The Defining Characteristic of Fantasy Literature

When you are discussing literature, what do you think of when you hear the word “fantasy”? One of the first things that pops into my mind is magic. Indeed, for me, magic is almost an essential element of a fantasy novel. But upon reflection, I find reason to question that first impulse. Years ago, I read the novel “Watership Down” by Richard Adams. It is generally considered a fantasy novel. It doesn’t really have magic, but it does have talking (to each other) rabbits. One of the rabbits, though, is kind of psychic, so perhaps that could be classified as magic, but that would be a stretch, I think. And regardless, the real reason “Watership Down” is classified as fantasy is not Fiver’s sixth sense; it is the anthropomorphic treatment of the rabbits and their society. Rabbits are elevated to a human level of consciousness with complex relationships and intricate interactions. There is a “bad guy” rabbit in the name of General Woundwart (if I recall correctly) and a number of heroic protagonists: Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver to name a few. When I was a kid, my favorite was Fiver.

Anyway, my point is that magic alone does not have a wide enough scope to be considered the crucial element in a piece of fantasy literature. There are plenty of fantasy novels that do not rely on magic, and are still considered fantasy. What, then, is the defining characteristic? Is it the classic pairing of the “good guy” versus the “bad guy,” or in literary terms, the protagonist and the antagonist? Unfortunately, that has too grand a scope of application. Where the net cast by the term “magic” permits too many books to escape, the net cast by the simple existence of antagonists and protagonists is far too inclusive. Most literature would be included by such a definition.

Looking on Wikepedia we get the following definition of fantasy: “Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.” That seems like a reasonable definition, but is it complete? I’m not sure the previously mentioned “Watership Down” passes the test. Would you classify talking rabbits as “supernatural.” I guess, in a sort of technical way it is, but I tend to think of supernatural as something grander: ghosts, spectres, or the actions of deities. Making rabbits talk seems somehow less “above and beyond nature” and more of a variant on the way nature is. And besides, do we really know that rabbits don’t have some primitive language that allows them some minimal communication? It may be unlikely, but it is not impossible. Regardless, we still need a primary characteristic. The key is to focus on the two terms “magic” and “supernatural” in the above definition. They share the characteristic of generally being considered impossible (at least as far as current human science is concerned). From that, I would argue that the defining characteristic of fantasy is that it incorporates an element of the impossible, whatever that may be. In “Watership Down,” this is the ability of the rabbits to talk (yeah, I know I just said talking rabbits might be possible, but generally speaking most people would regard it as impossible) and have complex relationships. In other stories, it is the ability of humans to cast powerful spells. It will be interesting to see how this would change if science were to prove something like, say, the existence of ghosts or telepathy. The line between fantasy and normal literary fiction would be blurred to ever greater degrees.

Anyway, those are my somewhat disordered thoughts on the subject; care to share yours?

14 thoughts on “The Defining Characteristic of Fantasy Literature

  1. debyfredericks

    It’s been a while since I read Watership Down, but if I recall the heroic characters are guided by a rabbit god. Many “animal fantasies” include divine spirits rather than magic/sorcery. Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing series features a bat goddess. In Erin Hunter’s mega-series, Warriors, feral cats are guided by their ancestral spirits.

    If you allow that “supernatural” would include spiritual beings such as a rabbit god, then Watership Down clearly fits the category. One could even argue that this book STARTED the whole sub-category of animal fantasy.

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  2. Bats

    i just think of “watership down” as children’s literature, like charlotte’s web, etc. i don’t think of it as fantasy. from what i hear, the animals in the redwall series do fantastical magical things, but if rabbits don’t do anything except talk and be rabbits, i don’t think that book would fit the genre. i really can’t think of a fantasy novel that doesn’t have any magic in it. if it took place in medieval times without magic, then it would just be a historical novel. lol. imo.

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  3. Lily Wight

    Trying to define genres is an impossible task :/ You could simply divide fiction into two categories; realistic and non-realistic with Fantasy as a catch-all title for non-realistic fiction with many sub-genres! For me Fantasy is usually derived, to a greater or lesser extent from Myth, Legend and Folklore. Talking animals are common in these story structures, so I’m happy with Watership Down as a Fantasy.
    And where are the lines between Fantasy and Horror or Fantasy and revised History? It could make your brain explode… x

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  4. Pingback: How to write a fantasy novel | J. Keller Ford

  5. Steve

    I agree more or less with the “impossible” yardstick by which to measure Fantasy, although the idea of all non-realistic fiction being Fantasy of one kind or another is tempting too. I think our thoughts on the subject are formed early on and vary with our youthful experiences.

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  6. thedeeem

    It’s really nice to read this, and I do agree that talking rabbits or animals in general are fantasy, since the mere fact that animals talk is fantasy, like Narnia or other animal races found in Lord of the Rings like the Eagles.

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  7. andrewmarrosb

    My concise definition of fantasy is a work of fiction that re-defines one or more law of nature (at least as known to us today.) It could be our contemporary world with some magic added or an imaginary world constructed by the author like Middle Earth. Talking animals to this. (Maybe porpoises do talk to each other.) There is also the psychic rabbit Hazel & an elaborate rabbit mythology with a rabbit god. So I would accept Watership Down as fantasy. Some novels have such fantastic events that they feel like fantasy even if no natural laws as we know them are changed.

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    1. atoasttodragons

      I’m not sure what you mean by fantastic events. Something highly improbable, but still in the bounds of the known laws of nature? I’d be inclined to not include that as a fantasy without a specific example. That to me, just sounds like fiction.

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  8. willmeneke

    i grew up reading Robert E Howard and ER Burroughs great stuff for imagination
    and a thought just popped into my head – would you consider the Greek Mythology fantasy ?
    and thank you for visiting my blog

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    1. atoasttodragons

      Yeah, I think mythology is a sub-category of fantasy, particularly Greek mythology; it has all the makings: gods, heroes, and powerful monsters. I don’t know why you would not consider it fantasy, unless you were a practitioner of the ancient Greek religion and took it all as serious history or something similar. I mean, a hydra certainly meets the criterion of “impossible.” As for the gods … well, that’s a little bit more complicated; I know some people who are polytheists, so classifying it as fantasy and therefor “impossible” would be difficult.

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