Fantasy-theme criticism is a method of rhetorical criticism that seeks to understand how shared realities within a group shape the way people think and act (you might look up symbolic convergence theory, which is the theory that propels this criticism, and which explores how people come up with collective ideas). If, for example, a group of students have collectively determined that their club isn’t valued by the teachers at their school and, later, the club receives a cut in funding, the students’ new perceived reality will likely contain a narrative about how the lack of teachers’ value towards the club led to a cut in funding. If you were to do a rhetorical criticism on this scenario, you would be interested in knowing what led the students to feeling that their club was undervalued and you may need to explore the body of work (through interviews, articles, and other information) that led to this perception. The goal of doing fantasy theme criticism is often to understand why certain groups feel the way they do by understanding characters, settings, and actions, each labeled as a theme. In the case of club funding being cut, for example, “teachers who don’t care,” is the character theme; “clubs that aren’t valued” at the school is the setting theme; and the “cutting of funding” is the action theme. Collectively, a fantasy-theme has been created by this group of students; a narrative has been built that, whether accurate or not, shapes their vision of the new reality.

While we often think of “fantasy” as imaginary, non-existent worlds (as in Lord of the Rings or Star Wars), author Sonja K. Foss clarifies that this is not what “fantasy” means in the context of rhetorical criticism. Rather, fantasy is the “creative and imaginative interpretation of events”; in other words, it’s a collective painting of a situation by a group that constructs a worldview through the communication of events.

Fantasy theme criticism is an effective method for analyzing why groups think the way they do, how they think, and what has constructed their present understanding of the current situation. To do this kind of criticism, you need an artifact you can review (either one document or a body of work); you need characters involved in a scenario (most often people, but sometime non-human things like earth or animals can work); and you need a setting in which the characters are affected.

When selecting an artifact for a fantasy-theme analysis, it’s important that you can point to evidence that symbolic convergence has taken place (where people have a shared rhetorical vision and shared fantasy themes). Fantasy-theme criticism involves two steps:

  • Coding the artifact for setting, character, and action themes
  • Constructing a rhetorical vision from those fantasy themes

See the graphic here or read the larger text below. To learn how to actually write a rhetorical analysis using fantasy-theme as the methodology, see the analysis section on the rhetorical criticisms page.


Whatever your artifact may be—a speech, a collection of news articles, a television campaign—your first task to code the artifact for three things: the setting; the character(s); and the actions.

SETTING | Determine the setting of your artifact. You’re evaluating two things: where did the action take place and what are the characteristics of the place where it happened? Closely evaluate every piece of your artifact that you have access to, then code how and when the setting came into play.

CHARACTER(S) | Get to know as much as you can about the characters, or people, that were a part of the action. What are their characteristics? How are they viewed by others? Why? What are their demographics, behaviors, and attitudes?

ACTION | Finally, determine everything you know about the actions that took place. How was the action conveyed to the rhetor (people that were affected and that share the symbolic convergence)? What actually happened?


Look for patterns in the themes that you coded in the artifact. More than likely, you have identified several coded elements of settings, characters, and even actions. Are you seeing repeated elements or occurrences that may have led a group into a shared vision? What is that shared vision?

Consider Eleanor M. Novek’s analysis of a prison scenario (analysis is Sonja K. Foss’s book, Rhetorical Criticism). In this analysis, Novek reviewed hundreds of articles (artifact) written by prison inmates (rhetors) to determine their shared vision of prison life. In the analysis, Novek reviews the setting (places in the prison and places that led to arrest); characters (people with whom the inmates interact); and action (things done to the inmates during the process of imprisonment).

Ultimately, based on the coding of the artifact, Novek is able to construct a rhetorical vision, an understand of what has led to the shared perception of prison as both a place of torment and of transcendence.