Now that fantasy itself has been defined some other definitions might be useful. These definitions, once again, are purely personal and purely done for personal reasons and to create a common language and vocabulary. The first thing is the different kinds of fantasy. These are the subgenres of the over-reaching fantasy umbrella. Often times it is a sliding scale and at the edges things can blur and blend. It’s not clear cut, but instead a beautiful rainbow of mushiness.
Our first two sub-genres are related to each other and often are hard to tell which one is which, especially since one often has shades of the other. Those are high fantasy and low fantasy.
High fantasy stories contain worlds with excessive amounts of magic leaking out of people’s ears. Unicorns are abundant; people see and experience magic in their every day life; learning to be a magic user is an accepted career choice for a person. At times it feels like rainbows and pointy wizard hats. Magic is showy. Some example of high fantasy worlds include Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar and 500 Kingdom series, Dungeons and Dragon’s Forgotten Realms setting and Jim Butcher’s the Codex Alera. Here magic is everyday. It’s visible in the world and effects how people live their daily lives. The Heralds with their Companions patrol the lands to help protect it and there are people with Gifts that allow them to do anything from magic to telepathy. In the Discworld there are witches and wizards – whose librarian is an orangutan and no one finds this odd. Death walks among people and buys curry. The Codex Alera series is set in a world where everyone has magic – or at least the ability of some sort to manipulate “furies” or elemental creatures. In each of these examples magic is there and in everyone’s face.
On the other hand, in low fantasy stories magic isn’t as evident. People will still know about it but it’s more abstract at times. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin are both good examples of these kinds of worlds. Here magic is subtle. In the Lord of the Rings, there is magic in the elves and the wizards, but you could easily take the world ‘elf’ out of the books and nothing truly would be lost. Magic isn’t visible in large ways. There’s the ring, but for most people in Middle Earth they can live their entire lives without seeing an elf or meeting a wizard or an orc for that matter. The Game of Thrones, up until the very end of the book, doesn’t appear to have a single hint of magic. Sure they discuss dragons and there are dragon eggs, but they’re treated like stones and dragons like stories. The only thing that separates this book from any other medieval story set on Earth is that it’s on a different world. Then the dragons are born and suddenly any doubt of the book being fantasy is tossed to the dragons’ dinner.
So, for me it is the impact of magic on the ordinary people’s lives that makes a story high or low fantasy.
The next question would be: what is the difference between epic and non-epic fantasy stories? To answer this question one must look at what is at stake. The higher the stakes the more epic a story is. Epics are large stories that span the world and have consequences that resonate to almost everywhere: the bigger the impact and larger the stakes the grander the epic. (If well written, of course.)
It’s not the number of books or episodes in the work that makes a story epic, but the scale of things. How big are things? How big are the stakes? Or at least how big do the stakes feel to the readers? A story can try for epic all it wants but if the readers don’t feel like there’s much at stake, then the story isn’t very epic.
Here again, is a sliding scale. Individual stories that are in a series can even move up or down the epic scale depending on how the stakes are raised and how personal the stories are.
That is another thing that can make an epic story. The more personal ones are generally less epic feeling than the ones that spawn multiple view points. The more view points, the more things become at stake because the readers can see more things happening in the world around the characters. The authors can easily transport their readers to all over the globe without having to actually move the main character around all the time.
Urban fantasy is a strange creature. While it generally seems to apply to stories that take place in Modern Day Earth, personally I think it could apply to any story where the city it takes place in could be considered a “character”. The story is so setting – so city specific – that it couldn’t happen in any other city. Especially for stories that take place on secondary worlds. So the first Mistborn Book could be considered an urban fantasy because the city itself is an important part of the story and a character in and of itself as much as the Dresden Files could.
That is possibly the major categories of fantasy fiction. There are, of course, always exceptions to the rules. But with this groundwork it’s easier to find those exceptions and to see why they do or don’t work.