So, I've been silent for about a year. Well, not entirely, but my posts have all been in the form of discarded drafts. I also got a new job in the real world, and increased transit time has decreased the time I have to commit to the blog.
One thing I HAVE done in the past, however, is make videos on YouTube, albeit for video games and such. Also, I started on this subject by presenting, talking to people, and I wanted to get back to that. Thus,I decided to take that commitment to editing and making videos and am now doing a YouTube-based podcast.
One thing readers of the blog will have is access to my episode notes, and in this case I mean what I wrote to get myself concentrated on the subject. Also coming soon is a more personalized theme here on Weebly, as well as something I drew myself (it will be horrifying to look upon, trust me).
A link to the video is below, as well as a link to the SoundCloud download link for those who want to take the episode anywhere. Please leave me comments, here or on YouTube, letting me know what you want to hear about next!
Hello everyone, and welcome to the inaugural episode of Freddy van Z on Fantasy. The goal of this show is to discuss what makes the Fantasy genre tick, some great examples of just that, and generally see how good fantasy literature gets that way. We’ll even do some reviews from time to time, and I might get into the habit of telling some fun anecdotes or even reading short stories I’ve written, but I don’t intend to make those the focus, at least not now. As YouTube is where I will be posting this initially, I hope to get some good visuals in eventually, but for now I hope everyone enjoys my voice well enough. If you want to listen to this on the go and don’t have YouTube Red, a download link is in the description and I hope to publish it to podcast venues in the near future.
But okay, what’s a good topic to start off with? I’ve presented at conventions a few time in the past on this Fantasy Literature subject, and thought that I might start off where I did then, but a better idea occurred to me. Partly from necessity and partly from a personal desire to break tis down, I will first be talking about the subject of how the Fantasy Genre is structured, its various forms and where they stand in relation to one another.
As you might expect, this is going to take a little doing. After all, if you do a simple search on, say, Wikipedia, you will easily find as many as thirty-one subgenres and other miscellaneous categorizations of Fantasy. Now, fans of this genre are well used to digesting new, unusual terms – it’s part of what makes reading a new story set in a different world so interesting, even more so if the author is linking their worlds, giving certain terms and titles deeper meaning than what they mean just in that one setting. We thrive on it, but in the scope of this show I want to be able to speak and be understood, so today I want to lay down the framework of how I look at the genre and simplify its many parts. I’m going to go against some standard definitions here, but for good reason, as I will soon explain.
Fantasy as a genre can be broken down into several groups, mostly based on the scope of their story or how prevalent they are in the genre’s landscape. Our first group, which we’ll call Epic Fantasy, is made up of High, Low, and Heroic Fantasy.
High Fantasy is usually more thoroughly permeated with magical themes, even if they don’t necessarily play a central role, such as in Lord of the Rings, where the quest to destroy the One Ring, itself an item with supernatural properties, takes a back seat to the struggle just to get there on one hand and stop the world from falling to pieces in the meantime on the other. Low Fantasy is less magical, relying more on the mundane actions of characters than the influence of wizards and the like, though these usually ramp into being very magical by the end. A good example is A Song of Ice and Fire, where we saw very little of the magical in the first three or four books, but as things draw to a close we can’t help but run into magic at every turn, even if it is still incredibly rare and held by select individuals – one might even say that’s what ensures that it remains Low Fantasy rather than crossing into High.
Heroic Fantasy focuses on the exploits of a single person. Even viewpoints other than that of the central protagonist are used, that one individual is the axle on which all events turn. Whereas in Epic Fantasy the main character is helped along significantly by others, often sharing the spotlight with them and depending on their personal victories as much as everyone else relies on the main character’s own, Heroic fantasy tests our suspension of willing disbelief by having a main character who is almost uncannily good at things and, consequently, solely important to the central conflict’s resolution.
Good examples of this are A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter. In both, the main character is the end-all to every conflict. That friends help them along the way is made subordinate to the main character’s actions nine times out of ten because they usually do so to support the main character’s express goals. We may love these secondary characters, but there is never more than one person in the spotlight, and that person is our MC.
All of these share a similar theme, something which sets them apart from the other sub-genres, which contain their echoes but not core: a sprawling, detailed world with many characters and monumental goal which hangs over everyone’s heads, not just the protagonists’. The other genres may have one or two, maybe even all three, but not to the same scope or degree as Epic Fantasy.
Sticking with familiar terms, next up is our Small-Scope category. Here is where you will find sub-genres of Historical, Urban, Juvenile, and Sword-and-Sorcery. These don’t deal in quite the same level of whole-world detail as Heroic, High, or Low Fantasy. Urban Fantasy, as you might expect, normally takes place in a single location, and Historical Fantasy is focused on a paticular individual or event. What’s outside the city in Urban might be discussed by the characters or affected by their actions, but is not directly dealt with, and Historical Fantasy, unless creating an entirely different Earth, needs to function in such a way that history as we know it continues on, so actions and effects of what makes the tale Fantastic rather than just biographical are restricted.
Sword and Sorcery is like High Fantasy’s little brother. The tales are usually shorter, the events and points of view more focused. It’s like the action thriller of Fantasy, with lots of action, fierce romance, and climactic conclusions. If there are any sub-plots involved, they usually aren’t very deep and lead back to the conflict at hand rather than changing the focus of the story altogether.
Lastly, Juvenile Fantasy. The definition for this has had to change much since Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for his children. Nowadays, that would be considered challenging for a child, and for good reason. Literacy has skyrocketed since Tolkien’s day, but that also means that the general quality of education has come down. Teachers are awesome, but they can only focus their attention so broadly, so while children of the early 20th century, where only about 40% of people were literate compared to today’s roughly 80%, might have been reading and writing at a higher level, today there’s a slightly lower general standard. Juvenile Fantasy, then, is aimed at children with a modern reading level, and I’m not poo-pooing that at all. It’s important to get kids reading, and Fantasy is such an exciting genre to keep them reading their whole lives that these might be some of the most important youth fiction books out there.
My third category is sort of the round-‘em-up of all the outlyers. This is Surreal Fantasy, the genre-genres like romantic fantasy and comic fantasy, and all the very specific cultural forms of fantasy which are defined by sticking to a single country’s hereditary beliefs and folklore. These have a very specific goal in mind, and usually have a strong niche fan base that keeps them going. Whether some of them are even Fantasy can be argued, like Fantasy Realism, but they are all under our umbrella of Fantasy regardless.
One very prominent sub-genre some of you might even now be thinking I missed is Young Adult Fantasy. After all, this is actually the category which, depending on your source, has the best sales in the world, thanks in large part to the Harry Potter series. However, there is nothing which specifically defines the Young Adult genre, aside from a propensity for coming-of-age stories, and I think that even the age range with which this is generally associated, twelve to eighteen, is outdated. Personally, I think that category of Young adult is more like fifteen to thirty nowadays, in part because of the aging millennial generation, partly just because these stories hold such great appeal with those who apparently aged out of it long ago, and because you can get away with more adult themes in media nowadays. So yeah, I think that Young Adult Fantasy is a term needing an update, and I consider it a frame of mind you get into while considering your target audience and thus your book’s themes more than an actual sub-genre that can be pigeon-holed in just one of the above categories.
So that about covers things! I hope my custom definitions help everyone as I go forward with this series. I’m sure I’ll amend it from time to time, but this will give you a good idea of where my mind is on this particular subject. If you caught this on YouTube, leave a comment on a topic you would like to see covered. I have enough planned to last me a couple months’-worth of consistent content, aside from any reviews or other miscellaneous videos, but after that I’ll want to know what the people demand! Also, subscribe so that I know you care – I am literally launching this from the ground up, no prior channel or other follower base to work off of, so the more you show me you’re paying attention, the harder I’ll work to release new recordings regularly.
Until then, fare well!
Francis van Zandt writes about writing, fantasy, and fantasy writing. Updates come once a week or so, time and inspiration allowing.