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Is writing fantasy novel with no mages, witches, wizards or anything remotely magical a waste of time? Can it still be classified as fantasy?

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    What does it have that makes you want to call it a fantasy novel? Fantasy doesn't have to mean magic, per se, but it does generally contain elements that don't exist in the real world. (And the lines between fantasy and science fiction can be very blurry.) – AmaiKotori Nov 13 at 17:27
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    @AmaiKotori I suppose the elements that don't exist in real life such as a completely different world with different languages and races of people. – user42083 Nov 13 at 17:30
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    Why do you want/need your story to be "fantasy?" Is it just to not be burdened by our world's history? Is it to add another element? Is it because the writing group you want to join is focused only on fantasy? – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 14 at 15:28
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    Different races - do you have "fantastic" elements, like elves/orcs/steampunk engines to make people immortal as long as being used? If so, I would definitely call it fantasy. Or do you "just" have "made up" human cultures, that could have existed exactly that way during the middle ages? – user42097 Nov 14 at 20:03
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    Fwiw Tolkien was never quite certain about magic either. In the Letters he talked about technology being a form of magic (and it really is: for those who don't know how the internet works it can seem magical and it also is amazing what humans can do). And Galadriel says that Sam seems to use the word 'magic' in the same way the Enemy has his deceits. Certainly the Wizards had a form of magic but that wasn't like what you might have in say Potter. Why wouldn't a novel with fairy story races (Elves etc.) be called fiction? It seems to me it would (even if you don't have them point is the same). – Pryftan Nov 15 at 18:24

11 Answers 11

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Lord of the Rings is as definitive an example of Fantasy as they come. It might even be the benchmark others are measured against. The ideas of elves, dwarves, etc. predate JRRT, but he was the one that most later writers based their races upon.

At the same time, Lord of the Rings includes very few uses of magic. They're very impactful, and magic is involved in the shaping of the world, but most of the characters' ordinary lives are quite magic-free.

So it can be used as a litmus test: If one found a copy of Lord of the Rings where all the pages describing magic were missing, would it still be clearly identifiable as belonging to the fantasy genre? The answer is clearly "yes".

Fantasy is not a strongly-defined genre, there are simply a few patterns that mark a setting as a fantasy one. Multiple sentient species + pre-industrial world = fantasy. Species directly borrowed from Tolkien = fantasy. Placing Tolkien's races into an industrial world and springing it with heavy cyberpunk (Shadowrun)? Now that's deliberately playing with the genre boundaries.

Magic alone isn't enough to define fantasy either. Call it Supernatural and you can have almost as much magic in our world as Harry Potter. All in all, whether a book falls into fantasy or doesn't is based on the weight of "yes-fantasy" (magic, elves, medieval settings) and "anti-fantasy" (computers, spaceflight) elements within it, and most of all on the reader's perception.

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Firstly, it's certainly not going to be a 'waste of time' to write the story you want to tell, regardless of which genre it might end up being described as.

Fantasy is a very broad genre; any story recognizably set in a world other than our own can easily be described as fantasy if it doesn't focus strongly on themes that would suggest another (the effects of technological change for science fiction, for example).

However, it's true that some people will hear 'fantasy' and expect magic. If you wish to avoid those preconceptions, consider using the broader term speculative fiction, which encompasses any work not set in the real world.

  • Interesting, I once attempted to write a fantasy novel about the possible science behind blood alchemy and then realized that magic and science Do Not Go Well Together. At All. I had to decide upon the overall theme as Sci-fi. I completely understand your comment. – user42083 Nov 13 at 21:43
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    @ChagatNahn Well, that's a matter of perspective! Ultimately, science is about the process. If your magic can be understood and codified, if you can perform controlled experiments and get repeatable results, it starts to look a lot like science within the context of the setting, regardless of how magical it would seem in the real world... The other side of the coin, of course, is that the more it functions like science, the less it feels like magic, and that can admittedly be quite important depending on the style you're going for. – AmaiKotori Nov 13 at 21:52
  • my thoughts exactly. I had thought myself a pioneer of some sort (╥﹏╥) – user42083 Nov 13 at 22:03
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    Basically the answer I wanted to give, but I would also add that fantasy only describes the setting. It can be mixed with other settings (e.g. scifi, western, modern day), and you can tell any story (drama, heist, romance, or even nonfiction). What's important in the end is the story you want to tell. – AmiralPatate Nov 14 at 14:42
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    @ChagatNahn Disagree. Technology can also be seen as magical. it doesn't have to be about spell casting - there are other definitions. And if you look at some of the things we have done (that does involve science) e.g. aeroplanes - that's pretty magical don't you think? And those who don't have (enough) knowledge about the internet or even telephony - it's pretty amazing and hard to believe possible if you don't have the knowledge. As for alchemy: what about the real Philosopher's Stone? I'm not saying that it made one immortal but alchemy etc. could be placed in that area. – Pryftan Nov 15 at 18:28
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Low vs High Fantasy: A sliding definition

Humans love to makeup labels and group things, but some [many? Most?] subjects don't actually play as nice as we might like the deeper we dive into them.

When it comes to grouping and classifying in literature we have some rather awkward issues in drawing lines in the sand and settling on what goes where. If you take any two books, no matter how similar they are and how easily you can come up with a reason to group the two together you can have someone else come along and find some label or reason to split them apart in some kind of subgroup.


However, being able to split a novel off into a different subgroup from other similar novels does not diminish its value or potential as a novel.


Fantasy is not an easy thing to define, and it can become rather fuzzy. This is especially true when you set it beside similar genres and try to draw 'logical boxes' around them. For example there are very strong and compelling arguments that Star Wars is Fantasy rather than Science Fiction, but that then depends on how specifically you define Science Fiction.

The common definition of High Fantasy tends to be the one most are familiar with. Lots of magic in a world, lots of impact from magic, etc. But Magic in and of itself is not the defining element of Fantasy in general. Having a lower level of magic in a fantasy world does not diminish the elements of Fantasy, just lowers the involvement of magic, and this gives us a sliding scale that is our magical impact on a story's fantasy.

This leads us towards the slightly less well known "Low Fantasy", where magic has a lowered impact as you slide down along the scale all the way to the point that there simply isn't any magic, but you're still on that sliding scale.


The debate on what other metrics we might measure a story's "fantasy" qualifiers seems best left as another and more focused question.

  • would it be right to classify George R. R. Martin's ASOFAI as 'low fantasy'? Or am I heading for the bushes? – user42083 Nov 13 at 21:38
  • @ChagatNahn I need to rewrite my answer a bit, as I managed to drift things away from a 'clear and common' definition, but didn't make this overly clear. Possibly because a clear and common definition on something like this isn't really a thing? Martin typically falls to High Fantasy for one reason or another, depending on which definition you're embracing. [If you embrace Low/High Fantasy as a scale, then he is probably near the middle.] - I'll try to get a revised answer up sometime tonight. – TheLuckless Nov 14 at 0:06
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    Stop the press. Do you mean there can't be a mix of "Science Fiction" and "Fantasy" genres? What about the RPG game Shadowrun and its novels? Dragons, Elves, Wizards, Robots, Internet Viruses & Machine Guns. I have to disagree with you. maybe Star Wars also falls in both genres. – Mindwin Nov 14 at 12:31
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    @theluckless - Do tell great stories. Pretty please. I really don't care what they are about so long they are great. – Mindwin Nov 14 at 16:46
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    People consider Tolkien's Legendarium 'High Fantasy'. But it's not as much magic as one might like to believe. He himself was never quite comfortable with the idea. Now maybe magic is part of it but I wouldn't say that lacking it wouldn't be High Fantasy. You do point out though that magic isn't a defining factor and that's absolutely correct. – Pryftan Nov 15 at 18:31
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I believe low fantasy can encompass stories which have no magic.

In some examples I've seen of low fantasy there is no magic but the setting in which it takes place is an entirely fictional world complete with fictional religious and belief systems. For example one of my favorite authors David Gemmell in his book Legend, the book takes place in an entirely fictional land, there are whispers of mysticism spread throughout the novel but no magic takes place leaving room for a reader to wonder if their really is magic in his world or if instead its all hearsay. I have no doubt that the world Gemmell created falls under fantasy despite not having any magic take place because of how different the world is from ours.

To contrast some similar genres:

  • fiction genres seem to typically take place within the real world but the events that transpire are not linked to historical events in any way and typically does not contain magic
  • alternate history genres typically take place within the real world and alter details of a known historical event or period
  • urban fantasy genres typically take place in a more contemporary setting and may contain magic
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There is also a genre called "Science Fantasy", also "Hard Fantasy" (borrowing from "Hard Science Fiction", which doesn't break any laws of physics) and of course just plain "Science Fiction".

The genres with "Fantasy" in the name, even without magic, may have for example Dragons, not as magical creatures but just creatures. They may have other species normally considered magical, which are not: Elves, for example, or Trolls. IRL Homo Sapiens lived alongside other species of humanoids, like Neandertals, which may actually be an old basis for "Trolls". Also next to smaller humanoid species (not even counting the rest of our ape family).

A Fantasy setting doesn't have to demand any magic.

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Perhaps if you need a term, try "magical realism"?

98% like our world, but that little difference is what makes it fantasy...

  • whether it's if subways will sometimes take you sideways to a different realm or unexpected country,
  • or the Byzantine Empire stayed pagan,
  • or if whenever Bob reads a book, all other copies of it are forever deleted, but he doesn't know this effect,
  • or far more people are blind than in our world, so the technology is less screen-based...
  • If anyone develops these bunnies into a full story or whatever, please send me a link! – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 14 at 15:27
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Fantasy isn't defined only by magic.

I was a fan of fantasy literature for many years before coming across anyone trying to define "fantasy" as "stuff involving magic", which I've never really understood. For me, being set in an alternate world (including a fictional world-within-a-world like Harry Potter or Artemis Fowl) was always a bigger fantasy indicator than the involvement of magic. Of course that's not a perfect indicator either. The boundaries of any genre are fuzzy and hard to define, science fiction and fantasy perhaps more than most. (We know this over at the Science Fiction & Fantasy SE, where we don't even try to nail down a firm definition of the genre(s) and essentially adopt an "I know it when I see it" approach.)

But it may depend on exactly how you define "magic". For example, does the appearance of a ghost count as magic? (Is Shakespeare's Hamlet fantasy?) Does a prophetic dream which comes true count as magic? (Those happen in real life too.)

  • My go-to example of "fantasy without magic" would be the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, at least assuming that your answer to the two questions above is no.
  • Another good example would be some of the stories of Borges, many of which are surely wacky enough to count as "fantasy" without involving anything that could be described as magic. "The Library of Babel" is a short story describing a possibly infinite library containing books with every possible combination of characters, meaningful or not. That doesn't require any magic, but I'd sure as hell call it fantasy.

Even the Great White Whale of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings, has very very little magic involved. The only magic that's really important to the plot is the nature of the One Ring itself; most of the story is about ordinary people, unaugmented by magical powers, struggling to achieve great deeds. But that's very little magic rather than none, and there's more in the backstory that lays out Tolkien's legendarium in more depth.

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Sorry, I don't have answers for you, only more questions and a few thoughts:

I think it doesn't have to be a waste of time, it can still be a really cool story
- Game of Thrones was a hit TV series and almost the complete first season works without any magic.

Another question would be how big the audience for such a story would be. I think fantasy fans love discovering new fantastic magic details and magic/fantasy elements might support the escapism while historic novel fans prefer a setting in the real world (not a world like the middle ages).

Why did you decide for this format? Did you want to create exactly these cultures and tell this story or do you simply have not enough knowledge yet to base it in a real historic setting? Respectively: Why should the user decide to read your story, instead of fantasy with some magical eye candy or a "real" historic novel - what arguments speak in favour of your story?

Fictional settings of course have one big advantage (at least from my personal experience as a reader/audience): The reader is more open to empathize with protagonists and antagonists. For example, if I watch a story about an outsider who finally gets acceptance in the Nazi party, as a reader I instantly draw back from that character, thinking he now fell for the dark side. Even if at that point no war and no holocaust have taken place (and yes, I know that the Nazis were bad enough even before that) the reader keeps that in mind. If you want your reader to feel with your protagonist/antagonist, maybe let him experience the sheer joy about being accepted into a group for the first time, it could be easier and lighter if you have a fictional world, a bit like a fable.
Amazon's Carnival Row does exactly that, while on the other hand making use of fantasy to make things more interesting.

If you would still call it fantasy, I don't know.
There actually are similar borderline cases.
For example how would you define a wild West movie? The Dark Valley is a movie about a mysterious lone rider, arriving at a remote village of log cabins one day in the late 18th century, driven by vengeance against the outlaws that oppress the village. Only the story takes place in the mountains of Austria, not in the wild West. (On the other hand it is still realistically depicted in its historic era, so not a completely made up world).

I myself actually work on building a post apocalyptic world, which feels like a high fantasy story, just withoug magic. Instead of ancient powerful magic elven weapons there are highly effective weapon relics of the old world, that can't be copied by the primitive means of the post apocalyptic world, instead of "kingdoms" there are groups of survivors who formed own cultures over decades...

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    Well, that put things into perspective. – user42083 Nov 14 at 21:10
  • @ChagatNahn edited a little bit becaue I'm a crazy perfectionist :) – user42097 Nov 14 at 21:57
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One might characterize most fiction in which people find true love or amazing success and live happily ever after as "fantasy" without the plot having "magic."

  • What if love is 'the magic'? – user42083 Nov 15 at 14:31
  • Exactly. It seems that a lot of life is magic. – user8356 Nov 15 at 14:33
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You could say that something is fantasy because laws of science are ignored, like the conservation of momentum, without being seemingly science based, like sci-fi. You could avoid explaining these aspects as magic.

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In writing you have fiction and non-fiction. Under fiction, you have fantasy and reality. Reality is a story that could conceivably happen in our world/reality. Fantasy is anything that couldn't or hasn't happened. Within fantasy, you have SciFi, Magical, Alternate reality, etc. Within reality, you have mysteries, westerns, romance, etc. To me, the true genre bender is horror. Some people believe in ghosts, monsters, demons, etc. and other don't. I suppose the same could be said for aliens. All that to say, don't try to categorize your story so much as try to tell your own unique story. Let the bookstores and publishers decide where to put it for the best marketing.

So yes, your story would be fantasy as long as there is something about your world that makes it not ours. New races, different life span, strange physics, anything is possible and without magic being required.

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