If you want to write fantasy, chances are you’re a huge fantasy fan. Although my best piece of advice for writers looking to break into any genre is to read more—you probably don’t need that advice if you’re into fantasy. Often, fantasy readers are voracious. However, if you’re attracted to writing it, you still want to be aware of where your story fits into the marketplace. Agents and editors are looking for you to give them comparative titles and know where you’d be positioned. Whether you’re ready to submit or if you’re just fantasy-curious, it’s important to know your fantasy subgenres.
Unique World Fantasy
This subgenre inhabits high or low fantasy. Think sweeping epics between good and evil, magic kingdoms, armies of dragons, and wizards—all taking place in a world unlike our own. In this type of fantasy, world-building is key. Readers really want to be immersed in this new place, they want to understand the rules of magic, the lineages of the monarchies, and all of the details.
The penultimate example of high fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings. The world inhabited by the characters in the Rings trilogy live in another world where magic reigns and the powers of good and evil are in a pitched battle. The story centers on an innocent who discovers a cursed ring and attempts to remove it from his community, though he faces moral and physical peril along his journey.
Low fantasy also takes place in a magical world, but it centers less on the large-scale kingdoms and battles and more on an individual’s personal struggles. Also, the magical world often has a footing in our real world, and the main character deals with moral ambiguities and issues. The fate of the world might be at stake, but so is the hero’s heart. Some argue that Harry Potter is low fantasy. Though the setting is a wizarding world, it’s also a part of Scotland.
Alternate World Fantasy
These stories take place in a world in which magic and technology meet. The alternative world exists within the real world. Harry Potter is so much about the wizard world that it’s still unique world fantasy. Alternate world fantasy is sci-fi, steampunk, or urban fantasy. In these cases, the world is supposed to be “real” but with certain people or elements that contain magic or supernatural powers. The big difference here is that you don’t start in a completely different world; you start with the assumption that the world works the way it does in real life but there are extra special elements to it.
In sci-fi, the basic physics of Earth exists, even if the story takes place on another planet or in a spaceship. In other words, the technology might be from the future, but humans or humanoids still need to access oxygen, contend with gravity, eat food, etc. Aliens or other beings might have different abilities, but those will have to be explained within the context of the rules we know about life.
Steampunk or other historical alternatives take real facts about the past and merge them with fantastical elements. A great example of this is Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He takes the 19th century romantic satire and adds zombies.
Urban fantasy has strong fantastic elements or magical creatures that reside in and interact with regular people in the contemporary world. This genre has been mixed with romance and written for young adults with great success (though it doesn’t need to be). Examples include Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy. The fantasy and magic are still major parts of such stories.
The difference between paranormal and urban fantasy is that the only fantastical elements in paranormal are the mythical creatures regular people interact with. In Miss Peregrine, there is very clearly magic and lots of it in the story. In a series like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, the story focuses on a love triangle, albeit between a human girl and a werewolf boy and a vampire boy. The plot is mostly about the romance and how this teenager will navigate the inherent conflict of loving two supernatural beings. Magic and an alternate world are supplementary to this storyline.
Like everything in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. You can blend genres, as Game of Thrones arguably did (between high and low fantasy) or as Twilight did (paranormal and romance) to great effect. However, the more you know the ins and outs of your genre, the better you can market it to the publishing industry or directly to your audience.