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Elements of Fantasy EQ: what defines fantasy as a genre?

All art has the same goal: catharsis. Catharsis is the purification of emotions first described by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that if one did not purge their built up emotions by getting lost in an artistic work--be it a play, a poem, a painting, a book, a film, or a sculpture--that person would become unhealthy. Specifically, modern psychologists know that bottling these emotions causes one to either have a breakdown or a blow-up.

Different genres of art purify different emotions. Fantasy specifically tries to cater to the emotion of wonder, which is a mix of surprise and joy. The goal of all fantasy is to leave an audience in awe. To ensure an audience finds a work fantastic, fantasies use common tropes to define the genre and make the subjective nature of fantasy universally understood.

If only...

Fantasy is literally defined as "an imagined and often impossible event." Fantasy as a genre thrives off the question of "if only." If only there were beautiful girls with fish tails living under the sea ("The Little Mermaid"). If only a tornado could transport a person to a colorful and fun land (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). If only vampires weren't horrifying monsters and instead were mopey loners looking for misunderstood and uninteresting teenagers in the Pacific Northwest (Twilight).

While we're on the subject, many horror stories use fantastic and unreal creatures like vampires, zombies, werewolves, and trolls. The difference between these genres is the cathartic responses. If a story has vampires murdering victims and terrorizing a protagonist, the story is horror. If a story features a bland young woman who's emotionally torn between her affections for an emotionally distant vampire and meatheaded werewolf, the story is mere fantasy (even if it is horrifying to read). Remember that fantasy is supposed to foster a sense of wonder, and these if only... creatures should inspire that over fear.

Also keep in mind that the wonder of the if only... world doesn't have to just exist in the minds of the readers--the characters in the story can have this same experience. The children who pile into a wardrobe and wind up in the land of Narnia experience this wonder. The little mermaid experiences this when she trades her tongue for legs and experiences the surface world for the first time. Even Rapunzel freed from her tower to experience the outside world feels this wonder. Look for moment of wonder the characters experience as well as those experienced by readers.

Superhero stories are thus also firmly in the fantasy genre. If only a woman could fly and lift a car. If only a man could control the oceans and control sea life. If only a teenager could shape shift into different animals. While some heroes like Batman lean more toward noir and mystery and other heroes like Spiderman lean more toward science fiction, all superheroes by virtue of being larger-than-life do-gooders makes the stories fantasy.

Mythology

Why are superheroes all fantasy? Fantasy, especially superhero stories, fill in an important niche in our society: our need for new mythology. Mythology is a term for a story, often religious, that is not classified as fact of fiction and focuses on moral development. Classic mythology were all religious and dealt with gods interacting with man: these mythologies include the ancient religions of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, India, China, and Norse, and even early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

After the time of the Crusades, stories of God interacting directly with mortals stopped being added to the religious canons. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces posits that humans need to believe that the world holds supernatural secrets. Thus, when religions shifted to be more about a distant heavenly god over a god who directly interacts with mortals, fantasy was born to fill the gap. Early fantasies were folk tales and fairy tales, including the Germanic tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and the anthology known as The Arabian Nights.

Fantasy is thus inexorably tied to mythology, which explains why almost every fantasy involves what would be regular mortals with powers traditionally given to gods. Wizards who resurrect the dead. Animal companions that can talk and persuade royalty to marry peasants. Spirits that grant their masters their hearts desire no matter how improbable. Often, these fantasy worlds are grounded in their own ancient histories and faiths, and as part of their worldbuilding, a fantasy author will examine the deities and legends of a place. Modern fantasies create their own mythologies and can even build their own worlds. And mortals are able to attain the powers of gods through the power of...

Hidden Magic

Magic sometimes comes from reciting incantations, like the spells wizards and witches use in Harry Potter. Magic sometimes comes from mystical objects, like the flying carpet of Tangu from The Arabians Nights. Magic is sometimes innate in a person, like the elvish in The Lord of the Rings. Magic can come from potions or careful study or inheritance--regardless of its source, magic is important to the fantasy story, as it allows the "if only" question to become a reality.

But couldn't science make a flying carpet or fire breathing dragon through advanced technology? Possibly, but a scientific explanation makes the story science fiction, not fantasy. By the same token, if a story uses magic, it's fantasy and not sci-fi, no matter how much technology is in it (so yes, Star Wars is a space fantasy series while Star Trek is science fiction).

And note that this is hidden magic. While some stories may societies that openly acknowledge magic and employ wizards on the regular, others are hidden away to be discovered in an otherwise normal world. Even in worlds that embrace magic as a reality, there is often a hidden or unknown source of magic that plays a key role in the story. As we'll see, the worlds of fantasy are very political, founded on wars and alliances where any rogue magical item or wielder can turn the tide of battle or upset a long peace. Thus, magic is often hidden and only revealed when the gods will it (because, again, this is a place ruled by fate and mythology).

Extraordinary Creatures

Another way science fiction compares to fantasy is that fantasy uses nonhuman characters and fantastic creatures, like talking wolves, griffins, dragons, elves, dwarves, fairies, etc. Science fiction also has its share of nonhuman characters: the mutants in X-Men, the T-800 in The Terminator, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, the apes in The Planet of the Apes, the wives in The Stepford Wives, and every kind of alien. In both science fiction and fantasy, these creatures are anthropomorphized--i.e., they have many human characteristics and sometimes even act exactly like humans. Even if they don't outright talk and walk on two legs, these creatures are typically more intelligent and in tune with humans than those of our own world.

So what's the difference? Fantasy creatures are all "what if?": what if people were half fish (mermaids), what if there were giant fire breathing lizards (dragons), what if the fields are full of tiny magic people with wings (fairies), etc. These creatures are not possible. Science fiction creatures, on the other hand, are not only possible but many are probable in the near future: if we keep making robots (T-800), if we keep searching for extraterrestrial life (aliens), if we keep experimenting with animals (race of apes), etc. Most of these creatures are a result of mankind looking to move beyond their own human limitations. Peter Weyland was looking for immortality and instead found Xenomorphs. Cyberdyne Systems wanted a better soldier, so the Terminators were created. Seth Brundle wanted to create instant matter transport and tragically devolved into the Brundlefly.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this difference more than the difference between Dracula and Adam, Frankenstein's monster. Dracula is a fantasy character: as part of an ancient race of vampires, he can magically transform and bend the laws of physics (no reflection in mirrors, can move shadow independently of self, etc). Adam is a science fiction character: he was brought to life through an experiment with chemicals and electricity restoring him to life. Though both are really horror characters based on their story plots, it's clear by a nonhuman character's origin if they are fantastic or scientific.

A related point while we're at it: sometimes the people in your story are the extraordinary creatures themselves. In Lord of the Rings, some people are human just like us, dear reader, while others are dwarves, hobbits, and elves. These types of characters are not really human but not creatures either--at least not in the sense of orcs, dragons, and the walking trees of Middle Earth. That's another good point: plants can be extraordinary creatures in fantasy, even if they don't walk or talk. A plant that provides a miracle cure not found in real life or that can attach to a person and make them act out their deepest desire are just as fantastic as seals that turn into women or wolves that can huff and puff and blow a house down.

The Dark Lord

Another difference between the two imaginative genres of science fiction and fantasy is the type of antagonist that threatens their worlds. Science fiction acts a speculative genre that warns of the harm that can affect society if technology and discovery is done without thought to its effects--hence, the ultimate antagonist is a world-ending development that was supposed to help mankind, whether it's a race of alien soldiers or a all-seeing authoritarian government. There is seldom a single person cauing harm but a system or idea. Yet fantasy as mythology acts as a moral allegory, so the antagonists in fantasy are less the folly of man and more an evil and corrupt wielder of power causing the issues: the Dark Lord.

Dark Lords are found throughout the mythology that inspired fantasy, from the mad and infanticidal titan Chronos to the envious trickster Seth in Ancient Egypt to the Christian Devil. The Dark Lord is someone who had the potential to be good and heroic but instead, for the pursuit of selfish desires like lust, greed, or power, use their skills for wickedness. The Dark Lord can be an evil wizard like Voldermort, a deceitful royal like Baron Harkonnen, a vicious beast like the dragon Smaug, a demonic entity like the Lich, or a god of evil like Darkseid. There are only three real requirements for a dark lord: an seemingly unstoppable source of power (like dark magic, armies of flying monkeys, or impenetrable skin), an unredeemable desire to cause chaos and pain, and no master above them to reign in their evil.

That last part is really important: the Dark Lord serves no one but themselves, and often, the Dark Lord cannot be stopped by other powerful magi, deities, or even Death itself (not that they can never die--they are just functionally immortal without the worries of old age or illness). While the Dark Lord may enter into bargains, they never have to keep their word--after all, who would hold them accountable? This self-sufficiency and irredeemable behavior separates true Dark Lords from mere villains, who can be turned to good or serve other men (famous examples include Enkidu and Darth Vader). These villains may even set up a twist in the story, where the heroes think they are fighting a Dark Lord but discover it's just a small man behind the curtain trying to fool everyone. Ultimately, real Dark Lords only fool themselves, for a heroic sacrifice at the right time will always defeat them.

And once they are defeated? Game over--everyone goes home. In science fiction, systems are in place to prevent the ultimate defeat of the antagonist--if one baddie is killed, another can be replaced log a cog in a machine, for only a complete societal uprising or fall can actually change things. But in fantasy, take out the Big Bad and it's over. Sauron is defeated and the land goes back to peace. Voldemort dies and the Death Eaters scatter until he comes back as an evil headwrap. The Wicked Witch of the West turns into a puddle and the flying monkeys don't keep fighting--they go home. The system isn't bad, just people in charge. (If that seems very outdated, remember that fantasy came about at the same time as feudal kings, so fantasy is all about class systems too. We'll get there.)

Clairvoyance

But how does a hero know it's the right time to unleash their hidden magic and defeat the dark lord? Simple: they'll just know. This is the idea of clairvoyance, or the ability to magically know how events will turn out. Since their fantastic world is governed by absolute fate, the future must be written already, and since the future is fixed, it should be possible to see. Sometimes this is literally seeing a vision while other times the future is divined through magic ritual or simply felt as an additional sense or impulse.

Yet that can all seem very vague--can we get specifics on the future? This is where prophesy comes in. Prophesies are more than just predictions of the future: they are inescapable future events dictated by fate. The cardinal rule of the fantastic world is that no man can escape his fate (or lady or nonbinary or animal character). This doesn't mean people feel powerless--rather, they are embolden by prophesy that fate is on their side and that it is their fate to act. Prophesy thus guides the plot, as both kings and commoners try to embrace their fate-- or they try to escape it, but that always just causes more problems (Oedipus anyone?).

Now prophesies must come from somewhere, right? This is why seers are so important. A seer, simply, sees the future, whether they are a religious oracle, a pure-hearted prophet, or someone scrying through reading tea leaves or the bones of murdered children. Some seers like Cassandra are cursed to always know the future, while some characters have a temporary clairvoyance through dreams like those by Paul Atreides. Sometimes clairvoyance can even look at the past or present--think of Harry Potter's nightmares of Voldemort actually being a result of his link to the villain. The idea of a clairvoyant second sight elevates characters as more than mortal and adds to the "if only..." of the fantasy--I mean, what's the biggest if only if not "if only I knew what will happen to me."

Powerful bloodlines

Seers can predict the rise and fall of civilizations--or should I say kingdoms. Fantasy worlds almost exclusively play in the realm of monarchies. From the King of the North to Empress Moon Child, some of the most infamous fantasy characters are of royal blood and nobility. This even includes nonliteral royals, some that are spoken of like royalty (like Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, or Jesus of Nazareth, the king of kings) and some with royal-like titles like Aslan the Great Lion, Lord Sauron of Mordor, or the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.

But why does fantasy connect to royalty so much? One reason is that early fantasies came about in the times of royalty. This is why our favorite fairy tales often involve princes and princesses (and sadly, peasants and serfs and commoners). As fantasies are all about magical power, users of magic typically ascend to the levels of power that only wealth or royalty can achieve (e.g., Aladdin, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, etc). More than that, many stories see magical abilities such as clairvoyance and the ability to use incantations as something passed through powerful bloodlines. Often, blood magic is the most powerful magic and certainly leans into the hidden magic idea (as our blood is hidden inside our skin).

Powerful bloodlines are important because that is the whole thesis of royalty. The king gets to be king because, once upon a time, his family was blessed by God to rule. This is why royals have large families and, in fantasies, we see the idea of powerful families and clans ruling and passing on power even if royal terms like Baron or Princess aren't used. Think of the importance of family names in Harry Potter or the line of Skywalkers in Star Wars. This is why plots of marriage are so common in fantasy--marriage is about consolidating power through combining bloodlines.

More than just the presence of royal families, many fantasies thrive on conflict caused by bloodlines. Sometimes this is the threat of one king (often a Dark Lord) conquering all the lands, such as Sauron in Lord of the Rings or the Adversary in Fables. Sometimes the threat comes from within the family, like the Seven against Thebes or the rebellion of Orion against his father Darkseid in the New Gods. Sometimes this is a battle between different families for political control, like the warring seven kingdoms of Westeros. Sometimes these families are more spiritual in nature, like the associations of the Jedi against the Sith. Regardless, one's family and marriages are important to any potential or realized conflicts in the realm of fantasy.

Deus ex Machina

Finally, one of the most common yet most often maligned tropes of fantasy is deus ex machina. Named after a crane that lowered actors playing gods into the Greek theatre, deus ex machina is a term for a sudden, unpredicted way out of a seemingly hopeless situation. At the end of Pinocchio, when the haunted evil puppet dies, the Blue Fairy appears and makes him a real boy. As soon as Jason discovers Medea kills his children and goes out to slay her, Helios sends Medea an escape chariot pulled by flying dragons. At the exact moment Frodo is faced with defeat, Gandalf comes back from the dead to save the day. Any sort of time travel, from the time turners in Harry Potter to Superman spinning the Earth backward to reverse Lois Lane's death (seriously), has also been lambasted as a deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina makes sense in fantasy stories--in a world of gods and magic, shouldn't anything be possible? Yet when done poorly, deus ex machina can feel cheap and unearned. Good deus ex machina--the fantastic twist that surprises and delights the reader--has to feel like the clues in a mystery--you could have seen it coming from some previous setup but didn't. This is the fact that Wesley is immune to iocane powder, a poison that he proposes for his challenge to Vizzini. This is the fact that the Fairy Godmother, who wants Cinderella to get her prince, keeps the glass slipper in tact when all the rest of Cindy's clothes turn to rags, as she knows what will happen. This is Dorothy learning that she could have tapped her silver slippers together at any time to go home, but these are the same shoes that magically appeared on her feet and have such great untold power that the Wicked Witch of the West is willing to kill a harmless little farmgirl to get them, so of course they can take her home.

The story doesn't even have to surprise you with a deus ex machina--the character you have been following could actually be the deus ex machina becoming manifest. This is Puss in Boots coming to turn a common boy into a lord. This is Beauty stumbling upon the castle to save a Beast. This is Heracles freeing Theseus while tripping through the underworld. While these don't seem like deus ex machina to us the readers (as we have been following Puss, Beauty, and Heracles as protagonists), these characters dropping by at the seemingly darkest hour and saving the day would seem like a deus ex machina to the Beast and Theseus. When supported with logic and good timing, deus ex machina adds to the wonder and worldbuilding of a good fantasy story.

Fantasy Subgenres
  • HIGH FANTASY: High fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that has no resemblance to the real world. Everything country, leader, creature, and even race are completely invented--there are usually not even "humans" as we know them. The laws of physics are completely different and magic is part of everyone's everyday life. Dune, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones are high fantasy. So are The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia, for while the protagonists are from our real world, they are transported to a completely different world.
  • LOW FANTASY: The opposite of high fantasy, low fantasy takes place in our world, where magic and fantastic events start to intrude and the protagonist just wants to return the world to normalcy. This is Twilight and how it makes vampires and werewolves utterly normal. This is Harry Potter, with its secret schools hidden from the "muggles" of the everyday world. This is Hansel and Gretel, where children wander into a natural forest and encounter an unnatural candy house and witchy occupant.
  • SCIENCE FANTASY: Science fantasy is a fantasy story that uses gods and magic as well as science and technology. This is where Star Wars, Dune, and Valerian live.
  • SLIPSTREAM: Slipstream is a type of fantasy that attempts to create a world beyond definition and reason, embracing postmodern absurdity and interrogating the laws of reality themselves. While slipstream (or The New Weird) has been argued to be part of science fiction or even a lack of genre entirely, it is considered fantasy as it aims to create an entirely different world with "magical" physics. The newest of the fantasy genres, it can be found in texts like Ice, Perdido Street Station, and Annihilation

Works Referenced

Created By
Brandon Coon
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