This is the rant on various ways of creating subgenres—that is, small pockets within fantasy, rather than separate genres altogether like science fiction. Most of these are ways I’ve used. Others are ones I’ve seen recommended. Each will have its caveats, of course.

1) Skinning and shaking.

I keep finding myself attracted to some of the same plots and designs in fantasy even though I should know better. The bildungsroman plot, following the maturity of a young protagonist, is one of those. A story with that plot can sound exciting to me in the abstract, even though the details destroy my fascination with it. Yes, it’s yet another story with the same old bickering romance and the same old tests of courage and loyalty and the same old family who doesn’t appreciate the protagonist and the same old goonish villains and the same old mystical objects and/or mysterious magical powers that only the protagonist can wield.

So what’s to be done with a subgenre like that, which, damn it, I would like to write, but at the same time fear stumbling into cliché-land with, even if I don’t mean to?

Skinning and shaking. Skin the damn thing, shake out all the concepts that you don’t like and/or couldn’t live with yourself for writing, and wrap the skin around a different framework. Now you have a different subgenre. It looks like the same beast, but beneath the surface, it’s quite a different animal.

To continue with the bildungsroman example, I would personally get rid of:

  • The protagonist’s journey to maturity following predictable, smooth steps.
  • The protagonist being the center of the story to each and every character.
  • The romance.
  • The journey with a party of stereotypical companions.
  • The mystical objects and/or mysterious magical powers that only the protagonist can wield (I don’t object as much to those that other people can use).
  • The villains and their huge weird conspiracy focused on the protagonist.

That leaves me with the journey to maturity itself, which is precisely what fascinates me. So I go off and stitch that skin onto another framework. Now the protagonist’s journey to maturity is knotty, she’s actually more like the sidekick, the most important relationship in the story is a friendship (between two women) and not a romance, she journeys with one person and one person only through a wilderness with no other humans around, the mysterious magical powers are actually in her companion’s bloodline, and there are no villains involved, except, arguably, for my nasty, self-centered, emotionally detached protagonist.

There. I like that better. That story, called Dragonminded, has a strong possibility of being written soon, though I have to do a great deal of research on prairie and mountain ecology first (the peril of sending two characters off alone through a vast wilderness is that the wilderness setting has to carry much more of the story weight).

2) Reductio ad absurdum.

Think about all the implications that your favorite subgenre of fantasy has. No, carefully. No, in detail. Think about the things that the wise old mages seem to mean, even if they don’t actually mean them, when they’re pontificating about the philosophical underpinnings of their actions and the metaphysical underpinnings of the universe. Think about the consequences of actions that ordinarily go ignored because the author never glances away from the central character. “Shit rolls downhill” is a good motto to keep in mind here. Think about what would actually happen if people were really charging around and doing the things that the author tells you they do in a world that works the way the author tells you it works.

Now that you’ve reached the logical extremes of those implications for that subgenre, write a novel that at once is in that subgenre and explodes it—a crossbreed of the subgenre’s strengths and an answer to its weaknesses.

Parody and satire are great vehicles for this, of course, but the story doesn’t have to be funny. An idea I like to play around with, given my intense hatred of stories focused on prophecies and destiny, is a world in which all the implications of destiny get looked at by the people in that world, not just blindly followed. Say there is a prophecy that a country will suffer if a woman does not sit the throne. Then there are two insane queens who do the country a good deal of damage, and the only remaining heir is male. But the country still suffers, because of that damn prophecy. So the people who want to fulfill the prophecy are casting about blindly for a female heir, no matter whom she might be. What matters are her genitals, according to the prophecy, not that she might drive the kingdom further into the ground.

Meanwhile, perhaps some other people are looking at this damn prophecy and saying, “Wait a fucking minute. How sadistic is destiny, anyway?” And perhaps they’ll do whatever they can to insure that the prophecy is broken and destiny bucked, because, clearly, it cannot be trusted to actually provide a competent ruler for the country. It doesn’t care if the kingdom suffers. Destiny only started inflicting metaphysical harm when a king sits on the throne. It did nothing to help anyone resist the tyranny of the insane queens, including providing a competent heiress.

Implications, remember. What does it say that the universe only cares if a woman sits on the throne? A bunch of very nasty things, that’s what, and one way to bleed such a bloated target is to use its own weapons against it—to retain the prophecy and show what it’s really like to live in a world where destiny is tied to genitalia, rather than use the prophecy as a cure-all and say everything will be fine the moment the queen’s overlooked bastard niece is found.

I really love using this method. There are a lot of targets in fantasy, if you look at it this way, especially in the philosophies that authors use to justify their plotting choices.

3) Tone shift.

This is a pretty simple trick, really. With it, you can create blended genres like dark high fantasy, comedic urban fantasy, and so on.

But what makes a story “dark” and what makes it “comedic?” Too often, it’s only one aspect of the story that changes. The characters still do everything they would in a typical urban fantasy, but now they crack bad jokes, and a lot of the names are puns. Or it’s still absolutely a high fantasy, except that people die in worse ways, and the torture is more present and graphic. There’s no serious effort to use that tone to change the force and thrust of the subgenre.

What happens if there is?

On the comedic end, you might have an urban fantasy where the heroes themselves are high-hearted, where they don’t punish or bring down their enemies but forgive them, where the equilibrium of society is upset when the characters find out they’re part-faery but regained at the end by their family’s acceptance (it’s a fairly broad field, given all the different definitions of comedic). This affects the atmosphere of the book, not only the things the characters say. High-hearted heroes lessen the suspense and mean that you’ll have to think up other things to have them do, if the reader never seriously believes them in danger because they never really are. Forgiving their enemies means that you’ll have to think the heroes think differently about the villains from the moment they appear, and give them understandable motives—probably they’re not really villains at all. The fantasy structured like a comedic play will move in different ways than one structured as a chase or a battle, and probably be more conversation-intense and relationship-heavy, with wit sparkling on the lips of multiple characters, and used for other purposes than just putting school bullies in their place. The whole flavor and pace of the plot will alter. Fast is by far the best pace for a comedy. If you’re trying to write a comedic urban fantasy and it’s still heavy into exposition of the heroine’s powers and how the Sidhe Court hid from humans all these years, it’s probable that only one aspect of the story has altered.

And what about a dark high fantasy? It takes more than torture. Think about what gives horror novels their force. It’s the presence of intense terror, of the unknown, of morbid fascination. Imagine that entering into a high fantasy. Suddenly not only torture is around the corner, but betrayal; the likely loss of battles by the “good” side or Pyrrhic victories (you can still have big set-piece battles, but the outcome is no longer guaranteed); unknown enemies threatening and committing mayhem; death that may seem, or be, senseless. Or, if you don’t like horror, imagine a high fantasy that follows the tone of Norse myth. The final battle is this world’s Ragnorak. Most of the characters will not survive. Even most of the gods are doomed. The world will change completely, but with nothing so simple as the rightful king assuming the throne. This change will echo at levels so deep as to be unimaginable. And these characters will never see what they die to achieve. But they go forth to battle anyway, and that flavors the whole of the novel. And the author makes the story itself grim and proud, and pulls no last-minute rabbits out of the hat to save everyone. The dark tone is echoed and achieved by every moment of the story.

I would be more interested in subgenre blendings if more of them were as deep as this, rather than just a scattering of puns or racks, or a mixture of elves and robots.

4) “Unto the last and the smallest.”

This is similar to the trick I mentioned in point 2, of working out implications, but this one doesn’t necessarily involve challenging those implications directly. Its commentary is more subtle. Also, this includes small details as well as large ones—the fate of the kitchen maid who works in the invaded castle as well as the prophecies and destinies that guide the world.

This is where I think George R. R. Martin excels, and why I think his series has such a different tone than so many other high fantasy epics. None of his ideas are so absolutely unique that no other author has ever used them. He has telepathic (or at least dream-linked) direwolves, dragons, a lost kingdom/nation, a royal line that has practiced incest, knights in shining armor, court intrigue, a southern desert kingdom with a large dash of Spanish flavor and a reputation for sexual licentiousness, an enormous wall barring the northern part of his kingdoms, and so forth and so on.

But what he does is keep following his ideas, and the ripples of actions and events, long past the point where other authors would have stopped. The dream-linked direwolves actively change the lives of the characters they’re linked to, instead of just being there to be soothers of angst, and those changes make the bonded characters into people who do certain things, and then other people react to them, and then the bonded characters react back, and then the direwolves do something else, and other people react to that directly as well as through the changes in the bonded characters. The dragons are devastating weapons of war and potent symbols of the royal line, such that the apparent death of the last of them has left a void in the Seven Kingdoms that nothing else can fill, and people keep trying to get them back somehow, and react to any rumor of them with wild speculation, and that wild activity shows up in the damndest places and ripples back onto the plot. When the knights in shining armor are sent out to quell rebellions or hunt outlaws or protect a ransacked town, they don’t vanish; they’re still there two books later, often as an inconvenience, when the next viewpoint character visits the area. Minor characters who run away after the death of their masters show up later, with their own personalities and their own promises and dangers to the major characters.

Yes, this does lead to long, spiraling threads of story, and the details can be very, very hard to keep track of. But they also lead to a complex world, fantasy both high and deep, and they replace the padding that a lot of epic fantasies tend to contain with material that needs to be there, because the people are there, and they aren’t just going to go away.

There’s no reason this couldn’t be done with other subgenres as well. An urban fantasy as richly detailed, for example, would be a real treat.