No, I’m not even going to try and come up with the definition myself. Better people than me have tried and failed.
Again, I’m going to kick this off with an anecdote. I was at a friend’s place the other day, helping him unpack books onto a bookshelf. I noticed that this friend had an old writing manual, one of the ones that could be given to middle-primary-school children or early high school children. I read through this, out of curiosity. I will read pretty much anything that professes to tell me how to write better, but when I say it like that, I wonder why.
The first few chapters were actually excellent. It was really quite straightforward in how it said to write about things, and actually gave concrete advice that sounded sensible, even talking about rhythm and voice (though not using that jargon, obviously). So, that was good. But then it got to the ‘genres’ section.
It talked about four things a ‘realistic’ story needs: A character that sounds real, a setting that develops and informs the characters, a plot that presents real challenges to the character/s, and an ending that feels satisfying. They kept the last two the same for fantasy, and then they they make me cringe.
The question of setting, I feel they got absolutely right for fantasy: It still needs to inform the characters, and it still needs to be internally consistent. They captured that. Perfect. But character? They changed character from “a person who feels real” to “a person who has have fabulous powers” (both quotations paraphrased; my quote-remembering skills are still AWOL from essays this term). OK, OK, so there was a bit in ‘setting’ about how the setting needed to explain the character’s powers so it felt like it could happen. Totally not my problem with this sentence.
See, I would have argued that nothing needed to change about any of those four things. Not just for fantasy, but for any genre. You always need a character who could feel real, a setting that they feel like a part of, a plot that has actual stakes involved, and a satisfying ending. None of those things are optional for any book (save avant-garde literary fiction, but then you’re reading the book for neither plot nor character, so it doesn’t matter). What gives?
On one hand, they probably just came up with these rules and had to try and fit them around the genres; it’s not a book that anyone was ever supposed to think particularly hard about. So, with that firmly in mind, let’s go ahead and think particularly hard about this.
The way I see it, there are two explanations for this inability to make those rules change believably for different genres. The first is one that anyone who looks down on romance fiction, or who joins the endless arguments about whether a book is fantasy or science fiction, will hate me for, and that is that the genres only differ in ‘window dressing’, essentially. Therefore, a book about a fantasy protagonist trying to find the man who killed his father and thus save the kingdom is not substantially different from a mystery protagonist trying to find the serial killer and thus save the innocents of the city. Definitely, a lot of different elements from genres find homes in other genres, and that’s pretty much accepted – sci-fi/fantasy elements in horror, for example (or vice versa). They don’t feel out of place at all, and can create some pretty cool books. This theory is also substantiated in the ‘only seven plots’ theory, and the Monomyth (seriously, go look those up; they’re excellent concepts to think about). So yeah, you could argue that window dressing is what separates the genres, and at the core, they’re all the same.
But … well, something does feel intrinsically wrong about lumping all genre fiction in together like that. If they’re so similar, why do crime fiction readers often dislike fantasy and science fiction, even though some of the harder science fiction is probably no more unrealistic than the forensic science portrayed in CSI, NCIS, or any other crime thriller show? Why do fantasy and science fiction readers end up fighting so often, and feel that they have totally different genres? I’ve heard the ‘only seven plots’ thing used to explain why it’s actually not that bad to be cliche in fantasy – after all, there are only seven plots, we’ve used them all by now! How can you be truly original when everything has been done before? That, as a reader, made me want to hit them.
The thing that’s noticeable about those ‘only X plots’ or ‘only X conflicts’ explanations is that they’re incredibly simplistic. Man versus man. Man versus Self. Sure, the story of a woman confronting the man who (to use my above example) killed her father is going to be incredibly different from the story of the woman who confronts her father because of the career path he forced her into. But they’re still the same category of those two stories.
So, what exactly is the difference between fantasy and any other genres? After all, a huge question in the fantasy genre is ‘does it have to have magic?’ (The protagonist certainly doesn’t; thus the earlier definition from the writing book is kind of awful already). Would a fantasy novel still be a fantasy novel if it were about an alternate universe without magic, but with a different political system and different culture? It’s not historical fiction. It could be commercial fiction, but does it have to be?
That’s a question for another time. That’s the really deep stuff. More relevant is: Does fantasy need to have [X fantasy trapping]? Wizards? No, not really. Dragons? Nope, plenty of fantasy without dragons. Castles and a feudal system? No, that’s not necessary, either. It’s really hard to find trappings that are ‘necessary’ to a fantasy novel. Plus, the closer you get to urban fantasy, the more fantasy can overlap with sci-fi, until you get a sort of sliding scale effect. Sure the works at the far ends are distinct, but what about the stuff in the middle?
My theory of genre is this: You read a genre because it hits certain emotional buttons. For example, fantasy generates a sense of wonder and sweeping scale, whereas science fiction creates the sense of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if’. Exceptions are probably findable, I’ve not given this a whole lot of thought, but that’s what strikes me at first. Romance taps straight into wish-fulfilment, the need to put yourself into the heroine’s footsteps and fall in love with a perfect man (I don’t read a lot of romance, so this might be wrong/inaccurate).
Genre is not about what you do with the characters and plot. It’s about the emotions you strike and the particular wish you fulfill within the story. And that is why those four rules apply to all fiction, but also completely fail to describe what makes a genre different from any other.
So, valiant effort, I say, but missing some very crucial things to make that writer’s manual accurate.