What Makes It a Fantasy?

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What Makes It a Fantasy?
by Devorah

The bookselling industry requires that publishers and authors categorize their books. That makes sense. Readers in search of something new to read usually know that they’re looking for a mystery, biography, cookbook, etc. They would not at all be pleased to find bookstores, be they brick-and-mortar or electronic, with no more organization than a rummage sale.

While the industry has a clear understanding of the various genres, it’s not all that clear to me. For example, what would you say is the difference between a mystery and a thriller? (Some years ago I heard one author, I believe it was Margaret Maron, say the difference is a $700,000 advance.).

I find it especially difficult to categorize my books in The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam: "The Lost King," "The King's Ransom," "The King's Redress," and "The Redoubt." The saga of a man who loses everything—his home, his possessions, his family— was inspired by the plight of contemporary people who through economic downsizing have found themselves “pink-slipped” out of a life they spent decades building. Sounds like general fiction, right? However, the story wanted to be told in “once-upon-a-time” fashion and ended up taking place in the middle Middle Ages. So, is this historical fiction? Well, it might be except for the dragons.

Do dragons make it a fantasy? Webster’s defines “fantasy” as “the free play of creative imagination.” That sounds like fiction in general, doesn’t it? Drilling down, Merriam-Webster goes on to describe a fantasy as “imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.” Wikipedia explains “fantasy fiction” as the genre that “uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting.”

Honestly, the setting of my stories is enigmatic but it isn’t all that strange nor is there a lot that’s supernatural. The power of magic does boggle and disquiet the series’ medieval characters as it does today. (If it didn’t entertainers like Criss Angel and Penn and Teller wouldn’t have careers.) Still, I worry that aficionados of fantasy fiction will be looking for lots of spell casting and potion brewing. Instead they’ll find, as one reader put it, that the stories hold “a fantasy medieval mirror to our world.”

The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam have found vocal fans not so much among readers diving into a make-believe world to escape the pressures and limitations of 21st reality. Instead the stories have been taken to heart by readers, men especially, who found the hero’s experiences to be much like their own and felt validated that someone understood and expressed their struggle. So maybe the books aren’t fantasy fiction. But what about those dragons?

I want to get the category right so that the stories can be found by their readers and I don’t want people who pick up the books to be disappointed. What do you think? Are these books fantasy or simply general fiction—with dragons?



MarkPatrick

Nice question. I've thought about it a lot as my books are classed, I suppose, as fantasy. However: there are no dragons, werewolves, dwarfs, elves or other fantasy elements - merely a touch of magic. So how to classify them?
I think the problem comes from governments and big businesses need to put people into niches.
I think of my books as adventures - with a touch of magic, but that doesn't go down well.
Anyway - why be bothered by classifications? We're writers, and write what the hell we wish!

KenMagee

If there's magic, it's fantasy in my mind.

Lots of other things constitute fantasy as well e.g. dragons, super-beings and talking rabbits (Watership Down).

Devorah

Mark, I wouldn't worry about categories except that they help readers to find our books. And Ken, there's not much magic in The Bewildering Adventures of King Bewilliam. In fact, King Bewilliam doesn't like, doesn't trust magic.

areteus

The genres tend to be wooly - they are basically arbitrary categories set by publishers and different publishers may have a different idea about what constitutes fantasy (though there is a small level of consensus). For example some of my stories could be classed as Urban Fantasy but they are sold as Paranormal Romance.

I guess fantasy can be anything which includes elements that are not native to our own world. This could be as blatant as dragons and fireball throwing wizards or it could be as subtle as someone with psychic powers. Bear in mind the term is actually derived from 'fantastic'.

areteus

The genres tend to be wooly - they are basically arbitrary categories set by publishers and different publishers may have a different idea about what constitutes fantasy (though there is a small level of consensus). For example some of my stories could be classed as Urban Fantasy but they are sold as Paranormal Romance.

I guess fantasy can be anything which includes elements that are not native to our own world. This could be as blatant as dragons and fireball throwing wizards or it could be as subtle as someone with psychic powers. Bear in mind the term is actually derived from 'fantastic'.


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