By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
Welcome back to my series on the different genres we can write in. As I go through this series, please keep in mind that I can’t cover absolutely every option. My goal is to give you the main categories, so you can better understand where your book might fit or what you might be interested in writing in the future.
What Is Fantasy? What’s the Difference Between Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror?
Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are often lumped together under the category of speculative fiction, so before I dive in to looking at the different options you have when writing fantasy, I thought it was important we at least try to clarify where the fuzzy lines between the speculative fiction genres fall.
I’ll define science fiction in more detail next week, but fantasy is a work that, as a defining quality of its plot, has an element that is not real and can never be real–an alternate world, magic, creatures of myth or legend brought to life. The most important thing to remember when writing fantasy is that, no matter how far-fetched or exotic your story, you must keep your world internally consistent. In other words, you set rules for how your world works and you don’t break them.
On a very basic level, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of possibility. Fantasy is always set in the realm of the impossible. Werewolves don’t and won’t exist in our world. No amount of scientific advancement will make it possible for us to travel to Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. Science fiction, on the other hand, is based in what we either wish or fear the future might bring.
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.” To put it another way, horror will be much darker in tone and will make your heart race much more frequently than will either science fiction or fantasy. Horror means to scare the reader, whereas the most science fiction or fantasy mean to do is warn them.
(I don’t plan to cover horror in this series, but let me know in the comments if you’d like me to.)
Two of the most well-known awards for science fiction and fantasy writers are the Hugo and the Nebula. Whether or not you’re writing fantasy, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America is a great resource.
Defining Fantasy Sub-Genres
So now that we have the big picture idea of fantasy down, it’s time to look at your options within the genre.
Historical Fantasy – 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. Kelly Gay’s The Better Part of Darkness is an urban fantasy example. Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance. While they can and do often have blurry lines, the best way to tell them apart is to ask if the core conflict is about two people falling in love. If the main focus of the story is on the relationship, then it’s a paranormal romance. If the main focus of the story is somewhere else, on some other conflict, even if it has a romantic subplot, it’s still an urban fantasy.
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 usually 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?
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