Part One: Defining Your Genre
Fantasy stories have been around as long as people have been telling tales over the fire. Storytellers wove tales of jealous gods and outlandish beasts. Later, these tales evolved into the epics such as Homer and Beowulf or the tales of Arabian Nights. In the last century, writers such a Tolkien, Lewis and Lovecraft ignited the modern reader’s love for everything fantastical.
From there the genre of Fantasy spiderwebbed in every direction. Subgenres branched into niches that became sub genres of their own. This article is to help you define which genre of Fantasy you would most like to write under, or if you see a place for something entirely new to be created.
The first genre split I’d like to take a look at is High Fantasy versus Low Fantasy. While one is clearly situated in a world that does not exist the other is a little more close to home. High Fantasy, such as Middle Earth and Narnia, cannot be found on any map in school rooms. These worlds exist in our minds and hearts alone. No matter how much we bemoan that fact. Watching Harry Potter makes me want to cry for the fact alone that the world does not exist. Which leads me right into Low fantasy. This is when a fantastic world is written to exist alongside the world as we know it. It magic could be happening right under our noses and we wouldn’t be any wiser.
Finding the right genre or combination of genres is the best tool with which to begin your writing endeavor.
High Fantasy Sub Genres:
- Heroic/Quest Fantasy: The most relatable example of this would have to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’re all familiar with it, right? In this trilogy, a young hobbit who has never left his home before is pushed to trek his way into Mordor to destroy the One Ring to Rule Them All. This features not only a world that is entirely made up, but the plot centers around a defined quest to be completed by the hero. The world could be as fantastic as Sarah J. Mass’s Erilea or it could be as magically bereft as Martin’s Westeros. That’s up to you.
- Sword and Sorcery: While similar to Heroic fantasy in so many ways, this one is a bit more tongue in cheek. This is the story that uses all that is fun and weird in fantasy to create a world and story combo that is, often, a bit funny. This includes works by Patricia C. Wrede and Terry Pratchett. Wrede’s Talking to Dragons series include a rabbit that turns into a flying blue donkey by eating the wrong flower. See what I mean. This genre isn’t just for children, as shown by Pratchett’s success, but it does make a great basis for stories for young children.
- Retellings: These have become insanely popular in the last few years or so, but authors have been writing them for as long as there have been fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are taken apart, remodeled, and put back together in ways that can be obvious or not so obvious. My favorites include Edith Pattou’s East, a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon (my all time favorite fairy tale, if anyone was asking) and Sarah J. Maas’s ACOTAR series. I point out Maas because she’s not so clearly cut as a retelling, but book one in the series stands out as a remodeled Beauty and the Beast tale in her wonderful High Fantasy way of writing. Book two took inspiration not from a fairy tale, but from a mythological tale: Hades and Persephone.
Low Fantasy Sub Genres:
- Urban Fantasy: Clearly one of my favorites, Urban Fantasy is set in the real world, here and now. It began in cities, earning it the urban title, but the settings have branched out to rural and small towns. It is characterized by spunky protagonists who find themselves caught up in a dangerous life (often taking death threats from vampires with their morning orange juice), either by choice or by accident. My favorite example is the Rachel Morgan series by Kim Harrison. (Which has a bit of that sword and sorcery pluck. I told you they could overlap.) Rachel is an independent bounty hunter in a Cincinnati that has a seedy magical side and a clear problem with race. Everyone except for her roommates seems to want her dead, but she still has to tag the bad guy to pay her rent.
- Paranormal Romance: I think many of us have read this genre before, hidden it within our e-readers so that others couldn’t see the covers. These books often read like Urban Fantasy novels, but is it’s own genre because while there is often a major conflict within the story, the romance is what takes center stage. The world could get blown up in the background, but we’re still waiting for Gina to kiss Sammy. Like, just get it on already!
- Historical Fantasy: By giving Aladdin a magic carpet and a genie, we have created Historical Fantasy. These stories take place in real times and places in our history, but are given splashes of the fantastic. They could take place anywhere and anytime in history. Think King Arthur.
- Contemporary Fantasy: In this genre the fantastic elements are often not as blatant as the sexy werewolf leaning in your doorway. Here, the physical conflict often associated with Urban Fantasy is toned down or gotten rid of altogether. Take Charles De Lint’s books for example. In many of them, there are truly fantastic creatures such a fae and crow girls, but it is the actual story that takes precedence. It is weaving of the story that the author wants to really shine, a message that needs to be heard loud and clear.
Genres That Stand On Their Own:
These genres have been separated because they can function within either High or Low Fantasy depending upon how they are written. It makes them wonderful. Try overlapping these with any of the above sub genres!
- Steampunk: I think we can all easily recognize Steampunk for what it is at this point. Often characterized by gears and cogs, Steampunk takes inspiration from the age of steam power. Readers get dirigibles, trains, women in corsets, and sometimes world trekking adventure. My favorite example is Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series. Young Sophronia is sent off to a finishing school meant to train elite assassin women, taking a sometimes silly and sometimes serious approach to the narrative.
There are a lot of directions that you could go in steampunk. You could write it in the traditional Victorian setting or you lean towards a more modern setting influenced by pseudosciences. You could make it more science related or you could throw some fun amounts of magic in. There’s a real fun game of balance that can be happening here
- Grimdark: Anything with a violent or promise of violence in a fantastical setting garners the name Grimdark. Maybe the most well known example is the Song of Fire and Ice series by George RR Martin. There is so freaking much violence and dark mystery (or, secrets) wrapped up in his works. Grimdark is marked by a lack of morality among the characters in the story, often leading to dark situations.
Grimdark leaves a lot of doors open. This is more of a mood than anything else. Think of it like a dark photo filter. You are laying a mood over your characters and setting that give voice to dark themes and messages. Often these stories are in dystopian settings, but that doesn’t have to be the dystopian we all think of. It can be Martin’s crumbling Westeros just as much as it can be Victoria Aveyard’s dark setting in Red Queen.
Don’t let these genres stop you. Have you thought of something completely new? Or, can you see two or more of these genres merging in a way that will be a complete hit? Deborah Harkness did it with her All Souls Trilogy, taking a contemporary Paranormal Romance and weaving in Historical Fantasy (which I keep reminding myself to finish reading because I think about it everytime I see anything vaguely historical).
Don’t be afraid to make a bit of a culture mash as well. Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands absolutely drew me in with her unique setting idea. Arabian Nights meets Wild West? What the hell? More like hell yes. The two sandy/dusty settings brought their cultures together in a riotous fantasy story.
What genre do you see yourself writing in? If you can’t narrow it down, a series of questions may be able to help you.
Do I want to write in my own world or a made up world?
What level of magic or fantasy do I want to create?
Do I want to have clean fun or do I want to murder everyone?
Is there a time in history that greatly inspires me?
Or, is there a fairy tale/myth that drives me?
If none of those helps, take a look at the books that inspire you. Narrow down what it is about them that ignites that spark within you while you read. The old adage will always be, write the book you want to read.