There are a lot of different types of fantasy fiction. I’m sure we’ve all come across terms like high fantasy, low fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, and heroic fantasy – it’s a list we could keep populating endlessly. Like other popular genres, such as romance, there are as many fantasy sub-genres that you can poke a stick at: in fantasy, you can tell a whole myriad of different kinds of stories.
So what is it that holds these stories together as a genre? If there’s so many sub-genres, what is it that makes fantasy “fantasy”?
This is something that can be pretty easy to identify in other genres. For example, we know a romance novel is a romance novel if it features a central love story and a happy ending. We know a crime novel is a crime novel if it features a crime and someone solving it. It doesn’t matter where or when the books are set: it just matters that they include these elements. But identifying what those elements are for fantasy is a bit trickier.
It’s not impossible, though, because the clue is right there in the name. What makes fantasy fantasy is just that: the fantastic.
The fantastic is that one magical, impossible, otherworldly element that turns a book from a contemporary or a historical novel into fantasy novel. In my novels Valentine and Ironheart, for instance, the fantastic comes in the form of fairies. They’re sinsister, they’re otherworldly, they’re impossibly powerful: and they’ve walked into the lives of Pearl Linford and Finn Blacklin because they want their changeling back.
Without the fairies, Valentine and Ironheart wouldn’t be YA fantasy novels. It wouldn’t be possible to rewrite these books as straight contemporary novels without the fairies, because that fantastical element is what holds the story together. Without it, Pearl and Finn would just be two teenagers who yelled at each other a lot!
When I first started to plot out Valentine, I thought a lot about what kind of fantasy novel I wanted to write. I did a lot of reading, and one thing that really helped me clarify my thought processes was the book Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendelsohn. She argues that there are four different types of fantasy, and we can work out which is which by asking the following question: “where are we asked to stand in relationship to the fantastic?” (xviii)
In the first type of fantasy, portal-quest fantasy, our characters – and the reader along with them – go out into the fantastic (xix-xx). Think here of The Chronicles of Narnia, where the four Pevensie children go out into the magical world of Narnia. Or we can even think of Harry Potter, where we as the reader discover all the marvels of the wizarding world alongside Harry.
The second type of fantasy Mendlesohn identifies is immersive fantasy, where we’re thrown into the fantasy world and expected to get ourselves up to speed (xx-xxi). Think here of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and the following books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. None of the characters take time out of their day to explain to use how Westeros works – we just have to keep up!
Then there’s intrusion fantasy (xxi-xxii). Instead of the characters going out into the fantastic like they would in portal-quest fantasy, here, the fantastic intrudes on their everyday lives. Twilight, for instance, is intrusion fantasy, as a magical world of vampires and werewolves intrudes on Bella Swan’s perfectly ordinary life.
Finally, there’s the rarest kind: liminal fantasy (xxiii-xiv). The word “liminal” means “in-between” – when we’re standing in a doorway, not in one room and not in another but somehow in both and somehow in neither, we’re in a liminal space. The example Mendlesohn uses of liminal fantasy is a short story by Joan Aiken called ‘Yes, But Today It’s Tuesday,’ in which there is a unicorn on the front lawn of a family’s house. As readers, we assume that something supernatural is going on – unicorns are pretty magical! – but the family reassure us that today is Tuesday, and magical things only happen on Mondays. This traps us in a kind of unnerving in-between position: we’re caught between the fantastic and the real, not in one but not in the other yet somehow in both.
When I was writing Valentine and Ironheart (and as I continue to write their sequels), one thing I wanted to do was make my fairies – my fantastical element – really frightening and uncanny. The different types of fantasy that Mendlesohn lays out here were helpful for me in working out how to do that. Instead of a portal-quest fantasy, where Pearl and Finn and their friends go out and discover the world of the fairies, I decided to write intrusion fantasy, where the fairies intruded on their world. After all, what’s more frightening than the familiar world you know suddenly being filled with dangerous, powerful, and magical beings that won’t leave until they get what they want? In intrusion fantasy, there’s nowhere you can run, nowhere you can hide. You can’t go home, can’t find a safe place: the danger is already coming from inside the house.
And I also wanted to include a few elements from the unnerving category of liminal fantasy. Pearl realises, as Valentine goes on, that something is seriously wrong in a supernatural kind of way: that there’s a unicorn on the lawn, but everyone seems to be going about their lives like everything is normal. It means she has to second-guess herself: is there really a unicorn (or, in this case, a fairy) on the lawn, or are her eyes deceiving her? Things can get seriously frightening when you’re not sure if there’s something wrong with the world or something wrong with you…
When you’re confronted by something as sinister as Pearl and Finn are – where the fantastic intrudes into your life – you have to rise to the challenge. That’s what propels the narrative of Valentine and Ironheart forward: Pearl and Finn are constantly confronted by intrusive new challenges, and they have to keep facing them down (while making sure no one else notices that the lawn is covered in unicorns). It becomes a massive test of character for them, and it allowed me to write my favourite kind of story: one where real, ordinary people are tested by something unreal, and as a result, make themselves extraordinary.
That’s just one of the many kinds of narratives fantasy makes possible – what are your favourite possibilities?
Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Jodi McAlister is the author of young adult fantasy novels Valentine (2017) and Ironheart (2018), published by Penguin Teen Australia. The third book in the series, Misrule, will follow in 2019. She is also an academic: she currently works as a Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Melbourne, and her research focuses on love, romance, and popular fiction, which means that reading romance novels and watching The Bachelor is technically work for her.
You can find Jodi on Twitter at @JodiMcA, where she tweets regularly about her research, her writing, cool things she finds interesting, her hero worship of Kate Bush, and her slightly-too-intense passion for The Bold and the Beautiful.
Read our KBR review of Ironheart, here. Valentine was our YA Editor's pick of the month last year. Read Connie Spanos' review, here. Jodi also featured in our 12 Curly Questions. Visit the link to unlock more fascinating facts about her.