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Subgenres in Fantasy

Updated on March 11, 2019
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Jillian started writing fantasy after reading, and promptly falling in love with, A Song of Ice and Fire. She has a novel in the works.

What is Fantasy?

Fantasy is an unimaginably vast genre. By definition, it encompasses stories set in a magical world—one in which physical laws can be altered, often illogically, with ease.

Although other elements—such as sorcery, dragons, and medieval social structures—tend to get clumped together with fantasy, they aren’t mandatory elements of the genre: As long as a story takes place in a magical setting, it’s fantasy.

Now that you’re more familiar with what fantasy is, let’s discuss subgenres.

Dragons, wizards, and kingdoms... oh my?

Fantasy Has Many Subgenres

As with any genre, fantasy consists of subgenres, categories that capture the essence of their parent genre but retain a set of conventions unique to themselves. In fantasy, subgenre novels stay true to the idea of having a magical setting, but beyond that, they may not resemble a fantasy at all.

The Dresden Files, a series of 15 books written by Jim Butcher, is a good example of how extremely subgenre fantasy can differ from we might expect of a traditional fantasy story. In The Dresden Files, Butcher creates a magical world set in modern-day Chicago—already subverting the medieval European setting typical of the genre.

In addition to a modern setting, Butcher’s novels feature characters, themes, and elements common to psychological thrillers, including hard-boiled private investigators, exhilarating criminal encounters, and the steady, almost imperceptible threat of a mastermind orchestrating it all. Yet The Dresden Files, with their magical setting, are fantasy novels through and through; specifically, they’re urban fantasies because they take place in the modern world.

Take a look at some of the most common subgenres in fantasy below.

Some Common Subgenres In Fantasy

  • Urban Fantasy
  • High Fantasy
  • Steampunk Fantasy
  • Military Fantasy
  • Arthurian Fantasy
  • Swashbuckling Fantasy

It’s worth noting that this list presents a mere fraction of the subgenres you’ll find out in the real world. For a more exhaustive list, check out Best Fantasy Book’s article on the topic.

Choosing a Subgenre

Because such a wealth of options exist where choosing a subgenre is concerned, you’ll need to do some soul searching before you come to a conclusion about which genre to center your writing on.

A good way to simplify this choice is to narrow in on a couple of elements you can't envision telling your story without. Is the centerpiece of your plot a mysterious sword crafted in the fires of a long forgotten Druid empire? Is your main character a peasant boy who discovers he's the heir to that long forgotten empire? Perhaps high fantasy is your subgenre of choice.

Questions to Help You Pick a Subgenre

  • Where is my story set?
  • When is my story set?
  • What elements define my story's main societies?
  • What tropes does my story adhere to?

Feel free to suggest questions you've found useful in your own writing in the comments!

Writing Your Story

Once you’ve selected a subgenre that appeals to you, it’s time to start writing. There’s a variety of ways to approach this task, from jumping straight in to outlining rigorously before you even think about putting down your story's first line.

According to George R.R Martin (and a host of other writers; I just heard it first from Martin), there are two lines of action, generally, that writers pursue when they want to tell a story. The first is construction, and the second is gardening.

Architects, as the group of writers who prefer construction are known, tend to mull over ideas for long periods of time before bringing them to life in the form of a story. They ponder every twist and turn their plot might take, weighing each option like gold and settling only on the purest, most valuable choice. They are the outliners; the worldbuilders; the planners; and their work tends to show it.

Gardeners, as members of the second group are known, take a less structured approach to storytelling. Their writings are like seeds: They belong to a general species—romance, fantasy, comedy, thriller—and take a predictable form when they‘re fully grown. But before they reach that state, the seeds grow in unpredictable ways, sending out shoots that twist this way and that as the sun shifts in the sky and sprouting branches, buds, and leaves with caprice. Meanwhile, the gardener spectates, tending the young plant as needed but leaving much of its growth to the forces of nature.

Are You an Architect or a Gardener?

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Closing Notes

Hopefully, this article has helped you navigate the process of choosing an appropriate subgenre to center your next story around.

You should have an idea, now, of what questions to ask yourself when determining which subgenre your story falls into, as well as a sense for your preferred style of writing.

Whether you’re an architect or a gardener, however, what matters most for your story is how much work you put into making it a reality. Blueprints, however richly detailed, are just sheets of paper unless you make buildings out of them, and your ideas follow the same principle.


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