In 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?