The Many Faces of Fantasy Fiction

What is Fantasy Fiction?

The fantasy fiction definition, as well as descriptions and examples from the long list of subgenres!

by June Williams
© Buzzy Multimedia

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible. “Rod Serling creator of the Twighlight Zone
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”-Arthur C. Clarke’s third law
“Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”-Larry Niven

Fantasy Fiction Definition:

Fantasy in fiction is hard to define because the boundaries keep blurring. When you see the words Fantasy Fiction many people conjure up imagery of faraway kingdoms. Something that looks 8th century, perhaps an even earlier period like the Bronze Age. Lands filled with castles, dragons, unicorns and all manner of wondrous mythical beasties.

Realms populated with nobles and not-so-nobles, wizards, witches (not Wiccans), some dressed in silks, lace, furs and jewels others in tatters. Domains where mighty capped sword wielding warriors stand ready with loins girded to save damsels in distress or embark on quests at once noble and dangerous.

fantasy fiction definition, the decameron, giovanni boccaccio

Enchanted garden from The Decameron, written in 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Myths and legends have always entertained and instructed. Fantasy stretches back to the dawn of civilization. We humans find parallels from fables of magic to help understand people and the cosmos even in the modern world.

The Odyssey & The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Decameron, A Thousand and One Nights, Beowulf, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Le Morte d’Arthur. The Once and Future King are all examples of this type of literature.

Elements of these may sometimes still be found in some measure and degree in the most modern and urbane of 21st century fantasies. Magic and the supernatural will always be part of Fantasy, but fantasy has come a long way.

The following are some of the sub-genres found in Fantasy today. They sometimes crossover and often that enriches the work, still; this should give you an idea of what they are all about.

High/Epic Fantasy Fiction Definition:

epic fantasy fiction

High/Epic Fantasy Fiction is primarily set in magical worlds filled with dragons, dwarves, elves, fae (fairies), magicians, sorcerers, trolls and the like.

This type of fantasy transports you into a fantastic and magical realm. Whether set in an alternate reality or a time shrouded distant past, these settings also contain otherworldly beings such as dragons, dwarves, elves, fae (fairies), magicians, sorcerers, trolls and the like. Both good and evil forces have some of these beings on their side but in the end it is the character of the protagonist that will determine the outcome of the final battle. In such fantasies the protagonist has a destiny. Often this destiny only becomes apparent when circumstance puts them in a position where they are pitted against vast and evil supernatural forces. They fight not just for the lives and fortune of family, friends and themselves but for the whole world.

This is the granddaddy of them all in popularity if not in age. A few notable examples of Epic Fantasy are:
Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn
J.R.R Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth such as Lord of the Rings
Robert Jordan – The Wheel of Time series
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia

Sword & Sorcery Fantasy:

sword and sorcery, sword fighting fiction

Sword & Sorcery heroes and heroines spend more time doing and less time contemplating. Their battles are more personal.

You’ll find much of the same trappings as that found in Epic or High Fantasy. Often the society seems to have a medieval structure. The emphasis here is on fast pace and lots of action. Sword & Sorcery heroes and heroines spend more time doing and less time contemplating why things are the way they are. More Dirty Harry than Bilbo Baggins. Their battles are more personal. In these lands that mighty protagonists roam the countryside fighting evil.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric are archetypical swashbuckling anti-heroes forever battling the darkness even in their own natures. In many ways they are responsible for a generation of gamers as they were the inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons, along with Dragonlance and a multitude of fantasy role playing games.

Even in the 21st century there are fewer female protagonists found in Sword and Sorcery than males, at least as the central character. Often when women do appear they use magical powers more than swordplay to win the fight. Fans of Xena: Warrior Princess, Red Sonja by Robert Howard or Frost by Robin Wayne Bailey will surely disagree. They could all point out that these women can handle a sword, battle axe and other weapons as well as any male champion. After six years of Lucy Lawless as Xena on television I think they have a point well taken.

Heroic Fantasy/Sages & Swords:


The protagonist typically possesses an unusual gift such a sorcery, like Harry Potter

Often the protagonist is found as a youth. He or she may be orphaned at a young age and unaware of having a unique heritage and gifts which will thrust them into a perilous quest. Noble or commoner, wizard or sorcerer, he or she must fulfill their duty. The following all have elements of Heroic Fantasy:

Orson Scott Card – Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1)
Ursula LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea
J.K.Rowling – The Harry Potter Books
Elizabeth Moon’s – Paksenarrion Trilogy


Historical Fantasy /Alternate History:


Past events, periods and people are imbued with magical or at least otherworldly elements.

History can be a dry subject. Fantasy writers take historical figures and events and stir new life and perspectives into them. Some create alternate time or a parallel universe where history diverged at some point in the past, often due to magic that changed one or more events.

They take statistics and bland accounts and give us a fantastic voyage into history. Past events, periods and people are imbued with magical or at least otherworldly elements. These novels provide a sense of wonder to history, telling stories of strong characters and different cultures ranging from ancient civilizations to the most recent times.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (Arthurian age) as well as her novel The Firebrand (Troy) are perfect examples of what a gifted author can do in this medium. Harry Turtledove is known as the master of alternative history and has had a seemingly endless and entertaining series of novels set in places of time as far flung as Sumeria, Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, to the days of The American Civil War, all the way to Third Reich and beyond. Reindeer Moon by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is set in Siberia during the Paleolithic era. Shards of Empire and Cross and Crescent by Susan Schwartz (Byzantium) are at once well researched and well drawn. A little less well known but not to be missed is Steven Barnes, Zulu Heart which deals with an America colonized by Africa set in the 19th century…fascinating.

Urban/Modern/Paranormal Fantasy:

urban fantasy fiction, the dresden files, harry dresden

Urban Fantasy’s emphasis is on seeing the present day world and society from a unique vantage point. Reality filtered through a different lens.

This relatively recent arrival on the stage of fantastic fiction brings you into a society in which magical elements coexist with our “normal” workaday world. Werewolves may be found shopping at Walmart, vampires may have trouble doing their taxes. Police have challenges that the CSI television writers could never imagine. Regular humans may or may not be aware of the supernatural beings that live among them.

Often people are exposed to Urban fantasy and don’t realize that what they are reading, listening to or watching is actually part of this genre. The Curious Case of Benjamin of Benjamin Button and The Lake House are perfect examples of fantastic tales being told in a modern setting and because there are no ghosts, wizards, fairies and the like in view audiences seem to be unaware that what they are seeing is Modern Fantasy.

Settings can vary wildly. There are very urban ones such as The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher that takes place in Chicago, although we are never sure if it is exactly present day. Just as likely it could be suburbia, small towns or even a totally country location. The emphasis is on seeing the present day world and society from a unique vantage point. Reality filtered through a different lens. This is at once entertaining and edifying although in the best books you won’t so much see the instructive part as much as enjoy the ride. Some Urban Fantasy titles that should be noted are:

Patricia BriggsThe Mercy Thompson series (filled with werewolves and other shape shifters in the Tri City region of Washington State)
Charlaine Harris – The Southern Vampire Series
Neil Gaiman – American Gods where the Old Ones battle for their place in the modern world
Charles DeLint – The Little Country, blends music and magic
Maryjanice Davidson – Undead and Unwed has the feel of Legally Blond and is as comfortable a setting as your neighborhood mall.

Dark Fantasy:


Here is the realm of aliens and satanic creatures, Vampires and demons.

Here is where horror meets fantasy. Here is the realm of aliens and satanic creatures, Vampires and demons and a multitude of frightful and ghastly fates await…sometimes. Buckets of blood and gore aren’t necessary requirements for this kind of story but in most a sense of foreboding and the influences of unnatural forces are at work.

No wonder authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker are often at their best while writing Dark Fantasy. The works of H.P. Lovecraft combine Science Fiction, Horror and Fables of ancient lurking evils that combine to create fiction that likely was the first of Dark Fantasy in the modern sense of the term.

A Dark Fantasy protagonist is often mysterious and people presume of evil character. His decency and integrity are not easily seen by those around him except of course by we the readers and perhaps a small circle of characters.

Examples of the classic Dark Fantasy:
Stephen King’s – The Dark Tower series
Clive Barker’s – The Hellbound Heart
Neil Gaiman’s – The Graveyard Book (boy can that guy write)
Sherrilyn Kenyon – Fantasy Lover (Dark Hunter, Book 1) is the introduction to her well loved Dark Hunter series
Tim Power’s – The Stress of Her Regard

Science Fiction Fantasy:

interlopers, alan dean foster, science fiction audiobooksScience fiction and fantasy merge and mingle together in these books. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a superb tale and will always be for me one of the best, if not THE best, Science Fantasy novels ever written. Pilgrimage: The Book of The People and short stories by Zenna Henderson were some of the most cherished books of my youth and hold up well nearly a half century after they were written. Interlopers by Alan Dean Foster will get the blood pumping as Cody Westcott reaches far past his field of archeology to save the day. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is a beloved story that began many a fans entrance into the worlds of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Humorous Fantasy

humorous fantasy fiction

Humorous fantasy doesn’t need violence or dark foreboding to transport us to another place filled with wondrous and magical things.

Humor and Fantasy should be able to co-exist quite nicely but it is a rare author that can blend the two and not make a mockery of the very tale they are telling. There are a blessed few that do this very well, that don’t need violence or dark foreboding to transport us to another place filled with wondrous and magical things.

Here are some of those that I love best:
Myth Adventures Volume 1 by Robert Aspriner as well as all of his Myth novels. How wonderful to follow the wacky adventures of Skeeve and Aahz. I also adore his Phul’s Company series but while also humorous they are also definitely Sci-Fi not Fantasy.
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. Anyone who has been blessed to enjoy his Discworld series can not wonder if there will ever be another to equal his clever wit and humor in the field of Fantasy.
A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth, Book 1) by Piers Anthony. How can anyone not enjoy this man’s unabashed gift for puns? His Xanth series is among the best of the crop.
Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore offers a lighthearted romp with Travis O’Hearn and Catch a green demon with a nasty habit of eating most of the people he meets. Enjoy your visit to Pine Cove California.

There are many worlds of imagination that Fantasy affords opens minds and hearts. We are fortunate in having a treasure trove of magnificent work of fantasy fiction. Fortunately the field is growing every day and I must recommend some of my newest reads that had me reading through the night and yearning for more. Patricia Briggs Hurog series that currently are made up of Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood.

By June Williams
© Buzzy Multimedia

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June Williams
June, also known affectionately as Buzzy Lady #2, has been with the company since it began. She was born in Manhattan, raised in the Bronx (the first 12 years in the heart of the south Bronx) and spent most of her adult life living in Westchester County N.Y.

Always a Science Fiction fan and dabbler in writing she had thought herself too practical to pursue a career in the field. Before coming to Buzzy she spent over 30 years in the travel industry, then one day decided it was time to spread her wings and plunge into publishing. Everyone she knew thought she had gone slightly daft but as this was not the first time they had expressed that opinion she took the red pill anyway and now spends all of her time putting together projects that make each day a pleasure.