Writing in different sub-genres within the same fictional world is easy. Did you laugh? Me too. In truth, writing in different sub-genres in the same fictional world comes with its own series of challenges. In this case, let's talk fairy tale retellings versus epic fantasy.
During the course of my career I've written in a number of different sub-genres within the fantasy world realm that do not include my two ventures outside of fantasy. I started in urban fantasy then added fairy tale retellings and have now expanded the fairy tale universe to include an epic romantic fantasy. Sub-genre or niche bouncing is something I consider to be normal for many authors, so don't be alarmed if you're the same way. Not all of the shiny ideas fit into the same box and that's okay. However, there are going to be challenges when you hop sub-genres because each niche brings its own nuances.
Urban fantasy and fairy tale retellings set in a secondary world have very obvious differences in setting and world building. However, even if two sub-genres are set in the same fantasy world, there are still challenges ahead. I'm going to focus on three of them.
Challenge #1 - Fairy Tales vs All Original
The biggest difference between writing fairy tale retellings and creating an all new story comes down to plot points. With fairy tale retellings, I have a road map to reference because the fairy tale I'm adapting provides defined points that must be incorporated inside the story framework. When examining the original tale I want to adapt, I look at the key elements and decide what can be dropped, kept, or twisted on its head. Which plays into decisions for how the story will unfold because there are certain parameters that must be met in order to qualify as a retelling or a looser reimagining.
With all original stories, such as my Unseelie of Sonera trilogy, I have more plot flexibility because I do not have a specific road map I need to follow. This can also be an additional challenge because if you get stuck in parts, going back to the fairytale for inspiration will not help.
Challenge #2 - Subplots Everywhere
Epic Fantasy is known for its subplots buffet. Everybody has a subplot! The world building is often massive and the main plot is created or carried by an ever-evolving group of subplots. Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time series are some of the best known examples of epic fantasy and its layers of subplots. Even if you are in the same broad universe as your less subplot-heavy fairy tale retellings, there will still be a big difference between them and your epic fantasy. Some subplots will be political, personal, and romantic, which will feed into the overarching series plot. With Unseelie, I have a lot of subplots in play due to the complex nature of the villain's plans and the obstacles faced in each book as Tatiana and Ramessu work toward their final goals. I also have a lot of family related subplots since there is a strong theme of found family and mother's love. This is partly due to the fact my epic fantasy trilogy is a continuous series in the vein of Lord of the Rings. They must be read in order to make sense.
With my fairy tale retellings, the books are far more stand-alone even though they each contribute to the overall series arc. I feature a different couple and their romance in each book so the subplots do not build on top of each other on the same scale as they do in the epic fantasy. There are fewer subplots contained in each book and only one or two background subplots carry over. With Love's Enchanted Tales, the primary background subplot was the curses connecting the different books. They are built more like the Chronicles of Narnia. They do not absolutely need to be read in order to make sense but there's some spoilers if you read them out of order.
Challenge #3 - The Size of the Cast
Epic Fantasy is known for large casts and for featuring multiple POVS. When I began Unseelie of Sonera, I had my two main characters, Tatiana and Ramessu, and a couple of side characters. The number of featured side characters grew in Book Two due to the demands of the story. When I started writing Book Three, the number of POV characters grew to eight due to the demands of the story once again. This combined with the complex layering of subplots makes for a challenging writing experience because you must avoid accidentally dropping characters and subplots.
By contrast, my fairy tale retellings usually only feature two POVS, the main couple. This makes it far less challenging to keep track of who is speaking and where. Other fairy tale retelling authors only feature one POV, usually the female main character. Even with fairy tales featuring larger casts such as Twelve Dancing Princesses or Month Brothers or Six Swans/Children of Llyr, a retelling usually only follows one or two POVs. The smaller POV cast also makes it easier to prevent dangling subplots that are not a part of the series arc.
With each of the these challenges, having a shared world does not negate them because they are rooted in the different nuances and expectations associated with these two different sub-genres. This is especially true if you plant your niches in different parts of the fantasy world like I did with Sonera. The fairy tales are set in a fairly contained corner of the world that draws on medieval Europe and India while Unseelie is set on a different continent that draws from ancient Greece and Rome.
As challenging as it can be to write in these different sub-genres, I must admit that I love doing it. I love exploring a fantasy world full of different cultures. I love exploring the different ways of telling a story that can be more centralized around my main couple or can expand to include the villain and important side characters who will bring their own subplots and growth arcs. Fantasy comes in so many different flavors and nuances. It is not always easy to move between them as a writer, but I find it more than worth the effort of rising to each challenge.
Kimberly A. Rogers