Two distinct sets of models seem to exist in fantasy novels (science fiction too, actually). High Fantasy and Low Fantasy. The questions I have are does this distinction have to happen? What’s the balance? Should writers simply cut loose in fantasy (otherwise, what’s the point, right?) Does it matter?

First, I should probably clarify what I mean by High and Low fantasy. It’s not the quality of the work or the finished product.

  • HIGH FANTASY: Dragons and wizards and impossible things. Like, Doctor Who or Harry Potter.
  • LOW FANTASY: Grounded in realism. Physics accounts for this. It is plausible, and there are definitive rules. Think, Game of Thrones (with the caveat of “so far”) and Battlestar Galactica.

Both are important. Both sets require the writer to have rules that they follow and to establish those rules.

I think that High Fantasy tends to grab a more casual audience. It’s like a trashy romance novel. Most of the time, you know exactly what’s coming. Extraordinary battles, grand power, wizards dueling for the fate of the world. The stakes tend to be the world ends if the protagonist fails. And, a good portion of the time, some sort of destiny is involved. The characters need a reason to exist, because otherwise, the plots and motivations are pretty weak. Harry Potter isn’t special except he’s the “Chosen One”.

High Fantasy seems to have a lot more wish fulfillment aspects in the writing. People wanting to be special or needing a reason to justify an otherwise mundane life.

Low Fantasy is completely different. Usually. The stakes can still be grand, but it’s not about saving the world from a prophesied evil or destiny. It’s about the struggle of the characters. Let’s be honest, if every major character in A Song of Ice and Fire died, the world would just continue on as it has for thousands of years.

Low Fantasy is entirely about the fact that these are normal people in extraordinary circumstances. Battlestar Galactica, anyone? Just another commander and random civilians who happen to survive a genocide. And, boy does that suck.

The comparisons can go on for a while. Suffice it to say, neither is better than the other, though it may have sounded that way above. It’s nice, once in a while, to know that you’re following the best of the best, who aren’t regular, ordinary people. And someones, it’d be nice to know the main character can actually, well, die.

In the end, you still need great writing and good characters. Otherwise, it’s another forgettable story. And, in case anyone’s wondering, Low Fantasy can still have dragons and magic and wizards. It’s fantasy, after all.

What do you think? What advantages or disadvantages does High Fantasy have? Low Fantasy?