In a previous blog post, we talked about why genre matters and looked at an overview of the two broad categories of speculative fiction: fantasy and sci-fi. Today’s follow-up is diving a little deeper, exploring some of the prominent sub-genres of fantasy (don’t worry, sci-fi is going to get its own post too).
While certainly not an exhaustive list, these are a good place to get started if you’re thinking about what sub-genre your book might fall into.
1. High and Low Fantasy
Yes, I know, I haven’t even gotten past the first number and I’m already breaking the established format of this blog post by talking about TWO subgenres. My rebuttal: they’re two sides of the same coin, so it’s sort of like just talking about one. Plus, it’s my blog, so I can do what I want.
The subgenres of high and low fantasy are distinguished by their setting. High fantasy stories take place entirely in a world or reality that is not our own. Think Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings, The Randlands of The Wheel of Time, and Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. High fantasies tend towards epic characters, themes, and plots, though this isn’t necessarily the case.
Low fantasies, in contrast, take place in our own reality, with magical and fantastical events or peoples popping up in an otherwise normal world. The Harry Potter series is a great example of a low fantasy. If your low fantasy takes place in a gritty cityscape, like American Gods or The Mortal Instruments series, you might get more specific and call it urban fantasy.
“What if my story starts on normal earth but then a character is transported to a magical world?” You, like C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carol, might ask. In that case, we’d call it a portal fantasy, and beg you not to have the whole thing be a dream in the end.
2. Sword and Sorcery
Sword and sorcery is arguably what most people think of when they hear fantasy. It has all the old classics: legendary quests, stalwart heroes, dastardly villains, romantic love-interests, and heart-racing action. Typically, the story will end with everything working out okay, even if there are elements of tragedy intermingled. Conan the Barbarian is one of sword and sorcery’s quintessential reads. For a non-literary example: Dungeons and Dragons campaigns also tend towards this subgenre.
3. Dark Fantasy
Dark fantasies are characterized by their frightening or disturbing themes, tones, and content matter. Grimdark fantasies, like Shelly Campbell’s Under the Lesser Moon and George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, take place in brutal, unrelenting worlds where simple survival becomes a challenge. Horror fantasies are all about creating terror; rather than the universe being cold and uncaring, it instead hates your characters and wants them to suffer. Stephan King’s The Dark Tower and the Demonata series by Darren Shan are prime examples of horror fantasy.
4. Gaslamp Fantasy
Steampunk, but make it magic! Gaslamp fantasy embraces the Victorian/Edwardian aesthetics of the steampunk genre—bring on the goggles and airships and clockwork everything—but with arcane elements thrown in as well. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and Amazon’s Carnival Row TV series are all gaslamp fantasies.
5. Comic Fantasy
Comic fantasies make you laugh. Their humour is often achieved by poking fun at the standard tropes of the wider genre by exaggerating them or turning them on their head. Sharp, quick, and witty, the best comic fantasies mingle humour and plot to achieve entertaining stories. Terry Pratchett is a king in this genre; his Discworld series is peak comic fantasy, but there’s plenty of room for more. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman, Kill the Farmboy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune are other examples of wonderful Comedic Fantasy.
Think about the most important characteristics of your plot, characters, and story, and figure out which sub-genre best encompasses those. Whether your fantasy is epic, mundane, comedic, or horrifying, it will have an audience, and your genre tags will help them find you!