To Build a World, Part Five

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been posting segments on fantasy world-building (hence the Part Five in the title).

Here are the past segments –

  1. How to Build a World, Part One.
  2. How to Build a World, Part Two.
  3. How to Build a World, Part Three.
  4. How to Build a World, Part Four.

This week I will be focusing on the subgenres of fantasy and how that can ultimately influence your world and novel.

Subgenres and types

Fantasy has many subgenres and types, such as:

  • Epic fantasy: Typically explores plots and themes that are ‘epic’ and sweeping, such as conflicts between good and evil lasting for ages.
  • Dark fantasy: Stories that incorporate horror elements, such as many of Stephen King’s books that blend the supernatural, the magical and the macabre.
  • Contemporary fantasy: Stories set in our real world that involve magic or other supernatural elements (Harry Potter has this blend of mundane aspects of contemporary life and the magical).
  • Urban fantasy: Fantasy fiction where the urban, modern city is the typical setting, rather than a pastoral setting or medieval world of kings and horseback.

I have touched base on these genres in a past blog post – here. These are just some of fantasy’s popular subgenres. Within each of these subgenres, magic and parallel worlds function in many different ways.

Different types of fantasy

There are also different ways the magical element of fantasy functions. In her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendelsohn defines four core types of fantasy, based on how the non-realistic element of the story appears:

  1. Portal fantasy: Like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland, characters enter a fantastical world through a portal.
  2. Immersive fantasy: The reader sees the magical world through the eyes of the protagonist, for whom the world is the only known world. In other words, there is not the note of discovery but rather, we discover through the character’s eyes a magical world that’s natural to them. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is an example.
  3. Intrusion fantasy: The fantastical or magical aspect intrudes on characters’ worlds, and we see how characters navigate this supernatural ‘breach’. These stories tend to describe the magical intrusion, rendering its strangeness to the reader. The tales of H.P. Lovecraft are an example.
  4. Liminal fantasy: This rarer form is where a fantastical element enters characters lives, yet they accept it as completely natural.

Practical ideas for using subgenres and fantasy types

Subgenres and types of fantasy fiction can supply rich ideas for authors as it can help them recognize, follow, and test its conventions. Read different subgenres and types and use your growing knowledge to:

    1. Subvert expectations: Readers may have particular expectations of a subgenre or fantasy story type. For example, that a portal is a magic transport between two worlds. What if a portal stops working? Or turns out to not be a portal at all, but a myth to explain a darker truth the rulers of a land want to conceal at all costs?
    1. Find inspiration: Read in many subgenres and across many types, even if you have favorites. The better you know the fantasy genre, the more you can draw on different elements of fantasy from each.
    1. Find subplots: Perhaps your story is a portal fantasy, involving travel between worlds. Could there also be an intrusion element?

Once you are aware of the fantasy genre,  you can follow a certain structure, write in a certain style and adopt a particular persona. 


Do you think writing to a genre will set boundaries, restrictions and rules to follow or break?

Post your comments and answers below. If you think someone has an interesting point of view and answer, please invite them or share this post with them.

#DWTSmith #howtobuildaworld

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