We love fantasy in all its facets: epic fantasy, cosy fantasy, magical realism, sword-and-sorcery, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, fantasy with beasties and ghoulies and valiant heroes of all shapes and sizes. When you think about it, ‘fantasy’ is actually a huge umbrella term for a wide range of speculative storytelling. In general, these different types of fabulist storytelling will fall under one of two categories: high fantasy and low fantasy.
If these terms are new to you, don’t worry; we’ll show you everything you need to know about the difference between high and low fantasy writing (with some helpful examples, too!).
What is ‘high fantasy’?
The distinctive feature of high fantasy is that it’s set in a world that is set apart from the one we know – Middle Earth, Andalasia, the Enchanted Forest, the Discworld, Westeros, and so forth. These are places in which anything is possible.
High fantasy will almost always feature fantastical beings, either inspired by real-world myth and legend or created by the author for the purpose of this world alone. Humans can be a part of this world (and often are, simply because they’re more relatable to the average human reader), but they’re not always; some high fantasy books are told from the perspective of other humanesque creatures, or humans that have evolved a bit differently than we have.
This type of fantasy writing is also called epic fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Another distinction that often happens between high fantasy and low fantasy is the type of conflict that drives the plot. Most high fantasy books are driven by high-stakes, ride-or-die battles between good and evil (although there is a growing trend of more interpersonal, low-stakes high fantasy like the work of Travis Baldree).
Examples of high fantasy books
- The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
- A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
- Eragon by Christopher Paolini
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin
- The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
- The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
- The Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage
- The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix
What is ‘low fantasy’?
Low fantasy refers to magical stories that take place in the world we know. This means that the events we read about on the page could happen in our own backyards, or down the creepy alleyway we hurry past on our way to work, or just beyond that closed-off road with the ancient ‘Danger: No Entry’ sign standing guard in front of it. Low fantasy brings the extraordinary into the ordinary.
Subgenres like magical realism, urban fantasy, and paranormal fantasy fall under this branch.
The magical elements in low fantasy can be subtle or overt. For example, magical realism often features very soft, subtle fantastical elements like extrasensory perception or magical craftsmanship – food, textiles, architecture, or other everyday structures. Urban fantasy, on the other hand, will often have more overt fantasy influences like demons or vampires living among humans in a major city.
Unlike the majority of high fantasy novels, low fantasy will usually be driven more by inner conflict and character development. Rather than reverberating out into the entire world, the obstacles and choices the character faces might only impact their loved ones or community. This is why low fantasy books often contain such rich, complex themes – the magical elements within them become metaphors for things like trauma, growth, purpose, healing, and connection.
Examples of low fantasy books
- Wild is the Witch by Rachel Griffin
- The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
- The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
- Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
- Spells For Forgetting by Adrienne Young
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
What about ‘crossover fantasy’?
If you’ve noticed a few major literary works missing off these lists, they probably fall into crossover fantasy — a blending of two genres and two worlds. These can include stories where people from our world literally ‘cross over’ into another, or stories where another world starts bleeding into this one.
These books often combine the best elements of high fantasy and low fantasy. By rooting stories in this world you can explore very human elements, and the everyday conflicts and uncertainties that come from being human. But you can also incorporate the magic and wonder of high fantasy worlds. This juxtaposition is often what makes these stories so resonant with readers.
Examples of crossover fantasy books
- Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
- The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
- The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
- The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
Is your novel high fantasy or low fantasy?
If your novel is set in a world other than this one, involves high-stakes conflicts and inescapable destinies, and is told through an assortment of non-human characters, it’s probably high fantasy. If your novel takes place in a familiar location, is driven by human need and desire, and is told through someone very much like you or me, it’s probably low fantasy.
Or, your novel might fill the entire spectrum of low and high fantasy writing at different moments, making it a crossover fantasy story. This is the wonderful thing about fantasy writing: there’s always room to break the rules and create something new.
Fija Callaghan is an author, poet, and unapologetic daydreamer. Her work has been shortlisted and longlisted for a number of short story prizes, and you can find her writing in publications like Gingerbread House, Crow & Cross Keys, Corvid Queen, and Mythic Magazine. When not writing or helping other writers get the best out of their work, she can be found haunting her local bookshops or watching the tide come in.
Do you write fantasy or science fiction?
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