Fantasy Sub-Genres

Fantasy sub-genresIn September, Lisa started out our series on genres and sub-genres by giving you a look at some of the genres your novel might fall in to (and explaining why you do indeed need to choose a genre for your book). This week, I’m going to help you sort out the tangle that is sub-genres. And to make this easier on everyone, I’m going to focus on one genre a day.

Why do sub-genres matter?

A couple very simple reasons actually.

First, many agents will represent one sub-genre but not another. If an agent only reps urban fantasy, for example, and you send them your epic fantasy, you’ve wasted their time and yours.

Your chances of making a sale increase the more accurately you can identify your target audience. Sub-genres help you do that by helping you find books similar to yours. People who read those books are likely to enjoy your books as well.

While I can’t cover every sub-genre for you, here’s your crash course on the major ones to get you started, beginning with fantasy.

Historical Fantasy – I had to start with this one because this is the genre of Lisa’s and my current co-written work-in-progress. Since this is our blog, I think I get to show it preferential treatment 🙂 Historical fantasy takes place in a recognizable historical time period and in a real world location. This sub-genre encompasses things like the King Arthur legends and Robin Hood. It’s more about how the author plays with history, myth, and legend than it is about magic.

Epic Fantasy – Epic fantasies are what most people think of when they hear “fantasy.” They’re defined by a large cast of characters, multiple POVS, and complex plots. They’re set in a fictional world, and the plot often revolves around the rise and fall of kingdoms. The ultimate epic fantasies are George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Urban Fantasy – First of all, urban fantasy is set in a primarily, well, urban/city setting. You can’t set your fantasy in a medieval-esque pastoral setting and call it “urban fantasy.” It’s darker, grittier than most other fantasy, and you’ll usually find it populated with demons, vampires, werewolves, witches (not the Harry Potter kind), or zombies.

Superhero Fantasy – Secret identities, superhuman powers, and villains who are more than a little unhinged are part of what make superhero fantasy so much fun. Superhero movies like X-Men, Spiderman, The Green Lantern, and Captain America are all great examples of this genre.

Traditional Fantasy – Traditional fantasy is basically a teeny, tiny epic fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world (i.e. not our world) like epic fantasy, but it has a smaller cast of characters, fewer POV characters, and a plot that focuses more on a single character (or small group) and their unique struggle than on the creation or destruction of worlds/kingdoms. Magic in some form is usually a key element of traditional fantasy. A classic traditional fantasy is The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

The fraternal twin sister of traditional fantasy is sword and sorcery, where the plot focuses more on the swashbuckling adventures and daring doos of the main character than on the magical elements. In other respects, they’re the same. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora is an icon sword and sorcery fantasy.

Contemporary Fantasy – This sub-genre of fantasy sets the story in our modern-day world (as opposed to historical fantasy) and, although they can have dark elements to them, they also aim to give their reader a sense of joy and wonder. Contemporary fantasies often involve a “world within a world.” If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, you’ve read contemporary fantasy. (Urban fantasy is actually a sub-genre of this sub-genre, but it’s easier to consider it as its own sub-genre. Confused yet?)

Alternate History – Don’t let its name fool you. Alternate history plots actually fall into the fantasy genre rather than the historical fiction genre because at some point in time the history of the story world diverged from the history of our world. What if the Nazis won World War II? That became the inspiration for The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Depending on the focus of alternate history plots, they can also be categorized as science fiction.

Do you find that you read more in one of these sub-genres than the others? Where does your fantasy novel fall?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


17 comments on “Fantasy Sub-Genres

  1. I understand having to name our genre. Where I’m having my problem is with pre-conceived notions of what “said” genre should be. I’ve noticed this especially with Steampunk. Yikes! People argue over this, loudly. So while I hate labeling my work Historical Fantasy with Steampunk elements (or, as I prefer, w/Steampunkishness) I’m skittish about naming it “Steampunk.”

    • There are unfortunately a few categories that hit this problem. I’d hope that agents and editors aren’t the ones doing the arguing, but if you find they are, then your solution is probably a good one.


  2. Great post! I had trouble defining something I was writing, and I’m glad to see it fits in contemporary fantasy (I really wanted to avoid the label paranormal b/c my world wasn’t really that paranormal, but it was fantasy). I think the categories are important as a writer to understand, so that then we can break the rules and mash them together! haha 🙂

    • Hehe. You’ve actually hit on one of the most important reasons for knowing the categories. Once we know them, we know what we absolutely need to fit into a category, and where we can break the rules 🙂


  3. Huh, you got me wondering now if Blood of the Dragon is epic or just traditional. I’ve heard it said that in epic fantasy, the hero has to save the world, and in traditional fantasy, the hero just has to save himself (and/or his friends, etc). I’m afraid if I just label it “general fantasy” according to Amazon’s categories, it will be less visible. Not like it’s all that visible now anyway, but that will be changing soon, hopefully. 😉

  4. Excellent info as usual gals!
    You teach me so much about writing. I appreciate what you are doing.
    Question for you?????
    What about books like Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men? Are those considered fantasy? Where does Utopian or Dystopian fit into this discussion? I have heard those titles thrown around a lot. I have an idea in my head and someone told me to check out those genres but I haven’t found good explanations like you have given above.

  5. Okay, so I’m a little confused. I have been following the guidelines that Stacey O’Neale put out. You can see them here: Based on what she has to say I thought the majority of my story is High Fantasy with the first book in the series being other. But you don’t have anything that fits that definition that I can tell. Or do you? Would that be traditional? But here is where I’ve really struggled in classifying it: The story doesn’t truly fit these perimeters until the second book and I’ve kept the entire series in one POV (not an easy task). So, does the first book fall into the same genre simply because that’s where the story is headed or does it get classified separately?

  6. Hi Debra,

    I don’t actually know what to tell you about the information at that link except that I don’t agree with her classifications. For example, she’s classified some science fiction genres as fantasy. While both science fiction and fantasy are speculative fiction, they shouldn’t both be lumped together and called fantasy.

    Another confusing element is that some people like to use the terms “high fantasy” and “low fantasy” as if they were genres. They’re not. They’re broad classifications that different fantasy genres can fall in to.

    For a series, look at it as a whole to figure out where it fits, and sell it as that big picture genre. If you’re still in the writing phase of the first book, I’d also suggest making sure to include some elements that strongly hint at where the story is going in terms of genre.

    I hope that helps.

    Marcy 🙂

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  9. This was such a great post Marcy! It definitely helped me out a lot. I have never felt like my book was a true Epic Fantasy book – the thought of lumping it in the same category with those you mentioned just seemed wrong somehow – but I didn’t know where else it fit. It certainly didn’t fit in any of the other categories I knew. But now I know – it is Traditional Fantasy. Thank you for the help and the great round up!

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