by Terry

You may recall how I recently mentioned attending a writing seminar and listening to a discussion panel on Contemporary Fantasy.  The participants were identified as representative authors of this genre and, yet, had great difficulty defining what it is.  We were forced to ask ourselves, if writers in the genre cannot adequately define it, how can we expect potential readers to figure it out?  The experience led to our own quest to better characterize Contemporary Fantasy and the creative opportunity it offers.  So, after a great deal of contemplation, Judy and I have developed some thoughts to share with you on this subject.

Contemporary Fiction is a super genre that includes all standard fiction stories that are set in the real world.  It is very big and, in a way, can be compared to a department store.  Shoppers choose to patronize a department store based on the nature of its departments, such as clothing, house wares, sporting goods, toys, hardware and so on.  Just as a department store is defined by the various departments it offers, so the Contemporary Fiction genre is defined by its subgenres, which are often thought of as genres in their own right.  Readers can choose books and stories to read from a long list of subgenres, including romance, mystery, thriller, adventure, young adult, historical fiction and many others.

Contemporary Fantasy combines the vast Contemporary Fiction super genre with Science Fiction/Fantasy.  By definition, therefore, this genre is conceptually as large as Contemporary Fiction.  However, when readers are asked what Contemporary Fantasy has to offer besides Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy subgenres, their eyes tend to glaze over.  They simply do not have a wealth of subgenres to help them recognize the treasures that Contemporary Fantasy contains.  In an effort to remedy that, let us therefore propose that three new and well-defined subgenres be created.  We will call these new subgenres Gateway Fantasy, Fantastic Encounter and Fantastic Intruder.

Gateway Fantasy
Gateway Fantasy stories create a significant magical world that somehow interfaces with our own, usually by means of a gateway or portal between the real and supernatural.  In the Harry Potter series, for example, there are brick passageways at the Leaky Caldron and Platform 9-3/4.  The wardrobe in the Narnia series is another such gateway, as is the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.  While Gateway Fantasy stories tend to begin and end in the real world, the main action takes place in the magical world.

The primary character is a human (or group of humans), who having passed through the gateway, finds himself an alien in a magical world, place or time much different from his own.  This transition makes it possible for the reader to partake in the same wonder of discovery experienced by the main character as he encounters all sorts of new things.  Common examples of Gateway Fantasy from the movies include:

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Harry Potter
Galaxy Quest
Night at the Museum
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Army of Darkness
Babe
Honey, I Shrank the Kids
Chronicles of Narnia
Alice in Wonderland

Fantastic Encounter
Stories in the Fantastic Encounter subgenre typically describe how a human main character responds to an encounter with the supernatural.  In direct contrast to Gateway fantasy, most Fantastic Encounter action takes place in the real world.  The human character may be right at home, but something is clearly out of whack.  In a setting that is otherwise perfectly realistic and normal, very strange things happen.

This subgenre, perhaps, offers authors the greatest overall potential for pure creativity and readers the greatest opportunities for a great ride.  From the movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the obvious example, but consider the originality and wide variety that is found in the following list:

Groundhog Day
Jumanji
Meet Joe Black
The Green Mile
ET, the Extra Terrestrial
The Legend of Bagger Vance
The Family Man
The Lake House
Holes
It's a Wonderful Life
Starman
Forever Young
Cacoon
The Birds
The Indiana Jones series
Terminator
The Preacher's Wife
Jaws

Fantastic Intruder
Fantastic Intruder stories focus on a character with magical or supernatural abilities who has entered our world for some reason.  This category includes characters from a foreign, magical world, comic book-type superheroes/antiheroes and normal humans who have suddenly been magically changed.  Having supernatural abilities makes them either heroes or misfits and they are often considered intruders.  They must deal with this alienation as well as learn to cope with and master their differences.  Most of the story takes place in the real world, so they have to interact with normal people and determine how they will use their powers or abilities in reference to them.

This subgenre allows for the reader to vicariously experience a wide range of emotions as the intruder is forced to cope with his new life.  What forces oppose him?  Are those forces real or magical in nature?  Are normal humans friends or enemies?  Is he persecuted or idolized for being different?  What happens if he falls in love with a human or sees others grow old while he remains immortal?

Fantastic Intruder is the subgenre for readers who love latching onto a favorite character and going along for the ride.  Once the character is established and gains a fan base, the author can create a series, putting the character up against a gauntlet of different foes and challenges and readers will keep coming back for more.  Note how the following example movie list has its share of drama, inner conflict and feelings of alienation, all tempered with the exhilarations of domination.  Also note how these stories can be the settings for some great humor.

The Sixth Sense
Hancock
Ghost
Highlander
Tuck Everlasting
Harvey
Enchanted
The Invisible Man
Bruce Almighty
Superman
Spiderman
The Hulk
Forever Young
Heart and Souls
Practical Magic
Unbreakable

While our list does not cover all the potential for Contemporary Fantasy subgenres, it does provide some specific definition and structure and certainly helps us visualize some of the possibilities.

Why are we so drawn to Contemporary Fantasy and even claim it as our favorite genre?  Because we love the juxtaposition of what is normal with what is bizarre.  In Contemporary Fantasy, there is always a character, with whom we lowly mortals can relate, who gets thrust into fantastical, incredible, unpredictable, hitherto-unencountered situations which we can experience through his eyes.  That unsettling mixture stirs up a recipe for endless possibilities of imaginative delight, a perfect concoction for enjoyment.  We encourage more works to be written in this wonderful genre and more read.  Be you writer or reader, do yourself a favor and serve up some Contemporary Fantasy today!  Bon Appetit!

T.