All books need to be classified, for it tells book sellers – and readers – where a book belongs. If you go into a book store, a quick glance at the aisles tells you that it is imperative for a book to fall into a certain genre. Often, fantasy and science-fiction are grouped together in one big section, which can make it a challenge in searching out a specific sub-genre of literature. But when we submit our work to agents, it’s important to have the right genre classification.
Why? Because the agent needs to know how they are going to sell the book. If we say that our book is a “young adult, middle grade, high fantasy, space opera, steampunk set in Victorian-era Mars,” an agent will likely give it a pass – because they will be unable to sell the book to a publishing house (and chances are, such a book would be a bizarre mess.)
It can be confusing knowing where to place your book. As such, it is important to fully understand the genre. To help with that, I’ve done a little work for you and defined some of the sub-genres of both fantasy and science fiction, with a little note on classification. I hope it helps!
Epic Fantasy: Arguably the father of all fantasy, epic fantasy is a genre where the protagonists must save the world, typically from some malevolent, evil antagonist. They typically fight the final battle between good and evil, conquer evil nations, overthrow evil overlords, or even face off with the gods themselves. Often times, epic fantasy and high fantasy are considered interchangeable, but there is a subtle difference. J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan fall under the heading of epic fantasy.
High Fantasy: Closely related to epic fantasy, the high fantasy genre typically has just as much world building as its epic counterpart, but the difference is in the scope of the story. High fantasy typically involves stories that are more personal in nature, perhaps more limited to the needs and desires of a single protagonist, rather than a group. He or she is focused on a single antagonist, rather than on a global/end-of-world event. Typically, by the end of the story, our protagonist has attained his or her goals, but the rest of the world is generally unaffected and continues on as though nothing had happened. Often, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels are considered to be high fantasy.
Urban Fantasy: Sometimes referred to as contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy is typically set in the real world, such as Earth, and is often in the present day. Magic still plays a pivotal role, and, as such, is not to be confused with science fiction. Guy Gavriel Kay has some urban fantasy in his oeuvre.
Sword and Sorcery: Sword and sorcery fantasy involves stories that are typically smaller in size with less emphasis on world building and more time spent on action. Think of dungeon-crawls, where the protagonists must fight off the hordes of evil on a quest for his or her goal. Xena: Warrior Princess would be a good example of a sword and sorcery type fantasy.
Dark Fantasy: Dark fantasy isn’t necessarily ‘scary’ or ‘horrific’ fantasy, but rather it is typically a story where the protagonist fails to win. They may involve antiheroes rather than heroes, and the stories are often set in worlds where evil has triumphed over good. Sometimes they are set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds. H. P. Lovecraft is well known as a dark fantasy author.
Historical Fantasy: Often set in the historical real world, urban fantasy includes magical elements set in historical eras. Susanna Clarke is an example of a historical fantasy author.
Erotic Fantasy: Also known as fantasy romance, erotic fantasy tends to have a lot of sex and/or romance as central drive for the plot. “The Sleeping Beauty” novels by A. N. Roquelaure – a pseudonym of Anne Rice – are examples of erotic fantasy.
Hard Science Fiction: With a heavy dose of science, hard science fiction is perhaps one of the more challenging genres to write in. The author must have a solid understanding of scientific fact so that their futuristic science is wholly plausible. Asimov is considered the grandfather of hard science fiction.
Space Opera: This tends to be a fun genre, with less focus on scientific fact with perhaps more liberal, fantastical elements. There can be hard science and military science fiction in this genre, but it leans heavily on the fiction side. George Lucas is a good example of a space opera author.
Steampunk: Steampunk is typically a very specific type of historical fiction, where more modern technology is set within classical historical eras. For instance, you’ll often have mechanized gizmos and gadgets in a Victorian-era world. The new Sherlock Holmes movies lean towards steampunk, as well as novelists such as Cherie Priest.
We typically don’t need to classify when a novel is suited for an adult audience. It is assumed that all literature can be read and appreciated by adult readers. Adult fantasy and science fiction tends to allow for more sex, romance and graphic violence, with a more sophisticated point of view.
Young Adult: The primary distinction here is that the protagonist tends to be close to the age of the reader (typically 13-17). If you visit the young adult section of the book store, you’ll see that it has exploded in popularity. It is interesting to note that young girls tend to be the target demographic for these stories, although the popularity of these stories is growing among young teen boys. Suzanne Collins, of Hunger Games fame, is a good example of a young-adult (YA) author.
Middle Grade: These are books intended toward kids ages eight to twelve (also known as ‘tweens’). They are starting to make decisions on the types of stories they’re interested in reading, and typically the protagonists are of a similar age to the reader. There is typically very little – if any – sexual content, although there is definitely action and conflict. Janice Hardy is a good example of a middle-grade (MG) author.
Have I missed any major sub-genres? And was this helpful in making sense of the differing genres? If so, please include your thoughts in the comments below. Note that literary agents and publishing houses may disagree, and that these are only guidelines.