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What Are the Different Fantasy Genres?

By Lumara Lee
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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Fantasy is a genre that employs otherworldly or mythic elements. A fictional world where magic dwells is a common theme. Numerous authors have contributed to the variety of fantasy genres and subgenres popular today. Each category possesses common settings or themes, including the classical, epic, contemporary, historical, sword and sorcery, humorous, fairytale, and dark fantasy genres.

Classical fantasy is one of the oldest fantasy genres. Roman and Greek mythologies are well-known examples of classical fantasy. Homer’s epic works, which feature strange creatures, heroes, and quests, contain all the elements of the classical fantasy genre.

Some of the fantasy genres overlap. For example, the classical and epic fantasy genres share the theme of a hero who must go on a quest and overcome great challenges. The epic hero typically starts out as an ordinary person and evolves throughout the story, acquiring traits or powers that transform him into a heroic figure. Epic fantasies often take place in medieval settings with castles, magicians, and unusual creatures. The high fantasy and sword and sorcery fictional genres employ the same magical themes.

Historical fantasies usually take place during a certain period in earth’s history and contain some fantastic elements. They are sometimes set on a fictional world that resembles a historic era. The Arthurian legends have been a common theme for numerous authors of historical fantasy. Mary Stewart’s popular Merlin trilogy, for example, combines the elements of a sword and sorcery fantasy with historical fiction.

Humorous fantasies are written in a lighthearted tone. They frequently satirize others works of fantasy. A well-known example is Bored of the Rings, which satirized J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one of the most beloved fantasies of the 20th century.

Fairytale fantasies written for adults usually have a much darker flavor than the fairytales that have been popularized for children. The fae in adult fantasy may be evil and cause irreparable harm to human characters. People in fairytale fantasies aimed at adults do not always live happily ever after like they ultimately do in children’s modern fantasies. The fairytales read to children today have been purged of many of the darker elements featured in the original tales.

Dark fantasy includes creatures such as zombies, vampires, and werewolves. This genre is closely related to horror fiction, but is generally less scary and with supernatural elements. The vampire books written by Ann Rice are dark fantasies, and the Dark Shadows television series, which was very popular in the latter part of the 20th century, is another example of this genre.

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Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Apr 21, 2012

I'm quite happy that the old sword and sorcery genre is starting to become more popular again. It seems like it waned for a long time, as people wanted stories that focused more on the drama of situations than on the action.

But, I think that some of the fantasy genre movies like 300 and so forth have shown that people are quite happy to read adventure stories as long as they have relatively good characters (I know 300 isn't the best example of that!)

I particularly like it when they mix that genre with history but add a bit of magic into it.

By croydon — On Apr 20, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Frankly, I think it was the other way around. I think that the magical realism "craze" in literary works came about because of authors like Neil Gaiman and Margo Lanagan who managed to became popular even among people who would ordinarily not bother to read fantasy genre books.

Margo Lanagan in particular with Tender Morsels really proved to me that fantasy novels can explore darker, richer themes of character and place than I had ever seen before.

Of course magical realism is often associated with Jorge Luis Borges, but I think it became popular because of the crossover with fantasy novels.

By KoiwiGal — On Apr 20, 2012

It's funny how different fantasy genres go in and out of fashion with the times. The most fashionable genres also tend to be the ones that the most people who don't usually like fantasy are reading as well.

I know for a few years the urban fantasy genre was the hottest thing, I suspect because of the influence of magical realism, which was really popular in the literary world for a while before that. Urban fantasy takes place in the "real world" and in some cases is nearly indistinguishable from magical realism (although they are actually two quite distinct genres).

But urban fantasy seems to be much less popular now (although of course there will always be people who enjoy it, particularly the very best of urban fantasy, which in my opinion is by Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint).

What's called paranormal romance became popular after the urban fantasy boom, probably because of the popularity of Twilight and the True Blood series and other books like that.

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