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Low Fantasy vs. Urban Fantasy vs. Paranormal vs. Magical Realism vs. Contemporary Fantasy

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#1 BumbleBee

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Posted 15 August 2016 - 08:42 PM

Hey folks,

 

So I'm working and wanted to research my genre...but I'm having a dickens of a time sorting out the difference between these sub-genres and categories and was hoping someone more experienced could lend a hand?

 

So here are my understandings of these sticky sub-genres, please let me know if I'm getting warmer or going completely off the rails.

 

Low Fantasy - more a category than a genre, includes all books with magical elements set in the real world/modern times? Harry Potter is Low Fantasy.

 

Urban Fantasy - Fantasy stories set in real modern locations and times?

American Gods is Urban Fantasy.

 

Paranormal - more a modifier on other genres used to denote fantasy elements, so a romance or thriller story that happens to include demons or werewolves?

Twilight is Paranormal Romance

 

Magical Realism - fantasy with a literary tone?

Pretty much anything by Haruki Murakami

 

Contemporary Fantasy - ...I honestly have no clue what if anything distinguishes this from Low Fantasy.  :wacko:

 

My story involves ghosts in a modern setting. Ghosts make me think paranormal more so than fantasy, but given that my book isn't first and foremost a thriller/romance/horror/etc I'm working on the assumption that it is actually urban fantasy.

 

Any insight would be greatly appreciated!



#2 EricDub12

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Posted 18 August 2016 - 02:47 PM

Here is how I understand these various sub-genres:

 

Low Fantasy, while I believe technically can be modern day, typically is not. How I think of low fantasy is basically a fantasy story dealing with ground  level characters, and little to no traditional (ie dragons, wizards, etc) fantasy elements. Low fantasy typically won't deal in good vs. evil, world-in-the-balance events, at least not as its main focus. Sword-and-Sorcery, rogueish characters are the norm, and typically magic may exist but isn't commonly seen, and its existence is often doubted by the characters. Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch are the authors I think of when I think of this sub-genre.

 

Urban and Contemporary Fantasy are pretty similar, if not interchangeable. They feature magic in a contemporary setting. Urban fantasy is usually exclusively set in a city, though the term has become so common it pretty much just means fantasy tropes within our modern world. American Gods, like you said, would definitely fall under the definitions of both urban and contemporary fantasy, as well as the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher or the Anita Blake novels by Laurell K. Hamilton.

 

Magical Realism, as I think of it, usually denotes a literary novel that has elements of fantasy. The line between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction is arbitrary and dumb, and is slowly dissolving, but as it is now, it's mainly a pretentious way of describing any kind of fantasy book. Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are more on the literary side, as is Murakami, though he is closer to the dividing line between 'literary' and 'sci-fi/fantasy', and someone like David Mitchell straddles the two genres pretty equally.

 

Paranormal seems to typically be used as an adjective adding a descriptor to another genre. Like your example, Twilight's main element, or at least its main draw, is the romance, and paranormal colors the characters and setting. Twilight could easily be described as a contemporary fantasy, or a paranormal fantasy, as well. It's all in what aspect of the work you want to emphasize. 

 

Knowing only what is in this topic regarding your book, I would say urban fantasy is probably the closest definition. You could likely even go with 'Paranormal Fantasy' as (at least to me) paranormal sort of implies paranormal elements in an otherwise realistic setting. (I don't think anyone would consider the ghost army in Lord of the Rings as a paranormal element because basically everything in the world is fantastical.

 

Anyway, that is my understanding of the various subgenres, as somebody who reads quite a lot from each of them.

 

Hopes this helps at least a little bit!



#3 Gavaksha

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Posted 05 September 2016 - 01:29 PM

I've been struggling with a similar issue of "What is Urban Fantasy?" for a book I'm working on.  I've been told that UF should feature a particular city where that city's proclivities are part of the story, a character in it if you will.  I've also heard the same thing that Eric said; that Urban Fantasy is now used as a catch-all for anything where there is magic of some kind in a current world setting. 

 

The way I've been thinking of it for my own use is that "Urban" should be just that; the story is tied to the urban environment in such a way that it can't be 'unstitched' from it without losing something. 

 

For example, one of the critters I've been thinking about is a Sewer Grate Troll.  Now, this guy just doesn't work as a rock in the middle of a flower-lined forest trail somewhere.  Sewer Grate Troll evokes a bunch of specific urban imagery; it's gritty, oily, tough (I mean it gets driven over hundreds of times a day), who knows what vile stuff flows underneath it.  Was it created from that stuff?  Or is it clinging to the street because it's trying to keep it's dainty painted toenails out of the filth below it?  Who knows, but at the end of the day, it really can't live anywhere else.

 

Contemporary Fantasy doesn't have that tie, it certainly can have elements of it, but it doesn't depend on them.  I think Urban Fantasy does.

 

Just my two cents. 


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#4 Thrash

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Posted 05 September 2016 - 04:48 PM

I concur with Eric's qualifications on the distinctions between low fantasy (focus on less-magical characters in a magical world), contemporary fantasy (fantasy in modern times) urban fantasy (fantasy where city life is part of the magical world building.)

 

Magical realism, however, is more than just "literary fantasy". Part of recognizing magical realism is to remember it has some pretty specific regional origins in South American story-telling. Think Borges and Marquez. Part of MR is how the characters react to the part of their world that is unreal/"magic"--there's none of the type of rule-establishing world building that comes from other fantasy genres. 

 

http://www.writersdi...magical-realism

But more importantly---in you story, what are the ghosts doing? What's the plot? (I see you left out "horror" in your list?)

 

 

 

For fun--

A GUY WITH BIG WINGS WALKS INTO....

A guy with big wings walks into a city. He carries the sword of blah blah and must find the descendant of whosits in order to defeat big bad guy with bigger, blacker wings before he destroys blah blah. (High/Epic Fantasy).

A guy with big wings walks into a school and is relieved that he no longer has to hide his big wings from non-winged people. He goes to school with other winged people and....

......develops a crush on winged gal (paranormal romance)

......discovers a conspiracy which he and two pals must stop (low fantasy) 

 

A guy with big wings walks into a city in hopes of fencing his stolen souls to the soul-mob so he can pay off the loan shark (an actual shark-beast) and his landlady who will hex him any day if he doesn't make his rent. Wears fedora, loves fire-escapes. (urban fantasy)

 

A guy with big wings walks into Washington to prevent the election of Donald Trump. (contemporary fantasy/paranormal thriller)

 

A guy with big wings walks in to a poor Argentinian village. Family takes him and and keeps him in a chicken coop, sells tickets. He starts to smell really bad and feeding him is kind of a problem, so they're happy when he flies away again. (magical realism) 



#5 kaleenagenette

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Posted 13 November 2016 - 04:57 AM

Thank you for this thread! I've been wondering the same thing about the different fantasy genres, since mine seems to fall somewhere in the middle of low fantasy and magical realism. It's interesting to see magical realism referred to as something that doesn't require the same type of world-building as other fantasy genres. I've understood magical realism to be magic as it relates to the world we live in, but maybe I'm getting it confused with urban fantasy. I'm curious where the line is.

 

For example: Imagine today's world. Magic is not common knowledge. Character A is a regular human who knows magic exists. Character B is a secondary character who is a witch. Her magic touches most everything and Character A has to learn to live with it even though he can't use magic himself.

 

Does that qualify as magical realism, urban fantasy, or something else entirely? 


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#6 KitCampbell

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Posted 21 November 2016 - 05:44 PM

Hooray, subgenres. ::cracks knuckles:: Let's do this.

 

Magical realism is a tough cookie to crack. If I had to pick a single descriptor for it, it's that the magic is integrated. It's just a natural part of the world, in some cases so subtly that it's hard to tell if the fantastical element is even really present or just perceived. It tends to be serious and "literary," yes. It differs from "normal" fantasy in that magical realism isn't speculative--it doesn't answer "what if" questions--but rather highlights what people/cultures/characters perceive to be real. A good description of the subgenre can be found here: http://www.writing-w...f/realism.shtml

 

From a marketing standpoint, a lot of of contemp/paranormal/low fantasy gets lumped into urban fantasy. At some point, subgenres get a bit ridiculous and it may be best to lump a story into a bigger category for selling purposes, though hopefully that's something a publisher deals with rather than the writer.

 

n00b--It might help to know what the key conflict of your story is (is it just character A trying to deal with character B and her ways?), but my first inclination would be to put it in urban fantasy (assuming it's modern day in a city) or low fantasy over magical realism. Magical realism has very definite tones to it that I'm not seeing right now.



#7 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 28 November 2016 - 07:13 PM

I've been going back and forth between Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy myself. I've come to the conclusion that they are very similar, however the one difference between them is setting. Urban is just that, urban. Contemporary is set in a modern-day like setting, but anywhere. It could be Tiny Town, Nebraska, population 500, or a lone house in Northern California. It's just what it says, contemporary. Twilight could be consider Contemporary Fantasy. It happens in a modern day town. If Twilight had been set in Seattle, it could have been Urban Fantasy. 

 

Urban Fantasy is Contemporary Fantasy, but Contemporary Fantasy isn't always Urban Fantasy. 



#8 KitCampbell

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Posted 28 November 2016 - 07:34 PM

Just as a general point of clarification, urban doesn't have to be contemporary either. You can have a story set in 1890s London that, depending on tropes and so forth, can be considered urban fantasy.

 

The whole thing is a mess.



#9 Blueberry Tide

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Posted 29 November 2016 - 05:42 PM

Just as a general point of clarification, urban doesn't have to be contemporary either. You can have a story set in 1890s London that, depending on tropes and so forth, can be considered urban fantasy.

 

The whole thing is a mess.

Oh...I hadn't thought about that. You're right.

 

So Urban Fantasy can be Contemporary Fantasy, and Contemporary Fantasy can be Urban Fantasy...but they don't have to be. 



#10 mwsinclair

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Posted 30 November 2016 - 12:51 PM

I'm waiting for desert fantasy to emerge. Wise camels, crafty scarabs, a cruel and vengeful ibis.... Just thinking about it gets my juices moving.



#11 michaeloshea

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Posted 02 February 2017 - 02:57 PM

I'm in the same boat, I believe. Magical realism tends to be what I refer to my book as, but now you've got me wondering if I've labeled it correctly. Urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy may also be another good fit. Thanks for raising this discussion.



#12 Fiender

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Posted 15 February 2017 - 06:41 PM

I've always thought low fantasy and Urban fantasy were distinctively different things. Urban is, of course, modern day and real world with magic (American Gods) and low fantasy could also be described as sword and sorcery (real-ish world, often medieval, that also has magical stuff.) As opposed to high fantasy, where the world has laws of its own, completely separate from Earth rules (Stormlight Archive, or Mistborn are good examples; the worlds' ecosystems and even weather patterns defy normal Earth logic.)

Sooo, these are the divisions of fantasy as I understand them:

High: Original world, that can have any rules you want (though hopefully they have internal consistency and make sense in the story)

Low: Original world, with rules that mostly resemble the real world, with magic woven in.

Urban: Real world (usually), set in a large city, I'd assume with a degree of crime involved.

 

Contemporary: Real world is pretty much a requirement I feel, and it may or may not involve a large city. My own MS, I classify as contemporary because it doesn't really deal much with city life.

Paranormal: I agree with your suggestion that it's best as a modifier. You can have Para-Romance, as well as Para-Horror, or Para-Thriller.







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