SF/F Subcategories

January 15, 2015

Hi guys! 2015 is off and running, and I’m so excited to share all kinds of big client news that will be coming soon. For now, I wanted to go over something that’s crossed my mind as I’ve caught up on my query inbox — a lot of queries use genre terminology sort of casually or interchangeably, and I thought it’d be handy to go over different SF/F and Horror subgenres and what, exactly, these designations mean. (This might also be helpful, I figure, if I’m saying on Twitter that I want more of X subgenre or less of Y subgenre.)

This is all just My Opinion and you are welcome to totally disagree with any or all of these definitions and examples. These categories are very mutable and there’s tons of overlap between them. This is more meant to be fun than to be didactic — don’t worry too much about categorizing your book into a subgenre. That said, it’s important not to subcategorize wrong, because then I get confused.


  • High Fantasy: Fantasy set in a “secondary world”, or a world not our own, where magical beings and creatures are part of everyday life. The most famous example is The Lord of the Rings, though technically that series does take place on ‘our’ Earth in an imagined past. Dungeons & Dragons, inspired heavily by Tolkien, is perhaps the classic high fantasy setting.
  • Epic Fantasy: This is when high fantasy goes truly massive in scope, with many principal characters and large-scale events taking place that change the face of the entire world. Examples: A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time.
  • Dark Fantasy: Fantasy with strong horror elements. Examples: The Vampire Chronicles and Coraline.
  • Portal Fantasy: A type of high fantasy in which characters from ‘our’ world enter the secondary world through some type of magic. Examples: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Time travel stories like Outlander can also qualify as portal fantasy.
  • Urban Fantasy: A fantasy story set in our modern world, where magical elements lurk beneath the surface of everyday life. Urban Fantasy often involves supernatural detective or policing forces that keep those elements a secret from normal humans. Examples: The Dresden Files and Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter.
  • Paranormal Romance: This is a subcategory of urban fantasy that emphasizes romantic storylines over action-adventure. Examples: Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse series.
  • Historical Fantasy: Fantasy stories set in our world in a historical time period. Examples: Sevenwaters and Temeraire.
  • Contemporary Fantasy: This is a bit of a tricky category, and it isn’t precisely defined. I use it to mean stories set in our modern world that do not have the ‘feel’ of urban fantasy or paranormal romance. Use your discretion with this one. Examples, by my definition: Practical Magic and the Harry Potter series.
  • Magical Realism: A very specific type of contemporary fantasy, in which there is usually only one magical element and it is seen by the characters as a normal part of the world. Developed in Latin America, and most prominent in literature from there. Some U.S. examples: Song of Solomon and The Green Mile.


  • Hard Sci-Fi: Stories with an emphasis on real world scientific accuracy and a focus on already-known science. Examples: A Fall of Moondust and The Martian.
  • Space Opera: The sci-fi equivalent of epic fantasy. Star Wars is perhaps the quintessential modern space opera. Examples: Foundation and The Vorkosigan Saga.
  • Space Western/Weird West: Stories stylized in the vein of the American western. The television series Firefly and Cowboy Bebop are probably the most popular recent examples of this subgenre. The Dark Tower is a more fantasy example.
  • Post-Apocalyptic: When your story takes place in the wake of a cataclysm that ends human civilization as we know it. Examples: The Stand and Oryx & Crake.
  • Dystopia: Different from post-apocalyptic in that these stories typically involve the corrupt civilization that arises after the apocalypse, once society has rebuilt itself from the rubble. Dystopian stories are distinguished from general far-future sci-fi by their resemblance to our contemporary politics and culture. Examples: The Giver and The Hunger Games.
  • Military Sci-Fi: Similar to space opera, but focused on military organizations in science fiction situations. The television series Battlestar Galactica is a popular example. Often there’s a strong focus on depicting battles and explaining tactics. Examples: Starship Troopers and The Forever War.
  • Superhumans: A newer genre that has emerged from the popularity of comic books and graphic novels. Prose novels about superheroes and superhuman beings have not really taken off to the same degree, I think because it’s such a visual genre.
  • Alternate History: The sci-fi equivalent to historical fantasy. This can also be a general ‘what if?” without overt science fiction elements, where the outcome of a major historical event is reversed. Steampunk is a very popular type of alternate history sci-fi. Examples: The Man in the High Castle and the Southern Victory series.
  • Cyberpunk: A subgenre particularly popular in the 80s and 90s, focused on the internet, virtual reality, cybernetics, and transhumanism. Examples: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and Neuromancer.


  • Psychological Horror: Stories that leave much of the overt horror off the page, relying on the instability and psychological foibles of the characters to create tension. Examples: Carrie and The Stepford Wives.
  • Gothic Horror: Atmospheric horror that often involves the specific horror of a place; the house or castle becomes a character in its own right that acts upon the character and keeps them confined and afraid of the unknown. Examples: The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining.
  • Cosmic Horror: Most famously popularized by H. P. Lovecraft, this is horror that emphasizes the insignificance of human life in a vast and uncaring universe, and terror beyond mortal comprehension. Examples: The King in Yellow and The Call of Cthulhu.
  • Body Horror: Stories that focus on the deformation or transformation of the human body to provoke fear and revulsion in the reader. Clive Barker is probably the biggest name in this genre, in fiction. Examples: The Hellbound Heart and Rosemary’s Baby.