There's no question that there's overlap and this question is tough. From one perspective all fiction is fantasy since it begins with a set of assumptions that are most likely of appeal to the author.

I've recently been trying to make lists of "fantasy movies" or "fantasy books" with the aim of writing online reviews. I keep finding myself hitting a brick wall when it comes to a clear definition.

Here's my attempt:

Fantasy focuses more on magic and imagination than technology and rational explanation (fantasy is not science fiction) Fantasy focuses more on heroes and struggles rather than dread and overwhelming fear (fantasy is different than horror) Pure fantasy is not about any element in the story but about the attitude of the story -- such as wonder, beauty, supernatural forces, and especially a heroic journey. What do people think? Is there an agreed upon definition of fantasy? How do we determine when a movie or book is fantasy as opposed to horror or science fiction?

  • 1
    For what it's worth, we have lots of questions tagged horror, so we seem to treat that genre like it's a subset of speculative fiction. On the other hand, I feel like straight-up adventure stories are off-topic, unless they can also be classified as sci-fi or fantasy. It's all clear as mud.
    – Molag Bal
    May 6, 2016 at 20:53
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    Fantasy: impossible persons, places, things, or happenings, without pseudoscientific explanations. Science fiction: The same, with pseudoscientific explanations. Hard science fiction: science fiction in which some bit is worked out according to real science, e.g., an orbit is calculated. "Horror", "adventure", "humor" etc. are plotted on a different axis.
    – user14111
    May 7, 2016 at 1:33
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    Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
    – user31178
    May 7, 2016 at 6:06
  • @CreationEdge Caught in a landslide No escape from reality May 7, 2016 at 11:30

1 Answer 1


This is probably the most intractable problem in all of speculative fiction (the super-genre encompassing science fiction, fantasy, and such).

One of the problems in defining "fantasy" is where to draw the line on what is "magical". There are some people who consider any form of psionics to be "magic" and any work containing them is automatically fantasy (in their opinion). Same is true with faster than light travel (no, I'm not kidding).

And just to make it even harder, there are works like the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews - a modern fantasy series set in the future and containing advanced technology. There are even works set in the future, containing advanced technology that are considered to be NON-science-fiction by some (because they aren't written in an SF style or something like that).

So there will never be any universal agreement on definitions for any of these genres, and especially not on what genre many works will fall into.

Generally speaking, I would tend to agree that using style as a guideline would work for many, but probably not most, people.

For the most part though, I think people focus on story elements. A story that contains any "fantastic" element (magic, supernatural creatures, beings, or events, etc) is fantasy. A story that contains any "science fictiony" element (the future, time travel, technology in advance of current bleeding edge, aliens, some psionics, etc) is science fiction. Horror is trickier since it must have a supernatural element to be on-topic for this site. I wouldn't want to try "adventure".

Notice that I did not try to define which exact elements belong to which genres, but stuck to rather generic definitions that most people would agree with, as long as they get to draw the lines (even if only in their own thoughts).

  • Thanks very much for your comments. I agree with your thinking and perhaps, the best we can do is to say that any store that contains "fantastic elements" is fantasy, May 6, 2016 at 18:18

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