Secrets of the Fantasy Genre: World Building, Myths, and Magical Creatures

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You want to write in the Fantasy Genre but, if you’re like most of my editing clients, you found it’s a lot harder than you thought. Maybe you have a story idea or an entire story world but aren’t sure how to develop it into a full arc. Perhaps you’re writing your tenth draft and don’t know how to solve a particular problem. Maybe you sense something is wrong with your Fantasy but aren’t sure how to define and remedy it. 

Fantasy Genre: World Building, Myths, and Magical Creatures

I get it. You want quick and applicable solutions for solving your Fantasy Genre problems so you can get back to writing and delivering an extraordinary story in an extraordinary world.

Writing within a genre is your solution. Spoiler Alert: Genre for writers probably isn’t defined the way you think it is. If so, this will be life-changing for your Fantasy stories.

While genre is your guide, worldbuilding is your tool, and we’ll focus on these two ideas as we proceed.

Whether you’re writing a Fantasy manuscript, screenplay, television series, short story, play, or musical, the tools and tips you’ll find here will help. My goal is to provide you the information that will save you time and headaches. I’ve done a lot of research so that you don’t have to. 

Let’s get started.

What is Genre?

Fundamentally, genre is a fancy way of identifying the kind of story you’re telling. Because there are so many misconceptions regarding genre, let’s start by dispelling a few false beliefs.

Myth: I already know my genre is Fantasy, so I don’t need to learn more about genre categories.

The Story Grid method defines genre differently than publishers, booksellers, and sales departments. Genre doesn’t only concern marketing and selling books. In Story Grid terms, genre is a tool for the writer, not for the audience. As a writer, you aren’t managing bookstore displays. You’re crafting stories. You will use genre classifications as a guide to managing audience expectations, satisfy the reader, and keep them engaged. So Fantasy is not the type of story you are telling. It’s the setting of your story—more on this in a moment. Hang in there with me. It’s worth it.

Myth: Genre is a formulaic set of rules, too confining for Fantasy stories. 

Genre categories encompass every story ever told. Though I was resistant to embracing genre myself, I discovered many ways I could improve my stories using genre as a tool. As you study the content genres in this book, you’ll see how they encompass all types of stories. You can use this to great advantage when writing a Fantasy story. It will give you the structure, arc, and cohesiveness you need. It will allow you to create something more than an extraordinary world. It will make characters come alive in your world.

Genre is both art and science, requiring us to use both sides of our creative brains. One side channels and respects the muse, the other side is the translator of our muse’s message for our intended audience. Genre is our translation tool.

Now that we’ve challenged these false beliefs, let’s define genre through the lens of the writer and editor. 

Genre’s Five Classifications

As writers, we need to be able to place our work in each of the five genre classifications:

  • Time
  • Structure
  • Style
  • Reality
  • Content
Genre 5-Leaf Clover

Let’s look at them one by one. The first four are easy, and you probably already know how where your story falls in these categories, so we will move through them quickly, then get on the Big Jewel: the fifth item, Content Genre. 

Time Genre

The Time Genre tells the audience how much time they must invest in the story. Is this a one hour play? A two-hour movie? An eleven hour read? 

Short, medium, or long: any choice is valid. The same story structure principles apply at every length.

  • Short-Form includes poems, comic strips, short films, and short stories.
  • Medium-Form Includes television episodes, documentaries, novellas, graphic novels, lengthy journalism, and one-act plays.
  • Long-Form Includes feature-length films, plays, and documentaries, novels, book-length narrative nonfiction, television series, and plays with three or more acts.  

You can tell a Fantasy Genre story within any form of fiction in the Time Genre.

Structure Genre

The Structure Genre tells the audience how broad, minimalistic, or nontraditional a story to expect. Is it a linear story with a single protagonist? Does it follow multiple protagonists in connected plots? Or does it defy story structure expectations altogether? There are three choices:

  • Archplot: In these stories, a single active protagonist pursues their want despite conflict with external antagonistic forces. An archplot story is the classic heroic journey set on a linear timeline. The story ends with an irreversible change in the life of the protagonist. All of the questions raised throughout the story get answered, no subplot is left unresolved.
  • Miniplot: In these stories, passive characters avoid external confrontation at all cost as story events force them to fight their internal antagonism. A miniplot story uses multiple protagonists in addition to the primary protagonist, to dramatize its controlling idea. 

These several protagonists each have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the primary protagonist must change irreversibly by the story’s end. There is a win-but-lose or lose-but-win ending. Some questions raised by the story are left unanswered and open to reader or audience interpretation. A linear timeline is not necessary. 

  • Antiplot: By breaking the classic story form, antiplot is a rebellion against story structure. Consistent reality, causality, and time constraints are all optional. The characters may or may not battle external or internal antagonistic forces, which means they may have nothing to win, lose, or surrender. Absurdity is often the entire point of the work. Examples include Theater of the Absurd and Naked Lunch.

You can tell a Fantasy Genre story within any form of fiction in the Structure Genre.

Style Genre

The Style Genre defines the type of experience your audience can expect: a musical? A poem? A dance performance? There are many different style genres. Some examples are:

  • Drama: A solemn reflection of reality. Progressively builds tension and anticipation via an unexpected yet believable series of events, circumstances, and character choices. 
  • Comedy: Intended to make the audience laugh. 
  • Documentary: A factual record of events in story form, generally filmed. A subgenre is “mockumentary.”
  • Musical: Characters alternate between physical action, dialog, and song. 
  • Dance: Characters’ key actions are demonstrated through movement and dance.
  • Literary: Intended to evoke emotion from the reader. Most often formal stories of change within characters. 
  • Theatrical: Performed on a stage by actors.
  • Cinematic: Employs qualities of film via moving, pre-recorded images.
  • Animation: Animated. Often anthropomorphized stories with elements of farce; cartoons.

You can tell a Fantasy Genre story within any form of fiction in the Style Genre.

Reality Genre

The Reality Genre is the one Fantasy Writers often use to define their stories. It tells your reader or audience how far they will have to suspend disbelief to enjoy your story. Choices are:

  • Factualism: Based on real history, biography, or autobiography. An example is Into Thin Air
  • Realism: All stories with a real-world setting vs. a made-up world (past or present). An example is Gone Girl.
  • Absurdism: Characters’ actions are meaningless, irrational, and without causality. The plot structure is ambiguous, with no clear controlling idea. An example is Waiting for Godot.
  • Fantasy: This is our realm. It requires audiences to suspend disbelief significantly. Such stories often reflect myths and folklore and are generally regarded as imaginative. This category includes works incorporating dystopian themes, science fiction, and those with anthropomorphized or magical characters. 

Some subgenres of the Fantasy Realm include:

Epic- The setting is a magical environment with unique rules and physical laws. Epic stories tend to focus on a well-developed hero or group of heroes. Examples are Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. This also includes stories of swordsmen and barbarians, such as Fish Wielder.

Low- The setting mimics the real world but incorporates some unexpected magic that surprises characters. Examples are E.T, The Indian in the Cupboard, and Russian Doll.

Magical Realism- Similar to Low Fantasy but the characters accept the fantastic such as telekinesis and superpowers as a normative aspect of their world. Examples are One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Lobster.

Dark- Horror stories in a fantastical setting. Examples are works by H. P. Lovecraft and Alien.

Sci-Fi- Set in a speculative but realistic future in which technology not currently available is a focus. Examples are The War of the Worlds and Frankenstein.

Dystopian- A setting that fosters widespread suffering. Common themes are governmental or technological control or environmental destruction that lead to loss of individualism. Examples are 1984 and Hand Maid’s Tale.

Fables- Stories that incorporate anthropomorphized animals or supernatural beings to teach morality. Examples are Animal Farm and Arabian Nights. 

Fairy Tales- Set in distant and magical worlds. These stories are generally intended for children, and tend to begin with “Once upon a time.” They often portray giants, dragons, witches, and spellbound princesses. Examples are Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Shrek. 

As you can see, you can tell a Fantasy story as pure Fantasy, Fantasy with a touch of Factualism, Fantasy with a bit of Realism, or as a work of Absurdism in a Fantastical world. 

Note: When someone says they are writing a realistic Fantasy, they generally mean that they are writing a story that follows the basic rules of human societies in a fantastical setting.

While these subgenres are essential for a writer to know when it comes to marketing or describing their story to others, they are not the basis for formulating or evaluating a story structure. For most of these subgenres, there are no consistent patterns in the story arcs. So what can we learn from genre categories to help us create a story that works? What is practical and applicable when we need to get a story back on track?

The Content Genre is the single most critical choice you’ll make in writing your stories. The rest of this article focuses on this all-important choice. From this point forward, we’ll refer to “content genre” as merely “genre.” Yep. They’re that important.

Dragons
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Now for the Big Jewel: The Content Genre

Genre is the toolbox that contains most of your writers’ tools. Genre guides you through every step of creating stories that work, by:

  • providing themes and controlling ideas 
  • defining the range of values your characters must pass through
  • specifying what your principal characters want and need
  • determining the obligatory events and conventions your story must include
  • defining your story’s core event
  • eliciting specific emotions from your reader

Here are the twelve primary genres. For the rest of this article, we’ll be examining each one in detail.

Important Note: For a story that works, you must choose one primary genre. It will serve as the masterplan for your story. A secondary genre (or subplot) takes a backseat to your first choice. The primary and secondary genres should not share equal weight on the page.

The Content Genre Toolbox

There are seven principal tools in your genre toolbox. Every genre uses all seven tools, but each uses them in its unique way. The tools in the toolbox are:

  • Controlling Idea
  • Core Emotion
  • Value at Stake
  • Objects of Desire
  • Core Event
  • Conventions and Obligatory Events
  • Subgenres
  • Types of Conflict

Let’s take a look at each tool in detail.

Controlling Idea

Each genre has a built-in set of controlling ideas. A story’s controlling idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson we want our audience to come away with, the meaning we hope they assign to our story, the single sentence summing up the argument our story attempts to prove. It guides our story decisions as we write.

Controlling ideas are either positive, which we term “prescriptive,” or negative, also known as “cautionary.”

Prescriptive tales dramatize what to do in the “real world,” even if the setting is fantastical.

Cautionary tales dramatize what not to do.

See the discussion of each genre below for its general controlling idea. The basic controlling idea formula is: (Human Value) prevails when (a specific change occurs).

You can use the generic form to start. You’ll hone a particular and unique controlling idea for your own story as you write and revise.

Core Emotion

Each genre elicits its own specific emotion, which we call the core emotion. The core emotion is what your audience wants to feel when they choose your type of story. 

Not all Fantasy readers want to read a Love story or a shoot-em-up Action Story. Fantasy readers are looking for certain kinds of stories within fantastical worlds. 

They are almost always looking to experience something more than the fun of exploring an imaginary world. 

Controlling ideas help you elicit core emotions from your audience; it’s how you get them to feel what you want them to feel. 

Value at Stake

In each genre, the protagonist has something to lose, something to gain, and a price to pay. We call this the value at stake.

The value at stake describes your protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end. It’s the arc you’ll keep your protagonist moving along throughout your story. 

Changes along the range of values at stake (for instance, along the continuum of “life to death,” or “ignorance to wisdom” or “unloved to loved”) are value shifts. Value shifts are the result of the characters’ actions or inactions, dramatized through external events that drive and demonstrate characters’ internal changes. 

Objects of Desire

The protagonist and antagonist of each genre have a unique set of wants and needs, known as objects of desire. Objects of desire closely link to the value at stake.

Wants are conscious, meaning the character is aware of them. Your choice of an external genre drives them.

Needs are subconscious, meaning the character is not aware of them, at least at the beginning of the story. Your choice of internal genre drives them. 

I can’t overstate the necessity for fully understanding the objects of desire of your primary characters, not just your protagonist. Objects of desire are your most vital tools for demonstrating character. They are your magic wand for helping the reader develop empathy for your character.

Core Event

Not all Fantasy Genre stories have similar core events. Each of the twelve content genres has a unique core event, which is the climactic scene in any story. It’s the scene that readers and audiences expect when they choose a particular kind of story, the scene where the core value shift makes its big collision with the core emotion. 

Every scene before the climactic core event sets this scene up. Every scene after the core event shows the consequences of the character’s actions or inactions in this scene. 

Conventions and Obligatory Events

Each genre has its own conventions and obligatory events. 

Conventions are story elements that must be there, or your audience will be confused about what kind of story they’re reading. Missing conventions will leave the reader unsettled, bored, or disappointed. 

Genre conventions call for specific character types and certain methods of moving the plot forward. For example, audiences for an Action story will expect a hero, a victim, and a villain (character types) and a vast power divide between the hero and the villain (a method that moves the plot forward). 

Obligatory Events are required if you want to pay off the expectations of your audience. They are set up by the conventions of the genre. 

I am including links to the unique conventions and obligatory events for each genre in the Genre sections below.

Content Subgenres

We use subgenres to categorize genres further. Subgenres sometimes modify controlling ideas, values at stake, core emotions, core events, obligatory events, or conventions. Subgenres may be determined by the setting, the profession of the protagonist, the plot device, the direction of the protagonist’s arc, and more. Each genre description below includes a listing of its subgenres. 

Remember that epic, dark, and low fantasy; magical realism; fables and fairy tales; sci-fi; and dystopian are all marketing categories for the Fantasy Reality Genre. 

They are your setting. Here, we’re focusing on how to tell a story that works via the twelve content genres.

Types of Conflict

The genres are differentiated by the three types of conflict that create narrative drive and go a long way in demonstrating who your characters are and what they stand for:

Internal Conflict: The struggle that occurs in the mind of the protagonist as a result of opposing demands or impulses.

Interpersonal Conflict: The struggle that occurs when a character prevents the protagonist from achieving their objects of desire. Tactics can be physical, emotional, or intellectual. 

External Conflict: The struggle between the protagonist and an outside force. Examples are nature, a monster, or an entire community.

The Three Genre Groups

We divide the content genres into three groups: external, transitional, and internal. (I know, this is new to a lot of you in the Story Grid community.) We define the groups by the primary source and type of conflict that drives them.

External Genres

Primarily driven by the conscious want of the protagonist, and by external conflict. Stories with an external genre do not require a secondary internal genre. We often refer to these stories as “plot-driven.” The external genres are Action, Crime, and Horror. 

Transitional Genres

Driven by all three types of conflict; internal, interpersonal, and external. Transitional genres are a mix of internal and external arcs, with an emphasis on the external. They require a secondary internal genre. They are Thriller, War, Western, Love, Society, and Performance. 

Internal Genres

Primarily driven by the protagonist’s need (unconscious, at least initially) and by their internal conflict. The internal genres require a secondary external or transitional genre to drive the narrative of the story; something from outside the protagonist must be forcing them to make an internal change. These stories tend to be referred to as more “literary” and “character-driven.” They are Worldview, Status, and Morality. 

Overview of the Twelve Content Genres

External Genres

Fantasy Fight
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Action

These stories about survival feature a resourceful hero fighting a villain against incredible odds in life-threatening situations. The hero must save the life of the victim, and often their own life, by defeating the villain. Physical action takes storytelling precedence. The Action hero may want to save the victim and avoid damnation, but they need to stay alive. 

The global values at stake in an Action story are life and death with the possibility of damnation. If the hero fails to act to save the victim, the hero will forever be damned; that is, suffer a fate worse than death. The full value range for an Action story includes:

Life → Unconsciousness → Death → Damnation (the fate worse than death). 

Action Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the hero overpowers or outwits the villain and saves the victim.

Cautionary: Death or damnation results when the hero fails to overpower or outwit the villain and save the victim.

The audience or reader chooses an Action story to experience excitement.

Examples of Action stories are the Harry Potter series, The Hobbit, Fish Wielder, and Carry On.

Read more on the Action Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Crime

These stories begin with a crime or a plan to commit a crime. They build an investigation of a crime or, in the case of caper and heist stories, the planning and completion of a crime. The protagonist wants either to solve or to get away with a crime (justice or poetic justice served), but they need to feel safe. 

Crime stories pay off with the identification of the perpetrators, or the perpetrators’ escape from identification. They resolve when the perpetrators are brought to justice, or in the case of caper and heist stories when the criminals get away with their crime in a demonstration of “poetic justice.”

The global values at stake in a Crime story include:

Tyranny → Injustice → Unfairness → Justice

Crime Controlling Ideas

Crime Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the antagonist. 

There’s an exception for the Caper and Heist subgenres: Crime pays or poetic justice prevails when people band together to cheat the system but never each other.

Cautionary: Injustice or tyranny reigns when the antagonist overpowers or outwits the protagonist.

The exception for the Caper and Heist subgenres is: Poetic Justice fails when people set out to cheat the system together but end up cheating each other.

The audience or reader chooses a crime story to experience the intrigue of solving a puzzle, and the security of seeing justice done.

Examples of Crime stories are Dead Until Dark, Murder on a Ghost Ship, and cat mysteries.

Read more on the Crime Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Horror

A victim faces impossible odds and a monstrous antagonist intent on annihilation. The protagonist wants to stay alive but needs to avoid torture and feel safe; to sustain life and believe that life is worth living.  

The global values at stake include:

Life → Unconsciousness → Death → Death would be a mercy

Horror Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the monster.

Cautionary: Death or a fate worse than death results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit the monster.

Readers and audiences choose a horror story to experience the thrill of courage against terror. 

Examples of Horror stories are Alien, works by H.P. Lovecraft, and Christine.

Read more on the Horror Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Fantasy City
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Transitional Genres

Thriller

The Thriller combines the Action, Horror, and Crime Genres to thrilling effect. The villain makes the crimes personal to the hero, and the hero becomes the victim. 

Unlike an Action story protagonist, the Thriller protagonist must change internally. The hero wants to save themselves (and often another victim) and avoid damnation by defeating the villain. They need to stay alive and believe that life is worth living, that they are safe.

The global values at stake are life and death with the possibility of damnation. If the hero does not try to defeat the villain and save the victim, they will be damned. The villain’s actions push the hero to their emotional limits.

The value range for a Thriller is the same as for an Action story and includes:

Life → Unconsciousness → Death → Damnation (the fate worse than death). 

Thriller Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Life is preserved, and damnation avoided when the hero unleashes their special gift.

Cautionary: Damnation triumphs when the hero fails to unleash their special gift.

Readers and audiences choose a Thriller to experience intrigue and excitement. 

Depending on the additional internal genre, the audience is also likely to feel relief or satisfaction as the hero learns what is essential in time to avoid disaster.

Examples are Andromeda Strain and Hunger Games.

Read more on the Thriller Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Western

The Western isn’t just about the setting of the American Old West. It combines elements of the Crime, Society, and Action genres. A villain’s criminal actions force a victimized community to turn to a self-reliant (potentially dangerous) outsider, who intervenes (more or less reluctantly) on the community’s behalf. In the end, the hero either returns to the free but lonely life or accepts the bonds of the community.

The Western protagonist wants to remain free from the demands of normal society, sometimes wanting to protect victims. They need to stay alive and maintain self-respect.

The global values at stake include:

Freedom → Restraint → Subjugation → Subjugation Perceived as Freedom

Western Controlling Ideas

Positive: Justice prevails (and life preserved) when an uncompromising individual fights villains for the good of all.

Negative: Tyranny reigns when the savior of society is betrayed by the very people they defend.

The reader or audience chooses a Western to experience freedom, righteousness, and bravery.

Examples are The Mighty Marvel Gallery of Western Heroes, Territory, and Curse of the Undead.

Read more on the Western Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

War

A War story is not merely a story set in a time of war: it must have soldiers on a battlefield with the possibility of death. The external circumstances of war must drive the protagonist’s internal change. 

The War protagonist wants to meet the expectations and limitations of their team to stay alive, win the battle, and obtain honor. The story arises from the protagonist’s physical and emotional needs for safety, and their willingness to sacrifice personal safety and life for their fellow soldiers and the honor of the unit.

The global values at stake are honor and disgrace for a soldier in the context of war. 

The value range for a War story includes:

Victory with Honor → Defeat with Honor → Defeat with Dishonor → Dishonorable Defeat Presented as Honorable

Readers and audiences choose a war story to experience excitement, fear, satisfaction, pity, or contempt, depending on the subgenre.

War Controlling Ideas

The controlling ideas of a War story will vary by subgenre.

The Controlling Ideas of the Brotherhood War subgenre are:

Prescriptive: Honor is gained in a war when a soldier sacrifices for their fellow soldiers, regardless of victory or defeat in battle.

Cautionary: Honor is lost in a war when a soldier refuses to sacrifice themselves for their fellow soldier, regardless of victory or defeat in battle.

The Controlling Ideas of the Pro-war subgenre are prescriptive by definition: War is justified and meaningful when waged against a truly evil enemy – OR – Honor is gained in a war when a soldier sacrifices for their fellow soldier, regardless of victory or defeat in battle.

The Controlling ideas for the Anti-war subgenre are cautionary by definition: War lacks meaning when it is not morally justified – OR – War lacks meaning when leaders are corrupt and dishonor soldiers’ sacrifices on the battlefield.

Examples are The Heroes, The Ten Thousand, and Gardens of the Moon.

Read more on the War Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Love

Including but not limited to the “romance novel,” the Love Genre is a transitional genre centered on romantic love with the possibility of intimacy. A Love story may or may not end with the lovers living happily ever after. 

The global values at stake in the Love story slide from hate masquerading as love all the way to intimacy. Your protagonist need not experience each of these values but should progress from one value to another in a logical sequence, ending somewhere along the spectrum other than where they began.

The protagonist’s want might be to obtain a lover or to avoid love altogether. Their want could be something that seems entirely unrelated to love (a promotion, winning the big game, solving a mystery), but their need is to change in some way to gain or maintain romantic love. 

The value range of the Love story is broad and includes:

Intimacy → Commitment → Desire → Attraction → Ignorance → Repulsion → Hate → Indifference → Hate Masquerading as Love

Love Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Love triumphs when lovers evolve beyond desire and overcome moral failings; OR Love triumphs when lovers sacrifice their needs for each other’s benefit.

Cautionary: Love fails when the lovers don’t overcome moral shortcomings and evolve beyond desire, OR Love fails when lovers don’t sacrifice for each other.

Readers and audiences choose a Love story to experience the core emotion of romance. They also want to experience the excitement and mystery associated with love. 

Examples are Graceling, Twilight, and Beauty and the Beast.

Read more on the Love Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Society

The Society story is an allegory of rebellion in which a group of subjugated people confronts their subjugators, culminating in the revolutionary event when power shifts from one group to the other or fails to shift. The Society story explores global social power struggles while focusing on personal and specific conflict. The protagonists want power and respect from a third party, but they need self-respect.

The global values at stake include:

Power and Well-being → Vulnerability → Impotence → Impotence or Unwellness Masked as Power or Strength

Society Controlling Ideas 

Prescriptive: We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants.

Cautionary: Tyrants beat back revolutions by co-opting the leaders of the underclass.

Readers and audiences choose a Society story to experience fear, intrigue, exhilaration, and power.

Examples are Animal Farm, Black Panther, and Hand Maid’s Tale.

Read more on the Society Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Performance

Throughout the Performance story, the protagonist prepares for the climactic event where they must perform and gain respect or live with shame. Not every story involving a performer qualifies as a Performance story. The protagonist wants the success of their performance to be a direct reflection of who they are. They want validation from others because they need esteem and self-respect.

The global values at stake include:

Honored or Respected → Flawed → Shamed → Publicly Respected but Inwardly Ashamed

Performance Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: We gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally. 

Cautionary: Shame results when we hold our gifts back for fear of criticism or reprisal.

Readers and audiences choose a Performance story to experience triumph.

Examples of the Performance Genre are The Scorpio Races and Ender’s Game.

Read more on the Performance Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Internal Genres

Fantasy Genre Cartoon
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Status

The Status story features a protagonist striving to maintain or improve their social standing and focuses on the price they must pay to do so. The protagonist sets their own definition of success. It may be through admiration, wealth, or power, but it is with a particular goal in mind. 

The Status protagonist wants a firm place in the social order (either to move up a hierarchy or to maintain their current position), but they need self-respect.

The global values at stake in the Status story include:

Success → Compromise → Failure → Selling Out

Status Controlling Ideas:

Prescriptive: Success results when a person is true to their values, whether or not they obtain a higher social status.

Cautionary: Failure results when a person sells out their values to gain higher social status.

Readers and audiences choose a Status story to experience either admiration or joyous relief at a protagonist’s success, pity at their failure, or catharsis at their tragic doom.

An example of the Status Genre is Carnival Row.

Read more on the Status Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Worldview 

The Worldview internal genre story, the protagonist must change by overcoming something within themselves, giving up a want to get what they need, which is generally a new and more mature, clear, meaningful, or informed view of life. The protagonist may have any number of wants (see subgenres), but their need is to self-actualize by discovering their talents and potential, making sense of the world, and understanding their role in it.

The global values at stake in Worldview stories vary by subgenre. At their core, the global values of the genre include:

Ignorance Masked as Wisdom → Ignorance → Cognitive Dissonance → Wisdom

Worldview Controlling Ideas

Prescriptive: Sophistication, wisdom, or meaning prevail when we learn to express our gifts in a world that we accept as paradoxical or imperfect.

Cautionary: Ignorance, naiveté, or meaninglessness reign when we fail to mature past a black-and-white view of the world.

Readers and audiences choose a Worldview story to experience hope, relief, or satisfaction, or else loss or pity for a less fortunate character.

Examples are Starry River of the Sky, At the Edge of the Universe, and Pan.

Read more on the Worldview Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Morality

The sophisticated protagonist’s inner moral compass actively changes or is tested to the extreme. They shift from corruption and selfishness to altruism and self-sacrifice for others. Alternatively, they may avoid sacrifice or succumb to the temptation of corruption. The protagonist may want power, riches, control, forgiveness, etc., but their need is self-transcendence.

The global values at stake in a Morality story include:

Selfishness Masked as Altruism → Putting Another’s Need Ahead of Self → Putting Tribe’s Needs Ahead of Self → Self-Sacrifice for All of Humanity

Morality Controlling Ideas:

Prescriptive: Good triumphs when the protagonist sacrifices worldly, selfish values in favor of the needs of others.

Cautionary: Evil reigns when the protagonist pursues selfish needs ahead of the needs of others.

Readers and audiences choose a Morality story to experience righteous satisfaction or pity.  

Examples are The Gentle’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Subtle Knife, and Four.

Read more on the Morality Genre, including subgenres with examples, and all of the conventions and obligatory events.

Final Thoughts on Genre

Though we’ve covered the basics of genre in considerable depth, you may still feel unsure of your genre. You may be wondering how you can apply a genre to your own Fantasy Genre story and how you can innovate now that you have this solid foundation.

Tips and Tricks for Determining
Your Genre Beyond Fantasy

Start with these questions:

  • What do you envision as your core, climactic event? Which genre is associated with that type of event?
  • What do you envision as your inciting incident? Which genres align with that type of incident?
  • What does your character most want? Most need? Which genres most align with those wants and needs?
  • What do you want the reader to feel at the end of this story? Which genres align with that core emotion?

If answering those four questions leaves you uncertain, here are a few more suggestions:

  • Start ruling the genres out one by one. Keep narrowing them down until you find the genre most accurate for the story you want to tell.
  • Look for the smaller clues. For example, if you have an arch-plot, you can probably rule out Society, and if you have a mini-plot, you can probably rule out Thriller. 
  • Find a masterwork by turning to your favorite books. You’re likely drawn to certain genres because you like exploring specific themes. What patterns do you see in your favorite stories? What themes emerge? Is your story idea like your favorite? What’s the genre?
  • If you struggle with too many possibilities for a story idea, choosing a genre (leaping) and sticking with it will be enormously helpful in keeping you from straying from a solid story structure.

Applying Genre to Your Work

Once you know what genre you’re working in, how do you use it to fix your manuscript?

Start by answering the following questions:

  • Is your controlling idea consistent throughout the story?
  • Is the core event of your story consistent with your genre?
  • Does the climax of your story resolve when your protagonist uses their gift?
  • Do the wants and needs of the protagonist fit the wants and needs of your chosen genre?
  • Is the primary genre prominent and clear? 
  • Is the secondary genre supporting the primary genre?
  • Does your story have all the major conventions and obligatory events of your primary genre?
  • Does your story have most of the conventions and obligatory events of your secondary genre? (Note: the secondary genre doesn’t need to meet every convention and obligatory event.)
  • Do you have events that don’t seem to fit with your primary or secondary genre?
  • Are there entire scenes that support the secondary genre but don’t impact the primary genre? 
  • What scenes and events can you remove to clarify and strengthen the story?

Worldbuilding for the Fantasy Genre

Second only to genre, worldbuilding in Fantasy Genre stories is critical. Write it right, and your audience may forgive some minor mistakes with your structure. Get worldbuilding wrong, and it would take a perfectly constructed (impossible) story arc to compensate. It’s no secret that the Fantasy audience expects and requires the author to display mastery of worldbuilding skills. You have to create a believable and convincing world for your story characters.

Great writers can create extraordinary environments and make audiences homesick for places they’ve never even seen. But for many of us, worldbuilding might be just the thing that feels overwhelming. 

Although some writers juxtapose a real-world setting with fantastical elements, many create entirely imaginary universes with their own physical laws and logic and populations of imaginary races and creatures. There are several ways to approach the setting for your story.

Now, it doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantster when it comes to worldbuilding. You could plan the rules of your world ahead of time or write it as you go for your first couple of drafts. Both the plotter and the pantster have techniques with advantages and disadvantages. 

As an editor, what I see most with Fantasy writers is the over-planner and overwriter. More than any other writers I work with, Fantasy writers will spend more time on the planning of the worlds (creatures, landscapes, tribal rules, etc.) than the structure of the story they are telling. Writing with free abandon makes sense. Until it doesn’t. 

Many writers confuse creating a great setting for writing an actual story. They aren’t the same. And many writers get stuck in worldbuilding as an act of resistance to doing the work of creating a story structure. Worldbuilding becomes an excuse not to write.

The pantsters, on the other hand, are the ones most likely to write themselves into a corner. They write on whim and fancy until they can’t get their characters out of a problem they’ve created. These are the writers who have to spend most of their time editing their work and creating continuity. 

The more you can bridge the gap between writing willy-nilly and outlining every character’s family history and feelings about the cartography of the landscape, the better. Your goal is to go with your natural inclinations and to keep your eye on the results you want. Here are some suggestions for creating other worlds for your story setting.

Make critical decisions upfront. These are the story parameters that won’t change from beginning to end. For example: 

  • What types of creatures live in your world? 
  • What skills and abilities do they have? 
  • Does magic exist? Superpowers?
  • What are the primary governmental structures? 
  • What level of technology exists; weapons, transportation, medical care? If cars aren’t invented yet, then does it make sense that airplanes are?
  • What are the local customs that will impact the storyline? 
  • What is the climate? The terrain? 

Create one map rather than ten. Get the general lay of the land and allow for some flexibility as you move through your first few drafts. You want the environment to work for your story, not against it. If you need your characters trapped in a mountain range on day three of their adventure, make sure those mountains are a three day’s journey away.

Map in the Fantasy Genre
Image by Soren Meding, https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Dx0ove

If you are creating magical systems or superpowers, keep a few things in mind as you write:

  • Make your characters’ objects of desire (wants and needs) and flaws more compelling than their powers.
  • Make sure the character’s ability to solve problems with their powers doesn’t exceed your audience’s understanding of the magic. Foreshadowing is key. If magic is going to save the day in Chapter 24, the audience needs to know that magic exists in the beginning hook.
  • Make sure there are clear limitations to the powers available to the characters. Remember, the villain needs to be more powerful than the hero, but even the villain needs limitations and flaws the hero can inevitably exploit. 
  • Remember that Fantasy audiences want you to immerse them in a new world. It’s your responsibility to transport them without smothering them in descriptions and exposition. Introduce your world in small chunks of text, in a single word here and there, with a brief encounter with a strange object, force, or rule. Use dialogue to explain the world to your characters (and therefore, the reader). Rather than long expository blocks of texts, you can thread a dialog into the action.

Spare the reader the details they don’t need. Maybe that is the characters’ or political backgrounds or full explanations of magical systems.

Of course, cultural environments are more extensive, and a writer must consider socio-economic and political systems, and if you are writing one of your first few drafts, go ahead and explore. Just be sure to leave most of this on the cutting room floor, and don’t let all that worldbuilding keep you from building an actual story.

Use the Five Senses. To fully immerse your audience in your world, make the protagonist experience all five senses. This helps the audience hear, see, taste, feel, and smell at least one aspect of every scene you’ve written. You must rely on more than sight and hearing.

Your best bet in Worldbuilding? Firmly root your audience in a few aspects of your world rather than telling them a little about many elements. To intrigue your audience, you want to leave some facets open to mystery. Let them wonder, so they keep reading to explore along with your characters.

Innovating Within the Fantasy Genre

Once you have a working story, one that is consistent in genre, how do you make sure it’s innovative and not just formulaic? 

Try the following:

  • Read deeply in both Fantasy and your content genre. Compare your work to the masterworks (successful stories in your genres) as well as to the guidelines here. The only way to know if you’re innovating is to understand what others did before. You don’t want to write a story that people will call a hack. For instance, you don’t want to follow the same detailed structure as found in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Dragon Rider. Use your favorites as masterworks and take some of the things you love from each of your top two or three favorite books. 
  • Read widely outside your chosen genre and compare your genre with some of the techniques and conventions used in other genres. Can you use them in your work as well? If you only read fantasy stories, consider reading in a different content genre. Read that book a loved one has been trying (and failing) to get you to read for years.
  • Keep in mind that if your story’s theme is timeless, the payoff must be fresh and new. On the other hand, If the story pushes the boundaries of tradition, it’s best to ground it in the familiar. If the rules of your world are unique and your setting unexpected, try a take on a classic story.
  • Allow your raw ideas and bold thinking to take your writing where other writers are hesitant to go. Genre is a tool for translating the work of the muse, not for overriding it. If you want to innovate, allow vulnerability in your work. Try out the madness. See if it works. If it doesn’t, toss it in the junk pile. Try something else.
  • Create a dynamic protagonist and antagonist with opposing goals. How can the conflict escalate in surprising ways? If the reader is expecting one thing, what happens if you write the opposite?
  • Pair your primary genre with an unlikely secondary genre. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies took a classic Love story and paired it with zombie hunting, to create a new story that’s primarily Action. 
  • Evaluate how you can integrate your primary and secondary genres (that is, your main plot and your subplot), overlap scenes, and tie the external genre with the internal genre. 
  • Go back to your masterwork and ask, “What about my story is dissimilar enough to distinguish it from the original?”
  • In the final drafts, find readers you trust who know the Fantasy Genre well. Ask them to review your work for continuity, pacing, and whether or not they understand (as much as they need to) the unique world you’ve created. Ask them if you’ve told them too much about your world. Ask them where they felt the story slowed down too much. Where the story is slow, it’s usually due to  too much exposition.

Putting It All Together in the Fantasy Genre

You now have the tools to create a Fantasy story that resonates with readers and meets or exceeds their expectations. You’ve seen that genre is your guide, and Worldbuilding is a tool.

Now, more than ever, your audiences (like me) are waiting for stories that will transport us to different worlds and realities, change our perspectives, open our minds to new ideas, and simply entertain. As a Fantasy writer, you have a special gift to offer the world in the form of escapism and real-world cultural change. We’re counting on you to finish that story and share it with the world. 

Are you ready to translate the work of the muse?

What else do you want to learn about writing Fantasy stories? Was this article helpful to you? Please leave a comment below. 

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About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on a merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Story Grid Certified Editor. She is honored to have edited the award-winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. She recently edited Shawn Coyne's book, Action Story: The Primal Genre. She is currently writing The Story Grid Guide to Genre with Shawn Coyne and hosting an upcoming season of The Story Grid Podcast. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments
Author Rachelle Ramirez

5 Comments

Jule Kucera says:

Wow!!! What a massive post and so helpful. I especially appreciate how you clarified that Fantasy is a bookstore section, not content genre. Even non-fantasy writers will get value from this post because it brings so much information together. Thank you, Rachelle!

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Shaunna says:

I have been waiting for this article since I first discovered Story Grid. Thank you, Rachelle!

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

OMG. I am so happy to know it helped someone! It was an epic adventure all its own. I wish you the best with your story.

Reply
Miriam Verbeek says:

Thanks, Rachelle. This is great – it’s clarified what was instinctive and will make me so much better as a writer because I will understand better why something doesn’t seem to work. It will also help me as an editor because I will be able to put words around why I ‘feel’ something doesn’t work. : )

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

Yay! It always makes my day to read that an article has helped a writer. Go forth and conquer!

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