No dragons, no elves; does that mean I’m ignoring the conventions of the fantasy genre?
Not necessarily. The fantasy genre is an increasingly broad ‘church.’
The easily mocked Wikipedia has one of the better definitions:
Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and sometimes inspired by mythology and folklore.
It’s getting more difficult to define what is pure fantasy as the genres of speculative fiction merge and overlap. Science Fiction and Horror bleed into Fantasy, bringing science and supernatural themes. The sub-genres of fantasy include urban settings, action-adventure and romance. Authors freely mash-up and re-mix genres as easily as pop music.
While you can still find plenty of epic adventure, there’s now literary fantasy, grim-dark fantasy, fantasy-romance, eco-fantasy and dozens of sub- genres besides.
Moreover, can we distinguish conventions from tropes?
If we try to distill some conventions of the fantasy genre, we find Fantasy stories usually contain:
- A battle of Good vs Evil (with capital letters, of course)
- Fantastical Creatures
- Epic Themes
Additional elements often include:
- Forbidden Romance (wizards and warlocks, elves and men, queens and soldiers)
- Coming of Age
- Rebellion against society or social hierarchy
Richness and colour is often provided by:
- Fantastical races
- Words, languages
- Magic system(s)
- Fantastical settings and extensive world building
- A large cast of (complex) supporting characters
- A central conflict or Quest
- Unique power structures and/or systems of government
It’s often this last list that defines a novel as Fantasy or some other speculative genre.
But it’s difficult to hold onto these as a definitive checklist when so many Young Adult (YA) sub-genres cover the territory. Think of the vampire/werewolf horror crossover Twilight Saga, or the dystopias of Divergent and the Maze Runner. On the neighbouring border, N.K Jemison writes beautiful literary fantasy. And where does Magical Realism sit in relation to Fantasy? That’s a post I’ve tried to write three times without success.
I’m writing small-scale, low-key fantasy with Epic Fantasy elements, but no fantastical races and the softest of magic systems. It ticks almost all the boxes, but it’s a long way from Tolkien and G.R.R Martin, or even Sanderson. But it’s still fantasy.