18 April 2012

A Taxonomy of Fantasy

This weekend I’ll be at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ annual New England conference, this year in Springfield (Seuss Country), Massachusetts. I’ll be part of a panel on independent editors and the future of publishing, will teach a workshop on “Defining the Borders of Reality,” and may give away some door prizes.

“Defining the Borders of Reality” is really about fantasy literature, and I’m doing my usual thing of categorizing and defining types. In this I’m guided by such scholars as Farah Mendelsohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy, but I’ve ended up with my own system and labels.

To begin with, I call fantasy literature a “mode,” not a “genre.” My definition of “genres” involves reader expectations for plot while “modes” are defined mainly by setting, including the level of coincidence, action, and emotional reaction that characters of that world accept. Thus, in the phrase “paranormal romance,” the first word indicates the fantasy mode while the second defines a genre demanding certain plot points. Stories from many genres can be told in the fantasy mode. Conversely, a genre like mystery or romance can be told in the realistic, fantastic, historical, melodramatic, or farcical mode.

And then there are my labels for types of fantasy.

Immersion Fantasy. These stories take place entirely in a fantastic world where the laws of physics, mortality, biology, and other aspects of the universe we know don’t apply. Within immersion fantasy, there are many approaches: from “high fantasy” to “magical realism,” from traditionally rooted fairy tales to entirely new cosmologies.

Portal Fantasy. Protagonists travel from an ordinary, recognizable, and unmagical world into a magical one. The plot usually involves getting back home, often after setting things right in the other place. As Mendelsohn points out, portal fantasies are usually quest stories.

Intrusion Fantasy. Something magical enters the ordinary world, and usually has to be forced back, helped back, or experienced and declined. The world typically ends much as it was when the story begins, but the protagonists have learned a valuable lesson about life.

Shadow Fantasy. A world very much like the readers’ own turns out to have magical people or creatures hiding within it. These stories often revolve around protecting those creatures, or protecting oneself from them.

Dimension Fantasy. A world very much like the readers’ own turns out to have pervasive magical layers and forces that most people never perceive. The typical protagonist turns out to have some special aptitude or role in the magical dimension. The universe turns out to be a much bigger, scarier place.

Alternate-Life Fantasy. Through time travel, body-switching, or some other means, protagonists get a chance to view how their lives might be different. These books are usually about, well, learning how life can be different.

Have I left anything out?


ericshanower said...

Where would you fit the Freddy the Pig books and the Doctor Doolittle books? Shadow Fantasy? Maybe "Talking Animal Fantasy" needs its own category?

J. L. Bell said...

Another part of my talk will discuss the "talking animal spectrum" from Richard Scarry to Watership Down.

After thinking about Freddy the Pig, I decided those were a variation on the "shadow fantasy" model. Instead of the protagonist discovering the concealed magical society, the stories are set entirely within that society, with the protagonist who emerges (Freddy) trying to protect it from within.

I hadn't thought about classifying the Doctor Doolittle books, but think they may work more as science fiction than as fantasy. The good doctor has discovered a new level of knowledge and then discovers new species, but those discoveries are all supposed to be part of the familiar world. The stories play out as logical extensions of that new scientific knowledge, but are they hidden? Those books (and other science fiction based on the premise of new discoveries) are a sort of intrusion fantasy: something new coming into the world the readers know.