What is Fantasy Fiction? The Definition of Fantasy

Fantasy is undoubtedly, one of the most popular types of fiction. 

The best fantasy books of 2019 sell like hotcakes. Fantasy consistently sits around 3rd or 4th place in terms of annual genre sales, giving way only to titans like crime, mystery and romance. However, it’s also one of the most difficult types of fiction to actually describe and define. 

While many other classifications of fiction have clear narrative paths and designs, fantasy veers off from any sort of conventional genre structure. Due to its very nature, fantasy is hard to fit within set rules and criteria, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a definition. 

So what is fantasy fiction? 

What is a Fantasy Story?

Fantasy is perhaps the most broad of all genres. 

If you want to answer the basic question, what is fantasy fiction, you have to take a step back and really consider what makes a fantasy, a fantasy. 

The answer is actually quite simple.

Fantasy fiction is anything that could not exist within our own world. It is make-believe in its purest form. 

All fiction is make-believe. Yet, most genres tell stories that could occur within our reality. A horror story of grim murders could happen. A beautiful and epic tale of love and loss is definitely within the realms of possibility. A mysterious event that stumps the very greatest detective is certainly plausible in the right circumstances. However, a fire-wielding magician riding a unicorn is not. 

Fantasy is impossibility. 

It is a narrative that could never actually happen within in our plain of existence. That isn’t to say that everything with the story has to be impossible. You can have low-fantasy, which has very little in the way of fantasy elements. But, when just one part of the story strays so far into make-believe that is becomes said impossibility, it becomes fantasy. 

For example, you could write a biopic about yourself. You could make everything in your life identical to what has happened. A completely true retelling of your story, except you also have the ability to click your fingers and make a cup of tea appear when you fancy a brew. 

The story is now fantasy. It might be a grossly oversimplified definition of fantasy, but it serves the point. If it couldn’t actually happen, it’s fantasy. 

What About Science-Fiction?

The exception to the above rule here is science-fiction, which is often lumped together with fantasy. 

Science-fiction does include elements of make-believe that could not happen in our current state of existence, however, the idea behind Sci-Fi is that it could potentially happen in the future. For example, we can’t teleport right now, but we may one day invent technology that enables this. In a similar vein, might not be able to contact aliens at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, or that planets containing them don’t exist. 

What Are the Types of Fantasy?

Because it is so varied in options, the fantasy genre comes in many different shapes and forms. There are lots of different types of fantasy books - follow the link to read our comprehensive guide. 

If you want a quick list though, here are a few common subgenres that you’ll find often appear in novels:

  • Dark Fantasy

  • Superhero Fantasy

  • Epic Fantasy

  • Fairy Tales, Myths, and Folklore

  • Urban Fantasy

  • Historic Fantasy

  • Science Fantasy

  • Paranormal Fantasy 

  • Modern Fantasy

What is an Example of Fantasy?

There is no absolute example of a fantasy story. There is no one piece of fiction you can point to and say, this defines fantasy. However that doesn’t mean that when asking the question, what is fantasy, you can’t find examples to help you understand the genre. 

Fantasy exists in many different guises. The most commonly cited example of fantasy is more than likely J.R.R Tolkien’s high-fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. And, while there is no arguing that this is a great example of fantasy, it definitely does not give you a complete overview of what can be included in the genre. 

Yes, it’s an incredible fictional world that draws parallels to other epic works of fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Witcher series, and so on. But, just because these books are what might first come to mind when you first think about examples of fantasy, that doesn’t mean they a conclusive example of fantasy. 

Other examples of fantasy include well-known series like The Twilight Saga, Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland. Yet the genre goes even beyond that. Just look at pop-culture phenomenons like Stranger Things, Pokemon, The Elder Scrolls video game series, World of Warcraft, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avatar and The Marvel Cinematic Universe.  

These are all part of the fantasy genre. They are all examples of what fantasy can be. Why? Because each of them contains at least one element of impossibility. 

What Are The Characteristics of Fantasy?

How can so many different works of fiction all fall under the same genre when they have so very little in common?  

How can you consider Harry Potter alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer or compare The Lord of the Rings to Pokemon? Well it’s all about the characteristics of fantasy, and how the genre works. 

While there are many common traits found within fantasy, there are a few that really stick out and help you identify what stories can be considered part of the genre. These include: 

  • New and Imaginary Worlds - Lord of the Rings has Middle-Earth. Stranger Things has the underside down. Pokemon has Kanto. Fantasy can often live and breath in worlds that are not our own. If the story operates within a made up world, or at least is partially set within one, then it is fantasy. The obvious exception to this is Sci-Fi, which can be set on other worlds. But, these worlds would be defined as different planets or universes. A fantasy world is often a new realm of existence, such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or Discworld in Terry Pratchett’s sprawling series. 

  • Mythos and History - A fantasy story will often have a mythology behind it that is different from our own. Cultures, religions, gods, legends, etc. These can be interwoven with real events, like that of Marvel, or they can be completely separate and unique, such as those belonging to Game of Thrones. 

  • Monsters and Creatures - What is fantasy? Many would say it’s about bringing to life things that do not, or cannot exist. From small creatures like those adorable, or not so adorable, Mogwai from Gremlins, to massive dragons and demonic beasts from dark dimensions, stories that contain monsters or make-believe creatures inherently fall under the umbrella of fantasy, simply because the existence of these beings within the narrative is pure fantasy. It doesn’t matter if its a Vampire in True Blood or the Kraken of Pirates of the Carribean, if it doesn’t exist in our world, and it doesn’t fall under the alien concepts of Sci-Fi, then it’s considered fantasy.

  • Magic - A clear defining characteristic that permeates many works of fantasy is the existence of magic within the narrative. Magic is something that does not occur in the real world (at least, that’s what the government would have you believe) which means its inclusion within a story immediately makes it part of the fantasy genre. Unless, of course, it turns out to be science or practical illusion masquerading as magic. 

It’s important to note, as well, that you don’t need all - or any - of these characteristics within a story to make it a fantasy. Fantasy does not have to be set in a make-believe world, for example, with Twilight being a famous example. You also don’t need magic, such as in Stranger Things, or monsters, with fantasies like The Green Mile.


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