Here and there I've been hearing about what readers 'expect' from certain genres. Romance readers expect the hero and heroine to wind up together. Fantasy readers expect epic fantasy full of battles and otherworldly creatures. Mystery/detective readers expect an element of, well, mystery, and a satisfying ending in which the mystery is solved.

Despite the fact that I just rattled off that list, it has occurred to me that I don't really know the full scope of what readers expect from standard genre fiction. I'd like to know this, otherwise I might fail to deliver what was expected, resulting in an unsatisfied reader.

What do readers expect from a fantasy novel?

Note: I plan on splitting this question up into several, one for sci-fi, one for mystery, etc. If you think I should just ask about all genres in one question, let me know and I'll edit this one.

  • What you are asking for are in fact the genre conventions or, in other words, a definition of the genre. For that, you would probably find a more comprehensive answer by visting the literary studies department of your local university library and looking up "fantasy" in handbooks of the field or reading the introductory sections of doctoral dissertations on fantasy (they usually have to define the terms they use) and so on. You could even try to find something like "fantasy, definition of" or "fantasy, conventions" in the index of the MLA bibliography. Or read the Wikipedia article ;-)
    – user5645
    Sep 26, 2016 at 13:03

4 Answers 4


Despite my advice to go do research in the academic field of literary studies, I want to try and order what I know and think on the topic.

Fantasy is often named in the same breath with either Science Fiction or Horror or both. All three genres tell stories some aspect of which we generally believe to be unrealistic, or "fantastic". In this the three genres differ from other genres such as historical, romance, or crime fiction, which tell stories that are unreal or untrue, but are set in the world as we know it and told in a realistic manner, and which could potentially have happened. The three genres, all of which tell stories that could not have happened in our world, are sometimes collectively called "the fantastic", but this term has a wide variety of different definitions, so you should avoid it (or explicitly define how you use it).

To understand what fantasy, science fiction, and horror are (as literary genres) we can look back at their form at the time of their conception. All three genres have been "invented" in the nineteenth century. Examplary works of that time for science fiction are The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, for horror "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe and Dracula by Bram Stoker, for fantasy Phantastes by George MacDonald and The Well at the World's End by William Morris.

Reading those and similar books, you will note that they differ in setting (both when and where the story takes place):

  • fantasy is set either in the past or in the present
    • when set in the past, the setting is medieval
      • the medieval world either contains supernatural elements from folklore and myth such as magic or dragons or gods,
      • or it is "realistic" but exists in a fictional universe
    • when set in the present, the setting includes either
      • an otherworld that is either medieval or supernatural, or
      • supernatural elements from folklore and myth
  • horror is set in the present
    • it always tells of what you might call a breach in reality, like a glitch in a virtual game world, where the seams show and what is "behind reality" becomes visible; the horror genre has been invented before modern psychology and tells of perceptions that are identical to what contemporary psychology would describe as depersonalization, derealization, and delusion, as if its symptoms where real and not merely a dysfunction of the mind
  • science fiction is set in the present or the future
    • when set in the present, it deals with alternate history, alternate social systems, or advanced and not-known-to-exist technology (such as the submarine in Verne's novel)

This is what many readers today will expect when they hear of either genre. Much of the contemporary confusion about these genres stems from "crossovers" both among the fantastic genres (such as Science Fantasy or science fiction horror) and to other genres (such as horror western or urban fantasy). This breach of genre conventions is not new. Many works from the nineteenth century, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, defy easy categorization. Is it horror (that is how it is told) or science fiction (because of the advanced technology it portrays)?

The genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror exist with their standards despite these difficulties to categorize individual works. In this they are like stereotypes or prototypes. I'll explain this, using an example. The colors green and blue come in all kinds of hues, and for some specific colors people find it difficult to decide for themselves and agree among each other whether what they are looking at is one or the other. Nevertheless when asked to pick a green color, most everyone will chose tints that are very similar and over the greenness of which there is neither confusion nor debate. The three fantastic genres are the same. For many works, there will be disagreement and debate which genre they belong to. But asked to tell a simple fantasy plot, almost everyone will come up with:

knights, magic, elves, and dragons.


It is not difficult to think of fantasy novels that don't have big battles (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). The battles, the strange creatures, etc, are set dressing. Sci Fi and Fantasy are often lumped together, and often appeal to the same readers, because they essentially do the same thing. They examine life through the lens of a different set of rules. The set dressing is used to establish that the rules of are different. Typical items of set dressing turn up frequently, but they are not essential to the appeal.

What if the rules of life were different? How would people behave? Fantasy is a means to examine what it means to be human. What would still be recognizably human about us if we lived in a world with different rules? You don't have to use fantasy to do this. You can use foreign countries or past times or constrained situations (a ship at sea). But fantasy and sci fi give you the greatest scope to change the rules so as to force some aspect of human nature to the fore.

Fantasy can also allow us to address issues that are too sensitive to write about directly. You can write about a conflict between green people and blue people without fear of being pilloried for an incorrect portrayal of green people culture or of secret biases against blue people.

Less nobly, fantasy and science fiction are also vehicles for wish fulfillment. The powerless and the put-upon imagine a life in which they have a power they do not currently possess. This flatters our wish to be "special". (Why is it that Harry Potter constantly breaks the rules at Hogwarts and is invariably praised and rewarded for it? Because he is "special".) Thus the popularity of both genres among teenagers.

In short, the reader expects the frog to turn into the prince, because they are a frog and they would like to be a prince.

  • So with the two answers I have right now, there are two completely different opinions. Could you help me out by providing something to back your answer up? Jul 13, 2016 at 15:16
  • +1 I like this answer --all except the suggestion that there's no nobility to be had in wish fulfillment. Jul 13, 2016 at 15:34
  • Well, people read for pleasure. There are many different pleasures that literature can give. Some people will only read books about horses because they love horses. So doubtless there are people who will read any book with a battle in it, or any book with a dragon in it. But there are clearly successful fantasies without battles or dragons or horses in them, so if you want a more general answer, you have to look elsewhere.
    – user16226
    Jul 13, 2016 at 15:36
  • @ChrisSunami I said "less noble", not "ignoble". Wish fulfilment is more of less noble depending on the nobility of the wish.
    – user16226
    Jul 13, 2016 at 15:42

According to the (note: controversial) theorist Bruno Bettleheim, fairy tales have an important psychological function because they directly access archetypal images with deep cultural resonance. In other words, they play out the central conflicts of the universal human life in an allegorical manner.

There is a big difference between modern fantasy novels and fairy tales, but the latter is the raw material for the former. A good fantasy novel has the magic and mystery of a dream, as combined with the structure and development of modern storytelling. The influential Jungian theorist Joseph Campbell identified elements of classic myths as underlying nearly every successful plotline, in all genres, but in fantasy this connection to the origins of storytelling are closer and less veiled.

There's no single list of elements that defines fantasy as a whole, although there are more formulaic sub-genres, such as "sword and sorcery," which tend to follow a set pattern. Rather, the important quality of a fantasy story is the liberation of the imagination through abandoning the requirement of sticking true to the parameters of reality as we know it.


Oooh, i liked this question.

Basically, for fantasy novels, i believe that readers expects epic battles between huge armies, they expect a deep lore, fantastic new creatures, fantastic new places. I guess that is the best definition i can give for what people expect in a fantasy novel. They expect Fantastic things.

But let's get a bit broad here, now that i answered the main question. What do readers expect from All genres?

Basically, what everyone expects from a book, or anything for that matter, is it being good. It needs interesting characters, and an engaging plot. If you have that, i't doesn't really matter what is the defining characteristic for that specific genre.

In fact, it is quite common to see books trying out twists in common genres (Teenagers solving crimes, instead of cops, it is actually even more common than regular detective novels nowadays, but it started as a twist) , mixing together genres you don't normally see together (Like a romance in medieval times, or horror books with more erotic themes) or even switching genres in the middle of the book (Like teenager books that just keep getting darker and darker until you wonder if it's a suspense book).


The main focus of fantasy books is to make everything feel new and fantastic, big castles, cool spaceships, giant ruins, horrendous monsters, etc.

But don't try to hard to stick with only what your genre offers you, and do your best to make it all feel fresh. After all, what makes a good book is the story, not the genre.

  • So with the two answers I have right now, there are two completely different opinions. Could you help me out by providing something to back your answer up? Jul 13, 2016 at 15:16
  • To be honest, my answer is pretty much the same as his. The big battles and castles and monsters were just examples, to show that everything need to feel different from real life, it needs to detach itself from what we know to build something, well, fantastic. What i disagree in the other answer is that i believe any book can be a form of wish fulfillment, depending on what you wish upon. Maybe you want to find the perfect love, and reading romances puts you in this place. It's not made specifically for fantasy. Jul 13, 2016 at 17:22
  • At no point did I suggest that Fantasy was the only genre that provided wish fulfilment. Romance is entirely and unashamedly about wish fulfillment. So are many other genres to a greater or lesser extent. Sci fi and fantasy tend to focus on a particular kind of wish fulfillment: the wish for power. Some merely pander to it. Some play against it. (With great power comes great responsibility.} For the antidote to Rowling's easy power fantasies, see an older and better school of wizardry story: Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea.
    – user16226
    Jul 14, 2016 at 2:21

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