Writing High Fantasy

January 16, 2010 at 5:12 am (fantasy, Genre, Setting, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Recently, Fiona Skye asked me if I had any advice about world creation for high fantasy and I realised I’ve only ever written one post about creating worlds and I’ve never written anything on the blog about high fantasy.  So, one step at a time, I am going to look at what high fantasy is and sometime next week I’m going to look more specifically at world building.

What is High Fantasy?

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“Secondary”) world, rather than the real (“Primary”) world. The secondary world will normally be internally consistent but its rules are in some way different from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterised by being set in the primary world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.


I know Wikipedia is flawed as a research source but when it has the correct information it has the benefit of being put into simple and easy to access language which is why I borrowed my definition from the website. It at least makes sense which puts it far above most definitions of what makes something high fantasy.  Though I would object to them classifying Harry Potter as High Fantasy even though Hogwarts is technically a secondary world within the primary world.

Personally, I love reading high fantasy and I love writing it as well. Every aspect of the world and characters is controlled by you and you can change as much or as little as you like as long as you make the world and characters believable to your reader. The danger, or course, is getting so caught up in world building and character creation it takes 100,000 words just to set the scene. We all know that fantasy is prone to becoming serialised and trilogies and quadrilogies are pretty standard in the genre for a reason. Writing a high fantasy stand-alone novel is hard because you have to condense a lot of details and yet still make sure people understand where they are and what is going on.

Debbie Ledesma argues that high fantasy tends to concern itself with two themes.  The battle between good and evil and the quest and for the most part she is right.  There is no rule that says your high fantasy has to deal with either of these themes but for the most part high fantasy books have dealt with them. Debbie also lists the characteristics of the quest. I would think the quest would have to be popular because after creating an entire world most writers want to show it off and the quest is a convenient way to wander everywhere and see everything – see my comments on Eddings and Tolkien from a previous blog post.

The Buried Editor discusses why many fantasy books are written in third person point of view and not first person – again it is all about showing off the world you’ve spent so much time creating.

Thanks to Fiona for giving me a great suggestion for the post and I hope some of this is helpful – I will look at world building in a bit more detail next week.



  1. Uninvoked said,

    and the whole ‘quest’ thing can be stretched pretty far. I’ve got a failed prophecy in one of my books. ^^

  2. Carol Kilgore said,

    Although I read a lot, I’m not much of a fantasy reader. Even so, it amazes me that fantasy writers create entire WORLDS with rules different from the real world. Obviously I don’t write in the fantasy genre either. I think it might make me a bit crazier than I am. It’s sometime difficult enough to create a neighborhood much less a world. Kudos to those who do.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I actually find world building to be a very structured process and it really forces me to think logically and question every decision that I make. When I write set in the real world I don’t have the constant logic monitor hanging over my head.

  3. donthangupthequill said,

    Creating a new world is too daunting to me. I have one paranormal story and it takes place firmly on Earth.

    Thanks for explaining the difference between high and low fantasy. I am a fan of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and the Lord of the Fading Land series by CL Wilson. I know what I like, even if I don’t know what it’s called. 🙂

  4. Jessie carty said,

    really love your description of high fantasy which I also love to read but I fond I am unable to write. I’ve never been able to create a completely fantastic world.

  5. Tooty Nolan said,

    Judging by Wikipedia’s description, my Hamster-Britain stories fall half-way between high and low fantasy. Perhaps at about tree-top level, I imagine. That’s if they can be counted amongst fantasy works, that is. I didn’t until a Terry Pratchett fan read The Psychic Historian and stated most resolutely that is IS fantasy: Just a funny sort of fantasy. Like life – fantasy can be a funny old thing.

  6. Kit said,

    Warning: I’m a little off topic here.

    OK, am I the only one? I’ve never heard fantasy broken into “high” and “low”, and as someone who writes what will qualify as “low fantasy”, I’m miffed to say the least. I have been looking for a term to use as shorthand to describe my writing projects when people ask me what I write, but I don’t think I’ll ever describe it as “low” anything.

    I wish I had a suggestion for a better way to do this. In my mind, high fantasy, as defined, is “pure” fantasy, meant in the best way, and no intention of implying anything negative connotations. But how to describe what is mostly real world with some magic dropped in continues to elude me.

    I look forward to reading further posts on fantasy here.

  7. SaintAsh said,

    I’ve noticed that, generally, high fantasy is plot-driven rather than character-driven, probably because it does tend to be focused on good vs. evil themes and quests. Then again, it could also be because high fantasy goes for epic in everything — epic storylines, epic worldbuilding, epic lengths. 😉

  8. Tooty Nolan said,

    How about Epic fantasy and Contemporary fantasy? But what about the stuff that falls in between? This pigeon-holing is a bugger. And does anyone acknowledge comedy fantasy?

    • Kit said,

      I like the Epic/Contemporary idea… But you’re right. What do you call the Disc World books? Because that’s definitely secondary world fantasy, but I think the parody and comedy put it in a class by itself.

      • Cassandra Jade said,

        High fantasy with comdedic influence? Most books fall into more than one category and fantasy is very prone to being fantasy romance, fantasy horror, fantasy historical fiction, etc.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      If they don’t they should because it definitely takes things on its own path.

  9. Fiona Skye said,

    Wow. Thanks for this! This is really helpful as I begin my next book. I’m glad I decided to ask you about this. 😀

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