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What is fantasy?

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1 What is fantasy? on Sun Mar 06, 2016 6:55 am

(I have to note here that I don't have any actual education on the subject. If I happen to say something really obvious and/or silly, that would be the most likely reason why.)

I am reminded of this topic by one stream or another periodically, but it never seems like a good time to discuss it there, especially within the limitations of a fast-moving chat. So I'll just start this thread here instead.

What is fantasy? When you are choosing a book to read, a movie to watch, a game to play, how can you tell if it is or isn't of the genre?

I am asking this because during my probing, amateur attempts to poke around the topic seem to indicate that there is no particular definition people appear to agree upon so far.

Sure, there is the tradition of putting cheesy cover art, a telling name and a visible 'fantasy' stamp on the product, but, in my experience, the cover doesn't really match the actual content all that often. And it can be no less tricky for movies and games as well.

The most concise and easy to understand (for me, at least) answer to that I've found yet is the TVTropes' page on the topic:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Fantasy

Which, as you might notice, is anything but brief and clearly defined. It also differentiates fantasy from other genres and its subtypes from each other by certain qualities (or lack thereof) of the settings the stories happen in more often than not.

That seemed to the sticking point, so to speak, the defining litmus test when I asked people in person or stumbled upon discussions over the internet as well.

Overt similarities in such things as racial composition (dragons, orcs, elves and dwarves are almost always in), prevalent social structure (kingdoms, kingdoms everywhere), geographical position of plot-significant landmarks and countries in relation to each other (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LeftJustifiedFantasyMap) seem to come first in many people's lists, with such details as character archetypes, narrative themes and typical plot conventions a rather distant second.

Moreover, I've even encountered cases when people had outright stated that introducing elements outside of (their personal version of) the widely accepted list of surface fantasy hallmarks would actively make the work in question worse and/or 'not fantasy'.

This tendency seems baffling to me, especially in light of such franchises as Star Wars which seem to combine the inner workings - tropes related to character traits and motivations, general story structure, themes, that sort of stuff - of what you'd call 'fantasy' with a setting that otherwise would make a snug fit in the 'sci-fi' territory.

What do you think?

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2 Re: What is fantasy? on Sun Mar 06, 2016 7:03 am

Fantasy is anything that emphasizes supernatural elements. Many works of fantasy are based on real life myths and share similar worlds and creatures, but those secondary characteristics are by no means defining. It's really just about a significant emphasis on the supernatural. Fantasy can be anything from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and Star Wars. Even certain horror movies like "It" would fit the bill. That doesn't mean that anything with supernatural elements can be considered fantasy. Those elements have to be of certain significance.

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3 Re: What is fantasy? on Sun Mar 06, 2016 10:27 am

That quote from Terry Gilliam sums up the whole of fantasy nicely.
Terry Gilliam wrote:Fantasy isn't just a jolly escape: It's an escape, but into something far more extreme than reality, or normality. It's where things are more beautiful and more wondrous and more terrifying. You move into a world of conflicting extremes.
Any definition for 'fantasy' (regardless of subtype) should be close to this.

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4 Re: What is fantasy? on Mon Mar 07, 2016 3:16 pm

Hmm.

I've heard an opinion I'd like to share here that I've found interesting. Probably should've done that in the first post, but it has slipped my mind.

I heard someone state that (might have been this guy https://www.youtube.com/user/MrBtongue/videos , might have not; I honestly don't remember), in their opinion, what defines and distinguishes fantasy from everything else - particularly sci-fi and those fringe cases where these two overlap - is its approach to characters.

Specifically, its approach to significance of a single person. How much a single individual can accomplish, how much they can affect their surroundings, even the whole setting, all on their own. No heroes and no villains have quite as much narrative 'weight' as the ones in fantasy.

Everything else is secondary according to this point of view. (A sci-fi work would, by contrast, underline the 'cog in the machine' idea.)

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