Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What is Fantasy?

As a rule, speculative fiction is broken down into two main categories: fantasy and science-fiction. While these categories can and do bleed into each other, they each have distinctive features, and almost all other subdivision can be placed into one of these umbrella categories. We’ll tackle fantasy first, and then look at science-fiction later.

So what is fantasy?

In short, fantasy is the story of the unnatural. Those parts of life that can’t be explained by science, the powers that can’t be attributed to technology—these are the elements that often mark a fantasy.

The most recognizable form of fantasy is epic or high fantasy. These stories usually happen in a different world with a romanticized medieval flair. A quest—a journey taken with a specific goal in mind—propels the main character (often human or human-like) forward in a cosmic good-versus-evil struggle. Sword fights and battles fill the pages. Non-human characters round out the cast, and special powers are endowed upon various people, objects, and even locations. The outcome is a tale of epic proportions in an alien landscape.

However, fantasy is a very large category covering an expansive territory with an abundance of subcategories. So though a fantasy story often occurs in an imaginary realm, some of the subdivisions have historical or contemporary settings. And while supernatural power is almost always involved, it can take many forms: objects with inexplicable (“magical”) powers, mythical beings (e.g. fairies, elves, and dragons), supernatural beings (e.g. angels), or supernaturally empowered humans (e.g. witches, wizards, and prophets).

Some tales will have only a couple of these elements. Others will contain all of them. But in the end it is the inexplicable, the supernatural, the magical that defines the realm of fantasy.

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