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The fantastic is a subgenre of literary works characterized by the ambiguous presentation of seemingly supernatural forces. Structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov originated the concept, characterizing the fantastic as the hesitation of characters and readers when presented with questions about reality.
The fantastic can be seen in works where the reader has a sense of confusion about whether a work presents what Todorav calls "the uncanny," wherein supernatural phenomena turn out to have a rational explanation (such as in the Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe) or "the marvelous," where there the supernatural is intended to be real. He also points out that the ending always drives the hesitation towards one of two decisions:
The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work -- in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations.
The Fantastic can also represent dreams and wakefulness where the character or reader hesitates as to what is reality or what is a dream. Again the Fantastic is found in this hesitation - once it is decided the Fantastic ends.
There is no truly typical "fantastic story", as the term generally encompasses both works of the horror and gothic genres. Two representative stories might be:
There is no clear distinction between the fantastic and magic realism as neither privilege either realistic or supernatural elements. The former, in its hesitation between supernatural and realistic explanations of events, may task the reader with questioning the nature of reality and this may serve to distinguish the Fantastic from Magical Realism (in which magical elements are understood to constitute in part the reality of the protagonists and are not themselves questionable).
The fantastic is sometimes erroneously called the Grotesque or Supernatural fiction, because both the Grotesque and the Supernatural contain fantastic elements, yet they are not the same, as the fantastic is based on an ambiguity of those elements.