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What is Fantasy?

In the world of writing and reading there are genres and sub-genres. Some (though possibly not all) of those genres are: romance, literary, horror, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, mystery, mainstream, slipstream  (or cross-genre),western (though mostly defunct these days) and a host of others. There are many sub-genres and some people will debate that they are genres in their own right. It gets confusing and there is a grey line between some.

For the world of fantasy, some of the sub-genres are: dark fantasy, magic realism, mythological, sword & sorcery, high or medieval fantasy, heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, etc. Your mileage may vary. First fantasy is a story written in a world or time that is not now or historical. However, it also has a fantastical element, something that is more than the world we know. It could be magical creatures (vampires, fairies, hobbits, unicorns) or it could be a form of magic or a system/organism that works differently. Angels, people who can disappear at will, who move faster than normal, who must eat rocks, who can transform themselves or others, sentient planets, mystical vessel, curses and blessing, gods, carnivorous trees, firebreathers, aquatic being, winged creatures, etc. All these are fantasy. But fantasy can also be a bit less than this. It can be the world of today but there are ghosts and that’s it. I’ll briefly define the sub-genres.

  • Dark Fantasy–this could really be any of the above elements but with a darker mien than the regular tropes. In other words it has a horrific or tragic element. Now many of the fantasy novels being published could also be labeled dark fantasy, and really dark fantasy is the new label for horror. Horror fell out of favor with mainstream publishers years ago and it was better to label something fantasy or thriller. So dark fantasy will deal with the shadow side of the world and its characters far more. Beings might be abused and die and inevitably there will be dark forces that can prevail. Lord of the Rings could be dark fantasy but is usually just labeled fantasy. It falls in a number of categories. The Princess Bride would be fantasy or humorous fantasy if you need to define it more.
  • Magic Realism–often this is Latin American writing, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works, but many other people write it as well. It is surreal and very much in the modern world that you and I live in. There may be no sense of wonder because the one aberrant thing is either hidden to most people or possibly known by everyone but taken as commonplace and their part of the world. It could be a woman having a conversation with an angel or one that I read, about a boy born a centaur who goes through his life trying to have a surgery to correct this condition. Magic realism will have a heavy focus on the human condition.
  • Mythological–this may take place in the historic past, the present or the future. It could involve gods or other mythological beings. It could be based on a creation or destruction myth. Basically all those ancient tales of gods are the first fantasy, except that the people of the time believe them and they were the religion. But the story of Gilgamesh and other adventure tales were pretty much your first fantasy stories.
  • Sword & Sorcery–pretty self-explanatory. Usually set in pre-industrial times or on other worlds, often medieval but could be Renaissance, Hun, Pictish or a hundred other times and place. S&S involved magic and fighters, and yes Lord of the Rings is sword and sorcery as well.
  • High or Medieval Fantasy–these will involve grand adventures and epic scale battles or fighting the forces of good and evil. High fantasy isn’t always medieval but it is often enough, Katherine Kurtz’s books are an example of medieval fantasy. It’s your basic feudal systems, rulers, battles and perhaps a few wizards and dragons thrown in though what these creatures or their abilities will truly be will differ. Yes, Lord of the Rings fits in here too.
  • Heroic & Epic Fantasy–I’m lumping these two together though they could be defined as slightly different, where the first could be about a solitary hero and the second would possibly cover years and countries and a group. But that’s not necessarily true. These two will have heroes, those who sacrifice themselves or their way of life for a greater good, who will battle against great odds and their actions will change much of the world as they know while changing themselves as well. Again Lord of the Rings is also heroic and epic. Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks write this style of fantasy.
  • Urban Fantasy–takes place in our modern world or one similar but could have bike riding elves, troll waitresses, fairies selling drugs or whatever. The example I gave is kind of cliché now but it all depends on the story and how it’s written. It can also involve someone who sees creatures feeding on the souls of others, or a particular breed of magical being living in Hawaii. But mostly urban fantasy is…urban.

These definitions are by no means complete or absolute. Others will interpret the sub-genres of fantasy differently. Some will count alternate histories and steampunk under fantasy and it may well have fantastical elements as well as historical and scientific. Hence why we have grey boundaries to the genres. I worked in a bookstore for years specializing in the speculative genre and I still couldn’t keep them straight.

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Writing: What Constitutes Fantasy

Discussion has recently come up on my writer’s list about fantasy stories. One of the members asked a range of questions, not because she needed advice but because I believe she’s had discussions with other writers on what constitutes fantasy. Most of the members had close to the same answers here so I’m listing her questions and how I view each of them.

1.     Should a writer write down to an audience, or just use their own conversational voice?

 I took this to mean, should a writer condescend to, take on an instructional tone in explaining to an audience that may not know as much. Or should the writer use the author’s voice. However, I believe she meant, use your regular writing voice, thought that wasn’t clear. I have elaborated on my original answers.

I’d think neither. You’re writing using characters so your characters should help reveal the world. A character has a personality and a unique voice and depending on the point of view, that will affect what voice is used. You could have a condescending narrator; in that case yes he/she would talk or write down to the audience.

To explain the particular setting/technology/society of a world requires deft revelation, some of which may be through a particular character. Albeit, some exposition is required in a novel, but it shouldn’t be talking/writing down so much as making sure your regular reader understands the functioning aspects of the world as needed to understand the story. Example: I recently edited a book for someone who had all sorts of words/slang about airforce planes but on a level most of us (unless we were pilots) wouldn’t understand. He needed a bit more info in context so that the reader could understand what was going on.

 Unless you (the author/narrator) are an integral part of your novel, the authorial voice should not be there. When author’s drop into their stories it’s disconcerting and pulls the reader out of the world. Terry Pratchett from time to time uses an authorial or omniscient narrator (as you suspected, dear reader). It takes skill to use it in a way that enhances a story as opposed to detracting from in and ruining the atmosphere.  

2.     Should a fantasy novel assume lack of science and technology?

No. Even a world of magic has some technology or science. Whether it interacts with the story is another matter. Cups, weapons, dyes, plows, walls, etc., are all a science when they’re discovered/invented. Pre-industrial societies had science and or technology. Stories that involve alchemists (as an example) often mix science with magical properties. Books have been written where magic and science blend equally.

If you mean the logic/science behind how magic works in a particular world, then yes it still has to make sense and work in the story. But science does not negate magic necessarily.

3.     Should a fantasy novel assume a pseudo-medieval milieu?

No. It can, as is evidenced by numerous novels, but some are of far earlier societies. Some are integrated in later worlds and some are just plain ole alien. I read Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn, which had a plantationesque era and established magic. There was science as well. I really liked it for being of a different milieu.

Often there is the accepted trope that in a world that is not industrialized, magics develop in different ways within people. But a world could have magical creatures, i.e., not found normally on planet Earth and still not be medieval. Many medieval fantasies fall into parallel world tropes, where it is the middle ages but some element of magic is real. Many take an Earth like world and values but create fictitious places. Everything from the myths of the ancients up to the modern urban fantasies, like Charles de Lint’s (his name came up often in this discussion) are fantasy but not medieval. And really, a fantasy story has a better chance of selling if it is different rather than the same as every other book on the shelf.

4.     Should a fantasy novel necessarily encompass magic?

Again, it doesn’t matter really. Yes or no, depending on your world. A world can just be “other” or different from the world and the past we know, yet have nothing magical about it. It will still fall into the fantasy category. The lines between science fiction and fantasy can be blurry. Anne McCaffrey’s famous dragonriders of Pernseries started out as a medieval fantasy where people in feudal style societies rode dragons that killed the invading threads. She argued that it was science fiction because it was a different world, where originally the humans came from someplace else.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were similar in that they started out in a medieval style world, where some people had special powers. But as she wrote more and more books, there was interaction with people from other planets and spaceports. Fantasy or science fiction? Yes.

5.     Should magic in a fantasy novel be hard or just part of the norm like breathing?

Depends on if everyone does it, or if it’s a gifted few. Are they born with it or like us, do they go through a crawling stage before walking and then flying? Many books have magical talents begin with puberty. In others, the person must study and earn the talent. It could be a world that has an inherent magic in the way it works such as creatures that change shape. It all depends on what is integral to the plot and how that affects the outcomes and solutions the protagonist must find.

Overall, I’d say almost all of these are not hard and fast. It depends on how the world is set up, what tale you’re trying to tell and how integral magic is to that story line. But questions like these are always goods to ask because as writers, it keeps us thinking and examining what we do. And sometimes it pushes us outside our comfort zones and we move beyond the box.

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