Fantasy is a diverse literary genre that blends timeless themes, imaginative worlds, and archetypal heroes. It is a big tent in commercial fiction that encompasses many subgenres, and each one has distinct settings, tropes, themes, and magical elements. If you're unsure about which fantasy subgenre is the best fit for your next writing project, this article can help!
I’d like to offer this brief, practical guide to understanding different fantasy subgenres, how to select one that makes sense for your literary goals, and how tools like World Anvil can enhance your world-building and give depth to your creative vision.
So, let’s get started!
Peeking Under the Fantasy Umbrella
So, what is fantasy fiction? Anything that presents the impossible as a matter of reality.
Fantasy can be set in any time period or even in another world. It can include elements of science fiction, but it must also include at least one element that defies rational explanation. The fantastical element can be magic or mythical beings like dragons or vampires. The supernatural element can be commonplace or a closely guarded secret.
With that much variety, subgenres are an important way of helping readers find fantasy that suits their taste and helping writers connect with those readers.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular fantasy subgenres.
High Fantasy: Crafting Epic Worlds
If your imagination yearns for sprawling landscapes, ancient prophecies, and epic battles between forces of good and evil, high fantasy might be your calling. Think J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth or George R.R. Martin's Westeros.
High fantasy is especially popular with young adult audiences, but it has a broad appeal with all ages. If you want to really go BIG as a writer, you can’t go wrong with high fantasy.
High fantasy allows you to build entire worlds from scratch, complete with unique histories, languages, and mythologies—and tools like World Anvil can be invaluable in organizing thesedetails.
Urban Fantasy: Magic in the Modern World
For those who find excitement in the juxtaposition of magic and the mundane, urban fantasy is a fabulous choice.
Set in contemporary urban settings, this subgenre introduces fantastical elements seamlessly into the everyday. Think Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Jim Butcher's Dresden Files.
It’s a great genre to explore modern issues and more mature and complex themes. It’s also a genre that often rewards a strong romantic subplot. So if you’re dying to dive into a love triangle with vampires or fey lords, urban fantasy might be your best shot!
Urban fantasy is an exploration of how magic coexists, or conflicts, with our familiar reality. Your world might be a version of a real city, like London or Seattle, but with a magical underbelly hiding just out of view. Which means maps can be a fun addition to your world-building!
Gaslamp: Melding Fantasy With Victorian Innovation
Gaslamp fantasy, often conflated with the sci-fi subgenre steampunk, combines the wonders of magic with the aesthetic and social mores of the Victorian era. If you're drawn to airships, clockwork contraptions, and a touch of retro-futurism, this subgenre might be your ideal canvas.
Gaslamp fantasy often includes swashbuckling pulp adventure, or comedy-of-manners aspects, which can make it an exceptionally fun type of fantasy to write and read. Explore authors like Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, or Laura Anne Gilman to get a better feel for this style of writing.
Magical Realism: Blurring the Lines Between Fantasy and Reality
Dive into the realm of magical realism if you're intrigued by the subtle interplay of magic within the ordinary. This subgenre, popularized by authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Angela Carter, weaves enchantment into everyday life, blurring the boundaries between reality and the supernatural.
Whereas the supernatural elements in urban fantasy are unambiguous and obvious, magical realism often leaves the reader with the option to question what was real and what was merely a suggestion.
Magical realism offers a poetic and thought-provoking approach to fantasy storytelling. It’s a good option for writers who want to dip a toe in the strange and surreal without leaving verisimilitude behind entirely.
Dark Fantasy: Embracing Shadows and Complexity
For those who appreciate a grittier, more complex narrative, dark fantasy beckons. With morally ambiguous characters, grim atmospheres, and often a touch of horror, this subgenre explores the shadows that lurk within fantastical realms.
Explore the works of authors like Joe Abercrombie or Mark Lawrence for a taste of dark fantasy's intensity. If you have a hard time categorizing your project between fantasy or horror, dark fantasy is probably a good bet.
Choosing Your Fantasy Subgenre: A Step-by-Step Guide
Now that you have a good idea of the general feel of the most popular fantasy subgenres, it’s time to decide which of them you’d most enjoy as a writer!
Some of this will depend on how much you already know about your project. If you’re starting from a blank page, you can tailor your project to the reader expectations for any genre.
If you’ve already made some decisions, you’ll need to pick a suitable category or rethink some of those choices. Here are the things you should consider:
Identify Your Themes and Tones: Consider the motifs you want to examine and the mood you want to create in your story. Are you drawn to epic battles, mystery, or social issues? How complex are your themes, and how mature (or humorous) is your tone?
Define Your World: Determine the level of you desire. Do you want to create an entirely new world or infuse magic into familiar settings? Is there a particular historical time period you’d love to explore?
Explore Your Characters: Consider the types of characters you want to feature. Are they knights on a quest, modern-day wizards, or morally ambiguous antiheroes? What age protagonist do you want to write? Will you want to include a romantic relationship?
Reflect on Your Influences: Think about the fantasy books, movies, or games that have inspired you. What elements do you want to incorporate into your own work? What subgenre do you most often feel drawn to as a reader?
Consider Your Audience: Who are you writing for? Tailor your subgenre choice to the preferences of your target audience. You can write dark fantasy for a younger audience, but it will require extra care.
Wrapping Up Our Adventure
As you prepare to tackle your next fantasy writing project, consider your personal preferences, storytelling goals, and the emotions you want to evoke in your readers. Whether you're crafting a high-stakes quest, unraveling mysteries in a modern metropolis, or infusing magic into the mundane, there's a fantasy subgenre waiting to bring your creative vision to life.
With tools like World Anvil, you can elevate your world-building to new heights. So, pick up your quill (or keyboard), explore magical realms, and start drafting! To begin your journey,at World Anvil today! Happy writing!