Fantasy Visual and Literary Descriptions

Visual and Literary Description of Fantasy Subgenres

Guest blogger Dr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)


Beyond the boundaries of mundane reality exist enchanted worlds populated by valiant heroes, terrible monsters, and fantastical beings.

Fantasy’s portals offer escapes unbound by physical laws, the genre’s archetypes tracing tropes back to humanity’s collective yearnings, resulting in a number of diverse subgenres. As authors chase unique visions, universes emerge that blend magic and modernity through urban supernatural tales or military epics depicting operatic battles between good and evil—even futures where sorcerers duel cyborgs and love defiant of programming blossoms between flesh-born and machines.

This article’s visual and literary descriptions of these fantasy subgenres map fantasy’s major subsets for all readers, including examples of books or book series for each.

1. Dark Fantasy

Peering into the shadows of psyche and soul under pressure, dark fantasy explores the most morally complex characters—vulnerable antiheroes seeking redemption, misjudged outsiders crusading against inner demons, and misunderstood monsters scorned by society. These portraits amplify our compassion, highlighting how even the most crooked paths can lead to emotional growth.

Initially published in 1940, L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear is lauded as a pioneer of the modern horror and psychological thriller novels. In a letter written on June 11, 1970, Philip K. Dick wrote:

“What I am writing is really psychological fantasies, on the order of L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear, which impressed me very much, and still does. Without Fear I would never have come up with what I do.”

Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates is also cited as a quintessential dark fantasy work due to its blend of historical fiction, magic, a complex plot involving time travel, ancient Egyptian sorcery, and a dark, atmospheric London.

Dark Fantasy

2. Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy sweeps readers into worlds where heroes battle formidable evils, from Middle Earth’s mystic expanses to the complex societies of Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive. These stories chronicle the trials of diverse characters, from humble origins to royal descent, united by bonds of fellowship on quests of monumental importance. Against the backdrop of looming darkness—tyrants, ancient curses, or corrupt empires—these characters rise, embodying courage and sacrifice, evolving from common folk to legends.

At its core, epic fantasy celebrates the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. This subgenre reminds us of the indomitable power of heroism and unity in overcoming darkness.

Epic Fantasy

3. Fairy Tale Retellings

Fairy tale retellings of age-old bedtime stories incorporate new wisdom into childhood classics, revealing life lessons for new generations. Whether told from the princess’s vantage or the big bad wolf’s, these rediscovered tales give voice to viewpoints not expressed in the original stories.

As with Marissa Meyer’s cyborg Cinder, subverting the cinder girl trope into an imaginative sci-fi space opera, creative authors transform obsolete damsel and villain archetypes into positive representations.

These new versions question outdated assumptions and infuse modern hope while preserving the magic.

Fairy Tale Retellings

4. Gaslamp Fantasy

Gaslamp fantasy, characterized by its setting in a magical version of the 19th century—frequently with Victorian or Edwardian aesthetics, blends historical fiction and fantasy elements. This subgenre often features advanced steam-powered technology alongside magic. Works like Sorcery & Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer exemplify the era’s temperaments and etiquette. Unlike steampunk, which emphasizes technological innovations and machinery, gaslamp fantasy strongly emphasizes magical elements and historical aesthetics.

The genre often explores themes of social hierarchy, the impacts of the industrial revolution, and the juxtaposition of the mystical against a backdrop of rapid societal change. Characters may range from aristocrats to inventors, magicians, and mythical beings, navigating a world where the everyday mixes with the extraordinary.

Gaslamp Fantasy

5. Grimdark Fantasy

Unsparingly harsh landscapes permeate grimdark fantasy, where antiheroes with clashing motives navigate violent power struggles in ruthless worlds against overwhelming odds. Series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series pulls no punches, depicting the extreme—yet relatable—decisions desperate souls face amid instability and war.

Grimdark fantasy challenges the idealistic and often black-and-white morality found in fantasy that is more traditional, opting instead for a nuanced and realistic portrayal of its characters and their environments. It provides a very immersive experience for readers looking for stories that confront the humanity’s darker sides and the complexities of power and morality.

Grimdark Fantasy

6. High Fantasy

High fantasy worlds are richly detailed, featuring diverse landscapes, cultures, histories, and species, including elves, dwarves, dragons, and other mythical beings. Notable examples of high fantasy series include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

The themes explored in high fantasy are broad and deep, ranging from the nature of good and evil to the complexities of power, leadership, and moral choice. These stories often follow heroes or groups of heroes as they embark on perilous journeys, confront evil forces, and face trials that test their courage, loyalty, and values.

High Fantasy

The Difference Between High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy

While high fantasy and epic fantasy share many similarities, such as expansive world-building and the presence of magic, there are some key differences. High Fantasy encompasses a broader range of stories set in imaginary worlds, while epic fantasy focuses on grand-scale adventures with far-reaching consequences. Epic Fantasy often features multiple storylines, a large cast of characters, and a clear battle between good and evil that threatens the entire realm. In contrast, high fantasy can include more intimate stories set in fictional worlds without necessarily involving an epic, world-saving quest. All epic fantasy is high fantasy, but not all high fantasy is epic fantasy.

7. Historical Fantasy

This genre blends an authentic atmosphere of historical fiction with the imaginative possibilities of fantasy, creating stories where history and magic collide. By incorporating mystical elements into historical contexts, authors blend fiction with fact, showing that magic is not some disproven primordial force but an innately human social construction projected onto the real world.

Works like Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell integrate sorcery into real backdrops, revealing occult forces coursing beneath the Victorian era’s rationalist veneer as the arrival of practical magic ushers England towards an enlightened renaissance. Orson Scott Card also touches upon this subgenre in the Alvin Maker series set in the American Frontier, where the protagonist, Alvin Miller, holds powerful magical abilities.

Historical Fantasy

8. LitRPG

Blending fantasy with the advancement of game systems, LitRPG (Role-Playing Games) novels immerse readers in imaginative universes structurally modeled on roleplaying mechanics. Works like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One portray underdog protagonists leveling up abilities, securing powerful equipment drops, and pursuing milestone quests for social status and survival. Beyond escapist fulfillment, novels in this subgenre underscore perseverance and grit as keys for overcoming arbitrary systemic codified barriers.

Readers connect with characters beating stacked odds through courage, intellect, and daring self-belief against the numbers. LitRPGs speak to the indomitable human spirit defying imposed social, economic, or digital constraints.


9. Low Fantasy

Low fantasy quietly immerses readers in the extraordinary, permeating the ordinary world when one knows where to look. Works like J.K. Rowling’s treasured Harry Potter series render the English countryside and boarding schools surreptitiously inhabited by wizards concealing their gifts among everyday backdrops as improbable adventures subtly unfold under the guise of normalcy.

While high epic fantasies spellbind with elaborately built foreign worlds, low fantasy tales prove enchantment lies nearest at hand when discovered in family, friendships, and integrity persisting despite superficial non-conformity. Identity manifests through believing in one’s talents without external validation. Low fantasy turns intuition and self-trust into the highest wizardry attainable in any realm.

Low Fantasy

The Difference Between High Fantasy and Low Fantasy

The primary distinction between high fantasy and low fantasy lies in the setting and scope of the story. High Fantasy takes place in a fictional world with unique rules, magic systems, and mythical creatures, featuring epic quests and world-altering stakes. In contrast, Low Fantasy is set primarily in the real world, with subtle magical elements woven into the narrative, focusing on more personal stakes and character-driven stories. While high fantasy immerses readers in grand, sweeping adventures, low fantasy explores the extraordinary hidden within the ordinary, often emphasizing internal character development over external world-building.

An example of a work that is both High and Low Fantasy is Slaves of Sleep by L. Ron Hubbard. The novel presents an Arabian Nights story in which a man at night travels to a parallel high fantasy universe ruled by “Ifrits” while his existence during the day is in a low fantasy universe, the real world.

10. Mythic Fantasy

Like archeologists unearthing ancient primal truths, mythic fantasy resurrects stories from fading folktales into modern magical re-renderings. Works like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon delve into the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters, blending myth with elements of pagan and Christian spirituality.

By reviving legends like Loki, Anansi, and leprechauns into contemporary contexts, authors prove the timeless relevance these myth-borne symbols, values, and moral quandaries hold for our times. Readers reconnect to ancestral wisdom, realizing old gods never vanished but rather the sacred sight to perceive them dimmed.

Mythic Fantasy

11. Paranormal Fantasy

Paranormal fantasy revolves around the presence and interaction of supernatural entities or abilities—such as vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, and shapeshifters—within a contemporary, often urban, setting. Unlike traditional fantasy, which is set in fictional worlds, paranormal fantasy takes place in a world that mirrors our own, making the fantastical elements appear even more striking against a familiar backdrop. One of the most known and influential series in this subgenre is The Harry Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It follows Harry Dresden, a private investigator and wizard, as he solves mysteries involving the supernatural in modern-day Chicago.

By situating the fantastical within the familiar, this subgenre invites readers to look at the world around them through a lens of wonder, imagining the hidden layers of magic that might exist just out of sight.

Paranormal Fantasy

12. Portal Fantasy

Offering metaphorical escape hatches from routine existence, portal fantasies bring ordinary characters from our mundane world into magical dimensions. Series like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia trace skeptical children walking through magical gateways—whether spellbinding wardrobes, enchanted woodlands, or antique grandfather clocks—into worlds where dreams sublime into reality. Another example that embodies elements of this subgenre is Robert J. Sawyer’s The Neanderthal Parallax series. While it grounds its portal and parallel universes in scientific theory, it explores the fantastical concept of parallel evolution and the profound impact of crossing between worlds.

Beyond sheer adventure, portal crossings awaken life’s meaning when one discovers a deeper identity unconfined by social reality’s narrow assumptions.

Portal Fantasy

13. Romantic Fantasy

At the heart of romantic fantasy lie tales about the life-affirming power of love—whether forbidden affection struggles against adverse forces or magical attraction reveals soulmates through destiny’s invisible red strings. Complex works like Jacqueline Carey’s elaborate Kushiel’s Legacy saga traverse romantic entanglements against baroque social mores and palace intrigues, with fantasy elements amplifying universal truths.

By weaving magic, myths, and imaginary species into emotional journeys pursuing amorous freedom, authors validate love’s sanctity by defeating outer barriers. Romantic fantasies progress social change, proving all hearts—regardless how non-traditional—deserve magic.

Romantic Fantasy

14. Steampunk Fantasy

Steampunk fantasies re-envision past or parallel timelines where steam-powered devices produce wondrous inventions and unforeseen consequences. Series like Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate mixes steampunk with urban fantasy, following a woman without a soul who navigates a Victorian London filled with vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings—all while dealing with the intricacies of steam-powered gadgets.

Through imaginative tinkerers, alchemists, and vagabond inventors dismissing the “impossible,” these flamboyant industrial fantasies prove that creative visionaries often moved ahead of their era’s established beliefs on progress to uplift society.

Steampunk Fantasy

15. Sword and Sorcery

Imagine lands out of antiquity where ruins hold forgotten secrets and only the most cunning mages and muscular warriors survive their ruthless landscapes. Works like Robert E. Howard’s iconic Conan the Barbarian stories tell of bold mercenaries navigating ageless kingdoms stalked by ancient evils resurrected from history’s shadows. David Farland’s The Runelords series also contains core aspects of sword and sorcery.

This subgenre proves that even savage realms can be tamed through courage, loyalty, and self-reliance as protagonists who are more roguish than knightly live by grit and sinew to resurrect hope from despair. These tales tell the near-forgotten truth that adversities demand unorthodox heroes who find triumph and purpose in life’s stormy journeys rather than safe harbors.

Sword and Sorcery

16. Urban Fantasy

Like a secret current of magic thriving beneath busy metropolitan hustle, urban fantasies unfold stories of covert supernatural communities dwelling within the familiar real-world cityscapes we inhabit daily. Works like Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie and Kara Gillian series are celebrated for their unique blend of supernatural elements, crime-solving, and character-driven stories set against a contemporary backdrop.

By unleashing vampires, witches, and occult Amsterdam-esque districts from society’s periphery into modern narratives, this subgenre suggests the otherworldly already walk among us for those awakening sixth senses—resonating with urban tribal subcultures.

Urban Fantasy

17. Wuxia

Like philosophical superheroes upholding justice in ancient China, wuxia fantasies chronicle righteous martial artists wielding incredible fighting abilities on quests facing ideological challenges that test personal principles over punishing physical trials. Epics like Jin Yong’s landmark Condor Trilogy novels follow heroes upholding chivalric codes tied to Buddhism and Daoism that restore harmony within turbulent outlaw communities—the secret world of lone warriors bonded by mastery of combat skills and honor codes outside mainstream society.

The subgenre’s moral philosophies resonate cross-culturally, speaking to conflict avoidance, ethical self-defense, redemption of criminals, and spiritual commitment to protecting the oppressed. These swashbuckling tales suggest true power lies not in supremacy over others but in the mastery of the self.



Behind epic struggles against supernatural evil lies fantasy’s gift of reflecting our inner light—as heroic fellowship defeats darkness, realms transform through sacrifice, and progress unfolds when voices unite in camaraderie.

Fantasy’s diversity helps us better know ourselves while expanding our moral vision. Fans find old wounds heal by seeing their pain aired in curse-flinging witches or redemption arcs of hook-handed pirates. Our true magic as seekers of meaning lies not in distant imaginary spells but in local acts of compassion. Readers depart fantasy’s portal into real life, carrying renewed faith in fighting for a just world.


Bradley, Marion Zimmer (1983). The Mists of Avalon. Alfred A. Knopf.

Butcher, Jim (2000). Storm Front. Roc Books.

Card, Orson Scott (1987). Seventh Son. Tor Books

Carey, J. (2001). Kushiel’s Dart. Tor Books.

Carriger, Gail (2009) Soulless. Orbit Books.

Clarke, S. (2004). Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Bloomsbury.

Cline, E. (2011). Ready Player One. Crown Publishing Group.

Howard, R. E. (1978). Conan the Barbarian. Bantam Books.

Hubbard, L. Ron (1940). Fear. Unknown Fantasy Fiction.

Hubbard, L. Ron (1939). Slaves of Sleep. Unknown.

Jordan, R. (1990). The eye of the world. Tor Books

Lee, T. (1982). The silver metal lover. Daw.

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Geoffrey Bles.

Martin, G.R.R. (1996). A Game of Thrones. Bantam Books.

Meyer, M. (2012). Cinder. Macmillan.

Pullman, P. (1995). Northern Lights. Scholastic.

Rowland, Diana (2011). My Life as A White Trash Zombie. DAW.

Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. Bloomsbury.

Sanderson, Brandon (2010) The Stormlight Archive. Tor Books.

Stevermer, C. & Wrede, P.C. (1988). Sorcery and Cecelia. Houghton Mifflin.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954). The Fellowship of The Ring. George Allen & Unwin.

Young, Jin (2019). A Hero Born. St. Martin’s Press

EL WhitehorseDr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)

Working abroad in 10 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, both as a doctor and teacher, has shown me life through a prism of viewpoints. That experience has enriched my writing to the point where I enjoy showcasing the admiration I feel for varied cultures.

For example, my WOTF Semi-finalist entry is published for Kindle as Death Clearinghouse: The Novelette, featuring Apache ingenuity.

When I’m not writing, I’m yanking swords out of stones around the world.

Amazon author page:

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *