Isn’t it true? In every science fiction novel, there’s starships, cold metal, and laser blasters? And in every fantasy novel, there’s magic and trees and elves? Aaaaand orcs. (didn’t forget ya rascally man-flesh eaters)
But is it really that simple? Sorry, but there’s more to it. So what are the 3 differences between sci-fi and fantasy and why should these differences matter to you as a precious elven tree lord of a writer?
1. The Goal
To quote Orson again (we’re on a roll here):
The basis of every awesome science fiction story is the “what if…” debate. The “what if…” debate pits humanity (or aliens) against alien forces. Science fiction addresses an existing problem and explores solutions by saying “what if…”
Let’s take Star Trek for instance. Star Trek explores the fascinating idea of human beings (and aliens alike) one day being capable of interstellar exploration. The “what if…” question, however, is renewed each episode.
For instance, in The Devil in the Dark, the crew is attacked by a seemingly hostile monster. Through Spock, we learn this creature isn’t hostile, but a mother desperate to protect its young against attack from the crew. The “what if…” question for this episode was, “what if something we do not understand isn’t a monster, but very much like us instead?”
Although science fiction, this series moved viewers to acknowledge the problems facing humanity and how they could overcome those problems.
So, then, what is the goal of the fantasy genre?
Fantasy takes the “what if…” debate in a very different light. The “what if…” debate pits our world against a world that could be. The writer considers new, exciting worlds that exist beyond our own and why they are better than the one we live in now. The fantasy genre addresses limitations in our world and explores opportunities in a new one.
For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien challenged the limitations in our world by inventing Middle Earth- a world full of elves and trolls and hobbits and second breakfast. Mmmm yes, the magic of second breakfast.
In this world, Tolkien built races (and languages) far superior to humans but involved the reader in the story by including a human race. When a human race is included in a fantasy story, it allows for relatability. It’s also a pretty obvious comparison of our world against the writer’s far more unicorn-blessed one.
In fantasy, excellent worldbuilding invites the reader to leave their world and escape to a far better one.
2. The Characters
Aight. It’s about to get all shallow up in here. It’s time to talk about the stuff your reader reallllllyyyy wants to see in your book: the character types specific to each genre.
Science Fiction deals with a wide array of alien races, beings, droids, and creatures that are unlike anything seen in our world. But there are limitations, in a sense…
You wouldn’t ever see C-3PO walking around Mordor, right? (Mainly because he’d melt in the lava of Mount Doom in a hot second) but more seriously, because we know Middle Earth does not deal with any futuristic technologies. So droids, astromechs or other robot characters would neeeeverrrr be found there.
Sci-fi readers expect characters that either deal with futuristic technologies or are made of futuristic technologies. Jedis– deal with futuristic technologies. R2-D2– made of futuristic technologies. Of course, not every character is strictly either, but again, ask yourself if your character would be found playing harps with elves, and if so, rethink your character’s make-up.
Fantasy, on the other hand, deals with a wide array of “un-advanced” creatures. Fantasy creatures cannot be made of or exist in a realm where futuristic technologies exist. That is the one and only rule, bromigo.
Fantasy readers expect intriguing characters who identify with the region, race, or nation they herald from. Hobbits, for instance, don’t daydream about the gold to be found under the earth, and Dwarves do not envy the intricate and delicate dining habits of Elves.
3. The Setting
The sci-fi setting is almost always in space, in the future. A science fiction story can hold its setting on earth if earth unexpectedly comes face to face with futuristic technologies or alien beings in an unnerving way.
Science fiction deals with spaceships, spaceports, and planets– and your readers will be expecting these in your work of fiction!
The fantasy setting is almost always in a different world, in the past. The past can be medieval, or it could be ancient. Fantasy settings often deal with or exist through magic. Sometimes fantasy stories deal with alternate worlds as well. In fact, some of the greatest fantasy stories involve a human stumbling across a bit of magic that leads him to an alternate world right under his very nose.
Fantasy deals with magical, mythical creatures, regions, and places– and your readers will be expecting these things in your work of fiction!
Understanding these differences will help you create a clarified genre which satisfies your reader. Your reader looks for specific identifying marks of a science fiction or fantasy novel, and to not have these marks in your book is to ask for your book to be thrown against a wall. And let’s not dent your wall. Or your book, for that matter!
So now what does unite these two genres?
(the One Ring, obviously)
War, famine, racism, government, family struggles, greed, exploitation- you name it. We identify with these problems and each genre addresses one or more of these in their own unique light.
Are you on the cusp of choosing one of these two genres to write in? Are you leaning toward the sci-fi or the fantasy genre? Do me a favor, friend, and cast your final vote in the comments section below. Tell me which genre you prefer to write and why. I’d love to hear where your vote stands!