This article is my take on what makes a story Fantasy, the major elements that tend to appear in Fantasy, and perhaps most importantly what the different subgenres of Fantasy are (and what distinguishes them). I’ve adapted it from Chapter One of my book Fantasy Hero, available from Hero Games, by eliminating or changing most (but not all) references to gaming and gamers.
My insights on Fantasy may not be new or revelatory, but hopefully they at least establish a common ground for discussion. I often find that when people talk about Fantasy they run into trouble right away because they don’t define their terms. A person will use the term “Swords and Sorcery” or “Epic Fantasy” without explaining what he means by that. Since other people may interpret those terms differently, this leads to confusion on the part of the reader, misunderstandings, and all sorts of other frustrating nonsense.
So I’m going to define my terms right off the bat. When I say a story is a Swords and Sorcery story, you can be sure that it falls within the general definitions and tropes discussed below. The same goes for Epic Fantasy or any other type of Fantasy tale.
Please note that my goal here isn’t necessarily to persuade anyone to agree with me — I hope you will, but that’s not the point. What I call “Epic Fantasy” you may refer to as “Heroic Fantasy” or “Quest Fantasy” or “High Fantasy.” I don’t really care. What I care about is that when I describe something as “Epic Fantasy,” you understand what I mean by that term.
There’s little I love more than discussing the ins and outs of Fantasy. If you’d like to offer your own comments on these subjects, suggest that I cover something I’ve left out, quibble (politely!) over terminology, ponder which category a given story belongs to, or whatever else, please visit the message boards and let ’er rip!