Four Categories of Fantastic

Today’s blog-browsing brought me to Farah Mandelsohn’s website. Farah has a book called Rhetorics of Fantasy, the introduction to which she has on her website. The part that interests me the most is her notion of ‘four categories within the fantastic’:

I argue that there are essentially four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal. These categories are determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world. In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic, in the intrusion fantasy the fantastic enters the fictional world, in the liminal fantasy the magic hovers in the corner of our eye, while the immersive fantasy allows us no escape. – Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mandelsohn

Farah dedicated a chapter to each of the four categories, as well as a section in the introduction. As only the introduction is on her website, that is all I have read. While I find her ideas intriguing, her language is a bit tough for me to swallow. Several times in my reading I had to stop and re-read, slower, to fully understand what the last sentence(s) meant. To help myself understand better, I paraphrased Farah’s explanations of each of the four categories:

  • Portal-quest: The protagonist starts in a non-fantastic world. The protagonist then finds, stumbles upon, or is shown some sort of portal, gate, wardrobe, etc, and can then enter the fantastic. The fantastic and non-fantastic are strictly separated and do not mingle, yet the protagonist can travel easily between the two. The protagonist explores and navigates the fantastic and the reader experiences the fantastic through the protagonist’s eyes. The fantastic does not become clearer, but in fact more mysterious as the protagonist learns more about it.
  • Intrusion: The protagonist starts in a non-fantastic world and the fantastic enters uninvited. The normal is orderly, whereas the fantastic is chaotic. The fantastic and non-fantastic are strictly separate. Other characters may not notice the fantastic, even when it acts upon them. The protagonist is often surprised, amazed, and ignorant in regards to the fantastic, and the reader is expected to share in this. The protagonist may wish to defeat and remove the fantastic intrusion.
  • Liminal: The fantastic exists, but the protagonist does not participate in it or does not experience it to a significant degree. The protagonist may meet or encounter the fantastic or a portal to the fantastic, but disregards it or otherwise treats it with indifference. Thus, the fantastic begins to creep in, but the protagonist treats it with a lack of surprise or awe. This seems like the hardest one to write, and I’m not terribly good at explaining it. I suggest you read Farah’s words for a better description of it.
  • Immersive: The fantastic exists and the protagonist is consumed in it. The fantastic is the norm to the protagonist, and thus, the protagonist is not surprised or awestruck by the fantastic. There is no comparison of the fantastic with the non-fantastic, as the fantastic is all the protagonist knows. The fantastic is often linked directly with the scientific fact of the world, so immersive fantasies borderline science-fiction. The fantastic is within the world itself, even if there is no magic actively driving the plot.

Already I can see my own novels fitting into these categories, sometimes more than one. Can you identify with using one category more than the others? Try classifying your fantasy into one of these categories. Did it help you learn anything about your plot or your characters?


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on September 9, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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