Fantasy Classifications

These days, there is a plethora of ways to classify or categorize almost anything, and fantasy fiction is certainly no different.

The Masterclass system lists eighteen different fantasy subgenres, yet almost no fantasy novel I’ve written fits neatly, or even not-neatly, into any one of those classifications, and that’s true of quite a few other writers I know.

“Discovery” lists fifty fantasy sub-genres, and only a handful or so have the same categorization as the Masterclass system, while Wikipedia offers a listing of thirty fantasy subgenres, with a disclaimer that the listing doesn’t encompass everything.

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, the scholar Farah Mendlesohn (a lovely scholarly lady, by the way) takes a different approach, by providing four ways of classifying fantasy: portal/quest fantasy; immersive fantasy; intrusive fantasy; and liminal fantasy, the last of which is fantasy where the reader really isn’t sure whether it’s fantasy or not (if I understood the explanation correctly).

Then there are those who simply break fantasy into two types: high and low.

In effect, almost everyone has their own definition/classifying system for fantasy, and I’m no different, although I haven’t seen any other classification like mine (not that someone hasn’t done it besides me, just that I haven’t seen it).

My “system” breaks fantasy into two types, one type where the characters live fantasy lives in a fantasy world/universe, and another where the characters live “real” lives in a fantasy setting. By “real” I mean that the characters have to have jobs and a way of supporting themselves, and that the economics, politics, society, and magic all work logically and consistently in that fantasy setting.

Of course, in the end, I suspect few readers really care about classifying what they read, or even what “classification” or type of fantasy the novel happens to be, but about how entertaining they find the novel, and possibly about what insights it provides.

6 thoughts on “Fantasy Classifications”

  1. Sam says:

    I have some other thoughts on the subject but one question I have about your “system” right off the top of my head is where a story like Lord of the Rings would fit?

    The story follows Frodo and his companions on a quest to destroy the One Ring. We don’t get to see much of the characters’ daily routine or the societal systems they operate in normally. Which doesn’t mean those things don’t exist just that they are on the periphery of the story being told.

    When characters are constantly on the move due to a quest it’s unclear how fantastical their usual lives are. Also because they don’t stay in one place for long we don’t get a detailed picture of how the societies in those places operate.

    1. Postagoras says:

      The short answer is that LOTR is a quest, like the Odyssey or the quest for the Holy Grail.

      I think that, in addition to classifying the story line, you can classify the world-building of the author.

      Tolkien was a deeply religious Christian linguist who was fascinated by nature. So his world was peopled by folk who struggled between being good and evil, and there was a hierarchy of good and evil. There were many languages spoken. Animism was built in.

      George RR Martin famously asked “What is Aragon’s tax policy?” Tolkien wasn’t interested in tax policy, so that wasn’t part of his world building.

      There is a ton of foreshadowing in LOTR, “I feel he has a role to play in the future, for good or ill.” I’ve often amused myself by thinking about how a Middle-Earth society could utilize that foreshadowing. 🙂

  2. David Middleton says:

    Part of reason that I enjoy reading your novels is there is always a functioning economy behind what is happing to your protagonist’s, and often this takes place over months to years, as opposed to often used “Deus ex Machina” approach that some authors take. A realistic approach that requires effort to support the individual in the stories makes it more enjoyable. I find this true for all your writing, and part of the classification of the sub-genre of fantasy and SF is that your work falls into multiple categories, which challenges your reviewers but I think all your fans end up loving the novels, and re-reading multiple times. Thanks for your continued efforts in creating so many amazing stories and worlds to explore.

  3. Darcherd says:

    For the ultimate in ‘real life’ fantasy, I would call your attention to LEM’s description of the difficulties a female character has in relieving herself in a medieval society in “The Soprano Sorceress”.

  4. KevinJ says:

    “almost no fantasy novel I’ve written fits neatly, or even not-neatly, into any one of those classifications”

    For me, that’s part of your enduring appeal!!

  5. Grey says:

    Just for fun, as she is not a fan, I decide to ask my spouse about how she many fantasy sub-genres she identifies. The response reminded me of a joke about heavy metal music, where an enthusiast is discussing a song with a normal person:

    Metalhead: “Based on the drum style, vocals, and subject matter, I would place this song in within one of the 27 typically recognized 1980’s British-metal genre, with a strong overlap into the more modern sub-sub genre of…”

    Normal person: “TURN THAT S – – – OFF!”

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