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.

Genres and Subgenres Defined

Agents and editors inevitably ask the following 3 questions: Is your book finished? What’s the word count? What genre? The question of genre seems to cause writers perpetual grief. Despite popular opinion that agents are just trying to trip new writers up to laugh at them, this is a perfectly valid question.

What do you mean I have to categorize my work?

bookstoreNow, I know what you’re thinking. If only agents could get past this genre thing you’re sure they’d love your inspirational paranormal Amish romance. Writers like Ted Dekker or George Martin don’t have to abide by silly genre rules. Well… First, these really big name authors have huge followings that to a certain extent buy books based on their brand. And those writers actually do adhere to genre rules.

Janette Oke didn’t create inspirational fiction, Stephen King wasn’t the first to write horror, Nora Roberts wasn’t the first romance novelist. All of these writers took an old idea and put their own twist on it, but there were still genre rules they had to abide by. If you want to see your book on the shelf at the local bookstore or on Amazon, booksellers have to know where to put your book. Here are a few quick definitions of existing fiction genres:


Romance must focus on the romantic relationship and love between two people, and according to the Romance Writers of America must have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Period. Those are deal breakers for romance fans. If you kill your hero, your readers are going to hate you.

Subgenres of romance can be divided by time periods – historical (before WW2), contemporary (after WW2), Regency, etc. Other subgenres are defined by content such as erotica, romantica, and inspirational. Other subgenres are defined by sub-plots such as in romantic suspense, or paranormal which would include time travel, futuristic, urban fantasy (werewolves, vampires), etc.


Inspirational stories are written primarily for the evangelical Christian market, and use explicitly Christian themes and are written in combination with a wide variety of other genres. Generally, inspirational novels do not include gratuitous violence, explicit descriptions of sex, promiscuous sexual behavior, swearing, and inherently include the character’s relationship with God.

Science Fiction

Science fiction deals with content that is more or less possible within the current plausibility of our own natural world, or at least, isn’t supernatural. Science fiction includes future settings, plausible science, futuristic technology, extra-sensory or perception abilities, and space travel–alternate realities using rational explanations. Star Trek is one of the most successful science fiction franchises out there. Star Trek writers included futuristic automatic doors on their space ships back when engineers were just beginning to experiment with the idea – and now we encounter them at every Wal-Mart across North America.


Crime fiction focuses on a crime, and the solving of that crime. The crime plot must be the primary plot. Crime fiction has many subgenres that often blurr the lines between other genres. According to the Crime Writers of Canada, “The field of Crime Writing is a broad category that includes crime, detective, espionage, mystery, suspense, and thriller writing, as well as fictional or factual accounts of criminal doings and crime-themed literary works. Cross-over novels and short stories such as romantic suspense and speculative thrillers are also considered part of the genre.”


With a thriller, the main protagonist must foil the antagonist more than solve a crime. So the hero may be the detective assigned to a serial killer case, but the focus isn’t on the crime committed, but in catching the killer. Often the hero is put in imminent and potentially fatal danger, and the scope of the crime is much larger than with a crime novel. The hero isn’t searching to solve the disappearance of Joe the Mechanic, but the man who’s raped and murdered 13 children and now has targeted the hero’s daughter. Think big – like Jack Ryan big: assassinations, government coos, etc.

Subgenres include psychological thrillers, and suspense thrillers. says, “the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.”


When I think modern horror, I think Freddie Krueger or Scream. But horror has its roots with Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley or Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. According to the Horror Writers Association, “horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.”


Fantasy, obviously, deals with some aspect of an alternate reality, an alternate world, and often encompasses myths, folklore and legend. Here is a really great post that outlines the major subgenres of fantasy. The Science Fiction and Fantasy writers association is one of the best writer resources out there, even for those who write outside this genre so be sure to check it out.

What is your favorite genre? What genre are you writing right now?


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

Munnin’s Keep – A Review

Do you love The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or any other number of epic fantasy stories? I read the first chapter or two online and was hooked by Munnin’s Keep, so when it came across our desks I had to barter with Marcy to get to review this one.

As a huge fan of historical fantasy, I am familiar with all the standard epic fantasy fare: unfulfilled prophecies, spiritual quests, mythic creatures, reluctant heroes, and epic battles. And Munnin’s Keep delivered. (The wingless dragon was pretty cool, I have to say. Sounds much more intimidating and fearsome than a really big lizard, don’t you think? 🙂

Set in the turbulent ninth century in Britain, Theodric awakens as a slave near death with no memory of his own past or current circumstance. With the help of a collection of colourful characters, Theodric discovers he is the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy, and works to see that prophesy fulfilled in his own way.

While I was excited to see the afore-mentioned staples of the genre, I was disappointed by the lack of unique twist to those same epic devices. Without the unique twists the unfulfilled prophesy becomes predictable and the reluctant hero annoying. (In all fairness, I felt like smacking Aragorn after a while when it was obvious he would be King and refused to step up. I’m not the most patient of readers.)

However, what I really loved about this book, was the spiritual quest the hero undertook. I thought it was an honest, insightful and intelligent look at the traditions and customs of the Church. With rich historical details, the author excellently debunked the false nature of pagan cultures that thrive on fear and subterfuge—and then exposed the hypocrisy in the Church.

I would have liked to see that debate through. We knew what didn’t work for the pagans and for the Church, so what does? The hero never explored Christianity with the same insight and introspection that debunked the pagan cultures and would have given Christos credibility in that early polytheistic society. I would have liked that storyline more developed. That’s what made this story truly unique.

I enjoyed the small romantic sideline and thought the characters well-rounded and colourful. I found the suspense elements a little flat, but the spiritual journey of Theodric kept me reading. All in all, a novel that will make you think on certain levels, and at the same time provide that pleasant afternoon escape fiction lovers crave.

Munnin’s Keep by Brian C. Austin