Defining Genres: Fantasy



Noun: The faculty or activity of imagining things that are impossible or improbable.

Literary: A genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme or setting.

Why Are Genres Important?

There are a multitude of different genres in which a novel can be categorised. The reason why there are so many is to target readers with unerring precision. Categorising fiction is unimportant until seeking publication with genre-specific publishing houses. If you want someone to invest in you, you have to define your book. You can call it art, you can call it a gift to humanity, you can call it whatever you like, but if you want to make money from it, it becomes a commercial venture. You’re trying to sell your product (novel) to potential buyers (readers) so you should put a label on it (genre). I’m inclined to agree with genre based bookselling.  If you don’t explain what it is, how do people know what they’re buying?  There are so many sub-categories and cross-categories available to writers now, that it would be insensible not to label your work.

Fantasy is a diverse genre, with a multitude of sub-genres within it. Labelling something as ‘fantasy’ no longer tells the reader exactly what they’re going to find. Below is a comprehensive list of all the sub-genres that have stemmed from the Fantasy genre and a definition of the type of stories that fall into their category. I’ve only spent a day on it… strike that, I’ve spent the whole day on it, but there are probably more genres I haven’t found, perhaps highly specialised.  I welcome comments telling me what I missed!

Note: Science Fiction will be classified as its own genre, and not as a sub-genre to Fantasy, and sub-genres which sometimes cross over into Fantasy (such as New Weird) will remain categorised under their original genre of Science Fiction.

Fantasy Genre and Sub-Genres

Alternate History: A genre set in a parallel timeline to our world, usually from a point in history that has a different outcome such as the Hindenburg not exploding, or the Roman Empire remaining strong.

Alternate World: This kind of fantasy involves different worlds hidden within or parallel to our own. In past times these could be found in a mysterious country, as in Johnathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. With the Earth explored, some were envisioned inside a mirror, as with Lewis Carroll’s novel Through the Looking Glass.

Bangsian: A genre where important literary or historical characters have amusing interactions in the afterlife. Named after John Kendrick Bangs, who prominently wrote in this genre.

Contemporary Fantasy:  Also known as Modern Fantasy, this type must be set in real world, present day. Magic and magical creatures exist, either living in secret within our world or leaking over from alternate worlds.

Cross-Over Fantasy: A specific sub-genre where characters “cross over” from one realm to another realm, via some sort of magical portal. Typically, the characters are normal people from earth.

Paranormal: A genre that includes elements of the occult; witches, vampires, werewolves, and/or other mythical beasties.

Urban Fantasy: Much like contemporary fiction, though there is a requirement that the setting must be urban – within a city.

Court Intrigue: Set in royal castles, whether historical (but with magic), or in some recognizable alternate world.

Dark Fantasy: A sub-genre that overlaps horror or gothic elements into a fantasy setting.

Dystopian Fantasy: When the fantasy setting is in a world without hope, or has a bleak way of life.

Occult Fantasy: When the main plot arc traces the life of or magical consequences of witchcraft or spell craft.

Erotic Fantasy: A fantasy tale with explicit sexuality.  Usually an erotic tale which requires a fantasy or paranormal setting or theme.

Fables:  A type of narration demonstrating a useful truth. Animals display anthropomorphic qualities in order to tell a legendary, supernatural tale, usually with a moral or life lesson at the end.

Fairy Tales: Sometimes referred to as Wonder Tales, these are a kind of folk tale or fable. Sometimes the stories are about fairies or other magical creatures, usually for children.

High (or Epic) Fantasy: Mythical stories with highly developed characters and story lines.

Heroic Fantasy: Chronicles the tales of heroes in imaginary lands.

Wuxia: A distinct quasi-fantasy of the martial arts genre.  The word “wuxia” is a compound word composed of the words wu (lit. “martial”, “military”, or “armed”) and xia (lit. “honourable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”).

Legends: A legend is a story that is sometimes of a national or folk hero. Legend is based on fact but also includes imaginative material.

Low Fantasy: When the tale is set in a different world, but magic or paranormal activity is either inactive or of no consequence to the plot.

Gritty Fantasy: Generally recognised as ‘realistic fantasy’, when the setting is from another world.  Most gritty fantasy focuses on the anti-hero as their central character, but this is not a requirement of the genre.

Military Fantasy: When the focus of the book centres around a soldier, military life and/or the people in the military.  If your novel is fantasy that contains a military aspect but it is not central to the theme, you could be writing a heroic or epic fantasy.

Mythic or Folklore Fantasy:  A genre which weaves traditional mythological elements into the story.  Sub-genres include but are not limited to Celtic Fantasy, Viking or Greek mythos.

 Arthurian Fantasy: A fantasy both set in the time of and referencing the King Arthur legend.

Shenmo: A genre of fantasy that revolves around the gods and monsters of Chinese Mythology

Science Fantasy: When a story has mystical elements that can be scientifically explainable, or which combines science fiction elements with fantasy elements.

Arcane Punk: Refers to a fantasy world setting where both magic and science exist, but either the magic or the science is elite or secret.

Dying Earth: A story set either at the end of life on Earth or at the end of Time, when the laws of the universe themselves fail.

Superhero Fantasy: The story is typically one where people who have super human powers are fighting against some kind of evil plot in order to save the world.  Usually a modern setting but not required for this genre.

Sword and Planet: The setting specifically takes place on other planets (either including or to the exclusion of Earth)  and science or technology can be placed alongside magical powers or creatures.

Slipstream: Completely different from what one considers normal fantasy. Landscapes and people present in the novel are often bizarre; language is usually highly stylized or poetic.

Steampunk: A genre with a Victorian setting, with no technology beyond clockwork and steam, though they way of life through inventions and transportation are generally imaginative and fantastical.

Sword and Sorcery: A blend of heroic fantasy, adventure, and horror in which a mighty hero is pitted against both human and supernatural adversaries.  Usually quest driven.

Plot (Structural) Definitions in Fantasy

Orson Scott Card also proposed an interesting way to categorise fiction, predominantly in use for Science Fiction or Fantasy.  The four categories he uses are a way of illustrating the kind of story that an author writes, and that a story might contain one or more of these kinds of story arcs.  Orson Scott Card also mentions that when beginning a story set into these categories, they must also provide the appropriate ending or resolution – but that concerns story structure, not genre.

Milieu: The story is the world and all the elements within it. When a story is structured around the world, the milieu is the thing the storyteller cares about most.  The story begins with someone entering the world, and ends with them leaving it.

Idea: The story begins with a question and ends when the question is answered.

Character: The story is about the transformation of a character. It begins with a personal issue, and ends with it resolved in some way. Character based stories can be about the character’s inner troubles or outward adventures, about a mission they’re on, or a discovery they’ve made.  The resolution doesn’t have to be a happy one, but certainly when the character has ended their journey.

Event: Some event happens at the beginning that throws everything off, and the story ends when some kind of “normalcy” is restored – whether brand new, back to the way it was or when order is destroyed completely.

Further Reading

Source articles


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