Science Fiction or Fantasy: What’s the Difference?

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Although science fiction and fantasy have many common tropes within their broad umbrellas, they differ dramatically. What I hope to do, in this week’s article, is highlight what I’ve noticed are the key factors of the two. That way you’ll be able to emphasize the more effective elements.

Granted, some things can be vague, and as I’ve seen in my own writing, it can be innovative – and just plain fun – to mix the two. But even that must be done deliberately. If it happens accidentally, your reader will be wondering if your character’s going to draw a light saber or a wand. Like any kind of writing, consistency is key, because it creates a sense of logic for your reader.

Okay, that’s a silly example, but you get the idea. Below, I’m sharing some admittedly hasty generalizations I’ve made about both genres. All of this, by the way, is populated by my own personal opinions. Read on for that here, as I excavate the molten cores of sci-fi and fantasy in the name of bringing your vision to life.

Technology vs. Magic

If you’ve read either of these genres, you’ll notice that the world building is usually centered on some kind of brute force. Science fiction is largely based on high-tech ships, weaponry, and even armor. Conversely, fantasy draws its power from something more vague, like magic. They function similarly, but are played out very differently in the sensory realm. The high-pitched energy of a light-speed rocket taking off should be portrayed differently than the warmth and glitter of pixie dust darkening asphalt.

Armies vs. Dynasties

Plot-wise, science fiction builds itself around wars and political power struggles. Fantasy can have this too, of course, but it always seems to have more of an emphasis on world building and family ties. This is the gray area, where both genres weave in and out of each other. So there’s no “wrong” answer – but it’s good to plan ahead how you want your story to move forward.

External vs. Internal

Tonally, I also think that characters undergo more external struggles in science fiction. Fantasy lends itself better to the more introspective situations. In this way, science fiction brings lots of clashes of clans and visceral struggles, while fantasy is a better place to insert coming-of-age tropes. By no means do you have to stick to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb to keep your genre consistent to what readers will expect.

Adventure vs. Slow-Burn

Want to open the book and be instantly thrown into a fight to the death? Sci-fi does that really well. But if you’re looking for more explanations and long-drawn out family drama, fantasy usually puts a greater emphasis on that. Pacing is a massive part of writing in general, and plays a role in the differentiation of these genres. But feel free to mix and match, trying different measures of the ingredients within these styles as well. For more help with fight scenes, read one of my recent articles HERE.

Human vs. Hybrid

Unless you’re diving into the alien race section of hard science fiction, your characters will be at least mostly human. On the flip side, fantasy usually blends in a host of hybrid animal characters with unique abilities and personalities. When magic is part of the equation, there really are no limits (except for the ones you build into your world). Craft your story around your characters any way you like, so long as it reads consistently.

These are the most noticeable tropes between science fiction and fantasy, but the more you read in both genres, the more you’ll notice too. The key with any kind of creative writing is to research by leisure reading in the relevant genres that you hope to emulate. That fuels you creatively, while providing an education about what the reader can (and should) expect. But as always, write what you want, and blend it all together if you so desire. Just give your reader something to grab onto so that things don’t become too conflicted in the process. Then pick up your wand and let the sparks fly.

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