What is fantasy fiction? That may seem like an odd sort of question coming from me, because you’d think I should know by now, but it’s an interesting exercise to try to pin it down. To really think about what goes into it.
Most definitions of fantasy will mention the same core elements. Things like magic, fantastical creatures, possibly non-Earth settings with low-moderate technology. They might even go further and mention classic fantasy elements like elves, dragons, heroes and quests. Yet with that sort of definition, how could we still consider urban fantasy as part of the genre?
I think the danger here is that when we look at a genre, we fixate on the standard elements of the genre. The bits that rapidly become clichés in the wrong hands. The bits that look like they’re a ‘build a fantasy novel in ten easy steps’ kit until it becomes obvious that they’re a ‘build a bad novel in ten easy steps’ kit instead. It’s so easy to think that because it’s a fantasy novel, we have to hit the standard markers. Indeed, at least one approach to story structure treats genre as a set of those markers, which you then add to your basic story idea, hitting each of the main points so that it turns out as a fantasy novel, or a detective one, or whatever.
Is that a big enough definition of fantasy? If it is, then doesn’t it mean that we’re all spiralling round and round a Tolkein shaped plug hole, doomed never to do anything new? There has to be a better way of looking at it than that. Which is probably where terms like ‘speculative fiction’ and ‘imaginative fiction’ come in. They’re much bigger. They’re saying, respectively, that they’re about anything that asks ‘what if’ type questions, and anything that relies on a major leap of the imagination rather than a variation on simple reality.
Now, there are obvious problems with that way of defining something, because the resulting terms are huge, but they also give us a lot of freedom. Perhaps more importantly, they explore what we need to do as writers rather than what specific elements we have to include. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could still use the word fantasy?
Well, we can, obviously. And the best thing is that we can gain something by using it in the same way that ‘speculative fiction’ is used. Speculative fiction reminds us to speculate by asking what if, so shouldn’t fantasy simply remind us to fantasise? To make up things beyond the ordinary and everyday? Isn’t that what it’s really all about?