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