High Fantasy vs. Low Fantasy: What's the Difference?
Read on to better understand what people mean when referring to a setting as "high" or "low" fantasy
Fantasy novels sweep readers away to distant lands, introduce them to mythical creatures, and showcase grand battles between good and evil. Fantasy is a vast genre, with its own tropes and fantastical elements. Broadly speaking, fantasy series can be categorized in one of two categories: High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.
Critics tend to disagree on the differences between high fantasy and low fantasy, and the importance of the classification is a matter of personal taste. However, these categorizations of the fantasy genre are something to be aware of and take into consideration when approaching how you market your fantasy fiction.
There are some hallmarks you can use to determine which category your book belongs to.
What is High Fantasy?
In 1971, Lloyd Alexander coined the term high fantasy, which others may consider epic fantasy, or “traditional fantasy.” These are stories set in a fictional world that is unlike ours. This world may be completely different from the world as we know it, or it may only have one defining fact that differentiates it from normal reality. The difference is what transports us out of our universe and into a fantasy world. For example, if you remove the dragons and magic from George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, the story could be historical fantasy, given the remarkable similarity to history we know. Yet those elements weave together to carry the reader to a new land, where anything is possible.
Examples of High Fantasy:
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: A meek Hobbit from the Shire and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the powerful One Ring and save Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron and his armies of orcs.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin: At the end of the world, a woman must hide her secret power and find her kidnapped daughter
The Poppy War by R. F.: Based on the real-world history of Chinese war, poor orphan Rin studies in secret to test into the elite Sinegard Academy
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: A secret group of Allomancers attempt to overthrow a dystopian empire and establish themselves in a world covered by ash and gods.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis: This seven book series features different characters, but all revolve around the fantasy setting Narnia, and land that acts as the home of many species of mythological creatures.
What is Low Fantasy?
In the early 21st century, the term low fantasy arose, not as an indication of the quality of the story, but more the amount of the traditional elements of fantasy. Magical realism is the name of the game here. These books add a spin to our home planet and the rules of reality we’re familiar with by mixing reality with some fanciful element; usually magical powers for the protagonists. The presence of magic differentiates these stories as fantasy and not science fiction, though the space opera subgenre can often blur the line between what’s commonly considered fantasy vs. what is sci-fi.
A hallmark of low fantasy is the presence of some form of supernatural being that must exist within our world. For example, it could be a vampire superhero, or devils and angels, as in Good Omens.
Examples of Low Fantasy:
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: An unlikely addition to Yale’s freshman class disturbs the supernatural status quo
A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab: The story of three parallel Londons that exist on top of each other, like sheets of paper, and the few magicians who are able to travel between them.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman: A tale that pits Old Gods against New Gods, with the ancient mythological ones fearing irrelevance as their believers die off or are seduced by the money, technology, and celebrity offered by the younger deities.
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.
Conan the Barbarian - created by Robert E. Howard: This sword and sorcery universe could be considered high fantasy because it takes place in a different world, but is often listed as low fantasy due to its more grounded approach to characters, and magic being rare.
Key Components of High and Low Fantasy
It’s a kind of Magic
One of the most popular elements of all fantasy is magic. How magic is represented and treated clues readers into whether a universe is high or low fantasy.
In high fantasy, the magic systems at work in the universe are well defined, intricate and elaborate. The reader needs to understand the mechanics or peculiarities of the magic and how it relates to the events in a book. Sometimes there is not only magic, but levels of use of that magic present in the story.
Example: Brian Sanderson’s Mistborn offers not only a well categorized and cohesive system of magic, but his books also come with guides and charts to help readers understand the intricate differences. This layering of magic upon magical elements set this story well into the upper echelon of high fantasy stories.
In low fantasy, the specifics of the magic are less defined. There may not even be an explanation, just an ask by the writer for the readers to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the ride.
Example: The Magicians by Lev Grossman moves the action along at a quick pace, not slowing down to explain each magic spell performed by the group. The magic is introduced in a unique way, setting it up like a fairy tale “normal” people tell their children. By approaching magic this way, readers are infused in the world of magic and when it starts happening, are set up to believe the events.
Characters and Creatures
The way the people in the story interact, and how they are portrayed helps define the type of fantasy book. To be considered fantasy, something or someone has to be different.
High fantasy books typically have large casts, with a range of differing and unique abilities. Characters may be from many different species, not just humans. Be it mages who perform spells, talking dragons, pixie fairies or any other creature writers can dream up.
Example: In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien creates a world composed of humans, hobbits, wizards, elves, dwarfs and a myriad of other magical creatures. There’s even talking and moving trees. Tolkien creates a landscape of beings that must work together to either save the world from the Dark Lord Sauron or help him dominate and rule.
In low fantasy books, stories tend to be more human centric. With fewer creatures running around, the story centers on one or two unique beings or a select group that exists alongside their human counterparts. Often, the people look and act more like typical humans and the beasts lean towards animalistic characteristics.
Example: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo features Alex Stern, your not-so-typical freshman at Yale. While she deals with all matter of supernatural phenomena, she attempts a pretty normal existence, even going to the odd class and exam. By surrounding Alex with a myriad of university students and staff, readers are instantly familiar with some of the trials she has to deal with.
The breadth of the world-building differs between high fantasy and low fantasy.
With high fantasy, writers need to immerse readers in the atmosphere of the book, explaining how the elements we take for granted here on earth are different or the same. Readers need to know how the world around the characters shapes them, how they interact with it and how those elements push and pull the story. Really complex worlds may require a writer to build their own personal wikipedia to keep track of all the history and details of the setting.
Example: Consider Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. Martin had to design the entire world from the ground up, from the physical landscape, to the cities, kingdoms, royal families, and hundreds (if not thousands) of years of history set before the main events of the series.
With low fantasy, the setting is more grounded. The universe the book takes place in is something readers can relate to, being similar to our world. Writers may not have to work as hard to explain to readers the playground for the story. This doesn’t mean low fantasy is easier to write. In a story set in a form of reality, writers will have to explain how the setting works with the new laws they are introducing.
Example: J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series uses a very non-magical London as its primary setting to open the story. Readers need to see how magic is able to interact with the setting and still stay out of sight. Harry’s world then moves to a remote corner of England where magic is more freely expressed, but Harry still needs to deal with gravity when playing Quidditch.
Fantasy readers expect to be taken on a journey, and the scope of that adventure often differs between high and low fantasy.
In high fantasy, the stakes are high, like the end of the world as we know it high. The fate of many lies in the hands of a few, and one crucial decision can sway the balance of good and evil. This battle may last months, years, decades, or centuries, and it's not often solved in the backyard of the main character. They characters travel across the country, the world, the galaxy collecting plot points and ingredients that will serve to complete their ultimate quest in the end.
Example: The Saga of Recluce series by L. E. Modesitt Jr. contains all the standards of high fantasy story scope. Spanning centuries, the characters travel across land and water to battle for the existence of their people and their lands.
In low fantasy, things tend to be a little more intimate and personal. A shift has happened, a king has died, or a prophecy has come true, and a select few are impacted. Time and distance may also be shortened to days, weeks, or months and generally stay in one or two locations. As mentioned above, low fantasy tales tend to be more human, and thus the stakes are often more relatable, allowing for a more personal connection to the characters.
Example: In Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy Dresden Files series, most of the books take place in and around Chicago, the local players on The Wizards Council change and a baddie or two roll through town. It’s the local flair, the recurring characters and the bad over Harry Dresden’s soul that keeps readers coming back.
Can a Story be Both High and Low Fantasy?
The confusing answer is maybe. It depends on who you ask. In researching this article, both The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) were listed on both high and low fantasy lists.
As mentioned above, critics have trouble drawing a distinct line between the two categories. The stakes of Game of Thrones are high. If the White Walkers prevail, the world as the inhabitants know it will cease to exist. The characters travel wide and far, and the series takes place over years. All clear high fantasy elements.
On the other hand, there are many low fantasy signatures. Magic exists, but it is never explained. The mythical creatures are beasts, namely dragons. Lastly, the central stories are character driven and highly personal, living in worlds very similar to those that we know.
In fact, George R. R. Martin confirmed he drew elements from the very real history of The Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe of 1692 in Scottish history to create the infamous Red Wedding scene in his second book.
In another example, look at the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. The story takes place in the real world with real humans at risk, both key elements of low fantasy. But Percy travels to the Underworld, both a high fantasy secondary world factor and a long journey far from home. There’s magic, but it’s simply assumed to work like most low fantasy stories. However, the magic system and hierarchy of gods is quite complicated, a signifier of high fantasy.
The Choice is Yours
With the sliding scale and gray areas defining high fantasy vs. low fantasy, you may be confused as to which your story should be categorized as. Unlike the difference between mystery and romance, fantasy has a much more open playing field. Consider the elements of your story. Do they fall more into one of the other components outlined here?
Another option is to look at your book comparisons. Where are your fellow authors segmenting their stories? Also, keep in mind that subgenres of fantasy shift and merge over time. Keep an eye on trends, but in the end, use whichever label feels most appropriate to you.