Fantasy, as a genre, has a ton of subgenres. There’s no way a single post could cover them all, unless I wanted to write a thesis. I’m not getting into hard or soft magic again, or urban fantasy compared to epic fantasy compared to steampunk, or the thousand other flavors that fantasy comes in. Instead, I want to cover three broad movements in the fantasy subgenres – heroic, realistic, and grimdark fantasy, and I want to do it in less space than I did last week. Let’s see how I did!
Let’s break it down.
If you want to read what the official definition of heroic fantasy is, check out Wikipedia. That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is the kind of fantasy that’s most popular. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Doctor Strange. Chronicles of Narnia. Star Wars, which borders the line between science fiction and fantasy. This is the fantasy where good fights evil, dark lords rise to power, evil empires rise and fall. Heroes, who are often the Chosen One, fight against impossible odds and emerge victorious.
It’s fun, it’s straightforward. Hope is usually critical in these works. The fantasy that is in play here is a degree of power fantasy – anyone could be the special Chosen One, foretold by destiny to emerge victorious against the forces of Darkness – or the heroes are ordinary people who rise above their circumstances.
Either way, what makes “Heroic” fantasy – in this definition – is that it conforms to the tropes we expect from fantasy. When good faces evil, good wins – or if it loses, it’ll win again later in the sequel. I love this type of fantasy, personally. When done well, it’s an amazing tool for allegory, and some of my favorite stories belong to this genre.
It’s also slowly falling out of style.
Heroic fantasy asks readers to suspend their disbelief even harder than most fantasy does. A guy with a magic sword can fight against a hundred orcs and emerge with his smile still bright, the light reflects off his teeth. Evil emperors don’t have overly complex motivations. When heroic fantasy is done poorly, it’s boring. You’ll know the broad outline of the story by page ten even if you are ten.
It’s a tricky genre to do right, and a lot of people don’t put in the effort needed. To do it well, you have to have a strong theme or engaging characters or an interesting world to keep people invested – where they won’t care about the fact that they know the basic plot beats, because they’ll be interested enough in seeing how it happens. Alternatively, you can find some twists on the established plot formula – although if you delve too much into cause and effect, you get to…
A midpoint between the other two genres, realistic fantasy is best exemplified by nine-tenths of the episodes of Game of Thrones. (The remaining tenth end up split between the above and the below, and are generally the least liked episodes because they violated the established tone.)
Realistic fantasy dispenses some of the tropes of the above. It discards the plot armor that protects many heroic fantasy characters, and it discards the bright and happy view of medieval Europe in favor of looking at that period in time without rose colored glasses. Alternatively, if it takes place in an Urban Fantasy book, it will address the reality of our world with added magic, delving into things like racism, drug abuse, and other ‘gritty’ subjects.
At its core, realistic fantasy limits how much it relies on the tropes of the genre, and instead goes for logical cause and effect. It doesn’t matter if you’re the protagonist of the story, if you tell the ruthless queen that you know her children are the products of adulterous incest, and your plan for backup comes from the well-known backstabber, you’re not going to survive to the end of the book – no matter how honorable you are.
I love well done realistic fantasy as much as I love heroic fantasy. The tension of knowing characters are in legitimate danger makes scenes that would just be generic action beats into a nail-biting scene that has you on the edge of your seat. A battlefield isn’t determined by a single man, but by strategy and clever tactics – but they aren’t enough to overcome sheer numbers. A razor edge separates characters from life and death at all times.
Most importantly, characters in realistic fantasy are allowed to be more complex than heroic, because the story doesn’t have good guys or bad guys – or at least, the line between the two are blurred. There might be some actual good people, and there might be some truly despicable ones, but overall the characters are as nuanced and complex as real humans.
On the other hand, when done poorly, realistic fantasy can dwell too much on unimportant details. You might have mathematically figured out the exact size ratio for dragon’s wings, but if you spend pages telling us about it, you’re going to bore people. We don’t need to know how ‘realistic’ your dragons are. They’re dragons. We don’t want them to be realistic. We want them to be dragons.
If you’re doing realistic fiction, make the consequences realistic. Let the fantasy stay fantastic.
Realistic fantasy doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of the world. Grimdark fantasy wallows in them. Characters don’t just die as a natural outcome of charging into battle against impossible odds or from making bad decisions, but because there hadn’t been enough suffering of late. Grimdark fantasy borders on, if not goes directly into, horror. A friend of mine once described grimdark as “awful people doing awful things to awful people,” and she wasn’t wrong.
In grimdark fantasy, characters aren’t just free of plot armor. They have the inverse of plot armor, where they seem to attract the worst possible outcome of every scenario. Love is broken, monsters are everywhere, kings are universally evil, knights are universally brutish, wizards are universally insane.
If you manage to survive to the end of a grimdark novel, you’ll do so broken and battered. Everyone you trust is dead – although if you trust, you’re probably dead for being so foolish. If you’re a man, you’ve definitely been tortured at least once. If you’re a woman, there’s a fifty/fifty shot you’ve been tortured or sexually assaulted – which is a whole different problem to talk about later.
It might sound like I’m a bit down on grimdark as a genre, but that’s not entirely true. Grimdark, for me, has the same appeal as horror. I don’t read it to have a fun time. I read it because I want to be appalled, to look at the worst parts of humanity and watch people overcome outright depressing odds – or watch them break in the attempt.
That being said, it’s easy for a grimdark story to fall apart for a fundamental reason. If death is too random, the reader will not get invested in any character because they expect them to die at any moment. It becomes almost comical in how awful it is, where the reader has to laugh to avoid falling too much into their own depression. You need to balance moments of catharsis with everything else to prevent this, or you’re going to end up with a downer story that has no relief.
And those are the three main types of fantasy! Which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below! And check out my free book to get a taste of Small Worlds – and let me know where you think it falls! (Hint: it’s definitely not grimdark.)