What tends to bind all these subgenres together is the existence of magic.
According to Wikipedia, "Magic or sorcery is the use of rituals, symbols, actions, gestures, and language with the aim of exploiting supernatural forces."
The American Heritage Dictionary is more detailed. Its three-part definition is:
Magic: 1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural. 2. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or to control events in nature. 3. Sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment; the use of premeditated deception or concealed equipment to produce baffling effects. From Persian magos, or "priest."Writing-World has a comprehensive list of magic types and magic users here. For subjects like the difference between a sorcerer and an enchanter, it's a good source. It shows how diverse authors' conceptions of magic and magical people have been over the years.
Magic, as defined here, is understandably a cornerstone of almost all fantasy fiction. From some of the earliest modern fantasy, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice books, through to 20th-century classics like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, all the way up to more recent canon entries, there's magic.
Whether magic is strictly necessary for fantasy is debatable.
In my upcoming fantasy series, set in a fantastical version of early modern Central Europe,* I've gone the Gormenghast route by having a fantasy setting without the usually accompanying magic. There, the then-nascent tropes hadn't been truly codified, so it's tough to say they were ever inverted. I haven't gone quite so far.
What I've done instead is to embrace mysticism. There won't be a single wizard casting a single fireball, although more realistic innovations may appear. What there will be instead will be meditation, fortune-telling, (possible) mind-reading, and communication with the dead. How they aren't magical in this setting is a technical distinction: there's no "ritual, symbol, action, gesture or language", only a sometimes-experienced innate ability.
Back to the American Heritage Dictionary (same link as above) - it describes mysticism as
Mysticism: 1. a. A spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or trancelike contemplation. b. the experience of such communion, as described by mystics. 2. Any belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension but central to being and directly accessible by intuition. 3. confused and groundless speculation; superstitious self-delusion. From Greek mustes, or "initiate" [in Mysteries] from muein, meaning "to keep mouth closed."My markedly areligious setting works in this context. Characters seek out spiritual experiences through being able to communicate with the dead, through raking local populations to find those who can, and through constantly questioning what goes on beyond the grave - and in each others' minds. "Deep meditation or trancelike contemplation" describes everything beyond this world they do.
This mystical focus doesn't deviate from the core of fantasy. If it happened in a contemporary urban setting, it might... but then, it could simply be considered speculative or "weird" fiction. In a traditional-ish high fantasy setting, moving the focus away from wizardry toward mind-reading allows an author, in this case me, to do two things:
- Engage the political, social and economic possibilities created by the historical civilizations upon which fantasy worlds are based, introducing aspects of alternate history without adding too many topics to the book
- Move the special forces away from the tangible (fire, water, lightning, ice, and so on) toward the intangible (the mind, thoughts, emotions, and so on), which, in turn, accomplishes two things:
- Allows me to make any horror aspects more Lovecraftian, and also to make it easier for characters to lie about what they see
- Makes physical weapons more powerful! Removing the Harry Potter-style technological backwardness among wizards because of their over-reliance on magic allows for technological progress in construction, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, the military, and in every other way
The addition of mysticism gives the characters an ingrained belief system that lets me make them spiritual without having to invent a fantastical church. It also makes the horror elements more realistic. Zombies and vampires have devolved to the point of being kitsch, but the human mind can always be terrifying.
The removal of magic is addition by subtraction, which is where I become a fantasy novel heretic. By limiting characters to non-magical means of building civilizations and destroying each other on the battlefield, I can make inventions from the tractor to the dip pen to the needle gun matter more to the world. To state the obvious, a gun is a lot more important when you don't have a wand that shoots fire.