Knowing Your Genre, Part One: Fantasy

Hello everyone! With PitchWars almost in the corner and everyone getting ready for submission, it’s time we all have everything set — there’s always time for last minute revisions and changing your queries, but don’t stress it out.

After posting my wishlist, there was a particular question that I got asked a couple of times: What is the difference between Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy?

This, of course, led to a big thread on twitter which you can read here. But most of all, it also led people to questioning which genres they write in, and how to classify their story. Speculative fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, has LOTS of subgenres, and all of them can get confused and mixed up.

In this series of posts, I’ll be discussing what goes where. Part one is Fantasy. Part two is Science Fiction. Part three is Magical Realism and writing literary magic. Part four is Horror. And then in Part Five I’ll wrap up with a post on the “easier” genres to identify, that is — Literary, Romance, Western, Contemporary Fiction. The last ones aren’t exactly my specialty, which is why I’m going to be a little briefer about them.

Remember: genres are a different thing than age category. Adult, Middle Grade, and Young Adult have ALL of these genres. age category determines your audience. Your genre determines what type of story you’re writing for that audience.

Another thing to remember before I really start digging deeper into subgenres for this post. There’s a difference between what we call Genre Fiction and Literary. On genre fiction, we have a plot-driven story most of the time. Literary focuses more on a character, or character journey. Of course, good writers can make those lines blur, and have both a character and plot driven story. But as far as it goes, this is the basic difference between them both.

And now that all those things are out of the way, let’s dig in, shall we?

Fantasy is a big wide genre. If we are to define it in its most basic form, it’s anything/everything to do with magic. Be it another world, be it strange otherworldly creatures, be it monsters, or be it literal magic made by wizards and spells. One of the things I like the most about fantasy is how different they can be from each other — we get Harry Potter, we get Lord of the Rings, we get The Golden Compass. It comes in every shape and size, and for such a big audience that when people say they don’t like fantasy, I just think they haven’t found the right type of fantasy for them.

And because it’s so big and wide, it can be confusing for a writer to define what exactly they’re writing. So this post is to help classify your work, and what exactly makes up which thing.

Disclaimer: I’m no expert in this! I mean, I do have a degree in Literature, read Todorov’s Theory of the Fantastic, etc. But my biggest experience comes from being a fantasy writer, as well as being a BIG reader of fantasy.

So, as I said, fantasy is a wide wide world and encompasses a lot of subgenres. I’m only going to talk about the more common ones, but there’s this gigantic list here you can consult if you’re interested.

And now let’s dig into it.

  • Contemporary Fantasy

Contemporary Fantasy might be one of the hardest things to define (as well as the easiest). A lot of people confuse it with Urban Fantasy, or Paranormal or Low Fantasy, but contemporary fantasy is its own thing.

Mostly, it’s defined by the magic in the life of a character. Harry Potter is one of the biggest examples of this — the setting itself isn’t important. What is important is Harry, his life, his choices. Magic is a thing that changes him, marvels him, but it is not what shapes the story. Harry and his choices (magical or not) shape the story.

Fantasy elements are woven inside the setting, but it never becomes the main part of the story. If you’ve confused Contemporary Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, last week I did a thread on twitter which prompted this post.

Good examples of Contemporary Fantasy: Harry Potter, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, House of Ivy and Sorrow by Natalie Whipple, The Archived by VE Schwab.

  • Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy is complicated, because it can be the subgenre of a subgenre. Dark fantasy is woven into the elements of a story, especially atmosphere. It creates a dark, scary, terrible world to live in. It often involves violence and murder and brutality, and doesn’t shy away from the darker topics.

It’s often about a twisted main character, antiheroes, and even more terrible villains. Some people also define it more as contains a certain type of element: old, ancient gods, rituals, cults, dark powers, Chuthlu, etc. You can write a high fantasy which is really dark as well, for example, so it’s not a necessarily defining genre.

Good Examples of Dark Fantasy: The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman, Monstress by Marjorie Liu, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.

  • Epic Fantasy

Epic Fantasy is about the journey. It can be a sub-subgenre of High Fantasy (see below) that works in big numbers. It has battlefronts and swords, and everything is big. The story is pretty much neverending, and involves about ten different main characters, and everything is sweeping and big. Epic fantasy is about things and battles that have come before your story, and also about what comes to pass. Yes, it can be confused with High Fantasy a lot — especially because many epic fantasies are also high fantasies.

What defines epic is well, the epicness! It’s also about world stakes: if your characters don’t accomplish their mission in time, the whole world will end. I’d say those are pretty epic stakes.

Good Examples of Epic Fantasy: Wizard’s First Rule by terry Goodkind, Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, Lord of the Rings, Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.

  • Gaslamp Fantasy

Gaslamp Fantasy is one of the least talked about genres, mostly because it’s weird-ish. It’s the fantasy equivalent of Steampunk. While in Steampunk you have things rooted on science, on Gaslamp you have things rooted on magic! It’s really that simple.

Gaslamp, like its sci-fi counterpart, is mainly built around the Victorian era, which gives it a sort of Gothic vibe. It’s an alternative world for Victorian books, where they can be full of magic, as well as have grand balls and the such. It’s usually set in England, and can alternate between the 1800 (whichever year).

Good examples of Gaslamp fantasy: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess, The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas, Gemma Doyle by Libba Bray, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark.

  • High Fantasy

High Fantasy might be one of my favorite subgenres. It’s about otherworld settings, new species, new rules, new magic. There’s no limit to the imagination. You can explore characters with new powers, fantastic beings, dragons, magic, new gods, anything you like.

When we talk about High Fantasy, we talk about fantasy often set in another world that contains more than just humans, and has often swords, dragons and battles. High Fantasy is not necessarily Second-world fantasy (fantasy set in a world other than our own) but it’s often used as an equivalent because that’s the most common type of high fantasy out there. High Fantasy, mostly, is defined by a complex world with magic at its core and that is intrinsic to the story.

Good examples of High Fantasy: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas, Snow like Ashes by Sara Raasch, The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

  • Historical Fantasy

Historical Fantasy is a really simple concept to explain: it’s set in the past, but it has fantasy elements. (And yes, Gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre of historical, only it has a specific time period.) Historical fantasy can go from Ancient Greek History to the Golden Age of Piracy to World War One. It has no limits, since the past is a long period of time, and anyone can play with it.

Historical Fantasy can have both known characters to our world, or it can be completely made up, mentioning only events. Some time-travel fantasy is considered historical because people travel to the past. Historical fantasy is one of the most beloved subgenres of fantasy, since it can include absolutely any time period, and all types of different magic and creatures.

Great examples of Historical Fantasy: The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Diviners by Libba Bray, My Lady Jane by Brodi Ashton-Cynthia Hand-Jodi Meadows, The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller.

  • Low Fantasy

Low Fantasy are books in which the fantasy elements appear, but they do very little for the story. Sometimes it can also be a fantasy set in a different world, but with a place that has no magic at all! Sounds strage, right? But it happens. Fantasy can also happen without magic, because it’s the atmosphere that shapes it.

And when magic appears in the story, it isn’t a big part of it, or doesn’t alter too much of the story. It’s usually not essential, but it’s just kinda there.

Good examples of Low Fantasy: Daughters of Ruin by KD Castner, Game of Thrones (The first book) by George RR Martin, Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

  • Magical Realism

Magical Realism can be considered fantasy because of its fantastic elements, but it’s actually its very own thing. I’m going to delve deeper into it on Part Three of this series of posts, so you can check back here for links.

For the most basic definition of Magical Realism, it’s our everyday world where magic is at its core, and it’s not unexpected. The characters live with magic everyday, and whimsical happenings are seen as normal.

  • Mythical Fantasy

Mythical fantasy is, once again, more subgenre of a subgenre than a whole thing. It’s usually composed of fantasy books that deal with myths and old folklore — origin of worlds, gods, and other origin myths known to ancient religions.

You can find Mythical Fantasy especially related to Greek and Roman mythology, the most common ones to research. Of course, Mythical fantasy can take root in any other mythology in the world — Orisha myths, Chinese myths, Nordic mythology. Or some can mix up a little of everything, like American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The root of it all is that it deals with the relationship between humans and the gods they believe in, and in fantasy, it often can relate to demigods and otherworldly powers.

Good Examples of Mythic Fantasy: Runemarks by Joanna Harris, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan’s MG series like Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles and Gods of Asgard, Deathless by Catherynne M Valente, The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter.

  • Paranormal

Paranormal is one of those genres that usually are confused with others (Contemporary Fantasy or Urban Fantasy), however, it becomes it’s own thing. When we talk about paranormal, as a genre, it means a paranormal romance.

A paranormal romance is defined by very simple standards: the main character, often a human, falls in love with a paranormal creature. This can be a vampire, a werewolf, a ghost, a warlock, a demigod, an angel, and almost every book we saw in the early 2010’s YA books. The most prominent element of this genre is the romance, and the stakes and story all evolve around the struggles of the main couple to get together/sort their differences. Paranormal forces are defined as things that don’t belong to this world in regards to creatures and phenomenons that are caused by such creatures. It differs from other fantasies because it is always set in our world.

We do have books that can be defined as “paranormal” only within the genre that don’t focus on romance, but then it becomes such a thin line that it’s rarely distinguished from Urban Fantasy at all. Stranger Things, the TV Show, could be defined as paranormal fiction, for example, and it does not have a romance in the center.

The background of the story can be anything at all — ranging from big city to country to anything at all, as long as the romance with a paranormal creature takes center stage.

Good examples of Paranormal Fantasy: Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, Obsidian by Jennifer L Armentrout, Beautiful Creatures by Margaret Stohl & Kami Garcia.

  • Portal Fantasy

Portal Fantasy is a specific type of fantasy where characters from our world travel through a portal to another world/dimension. This can happen only once in the story, or several times. The portals don’t necessarily have to be explained — they can be a door, a magical portal, or an object that transports them.

As long as it travels between worlds, and this is explained with magic, it’s Portal Fantasy. You can confuse it with multiverse sci-fi, but in sci-fi, there’s a scientific explanation for the traveling. In fantasy, a magic door opens up and lets you walk inside a completely new world.

Good examples of Portal Fantasy: The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.

  • Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy is the subgenre that got us into this in the first place. Urban Fantasy is a tricky thing to define — it looks like contemporary fantasy, it looks like it’s paranormal, but it’s often its own thing.

For Urban Fantasy, one of the key elements is the setting. In UF, we get the city itself as a setting, and not just any city — the urbanization, the buildings, the underground tunnels, the technology of nowadays and everything in between. In UF, the city is much more than just a simple setting, it’s a character. It’s something that influences the narrative and the character’s choices and especially the tone and atmosphere of the novel.

UF is often dark, gloomy, with this hazy darkness that revolves around it. It involves underground organizations, motorcycles, and a plane of magic that is hidden within the world we know. Often, the main character is a very regular person who discovers this world beneath, and is thus inserted into the magic (while not actively being part of it).

Good examples of Urban Fantasy: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, Shadowshaper by Daniel J Older, Strange Angels by Lilli St. Crow.

  • Wuxia

Wuxia is a very specific subgenre of high fantasy where all the main characters practice martial arts, or have ties to this. Its nomination comes from the wuxia genre of movies, especially popular in China, which ties martial arts and ancient magic together.

Personally, it’s also one of my favorites, especially when done by Asian authors. The martial arts in the book are usually taken to a step beyond human capability, almost tying it with magic and supernatural powers. These stories are often set in a Fantastical Imperial China, and feature warriors that bring strong philosophical ideals and codes of honor. I highly recommend watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or The House of the Flying Daggers if you want to see the visuals for it. Seriously, if you haven’t seen either of these movies, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?

Great examples of Wuxia Fantasy: The Seven Swords of Mount Haven by Liang Yusheng, the Crane-Iron series by Wang Dulu, Journey to the West by Cheng’en Wu.


I know there are still a lot of genres missing.

So, what’s the importance of you, as a writer, labeling your book correctly? When you label your book with the right genre, agents can easily place you in a shelf, as well as editors. Readers who are already fans of the genre will want to pick up your book, as well as it makes it easier for marketing.

Knowing your genre is a key importance of writing a query letter and understanding what exactly you’re writing. So when you deem your book an “urban fantasy”, all readers know exactly what to expect. And if you get your genre wrong… then some readers may not pick up the book at all.

Genre is about creating expectations, and sticking to them. You can bend and change things all you want, and try for crossovers, but at the end of the day, genre is a key element to understanding your own work — and understanding how others will view it.

Next week, I’ll talk about Science Fiction and its subgenres, so stay tuned!

Read Part Two here.


One comment

The comments are closed.

Leave a comment