Genre 101: Historical Fantasy

While I love many subgenres of fantasy, this one is my favorite, because it combines my first genre love (historical fiction) with my great genre love (fantasy).

#25 Historical Fantasy

Historical fantasy can take the form of implying that magic co-exists with us, or can imply that magic used to co-exist and now doesn’t because of some event the story portrays.

My favorite thing about writing this genre is that you can take the events and people that you love from history and re-imagine them without needing to stick to the boundaries necessary for historical fiction.  [It also has the advantage of not drawing the outrage of historians and history buffs–  a considerable advantage, as you might know if you’ve ever gone up against one or the other in a debate.]  By introducing fantasy elements, the reactions and choices of people would naturally be different, giving you an immense scope for story.

For example:

  • What if France’s Musketeers were secretly werewolves?
  • What if there were fairies in Ancient Rome?
  • What if the Mughal Emperors were telepaths?
  • What if some Vikings were born telekinetic and they became the best warriors?

It blends the real world with fantastical elements and magic.  Typically there has to be a fairly even balance between the two, instead of, say, history with only one tiny  fantasy element added.

Historical fantasy has several sub-genres, which are divided by setting:

  • Prehistoric
    Pretty self explanatory.  Fantasy taking place in the time before recorded history.
  • Classical 
    (Often crosses over with mythic fantasy and Mythology genres.)
    Fantasy fiction involving Greek and Roman myths.
  • Medieval
    The most well known subgenre of historical fantasy, takes place in the medieval era, but with magic.  Swords everywhere, royal intrigue, and secret missions are common elements.
  • Celtic
    (Sometimes crosses over with Mythology, or Arthurian fantasy [which we’ll cover in another post].)
    Fictional treatments of the mythology and folklore of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, occasionally Breton.  Often features Druids, with people exploring questions of who and what they really were.
  • Arabian
    Most often loosely based on or re-tellings of stories from the Arabian Nights.
  • Wuxia
    A popular genre of Chinese dramas and stories.  Literally meaning ‘martial arts heroes’, it’s typically the story of a hero or a group of heroes who have to save the world from some terror with their skill at martial arts.  Goddesses, prophecies, and royal intrigue are often involved.

Alternate history fantasy is when historical fantasy crosses paths with alternate history.  A historical event turns out differently just as in alternate history but fantasy is also added.

According to Professor Tolkien’s statements regarding Lord of the Rings, he classified the trilogy and its prequel as historical fantasy.

Next week we’ll delve into some of the smaller, ‘specialty’ subgenres of fantasy.

Have you written historical fantasy or wanted to?  Do you have a favorite subgenre of it?

Merry Writing!


3 thoughts on “Genre 101: Historical Fantasy

  1. Kendra E. Ardnek says:

    I have a fantasy subgenre that I’m struggling to find a name for – I’ve been calling it Historic Fantasy, but it’s pretty much the opposite of this. It has a historical fiction feel – no magic or even fictional races – but it doesn’t take place in our world. Books in this genre would include Jessica Grayson’s, Rachel Rossano’s, and Erika Mathews’.

    I need to write some historical fantasy. Someday.

    Liked by 1 person

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