As I was researching for this month’s theme I was starting to realize that I don’t have a full grasp of fantasy genre lingo. So this post is mainly for my edification and to make sense of some of the terminology used. I hope others who may have experienced any confusion can find some guidance, and if not, maybe know that you aren’t alone!
This is going to be a very broad overlook, because a deep dive would be extensive and I don’t think that’s necessary for my purposes. I’m just staying in the shallow end of the pool for this post.
Basically fantasy has something mystical, magical, or supernatural that’s a key element to the story. If you can explain it with science then chuck it over to sci-fi. There’s a lot of crossover between the two genres, but that’s the basic idea.
Fantasy falls into one of three categories: High, Low, or Portal, which the framework and setting determine. Before I jump into this, I know that there are outliers everywhere, this is supposed to be very general.
1 High Fantasy
We have left our world and entered a whole new fictional one. I think this and Epic get interchanged a lot, especially since Lord of the Rings tends to be the gold standard for high fantasy novels.
— Epic – The journey can focus on the hero, but tends to be more grand and ‘life and death’. If the hero doesn’t complete the quest then the world as they know it is at stake. I think the low side equivalent would be pretty much every freaking Marvel movie.
— Heroic – While I would put Lord of Rings in the Epic category, I think the Hobbit is a great example of Heroic. This is more personal, doesn’t have to be life or death. Personally I think this could be used for Low as well so long as the hero’s goals are moral and just.
— Sword and Sorcery – an article from Pop Verse called this heroic fantasy’s ‘pulpy cousin’. Not so hung up on the morals of the characters, more in it for the thrills and adventure.
— Grimdark – The other side of the heroic subgenre that usually focuses on anti-heroes. I would include this under High fantasy because I think the morals of Epic and Heroic fantasy is what Grimdark is trying to flip. I don’t know if Monstress is considered Grimdark, but to me it checks off all the boxes and is one of the best examples that comes to mind.
2 Low Fantasy
This is set in the real world where magic exists on some level within it. The magic can be a world just below the surface, like Harry Potter, or just be some stones that send you back to the past, ala Outlander.
— Urban – Takes place in modern society, so usually more edgy and gritty (at least that’s what the book covers lead me to believe). Modern versions of fairy tale reimagines usually fall in this subgenre.
— Paranormal – The crossover with horror where the world is filled with the paranormal. I think the best examples are the Sookie Stackhouse novels. There are definitely horror/romance elements there, but as the series continued it was evident that it was primarily fantasy.
— Historical – This is probably the closest Low Fantasy comes to High, especially if the setting is Middle Ages. This subgenre takes real events/places and stuffs them with magic. I mentioned Outlander before and it would fall here, being that both timelines are based in our histories.
These are our ‘two worlds’ books where there’s some kind of portal that bridges the two worlds. I tend to see this mostly with Children’s lit, such as the Narnia series, Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland etc.
Others of Notes:
A big subgenre in Fantasy is Fairy Tale and Mythic reimaginings that can be either high or low and can fall under many of the subgenres listed above. It has become a massive subsection of the fantasy genre and has a life of its own.
While I was researching, there were three other categories that can be also a subgenre of fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, but some consider them their own thing entirely. I want to do more research on these three later on because doing a deep dive is out of the scope of this post. But soon.
The New Weird – Where fantasy and science meet. Trying to push the boundaries with conventional fantasy.
Speculative – Thought of Fantasy had the best description: “characters, places or things that do not currently exist in our present-day world, but can be invented or imagined by humans”
Magical Realism: The fantasy here is very lowkey and comes from the mind of the protagonist. The elements aren’t pivotal to the plot and the settings tend to be realistic.
So here’s my very basic intro into fantasy subgenres, hopefully I wasn’t too far off the mark. I’m still learning and researching so I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to update.
**Two key posts that helped start my research, if you want to check out for further study:
Thoughts of Fantasy – 17 Common Fantasy Subgenres
Pop Verse – Epic, heroic, urban… What’s the difference between fantasy sub-genres?
5 thoughts on “Discussion Time: Fantasy Subgenres”
This was a well organized post. I hope people who are experts in the genre will chime in with anything that should be added. Or maybe you thought of them all! 🙂
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Thank you so much! I’ll take any help I can get 🙂
I do find the subgenres confusing, especially since not everyone seems to define them in quite the same way. It’s interesting to see the “textbook” definitions of each subgenre to see how it compares to the general definition in my head. For instance, magical realism is an interesting one—I’d never thought of the magic as being generally only in the MCs head.
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Magical Realism is a hard one and I feel like I’ll have a better grasp once I read a few more MR books. I think you’re right that the magic is in the MC’s head.
I would consider it its own genre linking fantasy and literary fiction together.
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