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Defining Genre

Fantasy is a complex genre with many of its titles easily fitting within multiple genre, and even into other genre. The genre is sometimes divided into "high" and "low."  The classification is not indicative of literary value, but rather of setting and scope.  

High Fantasy Low Fantasy
  • Set in a unique, imaginary world (world-building)
  • Driven by back stories and world specific histories/mythologies. 
  • Magical and fantastical characters whose powers define them.
  • Set in a the real or realistic rendition of world.
  • Historical elements and society issues are real and recognizable.
  • Magic is a plot device, often used to explore or reveal a flawed world. 

An allegorical fantasy uses an unfamiliar world to represent real world problems.

  • Allegory--the use of characters, settings and events symbolic of something else--permeate the story.
  • The telling or the tale conveys an intentional message or lesson--political, religious, or otherwise.


Epic fantasy is a high form of fantasy. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably.  To understand and identify  epic fantasy, think Beowulf or Tolkien.

  • Take place in a fully developed world that is magical an unlike our own. There is a history and characters have back stories that reveal both cultural beliefs and societal dilemmas.
  • The world-building often results in significant length (sometimes volumes), though this isn't always the case.
  • Characters are interconnected in complex ways.
  • The tale, like the epic poetry of ancient civilizations, explains important events that change history.


Heroic fantasy is set in a low-tech world readers will recognize or associate with historical times (often medieval). Unlike epic fantasy, heroic fantasy focuses on the actions of an individual character.  This character:

  • is often reluctant or initially unprepared
  • through decisions and actions saves others


In portal fantasy, characters travel between real and fantasy worlds. In the transition, they become immerse in the problems of the fantasy world.  This leads to their personal growth, when returning to the real world. The most well known examples of this type of fantasy include Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland. 


Not all retold tales are fantasy, but those that retell fairytales, myths, and legends often are.  Because the tales on which these retellings are based are fantastical, themselves, you'll recognize the typical elements:

  • curses that need to be broken
  • magical characters (witches, magicians, monsters, etc.)
  • royal heroes (princes, princesses) and villains (the evil queen)

Certain legends and myths have been retold/reimagined so often that they represent a sub-genre of their own.  The best example of this is the Arthurian legend.


Urban fantasy generally presents as low fantasy, set in an urban setting in the real world, or some version of it.  There is significant cross over with paranormal fantasy and with futuristic retellings (a punk sub-genre of science fiction). Typical elemnts include:

  • a gritty, urban setting
  • a supernatural underworld
  • interaction with human institutions (police, etc.)
  • contemporary language, including slang
  • pop culture references


In Chinese, the term wuxia means "martial heroes" and this type of fantasy is based in ancient Chinese literary tradition that featured expertise with swords and martial arts. Xianxia is derived from the term xian, which translates as immortal.  In this sub-genre of fantasy, heroes embody mythical  powers. Common elements include:

  • historic setting, generally ancient or pre-modern
  • tragic events that lead the hero to master martial arts skills
  • mythical beings (xianxia)


Library Information and Media Center - Monona Grove High School - Monona, Wisconsin

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