Time to speak Genrely. Low fantasy is, as you might expect, the polar opposite of high fantasy. Low fantasy plays around with many of the trappings of high fantasy but applies them to very different ends. The names of the genres kind of sum up the differences. While high fantasy focuses on the big ideas of the human condition low fantasy examines the minutia. Interestingly, it is possible to craft a story that mixes elements of high and low fantasy in one of the harder to quantify genres in existence (see Quintessence for one example).
So what is it that makes low fantasy what it is?
- An emphasis on characters who are not at all important in the scheme of things. The people who make up the central characters of a low fantasy story are not movers and shakers, not planning to overthrow governments and not wielders of forces that are out of the ordinary for their world. The scale of events and the people they focus on are, in some ways, much more normal than the typical fantasy stories.
- Focus on day to day activities. While this doesn’t exclude the kind of swashbuckling adventure that you’re accustomed to seeing in movies like The Lord of the Rings or reading about in The Chronicles of Narnia, the action in low fantasy ultimately has much less impact on the state of nations than the action in high fantasy. The genre simply assumes that there are people who do that kind of work for a living. There will always be tombs to rob, monsters to fight and evil wizards to put down. After a while it becomes kind of humdrum, and what does that mean for characters and societies?
- An abundance of magic. Magic in low fantasy tends to be commonplace. Not everyone knows how to use it but chances are everyone’s seen it a time or two. It tends to be of the sufficiently analyzed version, will come in all kinds in all kinds of shapes and sizes, might be tied in some way to a person’s ancestry or powerful artifacts, or follow any one of a dozen other rules, or just be available to anyone who takes the time to learn it. Its presence or absence in a situation is in no way significant.
What are the weaknesses of low fantasy? It tends to come off as the fantasy equivalent of status quo is god. The characters aren’t out for big purposes they are, at best, out to help a few people they know or just out for their own good. It can be hard to get invested in stories where nothing meaningful ever happens. Sure, the characters go out and have adventures but ten years later they’re sitting in the same bars, drinking and trying to figure out where their next big break will come from. I’m not saying stories about people in regular situations struggling with realistic problems are bad. But something about them cuts against the grain of a genre grouping that shares the same root with the word “fantastic” know what I mean?
What are the strengths of low fantasy? Low fantasy thrives on the way it proves ye olde maxim, the more things change the more they stay the same. We may not live in a world with flying carpets or travel between parallel earths but we can all appreciate the importance of paying the bills and keeping thieves and murderers off the streets – no matter how those crimes are accomplished.
At first glance low fantasy may look like an unappealing genre. Why add all the swords and sorcery if it’s ultimately incidental to the stories? Isn’t the author just being lazy, making sure they don’t have to research all the gritty little details of what they want to write about? Isn’t this a cop out?
The answer is, no. Low fantasy can act as a kind of insulation between the audience and the story. Some things may be uncomfortable when looked at in a way that hits close to home. By looking at these things through the perspective of the fantastic we can give the audience a degree of separation that makes these subjects easier to handle. Of course, by the same token the fantastic may turn off part of your audience as well. It’s important to know who you’re writing for, after all. What’s important is to take low fantasy on it’s own terms – stories of little people in big worlds. And after all, isn’t that what we all are?