Continuing the discussion of genre structure, to which I think we need to add “genre cookies” ie. things that people who read the genre a lot expect, almost as a reward, and are very happy when they find, today we take on fantasy.
Taking on fantasy is frankly like the tiny hero standing before the arrayed army of supernatural creatures going, “Come on all together or single file. I’ll feed you your own hooves and chew you with your own teeth.”
You see fantasy — perhaps appropriately — contains multitudes, and I’m sure just in enumerating its various branches here, I’ll forget half of them.
We’ve come a long way since, as a young writer, I snorted at Orson Scott Card’s definition of “if it has trees it’s fantasy, if it has machines, it’s science fiction.”
Even then he wasn’t precisely right, nor did he claim to be. He simply said that’s how New York editors viewed it, and hey, even as a beginner I knew those critters were silly enough for anything.
So what is fantasy?
Fantasy is something that is not, cannot be and will never be true, but which is used as a narrative device.
The gentleman at the back who said “FLT” can take his books and go to bed without dinner. That’s an “impossible” of a different kind. Sure, FTL is impossible, but we’re a cunning monkey, and maybe we find a way to sidle up to physics sideways and kosh it. We’ve been doing the impossible of that sort all along.
Now, if your character uses his FTL drive to go somewhere and there meets fairies elves and gnomes, it’s open for discussion. Both Simak and Bradbury got away with this as science fiction, but if you’re not one of them, I wouldn’t try.
We’ll dispose upfront of the curious hybrid: science fiction/fantasy. This is where space societies have elves and magic. Shrug. Look, whatever presses your big red button, okay, but it don’t do nothing for me. Yes, before you ask, I WAS one of those kids who didn’t like her food touching her other food. Never said I was sane.
Leaving that aside, we still have a spectrum that goes from something you have to squint to not see as romance to something that is or could be science fiction, given the right amount of squinting.
So, I’m going to list them all below, and you guys feel free to pitch in some sub genres I might have forgotten.
Paranormal Romance – There is great argument over whether this is fantasy or romance. It often seems to involve romance that starts from magical something (attraction, fore-ordaining, that sort of thing) and which therefore can’t be fought by the rational mind.
Urban Fantasy – There’s a big bad out there, and he’s hot. The many illegitimate children of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can shade into paranormal or can be an alluring hybrid of romance, fantasy, horror and a dash of noir.
Traditional/Tolkien fantasy – Anyone who’s ever conducted a campaign in RPG knows this. Elves, gnomes, gnolls and trolls oh my.
It has sub genres: quest, as done by Tolkien himself (to an extent.)
Heroic, where you have the big picture of kingdom against kingdom etc.
It has sub branches and I, myself, might or might not have a handwritten trilogy taking place in a pre-Micenian society. No trolls, gnolls, elves or whatever, but a lot of demi-gods, magic, and something supernatural and undefined. The feel though is Tolkienesque and traditional heroic fantasy ALL the way.
Then there’s “almost real world fantasy”: “It’s almost the real world, but there are dragons. Or elves. Or…” Before you say Urban Fantasy…. not precisely because Urban fantasy has a very precise structure and things like Tea With The Black Dragon don’t follow it.
Then there’s almost-real-world but historical and often in exotic societies.
And then, touching science fiction, there’s alternate history fantasy which is “there was magic at some point” and it has changed our world this way. Again, a background that often appears in urban fantasy but there the consequences aren’t often worked through very carefully or logically.
On a sub branch we have “paranormal mysteries” which are a form of fantasy, and in which the ghost/demon/whatever can actually be the criminal, the investigator or the investigator’s best buddy.
20 years ago mystery bookstores said these were fantasy and refused to touch them with a ten foot pole, but I’m seeing more and more of it both on the shelves and on Amazon, both from indie and trad. As a reader I don’t even mind, provided the supernatural element plays fair and it isn’t stupidly written. If the solution is all “it was the demons” which we didn’t know existed till three pages earlier, your book will most seriously be walled.
Okay, that’s what I can think of off the top of my head. Feel free to throw suggestions.