition—or rather, understanding? Some of you might be wondering if this isn’t “limiting” in some way.

It’s not. No, what understanding this definition does is open your options. Understanding that Fantasy is the fantastical widens the genre and gives you more freedom to discover, experiment, and try new things. It also gives you more opportunity to explain what makes your story unique. What makes it a fantasy, and who does that appeal to? Are you writing a classic Sword-and-Sorcery Fantasy? Or are you writing an Urban Fantasy? Is it a Slice-of-Life story with a twist?

There are two sides here. The first is that widening our understanding of what Fantasy is as a genre widens our own options for storytelling. Fantasy isn’t just the cliché. It’s a broad smorgasbord of concepts, settings, and executions. In other words, it’s an expanse of freedom for you to experiment, adventure, and discover in. You can be as broad or down-to-Earth as you can imagine while still writing something that is “Fantasy.”

Another way to look at it may be as shallow or as deep as you want. This isn’t calling one version “shallow” mind, just illustrating the concept. Seeing Fantasy as just unicorns and fairies is ignoring the rest of an ocean of content. Content that can be as minute and carefully applied as a tide pool. or as deep as the drop off a continental shelf. Understanding the breadth and depth of the options available to you that are part of “Fantasy” gives you a great freedom.

But there’s a second bit to this as well, and that’s understanding that audience for Fantasy might be very different from what you think. If you confine the concept of “Fantasy” to one definition, it can be quite difficult to track down the readers who want that definition and not something else. Understanding what Fantasy is—as noted, a wide array of the fantastic—means that when someone says “Hey, I like Fantasy” there may be follow-up questions for you to ask. You may have written a Fantasy book, yes, but what happens when someone says “I want Fantasy” but really means “I want a Slice-of-Life cozy cottage with some fantastic” and you think “I wrote a book about a barbarian chasing an evil wizard across a fantasy realm?”

Fantasy is a big genre, and acknowledging that can help us narrow our audience down. I can say that as recently as a few weeks ago I encountered someone in the real world who expressed that they loved Fantasy, but then gave me a perplexed look when they asked about my Fantasy and I gave them the quick-pitches for Axtara and Shadow of an Empire. While both are very clearly Fantasy, it was clear from their questions that they’d only considered one narrow subgenre of Fantasy as Fantasy, and had not ever noticed the wider swath for what it was.

Some argue that this means “Fantasy” as a term does need to be narrowed—usually into their preferred specific sub-genre. I disagree. Sub-genres are a thing for a reason. If you like sword-and-sorcery adventures, or cozy cottage fantasy … then know that. Don’t try to sweep the whole swath into your personal wheelhouse so that everyone has to speak about their thing on your terms. Sub-genres are a thing for a reason. Use them!

I know that this is a shorter post. And I know that some of you might feel a little disappointed, perhaps hoping that I would dive into the “ins and outs of a magic system” or something similar. And maybe, if you want that, we can discuss that at another time. But a magic system doesn’t make a Fantasy. Magic doesn’t make a Fantasy, though it is fantastical.

The fantastical makes a Fantasy. It can be one small twist to an otherwise ordinary life, or it can be a full-blown second world. Both are Fantasy.

A side note: Fantastical is not improbable. A protagonist living out a James Bond “fantasy” isn’t quite a fantasy, though we call it that term without being a proper noun. There are people that have lived improbable lives, experienced improbable events. A cast of characters escaping the eruption of a volcano? That’s not Fantasy. However, if the volcano sprouts in their living room because one of them refused to make the offering before the grandfather clock to appease the King of the Fey as warned by the caretaker, that’s fantastical.

The improbable happens all the time. Just last weekend I drew almost straight cherry bombs in the last round of Quacks of Quedlinburg, which meant I’d had the poor luck to reach into a bag of over thirty tokens and just draw the five that ended me. Improbable? Oh yes. But not impossible or fantastical.

Fantasy is the fantastical. Which is a “fantastic” amount of breadth and depth for you to explore. But, since it is so large, don’t just expect because you say ‘I wrote a Fantast” for anyone else who says “I like Fantasy” to be your target audience. Get to know the basic sub-genres so you can find your audience.

And hey. Have fun. Fantasy is such a wide-reaching genre that there’s a lot you can do with it. Explore a little. Try some new things. Write the fantastic.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: What Makes a Fantasy?

  1. The line between fantasy and science fiction is a color gradient of infinite dimensions. Flying dragons that bond to their riders? Fantasy. Ish. Dragonriders of Pern slid more into SF the longer it ran. Dream Park by Niven and Barnes? Fantasy *over* Science Fiction. Lord Darcy Investigates/Ten Little Wizards? Murder magic mystery that constantly dances over the Science line.

    There is a fairly ironclad rule in the book: Consistency. (as all ironclad rules, you may encounter some rust) If a reader picks up your book expecting X, they should get X, or they’re not going to pick up your next book *and* they’re not going to tell their friends/reading group/etc. If they pick up an X that turns into a Y in a *good* way…maybe.

    At MidWest BronyFest, I got to be on a writing panel for new authors, and I constantly kick myself for not standing up and grabbing the mic from the other speaker. She practically took the whole thing over and talked to all these young aspiring authors for an *hour* about how to classify their stories into the correct genre and the importance of keeping the story within the lines until all I could see was blank faces in the audience. The after-panel discussion was far better because about a half-dozen of the young writers came up to me and we had a real discussion, while the young lady went back to working on her PhD.

    Everfree NorthWest I got to run a solo panel (scared to death every minute) for new writers and loved the heck out of it. We kept it loose and open, talking about a bunch of different topics as the audience brought them up, which was far, far better. (It is not only important to learn from your mistakes, but more important to learn from *other’s* mistakes.) Example: One of the questions was how to write difficult crossovers, like how would you cross My Little Pony and Star Wars. Epic improv.

    Obi Wan: Luke, you must complete your training. Go to the Eqqus system and learn the ways of the Force from the Hidden Jedi Master, Celestia.”

    Liked by 1 person

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