Friday, March 29, 2013

What's Your Favorite Fantasy Flavor?

Last month’s posting, I speculated that the appeal of Fantasy literature resides in its orientation toward hope.  The nature of this hope is possibly vested in the fact that fantasy fiction externalizes the trials of the human spirit, and affirms the value of the individual.  Over the decades, various sub-genres have emerged.  Like ice-cream, there’s a flavor to suit every taste.  Below are some of the favorites.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings established the template for Epic Fantasy. Heroic in scope and simple in its conventions, Epic Fantasy takes place in a fully realized imaginary setting, complete with its own geography, history, languages, races, and powers.  The plot is linear, often involving a long and dangerous journey over great distances.  Action is either episodic (featuring a series of mini-adventures) or heroic (featuring large-scale battles between rival armies).  The cast often includes non-human characters (elves, dwarves, etc.), and the principle characters conform to archetypes (Prophetess, Hero, Trickster, Innocent Fool, etc.). 

Like epic fantasy, High Fantasy takes place in an entirely imaginary secondary world.  The features of this world, however, are conceived with close reference to a historical model.    (Katherine Kurtz’s Gwynnedd, for instance, is a fantasy analogue of 12th century Wales.)  This historical modeling lends substance and sophistication to the fantasy realm, affording scope for more complex action and character development.  At the same time, the presence of magic enables the writer to explore an attractive range of imaginative plot possibilities.

Historical Fantasy, by contrast, is rooted in the real world. The story is born at when somebody stumbles across a point in history and pauses to wonder, “What if… ?”  Adopting the period setting as his/her starting point, the writer then begins importing those fantasy elements (magic, inhuman creatures, shifts in perception, perspective, or state of being, etc.) which service the plot.  It’s more challenging to write than high fantasy insofar as you have to be ready to do your homework, but it’s a great way to go hunting for story ideas and I highly recommend the thrill of the chase.

A closely related sub-genre is Contemporary Urban Fantasy.  In works of this kind, the time is the present, and the place is a modern city.  Truly wonderful things can happen under when traditional elements of fantasy – monsters and magic – collide with the mundane world of department stores, bag ladies, and mid-town traffic…. Cityscapes also provide setting for Dark Fantasy:  that branch of fantasy that incorporates neo-gothic elements of horror. 

There are, of course, other sub-genres (for instance, Comic Fantasy as epitomised by Terry Pratchett), but this list will serve to conclude my review of the origin and development of the fantasy genre.  
Next month, we start delving into the art of writing fantasy.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Debby, wow, you've immersed us so fully in the world of the fantastic I feel like I need to go read a newspaper (although these days there's a thin line between reality and fantasy, it would seem.)

    Epic fantasy can be such a great way to deal with topics that are deeply personal—topics that might seem too threatening when faced head-on. I love it for that reason, and I Love nothing more than a good archetypal story, but it does require a lot from the reader.

  2. I love the fantasy genre and am awed by the strength of imagination it takes to create rich alternative worlds. It is the hardest any author will work, but well worth it. No other story form enchants and transports readers like the fantasy.

  3. What's the version of fantasy in which a talented, creative, hard-working ... and handsome ... independent author markets his books by navigating the treacherous highways and byways of the Internet, and is finally vindicated by reaching the top 100 in book sales from Amazon? You don't have to tell me ... my wife already did: Delusional Fantasy.

  4. Thanks, Debby, for another fantastic installation. I've danced on the peripheries of fantasy as a reader, darting into the circle only on occasion. I've always enjoyed my forays, and your informative posts are making me ask myself why I don't stay inside said circle for longer periods. Thanks again.

  5. Fantasy absolutely is the way to address painful topics and help us see ourselves and our situations from perspectives that don't repel or offend us. I'd never considered the sub-genres, so this post is most interesting, Debby.

    Ah, Christopher, you always manage to eek a smile out of me, even when I don't feel like smiling. :-)

  6. Christopher, come write a hilarious post for us at the BRP. We'll even let you have a beer. Hahahaha.

  7. Sword and Sorcery is my favorite offshoot in fantasy.

  8. Neil Gaiman's writing leaves me slack-jawed in awe.

  9. Right now, I'm looking at a fantasy manuscript. Coming from a romantic suspense/mystery background, I'm finding it 'slow going' but the author assures me that setting the stage, building the world for the reader takes time, and that fantasy readers of the genre (I'm putting the manuscript somewhere between epic and high fantasy)don't mind a slow pace.

    Terry's Place

  10. I'll take them all [grin] Seriosuly. The only fantasy I don't like is BAD fantasy (and yes there IS some out there...) But other than that, I'll happily dance with TOlkien, with Gaiman, with Guy Gavriel Kay, with Katherine Kurtz, with Pratchett, with Judith Tarr. Give a beautifully realised otherworld and I'm there.

    I read across the board.

    (I WRITE it, too. Of course. Plug my name into the web and add a dot org after it, and you can see the kind of stuff I do.)

  11. I have never been a fan of fantasy. I find it hard to follow those complicated story lines, different creatures, and a multi-layered fictional world. urban fantasy, however, where much of the world is real as,we know it, might be more appealing. I may have to try one just to see.

  12. The Lord of the Rings has certainly stood the test of time. Fantasy is such a wide open genre that can include such varying ideas, there's bound to be something for someone!

    Morgan Mandel

  13. That's a fascinating concept: 'fantasy fiction externalizes the trials of the human spirit, and affirms the value of the individual'. Of course, all up-beat fiction does that, when the reader identifies with the protagonist and their challenges. Perhaps the uniqueness of the fantasy genre is that no empirical constraints are imposed upon the game board. So the reader can be, in the avatar of the protagonist, whatever they wish. And enjoy a frisson of self-liberation, akin to that of dream.


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