Genre is a funny thing. It's the best way to classify the kind of story we're supposed to expect, but it's also this constantly shifting arrangement of tropes that people keep trying to use in new ways or subvert. Fantasy is all about dragons and magic and elves, right? Well, most modern fantasy stories like A Game of Thrones or Shadow and Bone omit several aspects of the classical fantasy genre that C.S. Lewis or Tolkien formed.
Nicholas Eames did create a pretty typical fantasy setting for Kings of the Wyld, but it's all a bit tongue-in-cheek, taking every opportunity to make an 80's musical reference or crack a joke.
With so much change in the fantasy genre—and so many different flavors of fantasy—can we still define what high or low fantasy is anymore? Yes. Kind of.
The collective understanding of high and low fantasy is messy. I think this is best exemplified by a Tor article where they asked ten authors to define high and low science fiction (I know what you're thinking, but the concept of high and low speculative fiction applies to fantasy and sci-fi pretty much the same—or at least that's what I'm going to argue so that I can refer to this article). Predictably, each author had different definitions.
We can however extract some interesting ideas from it, notably that three things keep coming up here (and wherever else I look for an answer to this question of genres). A story's status as high or low fantasy is often bound to three major things: its setting, scale, and the characters’ morals.
- What High and Low Fantasy are
- Examples of High and Low Fantasy
- How to craft a High or Low fantasy world
Table of contents
What is High Fantasy?
Before we get into the various parts of what makes up high or low fantasy, we should probably define what the heck those terms even mean. Let’s start with high fantasy—the least relatable of the two.
High fantasy is defined by a secondary world in most definitions. Because of the way genre is nebulous (as we already discussed) it’s hard to pin down an exact answer to this question—but everyone seems to at least agree on this: high fantasy isn’t set in our world. It’s set in an alternate fictional world. That setting may have similarities to our own (sometimes it looks almost exactly the same at a glance) but there’s always something that sets it apart. In Game of Thrones it’s the history and geography and magic.
Examples of High Fantasy
A few additional examples (some of whom we could argue have the exact same qualifications) include:
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: You know what Tolkien’s work is all about—vast worlds with deep lore and forces of good who fight to thwart evil.
- The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin: Family tragedy occurs as an empire collapses—all while a massive rift has torn across the world.
- The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang: Military fantasy with a dark and imaginative story based in part on our history.
- And basically anything by Brandon Sanderson.
What is Low Fantasy?
Low fantasy is defined by fantastical events occurring in our world. Often that’s a Harry Potter kind of result, where there’s a magical element inserted into (or used in secret among) people’s normal lives.
Other than magic, another popular kind of low fantasy is adding some kind of godlike or supernatural figures into modern life. The show Lucifer put the devil in Los Angeles to solve crimes with the LAPD, and Good Omens showed an angel and devil team up to save the world.
Sometimes low fantasy is also considered a story in a secondary world—much like high fantasy—but grounded in more realism. That might mean the world is very familiar-looking, or the magic is more subtle, or something along these lines. When an author goes along this route you end up with something more akin to A Game of Thrones.
That’s right—I’m citing it as both high and low fantasy. I don’t really know where it goes, if I’m being honest, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. A quick glance at Goodreads and we can see that the first book in Martin’s series is listed both as high and low fantasy. People seem to think it leans more toward high fantasy (probably because of the secondary world setting and all the dragons) but it’s not exactly clear because the magic is subdued and the world is pretty familiar-looking to us. I mean, the original inception of the series was going to be a historical fiction tale based on England’s War of the Roses: a conflict mainly between the Lancasters and Yorks.
If there’s any takeaway from all this, it's that the genre is complicated. However, we can still gain something from discussing some of the expectations people have for high and low fantasy—and the components that make them up.
Examples of Low Fantasy
If you must adhere to the bounds of genre, though, here’s a few more examples of stories that feature excellent low fantasy settings and themes:
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab: Magicians run around the city of London, and multiple worlds are at risk.
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman: Set in the modern day United States, Gaiman imagines a world in which the Gods walk among us.
- Good Omens by terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: As armageddon approaches in a small UK town, an angel and demon attempt to prevent war—and find the missing antichrist.
[In high/hard fiction] the story becomes not one of plot or character or setting—although ideally those are present as well—but a story in which the action is broken down into a series of technical problems to be solved.—Walter Jon Williams from Tor
In everyone's discussion of high or low fantasy (or hard/soft sci-fi in Williams’ case) there's this element of the character vs the setting, with one taking priority over the other always. Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a story about a group of soldiers and hobbits who found this one magical ring, but a large part of the story is dependent on the worldbuilding. The longer you spend in Middle-Earth, the more you'll uncover and appreciate Tolkien's writing.
Perhaps a better example is Star Trek, which has a consistent cast, but puts much of the emphasis on exploring the universe—on exploring a complex world that is not our own.
Meanwhile, low fantasy is more well known for grounded settings. Ones that we can relate to more easily. Westeros, from A Game of Thrones, is a great example of a fictional setting that's still a secondary world, but very similar to our own.
It can get even more grounded than that, though. Many authors are reimagining Earth. A Darker Shade of Magic takes place in (one version of) London, Harry Potter takes place in some hidden corner of England, and the Shannara series is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth.
The People and Creatures
Throughout the topic of worldbuilding in these sub-genres of fantasy and sci-fi, there's often discussion of how people and creatures are used.
Often, high fantasy will indulge in all manner of monsters and non-humans (The Witcher, anyone?). We might find intelligent dragons like in The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, or fight armies of orcs like in The Lord of the Rings. There’s often a thread through high fantasy that we’re in a place totally unfamiliar to us, surrounded by new (usually dangerous) things. The people practice unusual cultural rites and the beasts are not always feral.
The typical low fantasy story will be more human-centric—with fewer literal monsters that go bump in the night. The focus is typically on more familiar things. Attention goes toward humans and creatures we already know—and where anything not of Earth does exist, the beasts are typically more animalistic; the people more humanoid than their high fantasy counterparts.
The way a magic system works (or, rather the way it is explained) can also be highly telling as to the nature of the story’s genre.
A very well explained system may indicate that it's high fantasy. Sanderson's work in Mistborn certainly is. There are charts and long guides about how each part of the magic system works—and there's a lot of parts to Sanderson's magic.
Low fiction magic systems tend to be looser, like the kind we see in Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. We know magic exists in those worlds. Sometimes we see it being used. But the average reader isn't supposed to understand exactly how it works. It’s supposed to feel magical.
The difference is that we are meant to understand most magic systems in high fantasy—most technology in hard sci-fi. In low fiction we need to know a bit about what it can do, but even that is a stretch sometimes. How Gandalf returned after his fight was not as important as the fact that he did it. When choosing a hard or soft magic system, the most important thing to keep in mind is how you want the audience to feel when they encounter it, and what strengthens your story the most.
That said, an author may reveal over time how magic works. In the Powder Mage trilogy, McClellan doesn’t really spend much time explaining the magic of the Privileged for a long time. However, when a point-of-view character develops magical powers, they are educated in how it works—and we see some of that, learning about the mechanics of the magic by proxy. It took a long time to get there, though, and up until that lesson all we needed to know about the privileged was how to defeat them since most of them were working for the baddies.
Logic and Whimsey
I'd like to take a break for just a moment to take a look at some of Hayao Miyazaki's thoughts on writing. A lot of worldbuilding lies in observing our world and reimagining it—considering culture, technology, history, and writing your own version.
Miyazaki seems to reject that idea slightly.
“You can't make a film with logic. Or if you look at it differently, everybody can make a film with logic. But my way is to not use logic. I try to dig deep into the well of my subconscious. At a certain moment in that process, the lid is opened and very different ideas and visions are liberated.”—Hayao Miyazaki, Midnight Eye Interview
I wanted to include this because we've spent a lot of time trying to understand worldbuilding—but sometimes you just need to feel it. Not everything needs to have a reason. The rule of cool (sometimes you just need to add things you think are fun) exists. Sometimes things should be a part of your story just because they feel like they should be there.
Tim Hickson (Hello Future Me) raises an interesting point in that this sense of wonder is part of why the Harry Potter series was so much fun. It may also help explain why so many of author J.K. Rowling's clarifications have been off-putting to many fans. Harry Potter was supposed to be exciting and whimsical, and it was! But explaining the whimsy can weaken its impact.
Whether you're writing a high or low fantasy story, internal consistency is probably the most important factor when creating a setting for your story. The different parts of your setting should be consistent with one another, and more-or-less work together. Exceptions may apply, but they'll stick out, so it's important to have a reason for those exceptions.
Your Story’s Scale
The scope of a story is also a good indicator of its genre. This includes factors such as what the stakes are, how far the main characters travel, and what kinds of problems everyone's dealing with.
High fantasy tends to involve high stakes—usually really high stakes. This is where we tend to get those stories about nearly world-ending events that a certain chosen one has to stop, or villains who want to take over the world because…that's just what they feel like doing.
This is also where you tend to find characters who travel all across the world (or realm, galaxy, etc.) on a journey. Lord of The Rings has this in a very literal sense. Star Trek remains the perfect sci-fi example of massive scale as the crew of the Enterprise meanders around from planet to planet.
Low fantasy tends to be more relatable. This may not always be as initially exciting, depending on your taste, but I think it's safe to say we can all relate better to a sense of loss or territorial dispute than an evil monarch. Remember, these stories tend to be more character-focused, so these smaller scale stakes allow for more personal reflection and a closer connection to the characters.
It's worth noting that Kings of the Wyld kind of did both. The story follows a reunited band of monster-hunters who are going to Castia to rescue Gabe’s—a member of the band—daughter. The stakes heighten quickly as we learn about the dire situation she is in, but the goal throughout the story is always to rescue this one person who is very dear to the band. Even though it does escalate quite a lot by the end. Had they failed, the world definitely would have been taken over by an evil-ish overlord and his monsters.
The Morality of Characters
Speaking of villains who want to take over the world, let’s talk about character morals! You know the kind of person—the fellow cloaked in shadows (because they're just that evil) who believes everybody and everything should be under their boot heel.
Characters in high fantasy tend to have black-and-white morals, or at least it tends to look that way on the surface. In Lord of the Rings we generally know that the hobbits, humans, and elves are good while the orcs and wraiths are generally bad. There's a clear line drawn between forces of light and darkness, sometimes a very literal one.
I mean, in the Wheel of Time the main villain is literally called “The Dark One.”
The modern trend has moved toward gray morality, especially in low fantasy settings. We can find this in A Game of Thrones, where even though the Lannisters are clearly the main villains of the story, even they have reasons for their actions that we can relate to. Tywin is ruthless for the sake of his family. Eddard is noble, but naïve and willing to compromise his own beliefs—again for the sake of his family. They have motives that we can relate to, even if we don’t support all their actions.
There’s also a point to be said that even in a world of black-and-white morals, not all characters will subscribe to that notion. Hayao Miyazaki explored this a bit with Princess Mononoke. With the Gods and Irontown on the verge of war, Ashitaka is compelled to pursue compromise and peace between them—finding a way to resolve conflict that doesn’t involve fighting or fleeing.
Morality is a Spectrum
There's not a switch somewhere that you turn on for strict or gray morals. Every character exists somewhere on a spectrum.
This is something Into the Woods explores, a play that considers the actions of heroes from fairy tales more critically. Although Jack (his character inspired by Jack and the Beanstalk) is the protagonist—he and his friends realize that things aren't as clear as they originally seemed. After all, Jack killed somebody, and they have to reckon with that. It's a wonderful re-examination of a classic fairytale story.
“—Lyrics from “No One is Alone” in Into the Woods
Witches can be right, giants can be good.
You decide what's right, you decide what's good.
Someone is on your side.
Someone else is not.
While we're seeing our side
Maybe we forgot: they are not alone.
No one is alone.”
What Should My Story Be?
This is the obvious question you came here to have answered (probably), but the fact is there isn’t a clear answer. Everybody's story is going to be a bit different. Morality isn't the only thing that exists on a spectrum. You could have a story that's pretty low stakes in a setting that's grandiose, or characters with gray morals facing world-threatening villains. These are all just trends—and by their very nature trends are not meant to be used as rules.
That said, if you want to make your story feel more like high or low fantasy, understanding some audience expectations might be what you need to push it in the right direction.
The definitions are messy. Genre is always shifting with the times. Neither high or low fantasy looks quite the same as it used to in Tolkien's day—and the fantasy then looked nothing like the fairy tales that inspired it. The genres will continue to change in the years to come. All that's left for you to do is keep reading or watching fantasy to see what others are doing in the space, and make the decisions that best fit your story.
Thanks for checking out this overview of high and low fantasy genres! If you’d like to see more like this, check out the other articles on book writing here, or visit our friends at Campfire Learn, a blog filled with interviews, articles, video essays, and community spotlights. While you’re there, give Campfire a try (see Kindlepreneur's review here)! It’s an organizational tool for writers that has a free version so you can try everything before you buy.