Whose Fantasy Is This Anyway? Part 1: The Challenge
This is the first of a five part series about authors navigating fantasy’s many overlapping subgenres.
Fantasy authors face a challenge: ensuring that potential readers know which subgenre(s) their work fits into. For better or worse, book buyers’ purchasing decisions, particularly for lesser-known authors, are driven by what subgenre they believe a work belongs to. So, getting this right helps you effectively target and promote your book. However, in the fantasy space, subgenres are at once numerous and ill-defined or, at least, casually applied by fans to very different types of novel.
Other genres including romance and mystery also have a surprising number of subgenres, so some of the points raised here are relevant to these categories of fiction too. However, unarguably fantasy has more subgenres than most other literary styles. This makes it critical for fantasy writers to clearly signal what type of story they’ve written beyond simply assigning your work to this or that BISAC category (a standard book industry architecture for categorizing books down to the subgenre level) and hoping that potential readers and search engines suss out whether that category best fits your novel.
A particularly murky space in the fantasy universe is the confluence of ‘urban’, ‘contemporary’, ‘modern’, and ‘paranormal’ which share a present-day setting – and a certain nonchalance among fans, reviewers and search algorithms in interchangeably applying these descriptors. Adding to the complexity, ‘low’ fantasy in which fantastical elements intrude into an otherwise realistic setting, can also be set in the present-day.
While it’s rather easy to differentiate some fantasy subgenres including high/epic fantasy, sword & sorcery (S&S), and gaslamp from stories set in the present-day (the castles and vaguely medieval clothing are a tip-off that you’re reading high/epic or S&S; Victorian raiment indicates gaslamp), trying to fathom the subtleties distinguishing urban, contemporary, modern and paranormal fantasies can be problematic for both author, reader and search algorithms.
Making things marginally easier, in general, ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ as fantasy category descriptors can be considered synonyms. However, a lot of ‘urban’ fantasies may also occur in the present-day even though technically, they just need to take place in a city – from any era. And then, there’s ‘paranormal’, a subgenre driven by romance. In fact, it sits right at the junction between straight-up romance and fantasy, but can share some tropes with contemporary/modern and urban fantasies including, sometimes, a present-day setting.
Isn’t all this a recipe for reader confusion unless your ‘brand’ of writing is well recognized? (see Part 2 of this series)