Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Fantasy Sub-Genres, by Matthew MacNish

Saint George Killing the Dragon, 1434, by Bernat Martorell, public domain

Last month, I posted about my love of fantasy, and it was mentioned that I should break down the sub-genres in further detail. I'm perfectly happy to do so, but be warned: these genres are based on marketing of books published for adult readers. Many of them are not appropriate for Middle Grade aged readers.

So, to be clear, first of all Fantasy is a genre of fiction. It applies to movies and comic books and television shows, but I'll be focusing on literature alone. I'm really no expert, and what little I do know only comes from being a fan.

Fantasy, like the big boys Science-Fiction and Horror, is one of the three main genres of the super-genre known as speculative fiction. Of course all fiction is fantasy in a way, but again, we're talking about Fantasy with a capital F. Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

"Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three..."

So ... the general consensus is that there are four or five main types of Fantasy, depending on whether you consider Epic Fantasy as its own category or not (I won't for this post, because Epic is a term that can be attributed to most any of the other categories--think Epic High Fantasy for Lord of the Rings or Epic Grimdark Fantasy for A Song of Ice and Fire AKA Game of Thrones).

The four main categories are:

High Fantasy.

Oldest and most well known is probably High Fantasy. Epic in its settings, themes, characters and plot elements, High Fantasy is very specific in its aesthetic. It doesn't necessarily have to be elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards, but it does have to be full of what might be called high ideals. Good wins, there is honor, and while there may be much violence taking place in the grand scheme of things, it is never described in detail, and when there is death, it is generally romanticized.

The term was first coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance," and its roots lie in fairy-tales and myth.

Think kings and captains and lords and ladies.

Low Fantasy.

The biggest difference between high and low fantasy is not so much the scope (remember, either one can be Epic), but mainly in its setting or the rules of its world. In High Fantasy, magic and monsters or gods or supernatural creatures are a primary element of the plot. In Low Fantasy, there may be magic, but it's generally simpler, and otherwise the laws of science generally mirror reality. There might be monsters or immortal creatures, but there would be a more rational explanation for their existence than being sung into existence by the creator.

Of course it's all a bit muddy and a matter of opinion, but there is an excellent breakdown in Wikipedia based on Nikki Gamble's explication of the three characteristics of High Fantasy.

Again, this is a matter of opinion, but when I think Low Fantasy, I think rogues and assassins and taverns and barmaids.

Sword and Sorcery.

S&S differs from Low Fantasy mainly in its narrative distance. There can be much crossover, of course, but the main difference is that the plot tends to focus on personal struggles, and generally follows one heroic sword wielding protagonist, rather than dozens of characters strewn across the world. Again, S&S can technically also be epic in scope, but it's less common when a tale is following only one character or group of characters.

The term was first coined in 1961 (I suppose making High Fantasy not officially the oldest), when Michael Moorcock published a letter in the fanzine Amra, and Fritz Leiber responded. It's generally agreed that Robert E. Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame, was the godfather of S&S.

Think shirtless barbarians, scantily clad warrior princesses, and wizards of questionable moral fiber.


Grimdark is probably the most recent category to be defined, but it has still been around a while, growing in popularity over the last decade or two. Again, it can be Epic in scope, and still might have elements in common with either Low or High Fantasy, but the aesthetic of Grimdark is gritty realism, in which violence and the difficult psychology of the choices the characters must make in the face of great adversity are the focus of a near narrative distance. Grimdark stories are brutal in their execution, in the interest of realism over idealism, and tend to lean away from things like predestination and fate.

The term was inspired by the tagline of the tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war."

Think soldiers dying in the mud, faces blackened by soot and dried blood, and flawed, conniving kings and ambassadors spinning webs from within walled cities.

There are of course other categories of Fantasy, so some honorable mentions:

Urban Fantasy.


Science Fantasy.

NOTE: I have purposely not listed any example authors or works here outside of the obvious one, because many of the most prolific examples are full of adult themes and topics, and are not appropriate for Middle Grade readers, but if you're curious, I encourage you to research these categories on your own.

FURTHER NOTE: If any authors or publishing professional drop by who happen to be more knowledgeable than me, please feel free to disagree with any of this. As I said, the definitions and differences are all somewhat fluid, and in the long run it all comes down to opinion.


  1. Interesting breakdown! First, I had no idea that Lloyd Alexander first coined the term "high fantasy." Secondly, it's interesting that these categories are defined primarily by their themes and the types of characters, as well as the moral characteristics of those characters. Fascinating!

    I suppose, since I mostly read and write MG/YA fantasy these days, I'm used to categorizing them by plot elements: portal fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, supernatural, paranormal.

    But remembering my days of reading the adult versions (ironically enough, when I was a teenager), I can see the application of your categories quite clearly.

    1. I definitely think it's different in Juvenile fiction. And again, a lot of these distinctions are a bit muddy, but adult fantasy also considers world type as a sort of subset. So you'd have secondary world, portal fantasy, or world-within-a-world (like Harry Potter or Neverwhere), and those would be like a second way to categorize stories.

      It's also interesting because certain authors embrace the labels and others dislike them. I can see value to both sides. :)

  2. This is why I always just label my work Fantasy, because it fits into almost all of these categories in one way or another

    1. I called my first manuscript Rural Fantasy, because it was kind of like an Urban Fantasy, except it didn't take place in a city! Sticking with just plain Fantasy is fine though. FWIW I would probably refer to ATR as Low Fantasy, but I also don't really like the connotations that come with the word "low."

  3. Thanks for the insight on the history - didn't know much of that.

    Also, this would be great jacket copy: Think soldiers dying in the mud, faces blackened by soot and dried blood, and flawed, conniving kings and ambassadors spinning webs from within walled cities.

  4. What a fun post! You've got me all riled up for a good fantasy read now. I love this term "Grimdark" and admit it's a new one for me. I write fantasy but can see where I fit into the low-fantasy category you describe here.

    For me with reading or writing, it's all about the character. I can forgive much in a plot if I love the characters! And while I love the idea of setting as a character I love it is a secondary character that fuels on the main character.

    Other books that I love and see fitting into this low-fantasy and character-driven style? Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan and The False Prince (Ascendance Trilogy) by Jennifer Nielsen.

    Fantasy is such a wide open label where much falls (like paranormal).

    1. I too love character driven stories, often even more than commercial high concept plot based stuff. But also I think some of the terms could be updated. I like "Contemporary Fantasy," for example, better than "Low Fantasy," and other things like "Historical Fantasy," and so on are more specific.

      Love Ranger's Apprentice, BTW!

  5. Excellent, my friend. Well-written and informative. You are my go-to guy when Fantasy is involved.

  6. I imagine Joe Abercrombie is Grimdark fantasy.

    1. He is. He even goes by @LordGrimdark on Twitter. He is one of the authors who embraces the label.

  7. Very informative, thank you for the nice break down. I've always wondered about how fantasy could be classified into so many categories. I'm loving the term "Grimdark" btw.

  8. Great post! Just reading about fantasy subgenres makes me happy. :)

  9. This awesome. As a fantsy lover and author, it is wonderful to see it defined to beautifully. Great information. Love the term "grimdark." Thanks so much for taking the time to put it together. .

    1. You're most welcome, Diana! And I do think it's fun to discuss the labels that are out there, even if too much labeling can be bad for authors and stories that are subverting the tropes.

  10. Very informative! Thanks for sharing :-)

  11. This is brilliant, Matt. Thanks for this!

    1. You're welcome, Caroline! I wasn't sure a MG blog was the best place to put it, but I think it worked out okay.

  12. This is brilliant, Matt. Thanks for this!

  13. Not a big reader of Fantasy...but I found this breakdown fascinating! Thanks. :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!