We all know fantasy pretty well, at least I’m assuming that we do. We’ve seen and/or read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. We might have read the Shanara Chronicles, Wheel of Time, Mistborn, or so many other epic fantasy series or watched shows like Merlin, Game of Thrones or Grimm. And there are certain things that we generally expect from fantasy, but what happens when fantasy series aren’t the norm, and why aren’t there more of them?
I think the biggest reason that there aren’t more of them is because publishers and writers want something that feels familiar. A writer can feel like it’s their own unique twist on something that is familiar and safe, and a publisher can look and see how well things have sold. Now there is plenty of variety within the standard epic fantasy that we often think of and that we see published most often, but there’s always some medieval feel to it that feels normal and allows us to jump into a world quickly and pick up the edge cases about the world that are different from others.
What are some of the tropes of fantasy that are used often?
While it’s less the case now, it often feels like fantasy is the clear good versus evil. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are both clear examples of this where there is clearly a good side and there is an evil side, and there really isn’t ground in between. Sometimes you really want that delineation, but fantasy can lean too much so into the good versus evil and it simply being that and nothing more.
Also there is the medieval feel, or what we attribute to a medieval feel. There are going to be knights most likely, though they might be called something else, a king, either good striving against the evil forces coming to the lands or evil keeping the people oppressed so a rebellion must rise up and there’s not all that much in between. Lots of castles, sprawling forests, and generally a lot of what you’d expect from Robin Hood shows up in your standard epic fantasy. Even in urban fantasy, there is often some leftover feel of the medieval period. In the Dresden Files, the wizarding council holds old traditions, in Harry Potter, Hogwarts is literally a giant castle.
Finally, while it’s not in all fantasy, there is very often some form of magic. This is often where fantasy diverges the most as different people use different things for magic. It could be that the magic comes from the divine, it could be that magic is steeped heavily in ritual and must be done at ritual locations, or it could be a quicker and dirtier magic that can be done on the fly. Magic can be fine and precise wielded like a scalpel or it can be swung around like a club, bludgeoning everything. So there’s plenty of leeway for magic, but it is something that is commonly found in fantasy.
That’s epic fantasy, is all fantasy like that or are there different types of fantasy?
While that might be the type that people think of when they think of fantasy thanks to Lord of the Rings, it certainly isn’t the only type of fantasy out there. There’s paranormal fantasy, urban fantasy, low fantasy, dark fantasy, or even steampunk would qualify as a different type of fantasy. Probably the biggest growing type of fantasy falls into that area of urban fantasy. The Dresden Files series is one of the biggest or Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman are two of the better known. But TV shows like Grimm also fall into that Urban Fantasy sub-genre of fantasy.
There are a few that I really want to call out, though, the first being Urban Fantasy. This is one of my favorite genres of fantasy as taking a modern world and putting magic not just into the world as a whole, but a densely populated area and really focusing the story down into that world can be done so well. In all of Neverwhere, Grimm, and The Dresden Files, there’s a grittier side of the world that you don’t a lot in fantasy. That grittier side of things is what sets it apart from contemporary fantasy which would qualify as something like Harry Potter where it’s in a modern setting, but doesn’t deal as directly with the modern nature of the world.
Another one can either be modern or not, but it’s a non-standard medieval fantasy. That’s a long name, but basically, it’s looking at fantasy that really goes outside of the normal sword and sorcery that you can see and takes us to another world or part of our world than London or the medieval European equivalent. An example of this is the Daughter of Smoke and Bones trilogy. Those books are set in Prague, so different location than normal, but they also deal with a very different subset fantasy with how they talk about a number of fantasy tropes, which you can see from above, and the creatures that you see. You don’t really have your standard goblins, trolls, and faeries. It’s often a bit jarring not to have your standard fantasy tropes, but it’s also refreshing to see fantasy step away from it’s roots and branch out into new areas.
Finally is a sub genre of fantasy that I want more from, and that’s the Weird West. But this can also fall somewhat into historical fantasy as well, so I’ll use that genre so I can talk about more things. But in the Weird West genre, you’re getting something that we’re familiar with, because of westerns, and adding in some mix of magic, steampunk or advanced technology, aliens, or monsters. The movie, Wild Wild West is an example of what Weird West can be. But when you expand it to look at other parts of history, you see it around WWI and WWII, even something like Wonder Woman which falls under the umbrella of Superheroes, but the movie was as much an alternative history fantasy movie as it was a superhero movie because of Wonder Woman’s backstory and Ares being a Greek god.
Now, there’s so much more you can go with into fantasy. And a lot of what I’ve talked about with world building before for RPG’s or just in writing in general you can pull into fantasy as well and use it to help shape your thoughts around fantasy. I’m going to be doing a follow up article soon on magic and high, medium, and low magic as well as different ways of using magic that I touched on here in this post.
But I’ll leave you with the question, what are some of your favorite genres inside fantasy, and some of your favorite books or TV shows or movies in that genre?
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