What is Fantasy?

My thoughts of late have been heading in a million different directions, but one thing keeps cropping back up into my mind.

What constitutes fantasy literature?

Is it the characters, the story, the locale? Is it a specific group of elements to include, or criteria to adhere to within the plot itself?

Wikipedia defines fantasy as “a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting.” Phenomena are, by definition, unnatural or extraordinary occurrences.

I’ve been thinking lately about the genre in which I’m writing. The First is not an epic fantasy like Tolkien’s beloved masterpiece, though it does contain some elements of high fantasy. However, it also mirrors some elements of low fantasy, such as the fact that the fantastical elements are not always the main focus of the story. Then there is the steampunk aspect. No, this is not a steampunk novel (though I have one in mind for a future novel), but it does sneak its way in from time to time.

Mythic fantasy is what I believe to be the most accurate description for The First. Why? Well, isn’t all fantasy in some way based on certain aspects of one mythology or another? No matter how original we think we are, the human mind pulls from the shared collective knowledge of the past, the archetypes and myths that have been passed from culture to culture since the beginning of time.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces explains and categorizes these archetypes and patterns, showing how almost everything seems to derive from the same ideas repeatedly. Is that a bad thing? Certainly not. In fact, I find it fascinating that I can begin writing a novel with a basic outline but absolutely no thought of following a pattern, only to inadvertently do exactly that. Obviously, as someone who teaches these concepts to students every year, I’m familiar with them. I recognize them everywhere I go. Except in my own writing.

Until we talked about Star Wars.

Now, I’ve used Star Wars to discuss archetypes in class so many times I’ve lost count. I know the Hero’s Journey when I see it. Almost any book or movie follows the pattern in some way or another.

Suddenly, in the middle of class, I laugh aloud to myself. A few students look at me oddly, but my mirth comes from within: a private joke I’m sharing with myself. The First, like most stories, follows the patterns that weave through our collective unconscious. Although the novel has its own unique style and esoteric plot elements, many things still resonate with the ghosts of epics past.

Writing this book is allowing me to weave my own tapestry of words and follow in those timeless footsteps. Creating that connection to our history, our ancestors, and all of humanity—even if only in a very small way—is the greatest legacy I can leave.

5 thoughts on “What is Fantasy?

  1. Dian Atamyanov

    Well, if we examine words in text simply by themselves, as though they act independently, then we risk losing the context applied. In this sense, I would not be inclined to agree that “phenomena” in the phrase “supernatural phenomena” carries the same meaning as when used on its own. If it did, ‘natural phenomena’ would be a tautology.
    In this case, ‘phenomena’, I would argue, means simply ‘occurrence; instance’, which is not only apparent in my definition, but also in no way transgresses its contextual logic.

    But it is one thing to utilize alternating context, and it quite another to constrict the semantics of a word.

    On the topic of how we define “unnatural”, I would rather steer clear of it, out of fear of too much sleep deprivation, but I will say this – if it happens in nature, it cannot be unnatural by its core definition. Semantics no longer have a role here, as we’re talking about non-contradictory root meanings.
    Now, I understand that you’re probably using the word “unnatural” to mean “uncommon; rare; mysterious” or something along those lines, but personally I would never go there.
    After all that has been said, I have to remark that these are my personal preferences and you should not think too much of them. A debate once in a while isn’t that bad, however.

    1. Lisa M. Green Post author

      I certainly wasn’t stating any personal beliefs, just the common usage. Unnatural being “not of this world” as a better wording perhaps? FYI – Phenomena as “a rare or significant fact or event” is the definition used for the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) preparatory courses for college. Right or wrong, I was just saying it is common usage. But I’m not a scientist (I’ll leave that to Batman), so I’ll just run back over here to work on that little novel thing I’m doing.

      1. Dean Stride

        Rare events happen all the time 😀
        I’m joking (it’s true, though), it’s probably best that you get back to your thing. Waiting to hear more.

  2. Dean Stride

    What good is legacy if it cannot be built upon? Being unoriginal is not necessarily a bad thing, and I too acknowledge the fact that we use past knowledge more and more heavily as our collective knowledge accumulates.

    I’d have to disagree one seemingly trivial point, though:

    A phenomenon is not an unnatural event, quite to the contrary, it is the very definition of a natural occurrence:

    a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable: to study the phenomena of nature.


    Its very core means “to manifest”, and it is generally regarded as any observable occurrence.


    If it occurs in nature, no matter how miraculous it may seem, it is natural.

    1. Lisa M. Green Post author

      Yes…and no.

      The problem is the variance between the definitions. That particular definition is, in fact, not the most commonly used one. Perhaps in scientific circles that might not be the case, but in everyday language I would argue that it is the least common. The second definition is similar in nature, but ends with “that typically is unusual or difficult to understand or explain fully” (Merriam-Webster). The third definition is “a rare or significant fact or event” (Merriam-Webster) or “something that is impressive or extraordinary” (dictionary.reference.com). And here we argue semantics. What exactly does Wikipedia mean when it uses the word phenomena? To which definition is it referring? The phrase “supernatural phenomena,” by your definition would then mean “supernatural natural occurrence,” and to the characters within the story, that might be the case. But, to us, using magic and other elements of fantasy would most certainly be an unusual occurrence. It might, in fact, be observable but only because it is visible and it is occurring, thereby observable. That still doesn’t make it natural in the sense of what was meant. Unnatural, in these terms, would simply mean outside the scope of what we know or deem as natural, not that it is not occurring in nature. I read something recently (maybe on a forum?) that had an interesting take on science fiction and fantasy. They referred to science fiction as the plausible, the “what could be.” Fantasy, on the other hand, relies on the “impossible” as it involves elements that, according to our current knowledge and understanding, will never be.

      And that is exactly why it’s my favorite playground 🙂

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