What is the Fantasy Genre?

Fan·ta·sy 

[fan-tuh-see, -zee]  noun, plural-sies, verb, -sied, -sy·ing. noun

  1. imagination, especially when extravagant or unrestrained.
  2. the forming of mental images, especially wondrous or strange fancies; imaginative conceptualizing.
  3. a mental image, especially when unreal or fantastic; vision: a nightmare fantasy.
  4. Psychology, an imagined or conjured up sequence fulfilling a psychological need; daydream.
  5. a hallucination.

“Fantasy.” Dictionary.com. 2012. http://www.dictionary.reference.com.

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The subject of fantasy has come up a few times with friends lately, and several of them mentioned that they were surprised to hear the genre was so broad. For many of us, the term fantasy brings about the idea of swords, spears, magic, and dragons—but the actual genre includes much more. Today I wanted to spend a little time discussing some of the different subgenres of fantasy. My list is by no means comprehensive; after all, new subgenres are created all the time, styles are blended, and different audiences start to rename each category. My hope is that this list will help clarify for anyone interested in the genre.

  • High Fantasy: This is what most of us probably first came to understand as fantasy. The characters (people or creatures) embark on some sort of quest in a completely fantastical world. There is often magic woven into the story, as well as some threat by an evil force. This is the traditional tale of the fight between good and evil, frequently involving the fate of the world. It is also commonly referred to as Epic Fantasy, which is a little bit inaccurate (see below). A classic example of High Fantasy is The Lord of the Rings, where the primary world is completely unknown to us and full of magical beings.
  • Epic Fantasy: This is fantasy involving an epic quest. Both High and Low Fantasy can be considered Epic Fantasy.
  • Heroic Fantasy: This is often deemed the same subgenre as High Fantasy, having a definitive hero who battles through a magical land.
  • Low Fantasy: This subgenre tends to be a bit broader, but there is still some element of magic. Low Fantasy oftentimes lacks the good versus evil of the High Fantasy subgenre; the magical creatures (elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.) tend to be absent, and there may be a gritty theme of modern times, such as drugs, violence, crime, or poverty. Low Fantasy and Epic Fantasy can be combined, however—the quest just takes place in a more rational world. I was reminded of The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper. This is a good example of Low Fantasy (and also a really great series, if you haven’t checked it out yet).
  • Swords and Sorcery: A fantasy tale with…swords and sorcery! In many circles, this is the same as Heroic Fantasy.
  • Magical Realism: This is an interesting category of fantasy which seamlessly blends the real world with a magic world, as if their intertwining is not at all unusual. Gabriel García Márquez is a master of this subgenre, and an example is the beautiful “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”
  • Romantic Fantasy: This is a fantasy tale with a romantic element. The fantasy is the backdrop and overarching component, while the romance takes place within the fantasy, rather than vice versa. My work-in-progress, Kyresa, falls into this category. 🙂
  • Historical Fantasy: This newer subgenre incorporates a fantasy twist on history or a retelling of historical classics, demonstrated well in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. There are also similar subgenres, such as Prehistoric or Medieval Fantasies, which put fantasy elements into the respective time periods.
  • Erotic Fantasy: This category merges fantasy with erotica or erotic scenes. A particularly popular example of this, at the moment, is Fifty Shades of Grey—however the author herself describes it as Romantic Fantasy, not Erotic Fantasy. The lines get ever more blurry across the subgenres, as you can see…
  • Comic Fantasy: A blending of comedy and fantasy. Pieces in this style can also be parodies of other fantasy works.
  • Fairy Tale Fantasy: This is a folkloric style of fantasy involving classic fairy tales, sometimes in a retelling, such as Wicked. This is also closely related to Mythic Fiction, which incorporates myth, folklore, or fables.
  • Urban Fantasy: This is fantasy taking place in a modern or urban setting. Twilight, for example, takes fantastical creatures (vampires and werewolves) and places them in modern-day times. The Sookie Stackhouse series is another example. However, many Urban Fantasy pieces fall under the next two categories as well.
  • Dark Fantasy: Blending a little bit of horror with fantasy, this subgenre keeps the magical elements but merges them with a sense of looming terror. Dark fantasy can take on a gritty and violent side, or it can simply have a more ominous, tension-filled sensation embedded into the work. It’s often described as “gothic” fantasy.
  • Supernatural/Paranormal Fantasy: There seems to be a lot of debate over Paranormal versus Supernatural Fantasy. The term paranormal refers to things that defy scientific explanation—which, you guessed it, seems to describe just everything about fantasy—and yet this term is generally used to describe fantasy involving the more science-oriented end of the spectrum (i.e. ghosts, ESP, aliens) and is linked to fantasy that has a more spiritual or religious tone. Supernatural, on the other hand, refers to creatures not governed by the laws of nature (which would thus seem to account for werewolves, vampires, zombies, succubi, demons, fallen angels, etc.). Still, the term Paranormal Romance, for example, is a style of romance in which creatures like vampires and werewolves engage romantically in a modern world. Confused yet? Just to make it more complicated, Preternatural Fantasy is also thrown into the mix sometimes, which tends to be the description for subject matter outside of “natural.” Again, this leads right back to vampires, werewolves, and the like. This is why books in this category are commonly referred to simply as Urban, Dark, or the bigger, broader category title of Speculative Fiction, which encompasses elements of the fantasy, horror, and science fiction genres (as well as some others).
  • Contemporary Fantasy: Much like Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy creates magical or fantastical elements in a modern world. Harry Potter is an example of this subgenre.
  • Science Fantasy: This is a term applied to fantasy that has a strong blending with science fiction. Though The Hunger Games is also classified as Juvenile Fantasy, I would suggest it is a prime example of Science Fantasy. Other subgenres under this heading are Sword and Planet or Superhero fantasies.
  • Steampunk: This is a newer subgenre for fantasy taking place in an industrial era. Often times it is of the Victorian era, and it tends to have a gothic feel.
  • Juvenile/Young Adult Fantasy: Fantasy for children or young adults. These can encompass any of the other subgenres, but the writing is geared to a younger audience.

There are still several other subgenres of fantasy that I have not listed above that are specific to certain games, styles, audiences, and codes (Wuxia, Fantasy of Manners, Bangsian, etc.). The following links provide even more description of the varying subgenres, and I used both of them to help me concoct this list. Speculative Fiction Writer’s Toolkit contains some of those I didn’t describe in detail, while Worlds Without End, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Subgenres has some very thorough descriptions of subgenres not only in fantasy, but in science fiction and horror, if you are interested. Be sure to check them out if you’d like more information!

The fantasy genre is constantly evolving, creating multiple niches for people to find, read, and cherish. Are you reading any of these specialized subgenres? I’d love to know more about what types of fantasy you’ve run across and are interested in, as well as about anyone reading in the lesser known subgenres. Please share your fantasy reading experiences in the comment section below, and thanks for contributing your interests!

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About Eva Rieder

Eva Rieder is a speculative and contemporary/mainstream fiction author. By day, she masquerades as a high school Math and English teacher. Though she adores teaching and her students very much, when Eva returns home she reglues her fingertips to the keyboard to pursue her alter ego’s destiny. She currently lives and writes in Northern California with her two keyboard-savvy cats. View all posts by Eva Rieder

6 responses to “What is the Fantasy Genre?

  • Sara Hopkins

    Eva, this list has given me so much to think about! I don’t really consider myself a “fantasy” reader, but after going over your explanations, I may have to reconsider. In fact, today I was *just* scribbling to myself about one very specific genre of writing that I want to be the subject of one of my first posts on my resurrected blog. I am inexplicably obsessed with post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels, especially with a young, female protagonist. I have never really been sure if these types of novels fall under science fiction, fantasy, or just generally “young adult” (as the last 15 or so that I have read have been geared towards teens. I have lots of thoughts about where this obsession came from, and have begun to wonder if my own novel writing needs to be fashioned towards this very particular set (write what you love, right?).

    My confusion over all this shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, when I consider your statement that there is a lot of line-blurring among even the fantasy sub-genres. Why can’t my particular “like” be a blending of several genres? And maybe I need to make a distinct name for this blended-genre so that I (and everyone else) will know what I am talking about? I feel like my head is going to explode.

    Clearly more on this is to follow…thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Eva Rieder

      Thanks so much for your comment, Sara! It is indeed fascinating and confusing all the same. I myself have wondered what my pieces are…in fact I spent some time debating with myself whether KYRESA was a romantic fantasy or fantasy romance, and had a similar debate with a fantasy short I wrote (I settled on dark supernatural). Though I love the expanding categories, it seems it could make it difficult for a reader to find what they actually seek. On the other hand, there is a lot of line blurring and in turn, lots of good reading!

      I would say definitely write what you love, blurred genre or not. It will find a home, starting with that in your heart! I very much look forward to reading your resurrected blog. Oh, and one more thing…I read somewhere that fantasy was once considered a young adult genre, by the sheer fact that it required a vibrant, youthful imagination to accept the fantastical elements out of our natural world. Clearly, this is no longer true. Or, more of us are young at heart than we once believed. 🙂 Keep up the writing, Sara!

  • Vanessa Grassi

    I was just thinking about all the fantasy subgenres the other day. Thanks for taking the time to put together such an informative post. 🙂

  • kittyb78

    Awesome post Eva! This really cleared up most of my confusion about the different aspects of antasy writing. It will help me when I revise my Nano novel too. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

    • Eva Rieder

      Thanks Kitty! It definitely cleared some of it up for me, as well, though I still debate over the whole supernatural vs. paranormal bit…Nonetheless, I enjoyed narrowing it all down. Glad I could help, and good luck on the Nano novel!

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