Understanding your fiction genre, and its subgenres, lets you alter and conform with confidence. You want a book that works well with marketing and cover design, and you want your readers to feel, at the least, satisfied.
Of course, adding your own unique flair is all part of the fun. And the best way to break the rules and conventions of genre is to truly understand what they are and why they are there.
The word 'fantasy' usually brings to mind tales of a magical world where dragons, heroes and incredible lands are filled with dangers at every turn. The reality is fantasy writing is so much more than that." — Dawn Arkin
Fantasy is a huge genre, and has grown exponentially since the Lord of the Rings trilogy hit cinemas, and again as Game of Thrones dominates television. And that’s only for the subgenre of high fantasy.
From Harry Potter to Beauty and the Beast, there is so much to explore within the fantasy genre. To make the most of its possibilities, you first need to know what is and what isn’t fantasy.
Fantasy: it's all in the setting
What defines fantasy, more than anything, is a magical setting. A world where the laws of nature can be manipulated in ways that aren’t logical. A true suspension of disbelief.
Characters actually using magic, or the impact of some magical creature or item on the plot, is irrelevant. If the setting is magical, you have fantasy – which leaves a lot of room to play.
The choices you make, beyond having a magical setting, tip your story into different fantasy subgenres. Although novels are arranged simply by genre in bookstores, knowing which subgenre your work fits into helps you target your audience more directly.
Understanding fantasy subgenres
Every fantasy novel has a magical setting. But when we look into subgenres, the conventions become more specific.
The first division of the fantasy genre is in the type of magical world used.
There are four different ways magical worlds are structured, and every subgenre falls into one of them: unique world, alternate world, paranormal, and cross-worlds.
1. Unique world fantasy subgenres
This is the type of built-from-scratch fantasy world that usually first springs to mind. In essence, it is a world unlike the real world, one in which magic has developed significantly faster than technology.
Often these worlds have a medieval or Arthurian feel to them, due to the slow advancement of technology. But there are many other cultures fantasy can be flavoured with, such as the Viking or Aztec culture.
Subgenres within this quadrant include:
- High/epic fantasy: Follows a great struggle, between countries or cosmic forces of good and evil. It carries the reader alongside a large cast of great warriors, kings and queens, and famous wizards.
It’s not the setting that makes a story high [fantasy]. It’s the style in which it’s told and its focus on the noble, rather than the ignoble." — Robert Ryan
- Low fantasy: Tends to focus on less noble characters and more on the goals of a person, rather than a kingdom or grand prophecy. The line between good and evil is often blurry, and description often has a gritty, realistic tone. Some use low fantasy to refer to stories set in a world more like our own, but urban and contemporary fantasy are more accurate terms for those.
- Heroic fantasy and 'sword & sorcery': Characters face more physical threats than political or magical. In heroic fantasy, a morally good character undertakes a quest, partially for themselves and partially for the greater good. 'Sword & sorcery' features a protagonist that is more morally flexible and motivated by self-interest.
Like most fantasy novels, series are more common than standalone stories in these subgenres. They often feature highly detailed worlds, with at least an implication that the author has developed a whole culture, political structure and more. Magic is typically a rarity, reserved for the elite or special.
Characters undertake a physical journey (often paralleled by an inner one), giving them and the reader the opportunity to explore this unique world. Quest plots and coming-of-age plots are popular choices, as are themes of good vs evil/light vs dark and prophecy/destiny.
The tone tends to dance between serious and light-hearted, with as much pleasure coming from exploring new landscapes as fight scenes. Major characters often range in age, with a notably high amount of middle-aged characters and usually at least one old, wise 'mentor' figure.
Audience and marketing
A few decades ago, readers of these 'pure' fantasy subgenres were an odd, secluded bunch. Nowadays pop culture has welcomed high fantasy and similar subgenres, increasing their visibility, their 'cool' factor and thus their audience.
Fans tend to be avid readers, relishing in the highly detailed worlds and thick volumes these subgenres tend to inhabit. Some pop culture audiences prefer more fast-paced stories, so film versions or YA novels of these subgenres are generally very popular.
For marketing unique world fantasy subgenres, work with the traditional fantasy image. Connect with fan groups of series such as Lord of the Rings, and note what Twitter hashtags are used with references to stories such as A Song of Ice and Fire.
The best way to get a feel for what these subgenres are all about is to read them, research them and engage with their reader community.
Novels that fall into the unique world category include:
- The Belgariad by David Eddings
- Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist
- The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb
- The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
2. Alternate world fantasy subgenres
Some fantasy subgenres are set in a world where both magic and technology developed side-by-side. This technology can be similar to our world, a mix of more primitive and more sophisticated, or totally superior to our 21st century achievements.
You also have the option to merge magic and technology. If you don't, you would have to give a good reason as to why not. Maybe magic is too rare, or too unpredictable.
Wizard towers may have cell phone antenna attached to them, but telepathy and sending spells are still in use for those who want to avoid high contract fees to the three halfling wireless companies." — John Arcardian
To combine magic and technology, you will need a full understanding of how your magic works. Does it require a simple set of words, innate talent, or some combination?
Subgenres of this quadrant include:
- Alternate history fantasy: Set in a historical period or culture that existed at some point in our world, with one twist: magic.
- Contemporary/urban fantasy: Set in our present-day world with fantasy elements.
- Middle-Eastern fantasy/Wuxia: As well as our western, modern world, our planet is and has been host to thousands of fascinating cultures from which you can draw inspiration. Middle-Eastern fantasy and wuxia (Chinese fantasy) both include mythology from their cultures.
- Steampunk fantasy: A very specific subgenre. Set in worlds with Victorian-era clothes, manners and social hierarchy, their unique feature is impressive technology run by steam engines and cogs.
- Sci-fi fantasy: Includes futuristic technology beyond the use of steam. It often includes interstellar travel, but always with some magical element, such as the Force in Star Wars.
While magic in these alternate worlds can be hidden, often it is accessible to a greater number of people and characters. As such, not all magic users need to have some grand goal or destiny.
The plot often involves characters competing for power, and seeking new ways to source and manipulate power. This ties nicely into the theme of good vs evil, a popular choice among all fantasy subgenres.
Characters are more likely to be of a similar age and, on average, a little younger than the unique-world subgenres. This is due to a narrower focus in the setting: rather than exploring the entire world, writers focus on the elements that are different from our own world.
Audience and marketing
Readers of alternate world fantasy subgenres are curious, and sometimes attached to a certain culture, mythology or point in history. Ranging generally from young adult to middle-aged, they tend to be modern and tech-savvy.
To focus your marketing, find groups interested in your particular flavour, whether they are typically fantasy readers or not. Someone fascinated about Chinese mythology, for example, would likely be interested in your wuxia fantasy novel.
These groups can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and blog sites such as Tumblr. Take note of the tags they use, involve yourself in conversations – no doubt by researching for your novel; you know a bit about the subject – and share your novel.
Novels that fall into this category include:
- Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
- Dark Heavens by Kylie Chan
- The Broken Empire by Mark Lawrence
- The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
- Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger
3. Paranormal fantasy subgenres
In this magical world, the only magical element is mythical creatures. Commonly used mythical creatures include celestials, fey/fae, werewolves, vampires and zombies.
The subgenres in this section are paranormal and supernatural fantasy. Sometimes the superhero subgenre is included here, but even with superpowers erring on the side of magic, superheroes are typically placed under sci-fi.
Mythical creatures certainly appear in many other subgenres, even as significant players, such as in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. But a separate section is needed for worlds that are magical only due to mythical creatures.
These subgenres are often, but not exclusively, set in a modern world very similar to our own. The existence of magical creatures is a closely guarded secret, and this mysterious and shadowy nature often overlaps the subgenres with horror.
Supernatural fantasy is the term typically given to stories that thrive off the danger of mythical creatures. Most commonly these stories involve a fight for balance: exorcists keep the dead in their own realm, vampire hunters keep us safe at night, or angels battle demons in the human world.
You need some element of magic or the supernatural that’s so deeply integral to the story that the entire novel would collapse if you removed it. Try removing the supernatural element from Dracula and see how far you get." — Steven Harper
Combining paranormal fantasy with a romance plot is a modern trend sparked by the success of series such as The Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer. In this situation, the protagonist or one of their potential lovers must be a mythical being.
The romantic notions of exploring a new interest are taken to another level when said interest isn't human. The challenge of overcoming vast differences taps into the well-loved Romeo & Juliet story. And the secretive, potentially forbidden nature of the relationship adds an element of excitement.
Audience and marketing
Supernatural fantasy tends to appeal more to adult men, and readers of crime, horror and thriller genres often dip into this subgenre.
Paranormal romance, however, is very popular among women and young adults. Even with a dark, creepy tone, adding a romance plot is sure to win you female readers.
While there are certainly niche fan groups devoted to werewolf-romances or zombie-apocalypses, you will gain a bigger audience by hitting larger romance or horror groups. Those who love a romantic plot or feeling the tension rise will be more likely to enjoy your paranormal fantasy.
Novels that fall into this category include:
- The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
- Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz
- Downside Ghosts by Stacia Kane
- Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia
4. Cross-world fantasy subgenres
The final type of fantasy setting involves characters travelling to at least one other world. A world is not merely another planet in the same universe, or a hidden space. Worlds exist in separate universes, and wouldn't normally impact each other.
If at least one of these worlds falls into the above three categories (unique world, alternate world or paranormal), it is fantasy. If no world has a magical setting, the story is sci-fi.
Subgenres of this section are cross-worlds and portal fantasy. The difference between the two is that portal fantasy includes characters exploring different times as well as different places.
Typically the other worlds that characters travel through are not widely known. Main characters usually start the story also unaware of these worlds' existence. They either stumble upon another world, or some external force brings them there.
These subgenres tend to have a bigger focus on character development. Namely, how do the different worlds and experiences in the different worlds affect who they are and what they believe in?
They may be escaping dangers, seeking opportunities or trade, or simply being tourists. Whatever their reasons, when people travel it changes both the place they leave and the place they arrive in." — Trudi Canavan
For this reason, coming-of-age stories are quite common. So is the fantasy favourite of good vs evil, but with a tendency to allow characters to actively question which is the 'good' side – and maybe even change their mind.
Audience and marketing
Often these stories target children and young adults, which are therefore the primary readers. This is due to their compatibility with coming-of-age stories, and a reduced need for heavily detailed description. Just imagine how huge a multi-world story would be when describing each world to the satisfaction of an adult mind.
Most fantasy appeals to sci-fi readers, but cross-worlds and portal fantasy are notably appealing to sci-fi fans. For more marketing tips, refer back to whichever of the three types of fantasy worlds your story includes.
Novels that fall into this category include:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman
- The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
- All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
Creating cross-genre subgenres
Even more fantasy subgenres are created when elements from different genres of fiction are combined. As long as you remain true to a fantasy setting, any elements from any other genre can be merged.
There are many subgenres of fantasy. And there are writers who defy genre." — Rowena Cory
For example, a romance plot in a fantasy setting is a fantasy romance. And adding the tone and symbols of the horror genre to a magical world creates the subgenre of dark fantasy.
Common genres to incorporate plot elements from include:
- Myths, legends and fairy tales
Common genres to borrow some setting aspects from include:
Common genres to take other elements from include:
Of course, a single spooky graveyard scene doesn't make your story a dark fantasy. You need to use a significant element (such as a whole plot rather than a plot point or two), or use multiple small elements throughout the whole story (repetitive occurrences of dark omens).
Separate subgenres also exist for different target ages: young adult (YA) fantasy and children's fantasy, for example. These subgenres have their own conventions.
YA fantasy often has a young, bad-ass female protagonist who is a little out-of-step with her society. Like all YA fiction, YA fantasy tends to give greater attention to character development, dialogue and action scenes over setting description.
Children's fantasy features young protagonists, only one or two themes, and a light tone. Protagonists are usually 'ordinary' – similar enough to the reader so they can identify easily.
Although children of this age [six-to-nine-year-olds] love the fantastic, they still like to be able to relate some of the story to their own lives." — Heather Delabre
The realm of fantasy is expansive, exciting and sometimes a little intimidating. But now you have the foundations of what fantasy is, and what the subgenres require, you are free to let your creative juices take over.
What's your favourite of all the fantasy subgenres? Let us know in the comments!