Seems easy – you have an idea, you have your characters, maybe your setting. But did you ever stop to think exactly what kind of Fantasy yours falls into? Did you know that there are several different kinds of Fantasy novels? No? Well, now you do. Let me explain the different kinds so you can help figure out what your story best falls into.
Here, we will talk about several different kinds of Fantasy: Portal Fantasy, Secondary World, Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Urban Fantasy, Folklore, Magic Realism, Gothic, The New Weird, Grimdark, High Fantasy, and Low Fantasy.
Examples: Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Wizard of Oz
Portal Fantasy is just as it sounds; it is a portal to another world. In a Portal Fantasy, a character must go through some kind of gateway or portal, thus ending up in a magical world where everything is different from their own.
According to Farah Mendelsohn, the opposite of Portal Fantasy is Intrusive Fantasy, where something magical breaks through and comes to our world. There’s also Liminal Fantasy, where someone doesn’t quite cross through the gateway, but just stays on the border between our world and the world of magic and therefore causes ‘leaks’ in both worlds.
Examples: George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien
A Secondary World is a place that’s completely magical. This term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” Secondary worlds often include lost continents (like Lemuria or Atlantis) or other undiscovered magical places on Earth. Some people will also refer to Secondary Worlds as being outside of our world, or on other planets, like Westeros. An Earth-like planet where there are usually humans and a culture that’s recognizable in some way, yet not an alternate-history version of Earth.
Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
An Epic Fantasy is a long story, usually told over several books, and it usually takes place in a secondary world. Typically, it tends to be an immersive fantasy, where you start out fully immersed in the magical world from the start. (In an Immersive Fantasy, no one goes through a portal or has magic intrude on them in the normal world. It is a place where magic just exists.) It is usually a story that celebrates the feats of a legendary or traditional hero.
Epic Fantasy can also be somewhat interchangeable with High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy. The term Heroic Fantasy was coined by critics who thought that sword and sorcery sounded too ‘downmarket’ while fantasy was struggling to assert its independence as a genre. High Fantasy was coined by Chronicles of Prydain author Lloyd Alexander in order to describe a fantasy that takes place entirely in a secondary world.
Examples: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowing, Alice in Wonderland
High Fantasy can be defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative secondary world, rather than a real or primary world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. High Fantasy usually follows one of three premises: The setting is always an invented world with no references to the primary world. The secondary world is entered through a portal from the primary world. Or it involves a secluded world within a world as a subset of the primary world which is only accessible to special inhabitants.
Good versus Evil is a common theme in High Fantasy and often has concern for moral issues. The protagonist is usually someone who wasn’t expecting to have the fate of the word on their soldiers. He may have a mentor to guide and train him in order to enable him to complete his quest.
Examples: Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter Series, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart
By contrast, Low Fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements. Low Fantasy can be a story that features less magic (for example, there may only be one character or a few with a magical ability) or a story where the action occurs in a real world setting (but this has become less common.) Low Fantasy can also be considered contemporary fantasy, indicating that the story takes place in a modern setting while sill having magical elements
Themes of Low Fantasy stories tend to center on the concept of the underdog. Using magic allows the author greater agency than expected in the real world.
Sword and Sorcery
Examples: Fafhrd by Fritz Leiber, The Gray Mouser stories, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C.L. Moore, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
As Pyr Books editor and Frostborn author Loud Anders says: it’s like Dungeons and Dragons. D&D and similar RPGs are known to have kept Sword and Sorcery alive as a genre. It is considered to be less heroic than heroic fantasy and tends to include more rogues and thieves. Where Heroic Fantasy takes place in the palace, Sword and Sorcery takes place in the dark understreets of the city.
Sword and Sorcery can resemble high fantasy. However, their themes differ. Instead of a struggle between good and evil, the conflict lies between the main character and his own personal battles. The plot tends to focus more on ‘swashbuckling’ adventures as opposed to the use of magical elements.
Examples: The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Urban Fantasy stories tend to take place in a modern city rather than a Medieval or Victorian city. It often takes place on Earth in a modern world that we are familiar with (as opposed to a Secondary World). More often now can we find stories that take place in small towns or suburbs, and these can often be referred to as suburban fantasy or rural fantasy. But, that being said, Urban Fantasy doesn’t have to be reserved for stories that take place in big cities. I think the term is pretty generic. The point is that it should be a modern world in a place that exists (or could realistically exist).
Examples: Cinderella, Snow White, Brothers Grimm
Every culture has folklore and this provides the basis for a lot of fantasy stories. There are fairytales and fables and folk-talkes and folk-legends. These typds of stories give us a lot of motifs that stick with fantasy storytellers and often provide a clear moral lesson at the end.
Examples: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Magic (or Magical) Realism usually refers to literary fiction where magic is a part of everyday life. Often there is a bit of surrealism involved when the story is told. Magic in this sense is an extension of the real world. The term was first used to describe the poetry of Pablo Neruda but became more wildly known as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude became popular.
Gothic Fantasy contains a lot of supernatural horror elements, such as ghosts, vampires, or other ‘monsters.’ However, there is also an element of romance. The setting is usually seen as a ruined, decaying setting that was once a grand place. It can also be known as Dark Fantasy, especially if it takes place in a secondary world. Gothic fiction often comes with a sense of dread and the danger to succumb to madness.
The New Weird
Examples: Perdido Street Station by Dhina Mieville
Supernatural Horror Fiction was usually referred to as Gothic Fantasy. However, if it got ‘weird’ enough, then it came to be known as Weird Fiction. These stories usually involve horrific tales of strange creatures, often with inexplicable encounters. In the last 20 years or so, people have started talking about New Weird, which has started to blend science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a distinct literary edge to it.
Examples: Richard K. Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin.
Grimdark Fantasy is essentially fantasy that takes place i a secondary world that can also be thought of as dark and edgy and excessively violent. It usually features anti-heroes, or morally gray heroes, and often a lot of brutality.
Charlie Jane Anders on io9