Defining Low Fantasy
Most of us, if asked, could identify high fantasy. It’s the most popular form of fantasy with all the elves, pixies, fae folk, and dragons. But if asked to explain low fantasy, chances are that most readers and even some writers would be a bit lost. We might, perhaps, say that it is the opposite of high fantasy and flounder for some of the defining characteristics.
Truth be told, the reason people often struggle to decide what is low fantasy versus what is high fantasy is because the elements that would make a work one or the other aren’t always clear. Even those who have definitions for both can’t always agree on what constitutes low or high fantasy. The most important thing people can agree upon is that the word “low” has nothing to do with the quality. Rather, it has to do with the prominence of the fantastical in the work. Despite the debate over what is and is not low fantasy, there are some defining characteristics of low fantasy that will help both readers and writers determine what it is they are reading.
Low fantasy usually takes place in the real world or a “normal” world like ours. It focuses on the idea of the supernatural pressing in on the real world instead of having magic as a focus of the piece. For this reason, low fantasy may also be called intrusion fantasy. Of course, the degree to which the supernatural and fantastical intrudes upon our reality depends heavily upon the story and the writer writing it. The amount of intrusion could range from drastic to just enough that the reader’s understanding of reality is challenged or the lines between what is real and what isn’t ends up blurred. Regardless, low fantasy is distinguished from high fantasy first by the setting.
The other thing that low fantasy usually has are themes focused on the grittier, darker side of humanity. These are the stories where the focus is on back alley drug deals and prostitution or other types of crime. These stories can be uncomfortably honest about the darkest sides of people, and some would go so far as to say that low fantasy can be used to label works that are overly cynical within the fantasy genre as well. This is not the definition held by the majority, but it is true that much of low fantasy does tend toward being more cynical and having more realistic characters who must deal with the grey areas of life.
As a further distinction, low fantasy is not only set in a “real world” setting, but it also is set in a primary world. So, whatever realistic, earth-like setting the author chooses, there is no secondary world. This means that any fiction set on another world or universe that is not our world or that is entered through a portal or gateway cannot be classified as low fantasy. Another notable feature that makes a work high fantasy in most cases is the presence of a world-within-a-world. This means that books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials cannot be labeled low fantasy even though they are set in a “real-world” setting or its equivalent.
Also, it is worthwhile to note that many of the popular children’s fantasy novels are low fantasy. It’s more accessible for children. Noteworthy examples are C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.
With that distinction made, let’s move on to looking at writing low fantasy.
Writing Low Fantasy
So, you’re ready to try your hand at some low fantasy. You understand what it entails now, but where should you start? Writing low fantasy does come with the advantage that the world is already fairly set. It should be a world much like our own with fantasy elements that intrude upon it. That doesn’t mean you can slack off though. Deciding what story to tell and how to tell it gives you the difference between Alice in Wonderland and Chronicles of Narnia. There’s still a great deal of work to be done as you decide what to include, how to include it, and when to include it. So, what are the basics you need to take into consideration before writing low fantasy?
This might seem straightforward. After all, it’s set in a world much like our own. What’s left to think about?
A great deal, actually. Although the setting may be much like our own world, there are many elements of it that won’t be. If there weren’t things outside the normal, we wouldn’t be writing fantasy, after all. So, the task is to decide what parts of our world will be different. What will intrude into our world that shouldn’t be here—if it were reality, that is? If you’re going to have dragons, say, what about this world has to change? Dragons need something to eat, and a chicken here and there won’t suffice. So, if it’s going to be set in an Earth-like setting, the dragon couldn’t live just anywhere, could it? On the other hand, if you’re going to throw a mermaid or two into the equation, maybe it wouldn’t be such an upheaval. Unless you’re the local fish population. But hey, that’s not a big deal, right? Actually, it could be. If a pod of mermaids move in on a local fishing community, you not only have fewer fish to go around, you also have a higher likelihood that the natural world will run into the supernatural.
Every element of the fantastical that you choose to include will have an impact on the world around it. The fact that it’s set in a world like ours doesn’t negate it. In fact, it may even make the job more difficult because you don’t have the leeway to make whatever you want up in order to explain something difficult. It has to fit the constraints of reality, even if reality is a bit warped now. So, take a moment to consider the setting.
This means you need to also think about the time the novel takes place in. A novel set in Arthurian England or a similar society might support a dragon much better than one set in present-day England with all its cities and population. Time is as much a part of the setting as the fantastical creatures and places will be. Don’t forget about it as you work on figuring out the setting the novel takes place in. Think about the kind of story you want to tell and what it needs to include, then allow that to inform your choice of a time period.
Since magic isn’t a way of life for everyone, who can use magic and how will be an important part of planning and writing your novel. Take some time before you start writing to determine how common it actually is, who can have it, and how they can use it. Write these down somewhere where you won’t lose it so you can refer back to the information as you write. Staying consistent and avoiding the out-of-the-blue use of magic in ways it can’t be used will help. In places like high fantasy or paranormal fantasy, it’s easier for the author to have something like this occur. They can introduce new magic on occasion in a nick-of-time sort of case by allowing the character to be confused about it too. Then they can gradually reveal it and insert it into the rest of the story.
That’s a lot more difficult to do in low fantasy.
Because it’s the “real” world, low fantasy goes one of two ways. Either magic is clearly defined and something not often held or it is something ambiguous and is considered a phenomenon that no one understands. In the first situation, it’s fine if a character doesn’t realize they can do something, but it isn’t fine if it’s something no one has ever seen before. Usually, for the first category, that’s a bit of an odd thing since magic in low fantasy is uncommon and operates with a set list of rules. It isn’t that it can’t be done, but it’s better when you’re starting out to avoid it.
For the second situation, magic isn’t something anyone understands. In these cases, it’s unpredictable and wild. Perhaps people have conjectures, but no one knows for certain, and because it’s unstable and unknown, it is feared. In this situation, depending on the story, it may be better to have a protagonist who doesn’t use magic. If you do, then you don’t have to worry about readers questioning why the protagonist can suddenly use magic in one way or another. The mystery is preserved, and it doesn’t feel as much like a cheap contrivance to keep the protagonist alive for the rest of the book.
So, lay out the rules for magic in your world. Known what it can and can’t do. Then stick to that. If you want to keep back some things magic can do to reveal later, that’s fine. It can makes things more interesting, and it lets the reader discover the world along with the main characters. But don’t include things in the magic system that couldn’t happen previously. Include it only if there’s some clear explanation or if it’s assumed impossible but has been spoken of in legends or stories of the past. Basically, have a very solid explanation for introducing uses of magic that no one really understands or believes exists. If you don’t want to do that, then use the second type of low fantasy magic and try to avoid having too many instances where your lead character(s) know about and can use it since you want to preserve that sense of the mystical and mysterious.
As mentioned in the section explaining low fantasy, low fantasy tends to focus more on the darker sides of life. This type of fantasy often takes place in much more grim settings and with seedier people. The heroes of this sort of fantasy won’t be your swashbuckling, golden-haired knight above reproach. They’ll be the street urchin in the dark alley who discovers he has a power he shouldn’t or the prostitute working in the seediest part of town who just used magic to kill a man who went to far. These heroes aren’t what we’d label as your typical hero, though they may eventually rise to the challenge. But if they do, they’re likely to be cynical beings, jaded by what life has thrown at them and what they’ve seen.
Even if the hero isn’t cynical or jaded by life, the events low fantasy usually focuses on show a side of human nature that is often dark and cruel. It may be enough to make the character jaded if they weren’t already. Either way, the stories told in low fantasy, though they don’t all have to be dark and depressing, typically do focus on themes that would make them veer toward being less than likely to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings.
As mentioned in the previous section, characters in low fantasy aren’t golden boys or angels. They are flawed human beings like you and I, often very clearly flawed. They may be arrogant and cynical or simply too scarred by life to look at anything positively. But even though the characters tend to be in a darker place mentally, if not physically, your task is to make them likable. Or, at least, you need to make your main characters likable and memorable. Those surrounding the characters can be loved, hated, or despised. But no matter what character you’re looking at, if they’re a part of the story in any major way, they should inspire some emotion or impression in the reader. If the reader can put the book down because the main characters have ceased to hold their attention, then there’s an issue.
On that note, do remember that your writing and your characters will not be everyone’s cup of tea. As people, there will always be those that we can’t stand and therefore prefer to avoid. Your characters and your reader interact in a similar manner. If your reader can’t stand your protagonist, they may put the book down. But you have made an impression. They stopped reading because the character annoyed them. So, then, you have done your job. Of course, you want more people to like the protagonist than not, but the goal is to avoid having any readers who put the book down because they didn’t care at all about the character. Evoke a response. Make the protagonist someone they can root for even if he’s terribly flawed.
Those are the main considerations I thought of when considering low fantasy and writing the sub-genre. The list isn’t exhaustive, and you will find that there are many other things you end up thinking about and making decisions on. But this should help you to get started in the genre if this sub-genre interests you. For those of you who want to do further research or for my readers out there, continue reading the section below to find book suggestions in this genre. To the rest of you, if you’ve been writing low fantasy for a while, are there other things that you feel are central considerations for this genre? Feel free to share them in the comments if you have things to add to the list I gave.
Until next time, then, everyone! The list of further reading examples and material is below as always.
Further Reading and Examples
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire
Lynne Reid Bank’s Indian in the Cupboard
C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the Wonderland
Beth Cato’s A Breath of Earth
Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising
Cassandra Claire’s Mortal Instruments
Note: I have read all but the very first book on this list. Martin’s piece is not suitable for children or younger teens. The rest of the books listed here should be suitable for both pre-teen and teen audiences. Some, such as Lewis’s and Carroll’s works, are suitable for all ages. Parents should exercise caution and vet the books ahead of time to be sure they are appropriate for their child’s age.