Fantasy is one of the most popular, enduring, and consistently bestselling genres of literature and film. But did you know that “fantasy” actually covers a broad spectrum of storytelling?
While every fantasy story contains magical elements, the way those elements are brought into the world and the characters’ relationships with them can vary considerably; this is what gives us genres like “high fantasy” and “low fantasy.”
We’ll take you through everything you need to know about the difference between high and low fantasy, some examples of each from fantasy literature, and how to work these fantastical elements into your own writing.
What is “high fantasy”?
Sometimes called “epic fantasy,” “traditional fantasy,” or “sword-and-sorcery fantasy,” this genre is all about immersing in a distant magical world. This is the loudest and most distinctive fantasy genre—often, if someone says they “don’t like fantasy,” they’re thinking of these types of stories.
You can recognise high fantasy novels by their magical or otherwise non-human creatures, their rich and storied internal histories, and the epic battles fought by forces of good and evil. Let’s look at each of these aspects in a bit more detail.
Elements of high fantasy stories
Here’s a closer look at what makes fantasy stories “high” fantasy, rather than low (which we’ll talk about next, down below!). All high fantasy stories will have these elements in common.
A secondary magical world
In writing, a “secondary world” means a world separate from the one we wake up to each day (the world we know is called a “primary world”—more in that later). A secondary world is one that the writer makes up completely from scratch, populating it with people, myths, laws, and histories from their own imagination.
Sometimes this fictional world might be linked to our own in some way. This can be seen in The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials. Other times, the world might be completely isolated—for example, middle earth in Lord of the Rings or the futuristic fictional world of Star Wars.
Using a secondary world allows your reader to escape this one for a little while and travel somewhere exciting and new.
The most memorable high fantasy stories have fully fleshed, distinctly realised worlds that the writer knows back to front and back again. They can tell you about the mechanics of the political system, the architectural trends of the world’s major cities, society’s attitudes towards things like gender, race, and sexuality, how exactly the world’s magic and/or technology works, what major historical events have shaped the people, and how those people approach spirituality and worship.
As a writer, it’s your job to know your secondary world as intimately as if you were born and raised there. This is what will make it feel real and immersive to your readers.
Nearly all fantasy has its roots in folklore and myth. Western mythology is some of the most commonly seen in fantasy novels—knights, dragons, trolls and the like—but there’s also been a welcome influx of high fantasy novels influenced by Middle Eastern myths, Chinese and Japanese myths, Eastern European myths, and others.
Even when a magical world is filled with previously unseen mythical creatures and supernatural elements, they’ll probably have distant ancestry that connects to an older pantheon.
As a writer, the best way to approach your fantasy fiction is to combine original and folkloric elements. This makes your story fresh and new while also giving the reader something they recognise that grounds them in your world.
Cosy, cottagecore high fantasy is rare. Most of the time, high fantasy is about big, epic battles and life-changing ethical conundrums whose effects reverberate throughout nations. High fantasy is often rooted in political landscapes and heroes who are pushed to their ultimate limit.
In your high fantasy novel, your heroes need to make big-picture choices that balance self-interest with the greater good. They need to face unspeakable temptation and emerge from it an inspiration to those around them—and to your reader.
Examples of high fantasy in literature
Now, let’s see how this genre looks in practice with a few examples from literature.
Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
Often considered the grandfather of epic fantasy, this iconic series draws from Western mythology while also adding new elements that make it unique. The world of Middle Earth has its own fully developed spoken language, writing systems, and grammatical systems as well as a rich and storied history going back generations.
The plot is driven by a looming war and a mystical artefact that will change the fates of everyone in the world. You can see echoes of these novels in many, many contemporary books in the high fantasy genre that have come since.
Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
Eragon is set in the imaginary world of Alagaesia and is inspired by Norse mythology, the epic poem Beowulf, and aspects of The Lord of the Rings. The story follows a boy who finds a dragon egg and becomes unwittingly embroiled in a war between good and evil.
Upon its release, this novel was one of the most read books of the year—likely because so much of it was already so familiar. Readers could go into the story knowing what to expect and settle in for an adventure that would check all the right boxes.
The Stardust Thief, by Chelsea Abdullah
The Stardust Thief is a high fantasy story inspired by Middle Eastern mythology. It incorporates elements of One Thousand and One Nights, the epic known for tales like Aladdin and The Forty Thieves. The plot follows a “Midnight Merchant” named Loulie al-Nazari who, along with her jinn bodyguard, gets finangled into an epic quest for a magic lamp.
This novel breaks the reliable yet tired trend of reconstructing British and Celtic mythology, giving readers an insight into another rich and valuable culture.
What is “low fantasy”?
Unlike high fantasy, low fantasy takes place in a world we recognise as our own. Instead of taking the reader away into a magical place, low fantasy writers bring the magic to them, right here. In storytelling, this type of setting is called a “primary world”—the one we’re already a part of.
Low fantasy incorporates sub genres like magical realism, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, dystopian fiction, and most dark fantasy (or horror fantasy). All of these genres bring magical and fantastical elements into a real-world setting.
Elements of low fantasy stories
Here’s a closer look into each of these essential elements of low fantasy novels.
An otherwise normal world
The defining feature of low fantasy is that it isn’t set in an alternative fictional world—it’s grounded in the here and now (with the exception of historical fantasy, of course, which is grounded in the here and then). This might be a sprawling city, a small countryside village, or in the natural world.
You may choose to change certain elements of our primary world—for example, dystopian fiction will usually have certain new aspects that are unfamiliar—but it should feel recognisable as a place we know and have walked in ourselves.
The idea is to make the reader feel like there’s potential for real magic around every corner.
Magical creatures and/or supernatural powers
Even though low fantasy is rooted in reality, it’s still an escapist story filled with magic. The magic in your story can be subtle or overt.
For example, a magical realism low fantasy story might feature a protagonist who can sense people’s emotions from the foods they cook. This is a supernatural power that can easily blend into the everyday and gives your story a subtle, magical lift. Without this special gift, the book would just be culinary fiction.
A more overt example might be if a shape shifting creature, such as a werewolf, had to balance their supernatural side with their daily life. They might know other werewolves in their neighbourhood, or even other magical creatures like vampires, faeries, mermaids, or magicians.
This is a popular dynamic in the urban fantasy sub genre. But even though the magical elements are more active, it’s still a low fantasy story because it’s set in our recognisable real or primary world.
Another difference between high and low fantasy is the intimacy of the story arc. While high fantasy concerns itself with grandiose destinies and battles of good versus evil, low fantasy tends to be more character driven. The plot is less powered by the way magic affects the world and more by the way magic affects individual people.
Instead of making choices that determine the fate of the world, your protagonist might be forced into choices that determine the fate of their loved ones, or even themselves—their own aspirations, ethics, and perspectives.
Examples of low fantasy in literature
Ready to see how these look in practice? Check out some of these low fantasy reads!
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab
This low fantasy novel sprawls across an enormous stretch of time, but never strays from being a very personal story of one woman’s unnaturally long life. In the 18th century, Addie LaRue makes a deal with the devil for immortality. The cost? Being immediately forgotten by everyone she meets as soon as she’s out of sight.
The novel takes one supernatural element and follows it throughout history, exploring how such a being would affect and be affected by the world we know.
Wild is the Witch, by Rachel Griffin
This low fantasy novel takes place in the awe-inspiring wilds of the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by towering douglas firs and mystic wildlife. It could easily be a fairy tale forest in a land far, far away… except it isn’t. It is, in fact, in Washington, where a young witch has lost control of a dangerous curse and has to go on a quest through the woods to retrieve it.
This magical read does something very clever, not by bringing the reader into a fantasy world, but by showing the reader that world existed in their backyard all along.
The Mortal Instruments, by Cassandra Clare
This urban fantasy takes place in the heart of New York City where invisible demons are running amok, held in check only by supernatural (and conveniently sexy) warriors called Shadowhunters. They live in a fragile peace alongside human-adjacent creatures like vampires, werewolves, and warlocks.
Although it takes place in a low-fantasy setting, this series skirts the edges of high fantasy as the stakes become increasingly high and the central characters travel across worlds in search of answers. However, its defining feature, and the aspect that shot it to popularity, is the engaging realism of teens surviving the day-to-day realities of New York.
Key differences between high fantasy vs. low fantasy
To recap, the key distinctions between low and high fantasy are:
Setting. High fantasy is set in an entirely fictional world, while low fantasy is set in our own world that we live in every day.
Stakes. High fantasy stories function on a grand or global scale, while low fantasy stories are more personal journeys.
But! Both low and high fantasy literature will have aspects of the supernatural or fantastic, such as mythical creatures or magical powers. The difference is whether or not they exist in our own world.
High fantasy vs. low fantasy: which is right for you?
So how do you know which sub genre is right for your next fantasy novel?
You’ll find that, like The Mortal Instruments or Game of Thrones, a lot of modern fantasy fiction combines elements from a range of different fantasy genres. Your story may not be completely high or low fantasy, but somewhere in the middle—and that’s okay too! But to give you an idea where to start:
Choose high fantasy writing if you love breakneck battle scenes, an alternate world with a complex magic system, and rich storytelling that draws from sources like Greek mythology or fairy tales. High fantasy gives you the opportunity to build an entire world completely from the ground up.
Choose low fantasy writing if you want to use magic as a lens through which to view humanity, or see what happens if you bring otherworldly fantasy elements into your own neighbourhood. Low fantasy gives you the opportunity to ask big, global questions about the world you know and examine them on a smaller scale.
Fantasy represents an entire spectrum
Whether you’re writing low or high fantasy, an epic story set in an alternate medieval world or a coming-of-age story that explores magical elements in modern life, you can be sure there’s a place in the fantasy literary canon for you. Keep these tips in mind next time you bring a little wonder into the world.