All About Fantasy Genres

Fantasy is my favorite genre.

Okay, let me get a little more specific. Urban and contemporary fantasy are my favorite genres to read. For writing, I love writing contemporary and high fantasy.

Wait, is it really high fantasy? What about epic or heroic? What am I writing? What am I reading???

If you’re anything like me, you love fantasy, but you are a little fuzzy on some of the differences between the subgenres. So today I want to take a little time to examine a few of the lesser known genres and clarify the differences between some of the confusing ones.

Let’s start with something general.

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction in which the plot and the worldbuilding revolve around magical or supernatural elements that are not seen in the real world. All fantasy can be divided further and classified according to various elements and characteristics, such as the grimdark versus noblebright classification (which I won’t go into today). You may not agree with the subgenres I call fantasy, but that’s okay! We don’t always have to agree. 😉

Low Fantasies

Low fantasy is fantasy set in the real world (low refers to the prominence of the fantasy elements in the story) and is also known as intrusion fantasy. Within low fantasy, there may be historical fantasies, alternate timelines, post-apocalyptic fiction (which could also be science fiction, depending on the story), or contemporary fantasies.

Contemporary fantasy is the wider term for what some people call urban fantasy. It is a fantasy story that takes place during the present day in the present world, or during the time in which the author lived and wrote. It often incorporates elements of real places and people to ground it in reality. The Lost Voices trilogy by Sarah Porter is an example, as it is a mermaid story set in the Pacific Northwest (but also the ocean) during modern times.

Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is a subgenre of contemporary fantasy. It still takes place in modern times in the real world, but it is specifically set in cities (hence urban). Popular examples include Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson books and Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files.

There is also paranormal, but the jury seems to still be out on exactly what this is and how it is defined. Some people suggest that paranormal is like urban fantasy, but instead of following a fantasy story, it has other genre elements to it, like thriller or romance. Either way, there appears to be a lot of overlap between paranormal and urban.

High Fantasies

High fantasy, often referred to as Tolkienesque or Lord of the Rings-type fantasy, is a fantasy set in a secondary world with its own set of rules and laws. Magic or the supernatural is highly prevalent in the world and the plot, and these stories are often associated with large, sweeping stories with grand stakes.

One confusing distinction in high fantasy is epic versus heroic fantasy. Epic fantasy are stories which often have large casts of characters, dramatic fights between good and evil, and plots on a worldwide scale.

Heroic fantasy, on the other hand, focuses more on the characters than the world. It often follows a hero or set of heroes on a specific quest, often with a good versus evil plot, on a smaller scale than epic fantasy. Some people refer to heroic fantasy as sword and sorcery.

Portal Fantasies

Kind of in between high and low fantasy are portal fantasies. These stories often start in a low fantasy setting (our world), but the characters are transported to a new secondary world for much of the story (hence portal). My upcoming release This Cursed Flame is a portal fantasy. So are the Kacy Chronicles by A. L. Knorr and Martha Carr.

Magic Realism

Here is another, similar beast. Magic realism is a bit of fantasy and a bit of literary fiction smashed together. In these stories, magic elements intrude on real life, but it is so smoothly integrated that it is often unclear if the magic is real or some sort of delusion. Many magic realism authors are associated with Latin America, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I would argue that other authors such as Neil Gaiman can fit this genre (I’m specifically thinking of The Ocean at the End of the Lane).

Science Fantasy

The last genre I will discuss today, even though there are many other possible subgenres, is science fantasy. Science fantasy is a unique blend of science fiction and fantasy in which both technology and the supernatural or magic elements play a role.

Sometimes steampunk is classified here, though I would say that gaslamp fiction is more accurate (think of gaslamp fiction like steampunk with more magic).

I would also argue that many LitRPG books could fit under science fantasy as well. LitRPG is a somewhat new genre in which much of the story takes place inside a video game world, like in Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s somewhere between science fantasy, portal fantasy, magic realism, and sometimes science fiction, in my opinion.

Concluding Thoughts

If I spent the time to discuss every potential subgenre of fantasy out there, we’d be on this page for hours. Just look at this site’s list! (Though I disagree with some of the lines they draw) But the subgenres I discussed above are some of the more well-known or easily confused ones, and those are what I wanted to highlight today.

So now I want to know what I missed; tell me some of your favorite fantasy subgenres! What other subgenres would you like to discuss? Do you disagree with anything above? Let’s talk in the comments!

Continuing Fantasy Month

This post is part of the Fantasy Month blog tour! But did you know there’s a whole list of posts like this here? You can see the previous post here, too. So jump in to the other blogs, hop onto Twitter for the hashtag game, and let’s have some fun!

Other Participating Blogs

There are a ton of bloggers participating in February is Fantasy Month. Here is a list (and hopefully I didn’t miss anyone!):

15 thoughts on “All About Fantasy Genres”

  1. Awesome breakdown of the various subgenres within Fantasy! It’s always interesting to me to see how different people classify/categorize different subgenres!

    The notable one you left off that I love would be fairy tales/retellings, but those tend to sort of flit about across a lot of different subgenres you mentioned depending on how the story is written!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. (trying to reply to your last comment, but not sure it will work since it’s only letting me reply to your earlier comment)

        I do think it would be quite difficult. If you’re talking about any other genre of any fiction at all, then yeah, impossible. But if you’re just talking about crossing with any other genre of FANTASY specifically, then I think it could be done. (The Man on the Buckskin Horse by Rachel Kovaciny does a good job of this, being solidly a Western with the only fantasy elements come from the retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Anything other than a Sleeping Beauty retelling and it’d be just a Western, with no hints of fantasy at all)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Personally, I don’t think “fairy tale retelling” can stand on its own. Even if you write in the same style as the original (which toes the line of “retelling”), it will still be either historical fiction or historical fantasy in many cases. I think it can be a useful description and give readers an expectation, but I also think it’s not quite descriptive enough on its own to really classify a story. 🙂

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    1. Wow WordPress did not tell me about this comment!!! Yes, I considered putting it in as its own subgenre, but as some other commenters have pointed out, there is so much overlap! Fantasy retellings might be one level of a story’s classification, but it could overlap into sci-fi, urban fantasy, high fantasy, you name it. Thanks for adding to the list!

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    1. Right? It’s still only a few years old, but I’m seeing more and more in the genre, especially from indie authors. Anthea Sharp’s Feylands books come to mind, but that’s just one example.

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  2. It’s always great to get more insight on the various branches of my favorite genre! It’s funny how many times things overlap and transform into a different thing altogether.

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    1. It definitely is! I have been so confused in the past years over what exactly urban fantasy is, only to discover that what I really love about it is that it’s contemporary fantasy! And the whole paranormal thing has huge overlap. It just goes to show you that a book can fit into multiple categories, and it’s up to the authors and publishers to decide how best to categorize it to find the readers who will love it. 🙂

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