The overwhelming success of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series and the wildly popular Harry Potter saga by JK Rowling (both book and film) signaled the moment where fantasy fiction became mainstream. Shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer paved the way and prepared the minds of people to the possibility of magic in everyday life, creating a demand for all things fantasy, especially in literature. The public loved it, and the once somewhat ostracized love for these stories became wholly accepted in the first decade of the twenty-first century, especially with the premiere of the HBO TV series True Blood and Game of Thrones, shows adapted from books which were only popular in certain circles before they were produced for the viewing masses.
This inspired many young people to take up a pen and write their own stories, often creating their own worlds or creating magical or out-of-the-ordinary situations in the course of everyday life. Fantasy, for these writers, became a reality, and if you, dear reader, are one of those aspiring fantasy writers, read on to understand the nuances between fantasy and low fantasy fiction.
Characterized by inexplicable magical situations in a normal mundane world where they aren’t supposed to happen, low fantasy is set in a fictional rational world. The narrative occurs in realistic environments with fantasy elements. “Low” in this instance means the appearance of traditional fantasy elements within the story, and more often than not, there is just enough fantasy elements to make the line between reality and fantasy blurred, creating a sense of ambiguity. Usually aimed toward children, low fantasy gives the author more room to experiment with situations that are normally allowed in the real world. Examples of this is the Percy Jackson Camp Half-Blood chronicles by Rick Riordan, Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Coined in 1971 by writer Lloyd Alexander, high fantasy is defined by it being set in an entirely fictional universe or by the epic traits of the characters, themes, or plot. Set in an alternate, fictional, and secondary world, it is usually from the point of view of a hero type main character that has special abilities or a foretold destiny that must be fulfilled. Many of these hero types begin as orphans or someone exceptional with a penchant for magic or combat. Although not set in stone (after all, Bilbo Baggins was only exceptional because he was chosen by Gandalf for no other reason than being from an odd Hobbit family that liked to have adventures), many of these stories begin with a young main character that develops slowly throughout the book. There is the magical guide/mentor/teacher, an evil Dark Lord element, and concludes in a great battle where the hero overcomes all obstacles despite the challenges.
1) The primary world does not exist. (Lord of the Rings)
2) The world is entered through a portal from the primary world. (The Chronicles of Narnia)
3) A world-within-a-world. (Harry Potter)
Although there is much debate between these two subgenres and which categories do certain book really belong in, fantasy fiction has never enjoyed this much popularity. So if you, as an aspiring writer, are already working on your novel, don’t bog yourself down with the details of genres. This only serves a guide to where you want to set your story in, and it is not a strict rule that must be followed. Write what you know, and when you are ready to publish, you know where to go. Good luck!