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Reaching Outside the Genre

Heritage Dragon by Craig KosakThe fantasy genre is a curious beast, its wide reach covering a range of topics and themes. It has stories about growing up, stories about overcoming problems, stories about slaying dragons and monsters. It’s not limited by location, ideas, character types, or any of the other criteria we normally use to define a genre. In fact it’s more of a case that people will assign a book the classification if it exhibits any one of a hundred traits commonly associated with fantasy. An adventure story becomes a fantasy if it has a magical treasure, a revenge tale becomes one when the villain is a monster, in this way countless books fall into the gaping maw of fantasy. This is not generally a problem, in fact it’s one of the greatest strengths of the genre, its potential, its malleability gives it a range like no other.

Obviously there are a body of ideas and forms that make up the traditions of the genre, strange portals to other worlds, fantastic creatures like dragons, tropes like dark lords and barbarians with magic swords. But they are only options, brought about by repetition rather than requirement, there are few really solid guidelines for something to be deemed fantasy. For some of the sub-genres perhaps, a few specifics might be required but otherwise the author is given carte blanche on what to include. Naturally there are books that do hold to the traditions more rigidly than others, some can be great reads, while others can unfortunately come across as bland and formulaic, the problems usually stemming from a lack of experience with the cannon, or a direct intent to write genre.

Republic of Thieves - Demi Silk by Edward MillerWith the infinite potential of fantasy there is really no need to follow anything like genre convention, and in fact there’s a multitude of reasons to go further afield. Looking at other genres and styles of writing, studying their methods and forms can only provide an author with a bigger pool of resources to draw on for their own work. They can be inspired by stories completely outside the typical genre experience, exploring new paths and narratives, and of course, they can steal from them. Some of the most interesting fantasy books I have read have been stories with atypical plots cast in fantasy mould, what is The Lies of Locke Lamora but a crime novel in a fantasy setting? And why not? The genre has the reach to accommodate the story and does it well, a fantasy story can be anything with a bit of magic in it, there’s no need to limit it to mystical swords and dark lords.

Some authors try hard to create a fantasy world, but the mind-set they should be going for is to create an interesting and vivid world that just happens to have elves in it. Your stories too, shouldn’t be limited to quest arcs or other narratives you think a fantasy novel should be. That little voice that says your spy thriller can’t be fantasy, ignore it. Give those spies amulets that turn them invisible and you’re set. That detective story where he’s trying to solve a murder, make the victim immortal; now that will be tricky to solve. Fantasy can be the backdrop, the atmosphere of your world, but it should never be allowed to dictate to the author, with only a little effort it can be moulded like clay and shaped into almost any format.

Death's Library by La-Chapeliere-FolleOne need not even colour the genre completely with another influence, as with the wholesale comic styles of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Sometimes a few tweaks are enough to give the story a greater depth and richness. In a truly realised secondary world there will be room for all sorts of events and different little stories that make up the fully textured and vibrant narrative.

Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series of epic fantasy, yet it draws on a number of different elements and genres throughout its long ten volume saga. There are the battles of course, the magic, the fantasy elements of gods and heroes, but there are also comedy scenes in the chapters of Bugg and Tehol, providing a little levity as they struggle to get by. There are snippets of horror too, unsettling passages of writing as when a group of travellers come across the ruins of an ancient fortress that’s not as quiet and empty as they think. All these aspects and events weave together to create something more than another fantasy story but a truly developed world with subtle nuances and layered stories that serve to show the skill of the writing and make for a truly great piece of fiction.

Works like this remind us that fantasy won’t just be about big events and heroes fighting villains, it will have a host of other things too. It can have spies, criminals, and detectives running through the pages. It can have great escapes, murder mysteries and bitter rivalries twisted around each other in tangles of plot and counter plot. If you think it can add to the writing and make for a good story, odds are fantasy will stretch to accommodate it.

Sandmonster by Rasmus BerggreenThis is where the study and use of other genres comes in; read horror and draw upon its techniques so that the monster terrorising the village is more terrifying. Why shouldn’t you go all out in making it as scary as anything in a slasher film or Stephen King book? Read military fiction and give that same sense of authenticity and tactical knowledge to your war stories, even if the characters are lizard people with four arms. No harm will come to your work by practicing better writing techniques, learning from great works and incorporating those skills. Just because an idea may not be traditional fantasy there is no reason it can’t work in a story if the writer puts the effort in.

Drawing on the strength of other genres and using the techniques to develop your own writing will mean that your book isn’t just another fantasy novel, but will help it to become a unique and engaging piece of fiction. It can allow for new types of plots and stories, and it can make individual scenes and sections of the book far more effective when the author works to ensure a rich and varied narrative world. So don’t let yourself be constrained, reach for everything you can, fantasy shouldn’t be limited by anything, and neither should your writing.

Title image by Craig Kosak.


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