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Contemporary Fantasy

What is Contemporary Fantasy?

Contemporary Fantasy is defined by its setting: real world, present day. It is our very recognizable world -- with some fantastical elements and tropes worked in. The traditional fantasy tropes are still found in this sub-genre, though they are often reinvented for modern use.



Often a story in this sub-genre will begin easily, with a scene that seems normal and almost mundane -- but then reveals to the readers the magical, the wondrous, or the supernatural and thus draws the reader into the story. This is a fun sub-genre in that writers are often trying to play with readers expectations while drawing readers into the story. Indeed, Contemporary Fantasy does a pretty good job of creating emotional ties with readers in order to make them invested in the story.

 

Other Features of Contemporary Fantasy

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  • Level of Magic

    Variable. This feature of Contemporary Fantasy is a bit difficult to define because it can be a difficult line for writers to walk because readers will have some familiarity with the setting. Too much magic can seem unrealistic but too subtle magic may not provide enough of that sense of wonder or even make the narrator seem untrustworthy. Contemporary Fantasy is stories that play with the expectations of readers -- and magic is one way to play with readers. Magical elements in a Contemporary Fantasy world are often hidden from the non-magic population. This doesn't mean the magic isn't powerful or wondrous, just that not everyone knows about it. Even though magic is often secret, in Contemporary Fantasy it will still have a sense of rationality and is often integrated into the world itself.

  • Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications

    Moderate-High. There is some variability here, but because the stories are set in contemporary times and have an easily recognizable setting it's much easier for writers to include social commentary. For example, Harry in the Harry Potter series leaves our world and finds similar problems in the wizarding world and he does indeed become very involved in trying to solve some of those problems. There are great opportunities for parallels when creating a magical world set in a contemporary time period, which creates opportunities for authors to comment on the problems of the time. This, however, does not mean that all Contemporary Fantasy has political or philosophical implications, merely that the sub-genre has great potential for it.

  • Level of Characterization

    Moderate-High. Characters in Contemporary Fantasy tend to be less black and white and less the perfect hero or sidekick or villain archetype. There is a greater range of characters and a greater sense of uniqueness to them. For example, the magician's apprentice could be a university student studying chemistry. This makes the character new and different, but also adds a bit of familiarity to readers because a chemistry student is very relatable -- maybe she's your roommate.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate-High. The advantage of Contemporary Fantasy over more traditional fantasy is that the world has an inherent logic to it already. There are consequences and systems in place already and these will make for a richer and more active plot. (The systems and logic may be altered a bit by the presence of magic, but they're still recognizable and have a sense of realness.)

  • Level of Violence

    Variable. Violence is not a defining feature of the Contemporary Fantasy sub-genre. There is definitely more graphic and gritty stories in this sub-genre than in others, but not all stories adopt that level of violence.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

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  • Urban Fantasy. Urban Fantasy is a sub-sub-genre because it's a part of the Contemporary Fantasy sub-genre, with a more defined setting (urban).

  • YA Fantasy. Much fantasy written for the YA audience is part of the Contemporary Fantasy sub-genre. Mythic Fantasy. Some Contemporary Fantasy uses old myths and legends to drive the story. Adding some myth to a Contemporary Fantasy story also adds to the story's atmosphere.

  • Magical Realism. Magical Realism is its own sub-genre with its own history, but Contemporary Fantasy is sometimes marketed as Magical Realism because they both have that sense that the magical, or the supernatural is accepted and integrated into the rational world.

Contemporary Fantasy isn't for you if...

If you want a true escapist book. Contemporary Fantasy still has that magical sense that more traditional fantasy has, but because Contemporary Fantasy is set in current times and has a more recognizable setting it doesn't have that same immersive escapism -- this is not to say that the story can't draw readers in.

Popular Contemporary Fantasy Books

  • J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter. Harry discovers he's a wizard on his 11th birthday and is introduced to the wizarding world -- and he and the wizarding world are never the same.
  • Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles. A children's series of books about three siblings who discover the world of the faeries.
  • Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere. In another London, one that seems to lurk beneath the one we all know, is a place where the magical and supernatural thrive.
  • Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files. An ongoing series of novels about a supernatural PI/wizard.
  • Charles DeLint, Onion Girl. DeLint is considered one of the defining authors of the Contemporary Fantasy sub-genre. After a car accident paralyzes her, our protagonist discovers she can dream herself to the spirit world.
  • Kevin Hearne, The Iron Druid Chronicles. Atticus is the last druid and he is over 2000 years old, and he can talk with his dog.
  • Lev Grossman, The Magicians. The story of a high-school student accepted to an exclusive and secret academy -- for magicians. Magic though, does not solve all his problems and can even be boring.
  • Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Another example of YA fantasy. Percy discovers that he is the son of Poseidon. He makes friends at a camp for demi-gods and goes on quests.
  • Kelley Armstrong, Bitten. The protagonist is a 21st century woman, with an intriguing secret: she's the only female werewolf.
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Begins on Saturday. There is a town in northern Russia and in that town is a lab and in that lab magic is being researched. A parody of the scientific community as well as bureaucracy with some Russian mythology and fairy tales thrown in.

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