What Kind of Fantasy? Understanding the Various Fantasy Genres

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Fantasy is huge these days. It’s been big for awhile, but with the titanic rise of YA Fantasy and the resurgence of adult fantasy in the form of TV epics like Game of Thrones, it’s safe to say it currently rules the hearts and minds of many.

That said, there are a lot of different sub-genres, and if you haven’t dived too deeply into the topic you might not be familiar with them all. Here’s a quick and simple breakdown on some of the most popular categories.

Note: The definitions for fantasy types continue to shift. While these categories are generally well defined, there’s no total consensus on them by the larger book community.

1. Epic Fantasy/High Fantasy

Epic fantasy—also known as high fantasy—is the kind of thing we think about when we think “traditional” fantasy.

It’s usually defined by having a second world element (i.e. a fantasy world completely separate from our own), high stakes and a very involved plot line.

Trilogies are common in epic fantasy due to the scope of the storytelling, and supernatural or mythical elements abound. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, with elves, dwarves, and dragons.

2. Sword and Sorcery

The sword and sorcery subgenre has a lot of magic in it—after all, it’s in the title—but unlike epic fantasy the scope of the plot can be very small.

Think of mercenaries going off on an adventure, or bards singing in a tavern, or treasure hunters exploring a dungeon. All that character-driven, “dysfunctional D&D party” stuff. That’s Sword and Sorcery.

3. Fantasy Romance

Fantasy romance can also belong under the umbrella of the Romance genre, as it’s one of those crossovers where the boundaries between the different categories starts to blur.

This subgenre can include elements of high fantasy or any other category, but unlike the other categories it must follow romantic conventions. The main plot must be centered on a relationship, and the book must have a HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy For Now) ending.

It’s a subgenre I personally enjoy a lot.

4. Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy—which can veer even further into the category of “grimdark”—is a type of fantasy that explores morbid or mature themes in a fantastical setting.

It can be a swords and sorcery setting or contain elements of an epic plot, but this adult subject matter is a constant factor. Horror is often part of the subgenre.

5. Steampunk

Steampunk is a genre that is part sci-fi, part fantasy, and all aesthetic, with its roots inspired by the early era of science-fiction during the late 19th Century.

Preoccupied with an alternative vision of Victorian society, Steampunk combines the aesthetics of that era with steam-powered technology to present an alternate reality to our own. It often combines this with magic or elements of the occult.

Items that frequently show up in Steampunk: Victorian clothing, airships, monocles, robots, and secret societies.

6. Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a type of fantasy where strange creatures and supernatural societies exist alongside our modern world. The subgenre also toys with the idea that these magical creatures can walk amongst us or access our world through “gates” that tie the two realities together.

Urban fantasy is a very popular genre, and some of the most famous examples include Twilight and True Blood.

Do you have any other types of fantasy that you want us to add to the list? Let us know in the comment section below!

Looking for more information on world-building in genre fiction, fantasy or otherwise? Check out our explanation on the sci-trope “ecumenopolis.”

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