Fantasy and it’s many sub-genres and connections

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There is a certain agreement that fantasy literature varies widely, so much so that the genre tends to be split into subsets.   These subsets have a great deal of overlap, but in other ways the sub-genre has its basis in a particular specificity.


Fantasy, as a literary genre, may be defined as:

  • Fantasy is imaginative literature, often set in strange places with unusual characters and the use of magic.
  • A story about things that happen in an imaginary world
  • Imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters

Given this definition, fantasy works can be categorized in a host of ways. Typically those divisions are rather specific, which leads to many overlaps. However, if we divide the works into major sub-genres, then we may end up with something along these lines:

  • Fantasy (General)
    • Traditional
      • Tolkien
    • Contemporary
      • Urban
  • Dark
    • Dark Urban
    • Paranormal
      • Supernatural
    • Horror
      • Lovecraftian
  • Mythic
  • Fairytale (parody, re-telling, etc.)
  • Gods and Demons
  • Heroic Tales
    • Sword and Sorcery
  • Magical Realism
  • Historical
    • Medieval
  • Science Fantasy (science fiction)
    • Traditional
      • Verne
    • Golden Age
      • Asimov
    • New Wave
    • Cyberpunk
  • Speculative
    • Alternative histories
      • Steampunk
      • Dieselpunk
  • Superhero
  • Fanfiction

Certainly, that’s incomplete. However, the idea that overlaps become more apparent.   So how to decide?

Well, for this reader, it depends on the extent of the slant of, say, dark elements, or if the plot leans toward speculation, re-telling, science orientation, etc. I tend to get more into specifics when reviewing aspects of the novel, since each novel tends to overlap many categories.   A particular book can be a speculative historical fantasy that has attributes of steampunk and myth.   So, one category seems too narrow.

If the discussion goes further into the ingredients required for each category, then, we would end up with something along the following lines:

Basic Elements of Fantasy

  • Fantastic creatures
    • Legendary creature
    • Angel
    • Demon
    • Dragon
    • Elemental
    • Familiar
    • Fairy
    • Spirit
    • Undead
  • Types of characters in fantasy
    • Hero
    • Magician
    • Occult detective
    • Witch
  • Magic
    • Animism
    • Shapeshifting
    • Evocation
    • Incantation
    • Magocracy
    • Necromancy
    • Technomancy
    • Witchcraft
  • Fantasy races
    • Elves
    • Fairies
    • Giants
    • Gnomes
    • Hobbits
    • Halflings
    • Orcs
    • Trolls
  • Places and events
    • Fantasy world
    • Astral plane
    • Enchanted forest
    • Mythological places
    • Lost cities
    • Quests

Each of the categories first emerged from fantasy, then divide into sub groups, with each sub group still overlapping with one another.

So let’s return to our first list of fantasy and it’s sub-types:

Check out Science Fiction and its sub-genres:

  • Science Fiction
  • Hard versus Soft
  • Cyberpunk
  • Time Travel
  • Alternative History
  • Superhuman
  • Apocalyptic and Post Apocalyptic
  • Social Sci-Fi (societal themes)
  • Anthropologic
  • Biopunk (misuse of biotechnology, and synthetic biotech.)
  • Feminist
  • Steampunk
  • Dieselpunk
  • Sci-fi poetry

Now consider Speculative Fiction:

  • Alternative histories
  • Alternative futures
  • Steampunk
  • Dieselpunk
  • Future History
  • Paranormal
  • Time Travel
  • Feminist
  • Anthropologic
  • Societal

Let’s turn now to Horror

  • Gothic
  • Dark Fantasy
  • Speculative
  • Zombies
  • Vampires
  • Occult
  • Werewolf and other were-creatures
  • Psychological
  • Monsters
  • Southern gothic
  • Suburban gothic
  • Survival

How about Urban Fantasy?

  • Real world plus magic
  • Emerging magical power in humans
  • Alien races
  • The discovery of earthbound mythological creatures,
    1. Co-existence between humans and paranormal beings
  • Co-existence of real world and a hidden world, say of magic
  • Witches

Dark Urban Fantasy?

Honestly, Urban Fantasy plus pick a few of the above, generally darker elements of paranormal (just north of horror) and magic, with dystopian disposition or attributes of the science fiction or speculative fiction

The elements of basic fantasy are taken, to some degree or other, and used in particular ways in order to create a specific tone. Thus, magic may become used as something realistic or more on the verge of traditional myth. Or perhaps, the magic becomes something verging on the possible, as in scientific progression. Hence, one basic ingredient, magic, has a plethora of possible uses in fantasy literature, traditional to cyberpunk. Similarly, beings of traditional fantasy, say fairies, take on the modern world in a duality in urban and contemporary fantasy. The attributes of the fae may be used in the common tradition of beautiful magic wielders, as the defenders of magic, or become a mixed use, taking the wide range of fairy traditions and blending them into, say, a modern individual whose latent fairy blood emerges, somehow, creating a fairy human hybrid. Furthermore, it may be the case, that more modern fantasy creatures, such as zombies, are not altogether different than the those beings in thrall of the gods, or, if given a social-political gaze, zombies become the mindless followers of the evil leaders in a post apocalyptic future.

Discussions of this sort can go on for pages. However, the ultimate aim of this piece was to distinguish types of fantasy sub-genres, the elements therein, and why overlap occurs.   It seems that the best thing to do as a reader may be to take note of the major ideas that stand out and use those as a guide.

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