The fantasy genre is broad, and many elements go into writing a great fantasy novel. From high fantasy to low, epic fantasy to dark fantasy, and science fiction to the supernatural, most fantasy books feature some common elements that make them such an exciting and immersive experience for the reader.
We have listed below some of the most common fantasy elements. So, whether you are an avid reader and want to know about what makes the genre so enjoyable, or you are a writer looking to dissect the genre so that you can write your first fantasy novel, create your immersive fantasy world, and share it with the real world, then read on. We have included in this article the elements of fantasy literature that make it so appealing. But first, let us get a better understanding of the fantasy genre as a whole.
What Is Fantasy?
Fantasy is one of the broadest genres of literature. There are many subgenres, which we will explore in greater detail later. It is also a genre accessible to all ages. There are fantasy books loved and adored by young children, while others are dark and heavy in their subject matter and are absolutely not suitable for children. Even those loved by children, such as the Harry Potter series, also have an extensive adult fan base.
The Oxford dictionary defines fantasy as ‘imaginative fiction involving magic.‘ In essence, the plot of a fantasy story cannot take place in the real world. It needs magical elements, rules, and laws that do not exist in our primary world for the action to occur. Here is a list of the common fantasy elements.
Fantasy Elements List:
In fantasy fiction, there is always some element of magic—a system of laws, dynamics, powers, or character abilities that are not found in the regular world (referred to in the fantasy genre as the ‘primary world’). In the fantasy world, the world of magic where the fantasy story takes place is referred to as the secondary world.
The magical element involved in the Harry Potter series is sorcery, wizardry, and witchcraft. Prophecy and resurrection feature heavily in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of The Wind, characters use alchemical practices or energy manipulation.
The type of magic used in a fantasy world sets it apart from other books and novels in the genre. So, when it comes to writing fantasy, the more unique and original you write your magic system, who can use it, how it is used and how it can be used, as well as the consequences and outcomes of its use, the more likely you are to stand out and gather attention.
To enrich the story, magic often comes at a cost. Its energy must be sourced from somewhere, often with consequences. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the cost of wearing the One Ring and the invisibility that it grants is that the wearer’s whereabouts become known to the Dark Lord Sauron, who seeks the return of the ring, thus placing the wearer in danger. In the Harry Potter series, a wizard misuses magic, such as forbidden spells, putting their lives at risk.
2. Unique Setting
Since the setting of many fantasy novels is not the earth as we know it, the author must do some diligent, well-thought-out world-building. The readers enter the story with no knowledge of the world in which the story takes place, so it is the author’s job to depict that world in a way that makes it easy and accessible to imagine.
Fantasy writers spend a lot of time world-building—painting a picture of the magical world in the story. The world of a fantasy story takes time to create because it is different from the primary world and therefore must be portrayed in detail to the reader.
The essence and feel of a fantasy setting are crucial to the story and can be considered a character. For example, in the Harry Potter series, the infamous school of Hogwarts is described in great detail, with its surroundings and rich history playing a key role in the story. How the characters interact with the setting and the tradition and history of that setting help J.K Rowling immerse the reader in the world of Hogwarts.
If you are writing a fantasy novel, it is important to dedicate a generous amount of time to detail the setting and its components. What kind of weather features are in the setting? How about flora and fauna? The history of the world in which the characters live? Are there off-limits for certain characters? Do settings change throughout the book, or does it all occur in one place? What happens when the setting changes—do the same magic rules apply, or do characters enter different worlds that come with their own rules and dynamics?
3. A Heroic Adventure
Fantasy readers enjoy the genre because they can join the protagonist and their companions on a heroic adventure. The first chapter sets a path for the characters, including challenges and obstacles for the hero and his friends to overcome.
Even the word ‘adventure’ evokes a sense of excitement and novelty. The adventure itself is a fantasy literary device that helps the characters grow and the story progress. Frodo Baggins’ adventure introduces him to elves, dwarves, orcs, and new parts of the story’s setting that he would never have encountered had he not been called upon for this life-changing adventure.
The power of the adventure story arc is that, by its nature, it is never smooth. If a character were faced with a task and could easily complete the task without stress or challenge, there would not be a story. Adventures inevitably lead to risks, dangers, consequences of taking on a mission, life-changing experiences, realizations, and unforeseen events for the characters.
4. Power Structures or Hierarchies
The power structure, hierarchy, or governing authority in fantasy stories often reveals the ‘why’ behind the story in the first place. The protagonist, the hero of the story, is more often than not tasked with the arduous task of tackling the pre-existing power structure due to some form of corruption or imbalance of morality.
The best fantasy stories do not simply color the hero and the power structure black and white. Very often, the reason behind the corruption of power comes down to an individual’s personal story. A character introduced as a villain may later be revealed to be on their hero’s journey, perhaps of revenge or their own perceived injustices.
The better the story, the harder it is to tell the difference between what and who is right and wrong. Great fantasy villains are complex characters who do an admirable job at appealing to the compassion and empathy of the reader.
The power structures used in fantasy literature very often reflect the kind of power structure we experience in our world. A controversial example of a fantasy power structure features Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Pullman received a lot of criticism from the church and its associates through his loose but undeniable reference to the church. Its questionable ethics and outright evils, characterized in the books as General Oblation Board, or Gobblers, a powerful authority with magical secrets who kidnap children for their pure energy.
5. Otherworldly Creatures
Dragons, talking polar bears, and shape-shifting spirits—where would fantasy novels be without them? Animals and otherworldly creatures are common in fantasy and often play key roles in the story. Most have magical powers that aid the hero on his journey. Fantasy creatures add an extra sense of wonder and awe to any story and are often an early century into the magical world for the protagonist, especially when that character has entered the secondary or fantasy world from the primary or normal world.
6. Relatable Themes
Though set in unique and magical worlds, fantasy novels share themes with all other forms of literature—good vs. evil, coming-of-age, political corruption. The same applies to fairy tales—the message of these stories is usually incredibly relevant and reflective of the world we live in, guided safely into the reader’s psyche through that fantastical nature of the context in which they are delivered.
7. Unique Language
The language of a fantasy world is as important as its setting, plot, and characters. Some fantasy novels use real languages only, but many incorporate created fictional languages. The use of fictional language in a fantasy novel helps the author immerse the reader in the world they have built.
Fantasy languages are typically crafted from a combination or adaptation of existing languages or those which have died out. Creating a fantasy language requires diligence and should not be taken lightly by a writer.
Popular examples of fictional language in fantasy are Dothraki—spoken by the Dothraki in George RR. Martin’s Game of Thrones and Elvish, the ancient language of the Elves in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Fantasy novels with well-thought-out unique languages immerse the reader even deeper in the story. Since the story has unique settings, creatures, and laws of magic, it makes sense that a unique language would exist here too.
Subgenres of Fantasy
Fantasy is an incredibly rich and broad genre. There are so many fantasy subgenres that it is hard to create an exhaustive list, but some of the most popular include:
1. High Fantasy
High fantasy novels are set in a secondary world, a world separate from our own with its own rules, laws, and dynamics. They typically follow epic tales and heroic adventures with magic, sword and sorcery, and fantastical characters, settings, and creatures. The history and mythology of high fantasy novels are unique and offer a rich and immersive backstory in which the reader can get lost.
Popular high fantasy books include:
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J. R. R. Tolkien
- A Game of Thrones (series) – George RR. Martin
- The Kingkiller Chronicle – Patrick Rothfuss
- The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson
- Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb
2. Low Fantasy
Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that typically takes place in the primary world—the world as we know it—but with magical elements only known by some characters. Protagonists in low fantasy often begin with no prior knowledge of the magic or the supernatural elements of the world they live in but stumble across them or are called upon to engage in some prophecy or fate.
Popular examples of low fantasy books include:
- American Gods – Neil Gaiman
- The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
- Stardust – Neil Gaiman
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
- Djinn City – Saad Z. Hossain
3. Epic Fantasy
Epic fantasy is high fantasy to the extreme. Epic fantasy stories often take several books to cover. The world, settings, and fantasy characters in these stories are incredibly rich and dense and are conveyed to the reader through long narratives. The Lord of the Rings series and Game of Thrones are two examples of epic and high fantasy novels.
4. Dark Fantasy
Dark fantasy is also known as horror fantasy or supernatural. Typically, the subject matter in dark fantasy novels is frightening and, at times, disturbing. The protagonists are often anti-heroes. They are not necessarily the ‘good guys’, but the story follows their adventures and often has us on the main character’s side even when their morals are questionable.
What often redeems the protagonists of dark fantasy is that even though they typically have a broken moral compass, the other characters, creatures, and villains that the protagonist encounters are often more vile and evil. ‘Nice’ characters in dark fantasy exist, but to live in these words takes a tough skin, and without that, death and loss are imminent.
Popular dark fantasy books include:
- The Elric Saga – Michael Moorcock
- Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence
- Game of Thrones – George RR. Martin
5. Arthurian Fantasy
Arthurian fantasies are based on the legend and world of King Arthur and the Middle Ages. Arthurian literature follows the tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table on their heroic journeys. This type of fantasy novel focuses more on the magical elements of the Arthurian world, such as wizardry, sorcery, and mysticism.
Examples of Arthurian fantasy include:
- The Once and Future King – T.H White
- The Crystal Cave – Mary Stewart
- The Winter King – Bernard Cornwell
- The Colour of Dragons – R.A Salvatore & Erika Lewis
- Legendborn – Tracy Deonn
6. Mythic Fantasy
Mythic fantasy is any fantasy story that incorporates mythological elements—gods, goddesses, and the awesome power of nature are key components of this fantasy subgenre. A single mythic fantasy story typically includes features of ancient religions and cultures, where one ancient culture and its mythologies are the main focus. The Celtic, Native American, Norse, and Japanese cultures and myths are popular in this subgenre.
Popular examples of mythic fantasy include:
- American Gods – Neil Gaiman
- The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan
- The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
- Circe – Madeline Miller
- The Sacred Band – Janet E. Morris
7. Historical Fantasy
Historical is a type of historical fiction that adds magical elements to real-world historical cultures and times, such as Ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, or the cultures of the Ancient Celts. Historical fantasy lends itself to other subgenres, such as dark, high, epic, and Arthurian. It simply needs to root itself in a time in real history, from which place magical elements can be added to make it a fantasy story.
Popular examples of historical fantasy include:
- The City of Grass – S.A Chakraborty
- Outlander – Diana Gabaldon
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
- A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E Schwab
- The Poppy War – R.F Kuang
8. Science Fantasy
Science fantasy is a hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. The subgenre is similar to sci-fi in that futuristic technology, where alien species are popular features. Still, there is no clear explanation of how the technology works, and elements of magic may be at play.
Popular examples of science fantasy include:
- Red Sister – Mark Lawrence
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas J. Adams
- Dune – Frank Herbert
If you are a budding fantasy writer, understanding the elements and subgenres of the fantasy genre will help you progress significantly. As with any genre, it is always wise to read as much as you can. Though fantasy novels are in their own universe, you do not need to reinvent the wheel to write one. By incorporating the elements outlined above, you can craft a fantasy novel that readers can completely immerse themselves in.
“Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”J.R.R. Tolkien