Genre 101: High Fantasy vs. Low Fantasy

Genre is confusing, period.  There is no council that authoritatively defines genre, and thus, the precise definitions often shift, especially as some books bend the rules but are still classed in a specific genre.

This confusion is especially apparent in the definition of low fantasy.

So often while researching for this blog series, I have been strongly tempted to echo Nick Fury’s statement, “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid*** decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.”  I itch to choose a single, clear meaning for each genre, write a book with said definitions, and see how fast the revised definitions catch on.

However, since the last time I checked, my world takeover plans weren’t quite ready to be put into motion.  So, for the moment, I will content myself with trying to shine a torch on the differences between high and low fantasy.

High:
set in a fantastical alternate world- one with different natural laws than our own, features conflicts, themes, and characterization on a grand scale, heavy use of magic

Low:
set in our world but with magic, everyday human conflicts, magic not the main focus
set in an alternate world very like ours, everyday human conflicts and problems, magic not the main focus

#23 High-Low fantasy

Low fantasy is called such in contrast to ‘high’, not because it’s set in the Underworld.  (Though hey, I’m not adverse to journeying there whenever given the chance.  I’m on very good terms with Hades, just ask around.)

Let’s break it down and compare and contrast:

Setting
High: alternative fictional world
Low: 1) real world 2) alternative fictional world very like the real world

Scale of conflict
High: massive, spread over multiple political and physical boundaries, many classes and races of people
Low: small, focusing on realistic, human problems

Level of conflict
High: high, usually involving kingdoms, clans, races, and social classes
Low: high, focusing on a few main characters and their interactions, often includes social commentary

Magic
High: a lot, woven into the fabric of the world and a huge deal
Low: some (though often none in definition 2), sometimes portrayed as more of a curse than a blessing, the majority of the characters don’t have it

Characterization
High: often features an ensemble cast from various classes/races highlighting the richness of the worldbuilding and character diversity
Low: smaller main cast, concentrates on the realistic flaws of human characters and overcoming them

Plot
High: very plot driven
Low: plot is important, but often more character driven

Themes
High: good vs evil
Low: morals and ethics

Thus, low fantasy is often more character driven than plot driven, where high fantasy tends to be more plot driven and/or evenly balanced between the two.

A few notes…
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered by most to be the pinnacle of high fantasy, but Tolkien himself refuted this, clearly stating that he considered Middle Earth to be Earth in a distant past.  It does however, qualify as epic fantasy.

A lot of RPG games are high fantasy.

The books of George R.R. Martin are typically classified as low fantasy, as are Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Mary Poppins, and some of Edith Nesbit’s children’s books.

According to definition 2, John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series is often considered low fantasy.

There is a lot of confusion over whether books like Narnia, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter are in fact low fantasy or high fantasy.  Technically, all three are portal fantasy.  If you need a genre beyond that, I believe their secondary worlds classify as high fantasy.

Next week we’ll wade even further into the swamp of genre and talk about my favorite subgenre ever.  Also, stop by on Monday for a post defining the differences between copy editing, content/style editing, and proofreading… and which one you need at what point in your publishing process.

As always, if you have questions or comments, please speak up.

Merry Writing!

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