Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fantasy Subgenres

     "Write what you know." 

     We've all heard that one, right?  Well...

     I submitted four flash stories in the past three months through Duotrope, and wondered every time if I was choosing the proper subgenre category they belonged in.  Subgenres?  Isn't fantasy just fantasy?  Dream-like lands with funky beings that can fly or chant magical spells?  I mean, what the heck is Steampunk?  An 80's band with rockin' hair?  And, Dystopian?  Is that some sort of lost Tokien language? 

     I started looking up the subgenres in the drop down box.  Wow.  Was I ever behind the times.   

     If I am going to write fantasy - which I've been doing for years - then I ought to know the genre inside and out.  God forbid I write a query letter a year from now and categorize my epic fantasy novel as magic realism. 

     So, here's the list I compiled.  I hope it helps if you are even half as confused as I was. 

Epic  -  A book or series that revolves around a quest.  The first example that comes to mind is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  In my opinion it doesn't get any better than that.

High  -  Set in parallel worlds wth magical creatures or elements.  Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is by far my favorite, although Goodkind's Sword of Truth series runs a close second.  These stories are oftentimes limited to one character's viewpoint ie  R.A. Salvatore's The Legend of Drizzt. 

Sword & Sorcery  -  This genre focuses more on personal battles than world endangering matters like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories.

Heroic  -  Tales of heros in imaginary lands that tend to have intricate plots involving many people, nations, and lands.  HBO's A Game of Thrones has brought George RR Martin's heroic series to life.

Dark  -  I found two different explanations for this one.  First, supernatural horror - told from a monster's viewpoint ie Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles.  Second, it could be a story that has is anti-heroic or has a protag with no clear morals.

Magic Realism  -  A story where magical elements are depicted as normal or reliable occurrences / presents the fantastic as mundane instead of with a sense of wonder.  The films Being John Malkovich and Edward Scissorhands are excellent examples.

Urban Fantasy  -  Takes place in an urban setting and has aspects of fantasy, ie Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and Cynthia Hand's Unearthly.

Contemporary  -  Modern fantasy set in real-world, present-day with magic or magical creatures leaking into it, like Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files.

Dystopian  -  A futuristic setting where society has degraded and lives repressed in a controlled state, charactereized by authoritarian or totalitarian governments.  Remember Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Running Man by Stephen King?

Steampunk  -  A re-imagined past in which modern technology developed earlier in history.  Moore & O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or the film Wild Wild West are great examples.

Paranormal Romance  -  A romance with fantasy elements - usually has a modern setting involving humans or other fantasy species.  Need I say Twilight?  We have Stephanie Meyer to thank for this media craze.

Low  -  Typically takes place in real world settings with less emphasis on the fantasy element, ie Stephen King's The Green Mile.

Historical  -  Generally takes place before the 20th century with contrived plots based loosly on historical events, mythology, or legends.  Think Susanne Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Comic  -  Fantasy stories primarily humorous in intent and tone.

Medieval  -  A medieval era high fantasy, not necessarily in a real world setting, ieTerry Brooks' Shannara Series.

     Many of these overlap - some have subgenre after subgenre.  What is your favorite to read and write?  And have I missed any? 


  1. This is a very thorough list! Thanks for that. I've read other lists that left several of these off for whatever reason.

    According to these definitions, I write a combination of High, Medieval, and Sword and Sorcery, though with Family Saga tossed into the mix. *scratches head*

    Best to you!

  2. I'm definitely a paranormal romance kinda girl. The different subgenres are VERY confusing, and make correctly labelling your work quite difficult if you write something that doesn't slot nicely into one of the main genres. :)

  3. Very nice, and definitely helpful. Thank you. I often get all of these mixed up. <_< So now I can def. say that SOTD would probably be called medieval fantasy, and Eldrei is most likely Epic... or maybe a mixture of Epic and High.... hmmm... :D

  4. Hey, great info. I find genre very confusing.

  5. I am guilty of romantic epic fantasy. What can I say :D It's how I roll. Enjoy the genre you write best and go with it :D