Fantasy: it's stuff with magic in it, not counting Psychic Powers, or Magic from Technology, or anything meant to frighten, or Magical Realism, or anything strongly religious, or the technology behind the magic that is Magitek, or — where did that clean-cut definition go?
While the core of the fantasy genre is clear enough, there is no succinct definition that encompasses it all. The boundary with Science Fiction is notoriously ambiguous and the boundary with horror is often no less fuzzy. Religiously inspired works, like the Left Behind series, can have a basic good versus evil plotline that would fit well in High Fantasy, but few would place it there. And so on.
Common features of genre fantasy include:
- A secondary world — A world whose connection with our present day world ranges from nominal to non-existent. It could be the remote past or future, or simply a-historical. The inhabitants can be anything from human only, through the standard elves, dwarves and orcs, to a complete Fantasy Kitchen Sink. See Standard Fantasy Setting for the, er, standard fantasy setting.
- Appeal to a pastoral ideal — Much genre fantasy, of all genres, appeals to the pastoral ideal, one reason for the pseudo-medieval settings. Even urban fantasies will quite often depict cities as blots on the landscape, whose denizens are blinded to what really matters by material ephemera. There are some fantasies, however, which either deliberately take the opposite stance or present a more balanced worldview.
- Magic and Powers — Functional Magic is almost always present, though its role in the world can vary widely. It might be either respected, feared, persecuted, or simply not believed in. Its frequency varies from the stuff of legend, through to rare but available to the well connected, up to a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Magitek usually lies at the extreme end of this scale. It may be taught through a master and apprentice system, or in a magical university, when it can be taught at all. When wizards are immortal, they don't need to train successors, and may not be able to.
However, even magic itself isn't a required element, as novels such as Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, K.J. Parker's Devices & Desires or Ricardo Pinto's The Stone Dance of the Chameleon which feature no magic whatsoever but take place in an alternate, pseudo-historical world, are still classified as fantasy. This is due in part to their widespread use of other tropes associated with fantasy, particularly Low Fantasy. (Swordspoint is an interesting case, because while it contains no supernatural elements in itself, one of its sequels, The Fall of the Kings, is largely concerned with The Magic Comes Back.)
Often placed outside the Fantasy genre, or not marketed as such:
- Examples from Mythology, Legends, Fairy Tales, Chivalric Romance, Classic Literature, Romanticism, and Gothic Literature can be seen as precursors to the genre, but are usually excluded.
- Demythtification: real-world mythology as semi-mundane history that "inspired the legend". Inverse of Magical Realism.
- Magical Realism: in which Fantasy elements intermingle with the realism of a contemporary novel.
- Mundane Fantastic: in which Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Superhero elements mix with more naturalistic elements.
- Sword & Sandal: set in a historical period or a Fantasy Counterpart Culture to one. Often ranges from the fantastic to the historically accurate.
- Xenofiction: fiction from a nonhuman (alien or wild animal) perspective.
In response to a flood of inquiries to Ballantine Books from grateful readers of the U.S. edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's monumental The Lord of the Rings, many of whom thought Tolkien had invented this, Lin Carter wrote Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy, a flawed but still valuable book explaining the origins of fantasy genres (plural) millennia before Tolkien and citing hundreds of authors and titles to guide newcomers. (Carter defined fantasy as literature set in a time and/or place where magic works.) He was also the editor, beginning in 1968, of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series which reprinted many out-of-print and older titles, along with new works and anthologies. Ask your grandparents, check online or in used book stores, about this amazing series published under "The Sign of the Unicorn's Head." Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, From Antiquarianism to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series may also be helpful.
- Comic Fantasy: includes parodies, fractured fairy tales, and anything that doesn't take itself, its setting, or its tropes too seriously
- Dark Fantasy: is fantasy that is Darker and Edgier.
- Gaslamp Fantasy: fantasy with an Alternate History 19th-century setting (or reasonable approximation thereof).
- Fantastic Noir: a mixture of the Film Noir detective story with the more colorful aspects of fantasy and Science Fiction.
- Heroic Fantasy (precursor to Sword & Sorcery): Trope Codifier is the Conan stories.
- High Fantasy (aka Epic Fantasy): Trope Codifier is The Lord of the Rings (but there were many precursors).
- Historical Fantasy: a version of the history of our world, but with significant fantasy elements added.
- Low Fantasy: anything not set in our world which isn't one of the others.
- Science Fantasy: overlaps with other sub-genres, as well as Science Fiction.
- Urban Fantasy, confusingly, has two meanings:
- a) A story which takes place in our world, or a recognizable Alternate History version of it.
- b) Takes place in a major city in a fantastic world.