Happy Monday writers! How was everyone’s weekend?
Mine was pretty good. Spent quite a bit of time working on the tabletop campaign I’m running this year, since it’s a revision of the tabletop system I used for my Gears of War campaign a few years ago, bur refined and improved in multiple areas. Of course, building a tabletop system from scratch—or even rebuilding one—is a ton of work, so it’s not unexpected that my time this weekend was taken up in a good portion by it. I foresee this being the case for the next few months, easily.
But that’s not all that’s coming up, either! We’re nearly through January, and that means that we’re day by day coming closer to LTUE 2023! Look for a post about that on its own soon, but the gist of it for now if you’re out of the loop is that LTUE (or Life, The Universe, and Everything) is a writing convention given by those who do write and create Sci-Fi and Fantasy for those who want to do so. That means panels on aspects of writing are given by authors who have written those topics. You can check out the guest list of just a few of the guests of honor here, but that should give you an idea of the kind of folks that show up at LTUE each year.
February 2023, three days, this year the 16th through the 18th. Be there! And while you’re at it, swing by a few of the panels I’ll be on.
That said, if you’re unable to make it this year, at least you’ll always have Being a Better Writer to fall back on. So, without any further ado, let’s just jump into today’s topic. Which … is a bit of a departure from our usual writing topics.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It still very much relates to writing. But what we’re going to talk about today is more of a foundational element, while at the same time not being set in stone at all.
Let me explain: The past few weeks we’ve had a post or two where we’ve talked quite a bit about audience and knowing what sort of audience you’re writing for. Today we’re going to talk about something that a lot of audiences use as a guide for finding material that they like and enjoy.
Yes, today we’re talking about genre. But specifically one type of genre and it’s subgenres. Today, we’re going to talk about different types of common Fantasy and what goes into them.
Now, I’m going to stress something before we start. None of these subgenres is a cut-and-dry. It’s possible for stories to blend them, or start in one subgenre and transition to another. Often, when we say “This book belongs in this subgenre” what we really mean is that the primary attributes of the story that caught our attention were most identifiable with that specific subgenre, though it may have had heavy elements from others.
In other words, what we’re talking about today can run the gauntlet from very straightforward to incredibly nebulous and may be so precariously balanced that it might be hard to tell what subgenre a book is.
But that’s not why we’re talking about it. We’re not talking about the subgenres of Fantasy so that you can try and lock in other Fantasy books you’ve read. No. That’s not the goal here.
The goal here is so that when you think “Hey, I want to write a Fantasy story” but are unsure of what type of Fantasy story that should be, you can look at the various subgenres and what elements identify them, in order to help narrow down what sort of story you want to tell by the elements you may want or not want to include.
In other words, what we’re looking at here today should be considered a set of guidelines, not rules, that can be helpful to you to set a tone or basic feel for what you want to write.
Note really quick that we’re not discussing all the various subgenres out there. The more precise one gets, the more these can multiply, but the less there is different between them. We’re just going to discuss the big ones.
A second note (I know) in that not everyone is going to agree with these definitions. Sands, in pulling up a list of common Fantasy subgenres, I opened two pages that almost completely disagreed about what made a common subgenre. So yeah, while some are agreed upon, some are not. You can still use them
You ready? Then hit that jump, and let’s talk about different types of Fantasy.
Sword and Sorcery Fantasy
All right, here we are with our first subgenre, and probably what about I’d venture half of the average audience thinks of when you say “Fantasy,” even if they’re thinking of something that wouldn’t count as Sword and Sorcery, like The Lord of the Rings.
So what is Sword and Sorcery? Well, think Conan the Barbarian. This is your traditional fun fantasy popcorn adventure. The young farm boy that takes up the sword and does battle against the evil dark wizard or dark lord.
These books tend to be fairly short, quick, and easy reads, light on the details of the world (wait, why does this town have a legendary artifact for the hero? Oh who cares? They just do! Slash!) and heavy on the action and adventure. What city belongs to what nation? What’s the history there? Not really important unless your protagonist is going to slice it up, battle something, or face some other step or peril on their journey. They might get caught up with a small village (or more likely a temporary love interest) freeing it from the evil overlord or something, but that’s about all the detail you need to know for this world. The consequences of skipping through a town chopping off the arms of their most able farmers isn’t really something you need to worry about. Or even alternatives to the fight (Sword and Sorcery tends to, shall we say, live by the sword).
This subgenre was for a time pretty popular and still has its place, though its fallen out of favor in recent decades. It’s what you go to for popcorn action: Don’t think about the broader implications of this setting, or how the magic works, or who built this tavern in the middle of nowhere. That’s not important. Think about how the protag is going to get out of this latest trap, defeat the big bad, and win the princess or prince.
Yeah, this is the “classic” Fantasy adventure that many think of … despite not being that common anymore. That said, there’s still a market for it, and Sword and Sorcery readers will gladly gulp down a dozen of these books in rapid succession.
Also sometimes called High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy is a story that is the inverse of a Sword and Sorcery in its scope and approach, and amusingly enough often gets misidentified as the such by those who don’t understand Fantasy at all.
Epic Fantasy is deep and wide. Protagonist wandering into a town? Even if the author doesn’t exposit it in the text, they’ve worked out exactly why there is a town there, what it produces, how its people live. How the culture of that town fits into the wider empire. What they produce or export, and import. And the protagonist’s actions there may have far reaching consequences that might not become clear for several hundred pages, as small background effects pile up. A scorned noble, for example, sending their displeasure through the imperial network until it reaches a regent with the ear of the king.
Scope and scale. Epic Fantasy drops you into a world like that of the Sword and Sorcery, but where that subgenre really isn’t interested in much outside of some thrilling action setpieces, an Epic Fantasy may never once have its protagonist pick up a sword, instead delivering cutthroat politics and backroom deals. Alongside the logistics of armies and webs of diplomacy.
That doesn’t mean that there can’t be big battles of the sword or of magic—there most certainly can be! But there will be a weight to them. Their impact may stay with the story for the whole of a book.
This type of Fantasy has seen a rise in popularity over the last few decades, as readers looked for worlds that felt like they could be real places. If you want to read about empires clashing—even through the eyes of an ordinary individual mind—or delve into a world that could exist, with trade and culture and history, Epic Fantasy is the subgenre to look for.
I will note, before we move on, that this is still fantasy. There is something fantastic about this setting, such as magic, gods, curses, or more. The Lord of the Rings is a very classic example of this type of fantasy. There’s still spectacle, such was sweeping cities or guilds of wizard, but deeply explored with implications and consequences.
As a contrast to Epic/High Fantasy, we have Low Fantasy. Above we see that Epic/High Fantasy still has fantastic elements. There are wizards, there are dragons, there are cities that may only exist due to magic.
Low Fantasy can be as wide and as deep as Epic Fantasy, but where it differs is in the fantasy itself. “Low” fantasy is actually a measure of how much fantastic there is, and Low Fantasy aspires to keep the fantastic to a minimum.
Another way to look at it could be that a Low Fantasy wants a world in which the fantastic does exist and does influence things … but only in very sparse amounts. For example, the only fantastic element may be that there is a single fantastic beast such as a dragon or unicorn, and everything else about the setting is accurate to the tech level and period it’s modeled after. Or there might be a wizard, but they’re the only wizard, and the audience and world only sees a single moment of it. Or the world was once magical, but lost it and now everything is “mundane” and they’re living in the remains.
Whatever the reason, this type of story is a fantasy, yes, but with very low levels of actual “fantastic.” They may only appear at the end, or in very trace amounts, but the “fantastic” that we think of that makes fantasy is only present in small quantities.
Now, in a bit of a misnomer, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have a story that is both an Epic/High Fantasy and also a Low Fantasy. You can have a story that hits every element of an Epic Fantasy, but features almost no magic or fantastic whatsoever. This is because “High” refers to the concept, while “Low” refers to the amount of actual Fantasy.
Subgenres! Where you can tell we’re all making it up as we go along!
A more recently popular genre, Urban Fantasy is what happens when you take the fantastic, such as magic, and then plop it down in our world. Hidden or revealed (sometimes referred to as “masked”), Urban Fantasy takes those elements of the fantastic, from wizards to witches and werewolves, and then plops them right into our world of today, then turns these elements lose to say “Hey, how could life be different?
Now, despite what some think, this is not what a work like Harry Potter is, and I’ll explain why. Instead it’s something more like The Dresden Files or Dead Silver, where you have magic being used in a modernish urban setting, be that 1980s Chicago or a 2020s suburb. Again, it can be hidden from the world or revealed to the world—both are fun—but the core of an Urban Fantasy is that we see the world we know, but with the fantastic in it.
Okay, so why isn’t Harry Potter an Urban Fantasy? Simple: Its focus is a world we don’t know. Harry Potter leaves our world as quickly as it can for its own setting that is independent of our world, rather than in it. From another angle yes, it absolutely would be Urban Fantasy, but it only grazes our world for setting, sticking mostly to its own with a magical castle and the like.
Remember when I said this stuff is nebulous? Yeah, there you go. Again.
Anyway, Urban Fantasy can be a lot of fun, and tends to lend itself largely to either Noir-style mysteries (let’s be honest, a standard murder mystery gets way more fun when a suspect is a vampire and the protagonist can turn into a bird) or—and these are very popular and have been for decades—”paranormal” romance (sure, it’s one thing to date someone, but then it turns out they’ve got a magic side …). They’re usually not long stories (and many shorts are written in this subgenre) but they’re a lot of fun as they explore effectively what our day to day life would be with a twist of the fantastic.
Also sometimes called “Cottage Fantasy,” and borrowing its name from another genre and subgenre entirely, Cozy Fantasy is a more recently popular and still-rising subgenre of Fantasy. Also, if you’ve read Axtara – Banking and Finance, you probably were wondering when this subgenre was showing up.
Okay, so what makes this subgenre unique and set apart? Well, where other Fantasy tales will usually have peril and danger, the Cozy only infrequently does, and even if it does appear, it may not be quite so perilous as other stories might be. For example, a Sword and Sorcery book may open with someone being held at swordpoint, but a Cozy would end with something like that, and it still wouldn’t be as pulse pounding.
Cozy books are meant to be comfortable. Warm and relaxing. They are set in fantasy settings, often places like taverns or other “cottage industry” locations, and follow more down to Earth plots. Slice of life stuff. For example, a dragon setting up her own bank. Or a pair of retired adventurers opening a tavern. There may still be a mystery (in fact, it’s common enough that some Cozy Fantasy readers are surprised when their isn’t one), and there will definitely be conflict that moves the plot forward, but it’s not usually life-threatening, and may just be more dramatic than anything else.
Again, this subgenre is about relaxing and feeling warm and cozy, as befitting the name. But with that fantastic. A “cozy” that wasn’t a fantasy might be about someone settling down to raise a couple of horses, but a Cozy Fantasy would make them manticores, or unicorns, and make the character’s trade fantastic in some manner.
But it’s still relaxed. It’s content. It is exactly what it says about itself: cozy.
Okay, there’s not much that needs to be said about this one, as most of you probably figured it out from the title, but Historical Fantasy is just like Urban Fantasy, save that instead of being set in the modern era, it’s set in a historical period.
That’s it. You’ve got it. For example, this type of story could be “What if the Napoleonic Wars had involved dragons?” and that’s the Temeraire series. Or it could be “What if X historical nation’s magic” had been real? Or anything that involves real history then mixed with the fantastic.
Arthurian Mythic Fantasy
Now, I note that I’m only giving this one a bit of attention because some might wonder if Arthurian Fantasy—or other types of similar fantasy—would count as historical.
No. This is because what Arthurian Fantasy (and these other types) happens to be is Fantasy that is based off of myth and legend, not history. Which makes it Mythic Fantasy. Based in myth, you see?
Again, this is a subgenre that blends well with others. For example, one could learn quite a bit about ancient Greece, then mix that with Greek magic and the classic Greek Gods to write an Epic Fantasy. Would it be a Mythic Fantasy? Yes, but other types as well.
But if it’s steeped in legend, lore, and myth, you’ve got a Mythic Fantasy on your hands.
Often called “Grimdark Fantasy” and often mistaken for Gothic Fantasy (which we’ll discuss next), Grim Fantasy is like Epic Fantasy, but gritty, dark, brutal, and grim. Yeah, just like the name suggests. A name you may hear of mentioned in the same sentence as this subgenre is The Black Company, the tale of a mercenary company who experience the brutal nature of war … while executing a lot of it and working for the big bad.
Or you might have heard of the Warhammer books, which often crank this up to eleven. But with Grimdark Fantasy, you have the elements of the fantastic, yes, but the darker aspects and implications are explored, along with the gritty.
Okay, let me clarify those two things. Let’s talk about the darker aspects. I don’t mean “everyone’s a necromancer,” though that could work. What I mean is that Grim Fantasy is concerning with the foreboding aspects of a setting. If there’s a light side to wizards and towering spires, Grim Fantasy wants to look at how that can go wrong. It doesn’t have to mean “dark magic” but instead dark intentions. Or dark results.
Often brutal results. Grim Fantasy doesn’t pull punches. And this is also where that “gritty” bit comes in. A High Fantasy may be from the perspective of a soldier in the army and note that his feet are sore … A Grim Fantasy will go into detail about how brutal the march is, the sores on his feet, and other elements that the “cleaner” tale leaves out. It gets grim and gritty.
This is a tone thing, so if you decide to go with Grim Fantasy, be careful. Maybe read a few before you get started, just to see what the audience expects.
Okay, I wanted to tackle this one next, because people do conflate it with Grom. And yes, Gothic Fantasy is dark, but the point of Gothic Fantasy is to chill or unsettle you, not to focus on the brutality of its fantastic.
They are often confused, mixed, or even conflated because Gothic is meant to be unsettling and foreboding, and Grim is foreboding, but both go different ways with it. If they were films, Gothic would be the black and white with something lurking just out of the shot, while Grim would be the HD closeup of someone grunting with exertion as they try to clean a wound.
I know, that’s not precise, but think about what gothic means. Dark corners, spires, buttresses. It’s a different atmosphere than grim, isn’t it?
And that’s that Gothic Fantasy is about. That atmosphere, mixed with the fantastic.
Okay, last one, and we’re going with a new one that’s cropped up in the last few decades: LitRPG. It stands for “Literature Role-Playing-Game” and it’s become a very big fad recently.
It’s actually an evolution of Portal Fantasy, which we didn’t have time to talk about, but is basically about someone normal from our world ending up in a fantasy setting. LitRPG takes this a step further, and makes this fantasy world one of a literal game, with rules that can be abused and broken.
If you read that and thought “power-fantasy wish fulfillment” you’re on the right track for over 99% of these. That’s what they are. A character from the normal world (usually a “loser”), who is in some manner thrown into a fantasy setting governed by the rules of a game they may or may not be aware of, but will abuse in otder to become the most powerful person around … if they don’t just start as that.
This is, in my opinion, the newest “sword and sorcery” subgenre. Even people I’ve known who have confessed to “not be much of a reader” find themselves devouring these by the truckload because they’re simple and straightforwardly pleasing. They promise a nobody becoming the only somebody through clever manipulation of a hard set of rules, and people really like that.
Now, if you want to write one, this isn’t going to be an Epic, but it will be all about the rules. You’d best know tabletop or videogame systems pretty well so that you can replicate their logic—and their shortcomings—in proper fashion.
And that’s it! Not that there aren’t plenty of other subgenres of Fantasy, but that we’ve discussed more than enough of them, I think, for most to get a solid ida of what they’re interested in. Some old, some new.
Now, I will address one last thing I’m sure a few of you are wondering: where was YA Fantasy?
Simple. I left it off because any of the above could be written as a YA book. Straight fantasy, Grim, Gothic, Urban … the lot! YA is a style and approach, yes, but I’ve also written about it before, so just search for YA and then apply that to whatever Fantasy subgenre you’ve chosen.
All right, and with that, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a few of the more common subgenres of Fantasy, and if you’re writing a Fantasy, may it have aided you in figuring out a little more what you want to aim for. As for now, well, as always …
Good luck. Now get writing.
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