Earlier this week, I posted about Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic. Continuing on that theme, I wanted to explore the different kinds of fantasy stories. First, let me be clear: I am not a fan of lists or concepts that claim to boil everything down to 12 easy steps. Those things may have a certain place in life, but I feel that reducing the complexities of the world to an even number people can count to using hands and feet is more a marketing scheme than anything else.

Okay, not that my little sermon is out of the way. While this isn’t a post about a limited number of ways to write a story, it is a helpful way to be intentional in the stories we tell. Knowing what you are trying to say is half the battle, the other half being to say it.

I found when crafting plots for my novels, that I needed to understand my own boundaries in order to be consistent. Not to say that I pinned myself in. Quite the opposite. Once I learned how my worlds worked, I was about to make them work with my characters, scenes, and awesome ideas. For me, the most important step was to see what kind of story I was writing.

This was especially important while rewritng a novel call Mississippi Secrets. The story seemed to fall flat to me, more mimicking other things I had read than being anything truly original. Once I took a step back and tried to see where it would sit on shelves, I noticed that it was a blend of several different things. That was great! But, I could not have gotten there until I knew what else existed.

Here is the list I have cultivated over the years. Different types of fantasy stories.


Worlds Upon Worlds

This list describes different worlds for each type of fantasy story. A world is the entire context for the story including history, geography, culture,  and the like.

  • “This world” does not necessarily mean Earth. What it means is the same basic context as the reader (which is Earth, I assume).
  • “Other world” is a totally separate planet or existence that is not connected to our reality at all.
  • A third “alternate world” would be some sort of alternate reality. That is, “what if” stories (what if the South had won the Civil War?).
  • Lastly, “past world” would be anything before the current context of the reader.

Also, building on Brandon Sanderson:

  • Hard Magic – Magic/technology has well defined rules that the audience understands.
  • Soft Magic – Magic/technology has unclear or vague rules, or none at all. This allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader

Fantasy, unbound

High Fantasy, Other world

High fantasy describes magic that is deeply integrated into the fabric of the world and affects virtually every aspect of it. Other world means that it is a world totally out of the context of the reader, though there must some some kind of parallel for the reader to understand what is happening.

Most often, in Sanderson’s terms, these stories would tend towards Hard Magic.

The best example of high fantasy, other world is The Lord of the Rings.

Low Fantasy, This World

Low fantasy implies that magical things may happen, but they are not so widespread that the entire culture has been altered by them. This world means that it happens in a context that the reader thoroughly understands and (more less) lives in. These stories include the child who can pull magical tricks on their nanny, or the nanny who uses magic to teach the children (Mary Poppins). In most cases, this is very Soft Magic.

Secret Society, This world

This is one of my favorite types of fantasy stories. Think Harry Potter. In these cases, we are squarely in this world, but find that there is another, secretly hidden world all around us for magical folk. These may be wizards, or demigods, or vampires, or whatever. In each instance, these secret societies run parallel to our own reality and ofter intersect at points in history. So, some member of the secret society may have been a famous historical figure. In almost all cases I have seen, the protagonist must (in some way) juggle living in both our world and the secret realm.

Mythology, This World

Similarly (often extending) the secret society is the idea that some mythological force (gods, demons, angels, etc) are still active all around us. While this could include so many of the “fairy tales are actually true and still going on around us” stories, I would tend to make a distinction between mythology and folklore. Many books have been written on this, but to make it simple: mythology explains the world (gods make storms), folklore colors the world (fairies are entertaining).

Folklore, This World

Because I made the above distinction, I felt obligated to include this. The above applies 🙂

Generic, Non-World

These are hard to pull off, but incredibly satisfying. When you are able to concoct a world that is enough like our context but lacking specifics that lead the reader to wonder “are they in our world or not?” Lemony Snicket did a great job with this. Often, these stories take place in “the city” or “the country” or some other vague location.

Paranormal or Spiritual, This World

In these cases, the “afterworld” or “spiritual realm” bleeds into our current context. Psychics, mediums, ghosts, and telepaths often fit here.

Crossover, Two Worlds

In Narnia the children cross from our world into another. This may be the most staple type of fantasy story, and often the easiest to write if you are first starting out. Why? Because you can have a main character who needs to have the rules of the new world explained — just like your reader will.

Mix and Match an Elixir

Like the greatest alchemists, the best stories will mix and match elements from these different types. I may do some follow up posts on this idea in the future.

For now, I challenge you to take a look at your current manuscript, favorite story, or best idea and see where it may fit. Then look at others of that same ilk. What are the rules? How did that writer pull it off? How can you do it differently?

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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