Fantasy: A Look at the Genre and Sub Genres

By Amy Giuffrida

It is very important when you begin to seek representation for your book, that you know what genre it is. One major reason is so that you are sending your query letter to agents who are interested in what you have written. The other major reason is that is shows you are serious about your craft. If you know exactly what your genre is, you are showing agents that you not only have knowledge of genre, but also have implemented the structure. 

So, really what is genre?

Genres can be characterized by content and length. Differences between genres and categories are loosely defined; often with subgroups.

While genre tells what the story is, category tells the age group: children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult or adult.

Children’s Fiction- for young children, which includes picture books and young/early readers.

Middle Grade- chapter books for kids ages 8 to 12 in which the stories are centered around people and places that have an impact on them. There are little external issues other than those with themes of friendship, loyalty, kindness and family.

Young Adult- these are books for ages 13 to 18, where characters are beginning to learn lessons about the world around them. Stories contain character issues, which have depth and a higher level of complexity.

New Adult- this is an age category with some division in publishing. Whether or not you are, this category grew from the need to span the divide between YA and adult. These stories focus on the age group of 18 to 25, where the characters are moving toward independence in life and work. Typically the setting is in college and/or the first full-time job and all that life throws at you as you move away from your parents to transition to adulthood.

Adult- the protagonists are age 20 and above. If you are not a supporter of new adult, then your young adult category would include ages 13 to 19, thus spanning the gap between the two.

Once you know the age category of your book, the next challenge is labeling its genre. Now we are talking about fiction here, something that needs a little explanation before we get any further. I often see writers submit their work as “fiction.” Fiction is NOT a genre. Any story that is NOT a true story is considered fiction. I know that there are bookstores and libraries that actually label their shelves as this; however, it is really for their convenience for shelving purposes.

In the adult category, the major fiction genres are: Literary Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Romance, Mystery, Adventure, Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Thriller, Suspense and Paranormal.

Much of what is submitted though, include subcategories. Let’s take a look at one of the most confused genres I see in submissions: Fantasy. Depending on where you look, there are a plethora of fantasy sub-genres. For our purposes, I want to focus on those that we see the most. While others call them different names, here you will find the more universal terms. 

Epic Fantasy

There is a very large cast of characters in an epic fantasy. So many, that you may need to create a list to keep them straight. Along with varying characters, the plot is…epic. Meaning that the threat or conflict threatens everything—the world or universe—and all that it encompasses. Usually a battle between good and evil. One that is stretched out over multiple books. The setting is that of a medieval fictional world/universe where its broad scope takes time to build. EVERYTHING in this type is BIG. 

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is an excellent example of an epic fantasy.  

High Fantasy

The main difference between epic and high fantasy is the focus. There are less characters to keep track of. In this sub-genre, the character and his/her choices matter most, rather than the epic events. While the setting is similar to that of epic fantasy—a secondary world—it doesn’t have to be medieval. 

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the perfect example of high fantasy.

Urban Fantasy

As in all types of fantasy, magic is required. As it is written in first-person narrative, the story comes alive through the eyes of the protagonist. Setting is everything for this sub-genre. Urban fantasy setting is a heavily populated modern-day city. We aren’t talking surface level, but instead an in-depth rendering of a busy city. Think about New York and its subway system, where the locals know the rules and can operate in the surroundings fluidly.

There is also an air of mystery. While most popular urban fantasy novels showcase a mystery that involves law enforcement of some sort, this isn’t necessary. The important mystery of urban fantasy is some unknown or unanswered question that plagues the protagonist—of course this is all wrapped up in the end.

Lastly, readers expect some sexy in this genre. While this should not be the entire focus of your story, there is an underlying current of sex lingering in the background. It may be subtle to build the tension alongside the mystery, or it could even be blatant eroticism. As always though, remember that sex isn’t a plot. Instead, the sexiness should assist in creating depth to the story.

An example of this is Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, with Dead Witch Walking being the first.

Historical Fantasy

Just like its historical fiction counterpart, this sub-genre blends modern realism with historical facts. A good example of this is A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab.   

Contemporary Fantasy

Not to be confused with urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy is set in a modern-day place, which can be in a suburb or rural. While the characters have special powers, they aren’t seen as being magical by everyone. Many times these powers or their true faces are hidden from the public. A good example of this is The House of Night Series by P.C. Cast and Kristen Cast.

Now that you know the differences in the fantasy genre, who should you submit to? Currently Nikki Terpilowski is seeking YOUNG ADULT FANTASY only. Please see her submission page for more information.

Amy Giuffrida is an assistant with Holloway Literary.  Follow her on Twitter @kissedbyink.