Magic, above all, is what defines the fantasy genre. From witches and sorcerers to fractures in time, the fantastical themes of fantasy stem from the unknown, the unknowable, and the mysterious. Mix magic well with a classic story of good and evil, the innocence of childhood, or a talking flock of birds, and you'll find a perfect fantasy story in your hands.
Still, the realm of fantasy covers many more bases than those - practically anything your mind can conjure fits into fantasy, and the weirder it is, the better. What follow are the ten elements most common to popular, successful fantasy fiction.
Fantasy literature is stereotypically filled with medieval characters and themes: knights on horseback, royal families (members of which may or may not be in need of rescue), dungeons, middle-age dress, and castles. The weapons, when non-magical, are usually archaic: swords, longbows and slingshots.
Motifs like these are so common because the most popular, classic fantasy stories of the English-speaking western world not only take place, but were written, hundreds of years ago. Robin Hood and King Arthur's tales are practically ancient classics that are undoubtedly still making contributions to the collective unconscious. Shakespeare helped too, with his three witches of 'Macbeth' and the creatures of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'
Partially due to fantasy's relationship with times of old, religions, especially Catholicism and old Christian themes, play a strong role in shaping fantasy stories. In their day, kings were backed by the public acknowledgment that they were chosen by God; knights, given their positions by kings, were doing God's work. Sometimes, angels would even step in to give advice. In such a context, all heroes of a story were aligned with God.
Likewise, villains are often considered to be aligned with Satan. The assumed evil nature of witches (and the power of the pentagram) can be credited to the old church's vilification of those who opposed it. Demons of all sorts stem conceptually from hell and the devil. Satan doesn't have to be named specifically in a fantasy story for its demons to owe their popularity as villains to him.
The Good-Evil Divide
God and Satan are the ultimate components of the fight between good and evil. Fantasy often uses the notion that pure goodness and pure evil are always easy to differentiate between, and that there's no good reason not to root for the obvious good guys.
While much of current fantasy has left religious names in the dust, the themes carry on. A very common trait of fantasy is to make an epic good-evil fight accessible to the moral inclinations of every single reader.
A fantasy story without at least a subtle form of magic is hard to find. It's practically a requirement in the fantasy genre.
Magic can come in many forms, from the mysterious powers of gods and goddesses, to the earth-moving forces of a sorcerer's might, to the sprite with the ability to change the colors of the leaves in the fall. Some magic happens unguided by any characters, and some is directly produced by them.
Magic can do any number of things. It can build and disassemble, create and destroy; it harnesses the elements of wind, water, fire, and electricity to be used as weapons; it can cause shape-shifting, teleportation, levitation, telepathy, corpse reanimation, and precognition. It can even warp time.
While having so many magical options, fantasy stories still remain cohesive - that is, regardless of what is true in the real world, every well-crafted fantasy world has 'natural,' logical rules which shape and are obeyed by its magical elements. This is what keeps a magical fantasy story easy to follow.
Real and Mythical Creatures
A great deal of fantasy, especially that written for children, has talking animals; some even concerns talking animals exclusively. Cats, dogs, elephants, and squirrels are often personified in stories, especially allegorical ones. Their character traits often correspond to the human personalities the animals commonly remind us of.
The fun doesn't stop there. Mythical animals of all sorts pop up in fantasy literature, from the popular unicorn, troll and fire-breathing dragon to the less popular grindylow and mope. More often than not, the unreal creatures in fantasy stories aren't created by the author, but pulled from numerous historical sources of mythology, often with slight changes to differentiate them from common conceptions.
Fantasy literature is required to have one or more protagonists, or heroes. The heroes are usually called (by a dream, a king's demand, or a message) to complete a quest that involves travel - protect a ring, defeat an evil overlord in a distant land, rescue a princess - and the plot follows the protagonists as they complete it.
This physical, or external, quest is often accompanied by a quest of another sort: a journey into the internal world. Heroes can start out as anti-heroes, good people who have made big mistakes, and a quest for repentance, strength and knowledge is just what the hero needs to redeem herself. Often, this quest is successfully finished just before, or just as, the hero completes the external quest.
For example, the princess can only be saved if the hero learns to love, or the evil ruler will only be brought to justice once the hero achieves a level of courageous enlightenment. A true hero doesn't just conquer the evils of the external world, but the evils of the internal world as well.
As more and more members of humanity moved from the country to the city, so did the fantasy story, beginning in the nineteen-twenties and flowering into popularity much later on. Modern urban fantasy has deforested the haunted marsh and moved the ghosts to the sewers and the bedroom closet. In the nineteen eighties, urban fantasy became a full-fledged sub-genre with John Crowley, Matt Ruff, and Emma Bull at the helm of the movement.
Urban fantasy didn't only rear its head in literature, but on the big screen: 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'The Crow' exemplify the sub-genre well.
While usually reserved for horror stories, spooky, gory, and dark themes have wormed their way into fantasy in an influential way. The themes of dark fantasy are that of Gothic horror, integrated with swords and magic. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles are the most familiar residents of this genre. Edgar Allan Poe, too, wrote his share of dark fantasy.
Although fantasy doesn't do this as often as science fiction does, it can be employed to make socio-political commentary. Famous leaders, or their personality types, can be parodied in fantasy stories in ways that integrate well into their plots. So can historical political movements and uprisings. Terry Pratchett does this successfully, with great humor, in his lengthy and popular Discworld series.
The Role of Children
Children are huge consumers of fantasy, and much of modern fantasy employs children as heroes. The trend is exemplified in fairy tales, Disney films, and popular stories. In children's fantasy, anything goes: plants eat dirty socks, cats become private investigators, and boys become wizards. That isn't to say that all the fantasy marketed to children is for children alone: adults can have just as much fun reading aloud at bedtime as their kids do.