Genre generalizations: is all fantasy power fantasy?

I don’t know enough fantasy outside videogames to have an informed opinion on this, but is all* fantasy power fantasy? Isn’t the point of fantasy to present a fantastical world – distinct from the real world for the presence of magic, and evil creatures, and exotic races and locations – and to then present a powerful hero who can influence and affect that world? And is it fair to describe this as power fantasy?

Within my limited experience with fantasy, I can think of a couple of exceptions. Game of Thrones veered towards “historical horror”, but as it’s focusing more and more on Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington as power fantasy heroes, I’m not sure it’s holding out very well as an exception to the rule. Tolkien, of course, used his fantasy setting to tell a story about personal responsibility, but I would argue Tolkien was working from folklore, and that the fantasy genre would become something very different by shifting focus from the Frodos to the Aragorns. But, again, I’m out of my element with all this.

So am I off-base with this generalization?


* Well, most, but most enough to just say “all” because there are so few exceptions.

You are doing it wrong. :)

Well, honestly, I think you are pigeon-holing the genre thematically. Plots and characters are myriad in Fantasy, as in Science Fiction. What makes it “fantasy” are the environment and certain , say, cosmological aspects to the world it takes place in.

There is nothing in terms of plot or character archetype that makes a novel or work not be fantasy. Why couldn’t a fantasy story involve a wizened old Mage who is a “detective” and the story is a mystery? Same goes for Sci Fi. Its more a matter of setting than a matter of hero prototype or plot selections.

But Tom’s got a point, for the most part you just get the same story told and re-told over and over - bad guy wants to rule the world, or destroy the world, or take over and then destroy the world. Plucky protagonist faces difficulties before learning that the power was within him all along, faces down bad guy, everybody goes back home to the Shire.

I imagine there could be stories about a wizard detective, but how many of those have you read?

Point me to it!

I haven’t read any fantasy since I was young, but that sounds pretty good.

I think a better version of this question might be “is all popular fiction (as opposed to literary fiction) power fantasy?”

Google and find (I am doing Board Game Art Challenge now!).

But seriously, that is true, but Tom said “all Fantasy” not “the vast majority of Fantasy”, or some other qualifier.

Most Sci Fi is about dudes in Space Fighters. But Caves of Steel is a detective story with a Human and Robot Partner.

Bingo! Or “Is the vast majority of popular fiction…”

Caves of Steel is science fiction, outside the scope of this discussion.

Google One “fantasy Mystery Story” Hit #2:

Google 2 “Fantasy Detective story”, Hit #1

That is All.

(Enjoy @Giles_Habibula)

A lot of genre fiction is tropey and formulaic. This is just as true for things like horror and mystery novels as it is for fantasy or indeed SF. Sometimes it has stuff that recommends it beyond that, sometimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean all of it is.

For an example of fantasy that is IMO pretty goddamn far from a power fantasy, I’d recommend the Long Price Quartet, by Daniel Abraham (one half of the James S.A. Corey pen name that do the Expanse SF novels).

Ha ha, that list has a Sookie Stackhouse book on it. Guess if you stick a vampire of werewolf in the book it’s fantasy. Kind of surprised I didn’t find The Name of the Rose on there, with the liberties it takes with history.

Liberties, but it’s solidly Historical Fiction (not fantasy). Eco’s bizarre (yet popular) musings regarding political ideologies and modern history are far more fantastical.

Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, yes. Which has way, WAY outsold traditional medieval-type fantasy stories lately.

FWIW, I love the Dresden Files but it’s not a series about classical Conan Doyle type mysteries (closer to noir, but not as bleak), and it’s absolutely a power fantasy.

It also matter if you’re just talking American fiction. Russian fantasy and science fiction tend to be appropriately bleak.

For instance, the Night Watch series, by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, could reasonable be called a novel about disempowerment. The entire series is about two warring magical factions frozen in bureaucratic gridlock, and the main protagonist is a low level functionary who gradually becomes more powerful, only to continue to be almost entirely ineffective in what he intends to do.

It may have elements, but foremost they are mysteries.

Like I said above, it’s just an example, my whole “Wizard Detective”.

Not really. Early on, sure, there’s a strong mystery throughline, but that hasn’t really been the focus of the series in like ten books.

You don’t have to fantasy to have good guys and bad guys. You can find that in any thriller, monster or horror flick too.

I always thought of Sci-Fi / Fantasy as world building, and the creator uses characters and plots to essentially sell that world, make it believable. Outside that unique world, it’s a lot like everything else, where some are power fantasies and some are not.

Good enough for my purposes. I was merely trying to make the point that it ain’t all power fantasy. :)

Agree completely Nesrie. It’s about the world and the setting. Not the storyline.

I’m not talking about a complete absence of conflict, more like the persistence of tropes. And I tend to think that power fantasy is one of the more prevalent ones in the fantasy genre. I guess I felt it was obvious enough not to require saying so but certainly there are exceptions.

I mean, the horror genre definitely has its fair share of tropes, but power fantasy isn’t one of them. It would be antithetical to the whole concept, can’t really be scared of you have the power.