The Shining Ones · Writing

Fantasy Fiction: a genre distinction too far

I wrote a Fantasy novel by accident. That’s not an easy accident to have; not like tripping over your own feet or walking into a glass door. It’s not that I was trying to write something else and it turned into Fantasy. I wasn’t aiming for any genre in particular – I just wrote the story. It was only when I had to pitch the book to agents and publishers that the penny dropped. I worked down the list of literary genres looking for the best fit and ended up at Science Fiction and Fantasy.

And that’s when I got confused.

What kind of SFF novel is The Shining Ones? It’s set in the modern world so it could be Urban Fantasy, but half the story happens in the frozen wastes of Greenland so the urban label doesn’t really fit. It’s also set in the near future and has supernatural elements in the form of angels, but incorporates some science fiction genetics, so is it Science Fantasy? Or perhaps Alternative World?

What about the use of ancient mythology – does that make it Mythic Fantasy? Some of the characters develop superpowers, so it could be a Superhero Fantasy, but then again, magic isn’t the main focus (as it would be in High Fantasy) so perhaps it’s Low Fantasy. Or is it Magic Realism?

What’s real?

Speculating on Reality

I take a hard-line on this: as far as I’m concerned, all fiction is fantasy. It’s called fiction for a reason – it’s made up. When you enter the world of a story, you’re entering the world of imagination. It may resemble the real world, but it’s not real. Imagination and reality are different things, although the distinction may not be as obvious as we think.

But when we’re talking about genre, fantasy means something else entirely. So what is Fantasy Fiction?

Fantasy is a sub-genre of Speculative Fiction, which also includes Science Fiction, Horror, and Magic Realism. The spec fiction label isn’t used much now, unless you’re talking about literary works, so most of the time it’s just called Science Fiction and Fantasy (or SFF). Fantasy is defined as stories that include magic and supernatural elements. It’s similar to Science Fiction, but in Fantasy the world of the story isn’t expected to be scientifically feasible. Not now, not ever.

According to Best Fantasy Books, there are 58 subgenres (and growing) of Fantasy. It’s all getting very complicated, with endless variations spinning off from the main genre categories, which then spawn more iterations and cross-fertilisations. Hence my confusion.

This interminable hair-splitting doesn’t say much about the Fantasy genre. It’s more a symptom of the mind’s tendency to dissect and categorise and put things in neat little boxes. But regardless of subgenre, Fantasy is fantasy. When you pick up a Fantasy novel, you know what you’re going to get: a story where things happen that could never happen in real life.

And this is where I start to get picky.

Fantasy fiction exists in contrast to Realism – that is, stories that are set in a world we recognise as this world, a.k.a. the real world. Some of the things that happen in a Fantasy novel could never happen in real life, but the stuff of reality-based fiction could, and does.

Realism seems to imply that we know what the real world is. We know the kinds of things that happen and understand the rules of the world. If a story following the usual rules of reality suddenly breaks those rules, we tend to lose interest. We’re thrown out of the story and become aware of the fiction. We stop believing the story.

But here’s my question: do we really know what reality is? (Clue: no)

Reality is stranger than we think and the line between our imagination and what passes for the real world is fluid and ever changing. So-called ‘realistic’ novels are nothing like reality. If you were to write a true ‘Realism’ novel it would make no sense, the narrative would ramble all over the place, the protagonist would spend most of his time repeating the same stupid mistakes and never learning from them, only to die and be forgotten. Nobody wants to read that.

On Why Do Writers Write? cabrogal reminded me of this when he commented:

“Herman Hesse once wrote a story called The Prodigy. A young man grows up and acquires knowledge, skills, insights and a complex, interesting personality. He is obviously going places. But he just falls in a river and drowns. End of story.”

We want fantasy. We need it. We’d go mad without it. But it’s dangerous to assume we know where the line should be drawn between reality and imagination. And that brings us to Magic Realism.

Into the light
Imagination blurs the lines

Real Magic

Reality has never made much sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a mystic, but I never could get along with conforming to the consensus reality. There are too many logical holes for me to be comfortable living inside a box built of self-deception. But then, it’s through those holes that the light gets in…

My tenuous grasp of so-called reality means that I’ve always enjoyed reading stories that blur the line between reality and imagination. I especially enjoy books that leave you guessing or deliberately confuse the boundaries of the mind. In other words, Magic Realism.

Two examples: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and More Than This by Patrick Ness. One of these books is a Fantasy novel, the other is Magic Realism. Why the distinction? The Angel’s Game is literary, therefore magic realist and not Fantasy. More Than This is YA, therefore sold as Fantasy, even though it’s clearly magic realist. I couldn’t care less which category they fall into; both are brilliant.

Magic Realism deserves a post all to itself, and this one’s getting rather long, so I’ll get to the point:

Magic Realism isn’t really speculative fiction because it’s about a particular view of reality. These stories blur the boundaries in order show the real world from a subjective perspective. Reality is revealed as miraculous and interconnected and inherently mysterious.

Which brings us back to the question: where is the line between fantasy and reality?

It’s possible to explore that question in Fantasy and Magic Realism, but not, by definition, in Realism. Reality-based fiction is always going to be stuck in a self-contained box built out of assumptions that have no basis in reality. But I don’t see why you can’t have something strange popping up in a straight fiction story. Strange things happen all the time in so-called ‘real life’. Why are we so surprised or annoyed when they happen in fiction?

That’s one to ponder.

In the meantime, I’m using my confusion over the proliferation of Fantasy genres as an excuse to read loads of books. I want to familiarise myself with the genre I’ve wandered into as a writer, so I’m starting a Fantasy Reading List and will be blogging about some of the books I encounter, or have already encountered. Stay tuned for more…

Image: Imagination; Blur the lines


5 thoughts on “Fantasy Fiction: a genre distinction too far

  1. I was going to say something about Marquez too but I see my blogger buddy Cabrogal got there before me. I’m just slightly amazed by this other thing; speculative fiction. It draws me in, I hadn’t heard of that before and I ask myself the question, what is speculative fiction? Is it this, or is it that? And realise I’m speculating! So, yes interesting. Thanks for this nice post, I’m off to speculate a bit more in google about spec fiction…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had something really intelligent to say when I read the blurb. But, by the time I finished the “triforce” of articles, I forgot and now have a headache. 😛 Just look up J. J. Abrams and Neil Gaiman, see what they fall under and go with that. I’m turning the lights out for the night. 😀

    Hey, what’s that over there!?



  3. I tend to characterise magic realism in accordance with the style of some of the Latin American authors whose work I first heard described that way (though I soon decided Voltaire’s Candide, which I’d read many years earlier, was more of the same). I don’t read literary criticism so I have no idea how much my interpretation matches mainstream consensus.

    Magic realism isn’t fantasy because you’re being invited to doubt the details of the account. But it’s often not so much unreliable narration as unreliable consensual reality that creates the ambiguity. For example in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude the saintly Remedios the Beauty is said to have bodily ascended into heaven. But I think the reader is invited to suppose she may have been the victim of an honour killing to cover up a sexual scandal of some kind but that her community preferred to see her as an ideal of Catholic purity and her disappearance as a miracle. The men who were struck dead by her beauty may in fact have been struck dead by family members trying to protect her reputation.

    I think the important thing about magical realism is that it doesn’t rely so much on straight narrative to tell the story as it does on symbolism, metaphor and sometimes sly irony. The ‘reality’ is meant to be quite ‘real’ but doesn’t emerge from a literal reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about magic realism – that’s where it all started, with the Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I haven’t read ‘100 Years of Solitude’ yet – it’s on my list. I need to look into this more. Thanks for the informative comment 🙂



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