Start with some simple advice: If you don’t read fantasy, don’t try to write fantasy, and if you don’t read science fiction, don’t try to write science fiction. And that extends out to mixing genres. If you don’t read romance, don’t try to write a fantasy-romance.
That having been said, are people really mixing genres? Should they?
Yes, and yes. But as always, be careful . . .
With the recent growth in sales of fantasy romances there are real fantasy-romance fans now, who will sniff out an imposter from a mile away. Romance crossovers tend to be the trickiest in terms of merchandising, as easily showing up in the romance section as in the fantasy section. But where your book ends up in any given bookstore largely depends on how the publisher wants to sell/package it—everything from the style of the cover art to whether or not they decide to actually print the words FANTASY or ROMANCE on the spine of the book.
Still, every fantasy novel should have some romance to it. People have romantic ties. They fall in and out of love. If your characters don’t do that, too, they’re less likely to read like real people. That being said, what makes a true fantasy-romance is the relative mix. It might help to think of it, as I’m find of using when breaking down the sub-genres of science:fiction, as a ratio, fantasy:romance. If your story is ten parts fantasy to one part romance, it won’t make much sense to call it “fantasy-romance.” Flip that equation and write a romance novel in which there is only some slight fantasy element and you’re certain to end up in the romance section, and you might never hear the word “fantasy” used to describe your book. Six parts romance to four parts fantasy is fantasy-romance—another of those rules that isn’t really so much a rule as a suggestion.
Science fiction-fantasy and horror-fantasy crossovers are probably the easiest for readers and even the book trade to accept, as they tend to end up in the same section of the bookstore whether they “read” predominantly as fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Science fiction and fantasy freely mix. It’s easy enough to argue that Star Wars is as much fantasy as science fiction. Though they’re flying around in starships and making friends with robots (science fiction) they’re also using “the Force,” which is magic by any other name. Anne McCaffrey began her tales of her dragon-inhabited world of Pern with her feet firmly in the fantasy genre and only later revealed that Pern is actually an alien planet colonized by humans who went there from Earth in starships, so that it developed from fantasy to science fiction. What makes any novel “fantasy” is that there’s something that the characters, the world, and the story depends on that can’t be explained away by anything but one simple word: magic. Unless that magic is only there to scare you . . .
In a previous post I went off on a bit of a screed on the difference between fantasy and horror. All that having been said, I think the only way to really write a horror-fantasy novel is to write a horror novel set in a fantastical world of your own creation, in other words: a scary fantasy novel. Feel free to prove me wrong.
I’d be happy to entertain any argument that says that every genre novel is a mystery to some degree, but when examining the genres on their own there are certainly points of departure worth mentioning. Mysteries have at least as many sub-genres as fantasy, ranging from traditional Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the pulp noir guys like Chandler and Hammett (who I love). But at its heart, a mystery starts with a crime and ends with the resolution of that crime. In that respect there are actually very few real fantasy-mystery novels out there. I’d advise a would-be fantasy-mystery author to plot out a traditional mystery novel first then pick one character and “fantasize” him. Make him a wizard, a dragon in disguise, the god of vengeance . . . then think long and hard about how that changes the whole story. I think you’ll find that Agatha Christie starts to give way to J.R.R. Tolkien pretty fast if the detective can talk to the disembodied spirit of the murder victim.
There’s been quite a bit of talk in the past decade or so about “mainstream fantasy,” and what might take a fantasy novel out of the SF/Fantasy section of a bookstore and into the Fiction/Literature section. I’m not sure anyone has clue one how that happens. How does Margaret Atwood avoid the genre section? No clue. Why is the new Harry Potter book always in the front of the store? Because it sells like crazy. Somewhere between a glitch in the system that misfiles your fantasy novel and a massive runaway sales success is . . . the SF/Fantasy section. You’ll never have control over whether or not you’ll be considered “mainstream,” and it isn’t always an advantage, so we’ll go ahead and move on.
And then there are the novels that defy classification. Let’s call that “Fantasy on the Fringe.” I’ve heard people refer to “the New Weird” and “Magical Realism.” Those are sub-genres at least as meaningful as any we’ve talked about so far, and are used in the book trade to try to move books out of section—with mixed results. Looking at the overall sales figures for a publishing industry currently struggling through some very tough times, I’d rather my fantasy book be in the fantasy section, where it’ll find fantasy fans who are continuing to buy books while the so-called “mainstream” struggles.
If the story you have in mind defies any of these classifications, or blazes all new trails in the genre, you might find it a hard sell—hard to describe to agents, editors, and your friends—but you should write it anyway. Could be you’re the only one who thinks of it as a dark urban sword and sorcery-mystery/romance. For the rest of us, it’s all fantasy.