Grounded Magic: A Guide to Low Fantasy

Posted on Aug 1, 2023

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Low fantasy is a unique subgenre of fantasy literature that presents magical elements in a world closely resembling our own. Many different types of content can fit into this subgenre.

Whereas high fantasy usually involves creating an entire world with cultures, languages, and everything else, low fantasy can simply take our world and give it a little bit of °✧spice✧°.

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What is low fantasy?

Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that takes place in a setting closely resembling the real world. In low fantasy, magical or fantastical elements are limited and play a subtle role in the narrative. Unlike high fantasy, which often features epic battles, grand quests, and intricate magical systems, low fantasy tends to focus more on individual characters and their personal journeys within a world where magic exists but is not dominant.

In low fantasy, the magical elements are often integrated into the fabric of everyday life, and they may be mysterious, unexplained, or ambiguous in nature. The setting of a low fantasy story can be historical, contemporary, or a blend of both, and the tone can vary from lighthearted and adventurous to dark and gritty.

One key characteristic of low fantasy is that it allows readers to see fantastical or supernatural elements within their own world, offering a sense of wonder and escapism while still maintaining a connection to familiar realities. This subgenre often explores themes of personal growth, moral choices, and the impact of magic on ordinary lives.

A format low fantasy often takes is that of characters leaving the “real” world in exchange for an alternate magical place. You’ll see this in books like The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis, where a man in 1900s London dabbles in witchcraft to send his nephew and a neighbor girl into The Wood Between The Worlds by way of magic rings. Or in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, where modern two children adventure in the woods together, interacting with magical creatures, whether they are “real” or a subject of their imaginations.

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But low fantasy can also be seen in books like Dragons in Our Midst by Bryan Davis, where our world is exactly as in real life, but the characters are descendants of dragons, giving them odd physical characteristics, like wings they have to hide in a backpack. As the series continues, it morphs into a higher fantasy subgenre, barely keeping traces of reality with it.

Overall, low fantasy offers a more grounded and subtle approach to the incorporation of fantastical elements, providing a unique and relatable reading experience for fans of the genre.

How to write low fantasy

Writing low fantasy requires a careful balance between the fantastical and the realistic elements of the story. Here are some tips to help you effectively write low fantasy:

1. Establish the Setting

Create a setting that closely resembles the real world or a specific historical period. Draw inspiration from actual locations, cultures, and historical events. Incorporate realistic details to ground the story and make the world feel authentic. Consider the geography, social structures, and everyday life of the setting.

2. Develop a Subtle Magic System

Design a magic system that is understated and integrated into the world seamlessly. Magic should not be the central focus but rather a subtle force that influences events. Define the rules and limitations of magic in your world. Keep the magic system consistent and avoid excessive explanations or detailed exposition.

3. Focus on Character Development

Create complex and relatable characters with personal goals, desires, and conflicts. They should feel like real individuals navigating a world with magical elements. Explore the impact of magic on the characters’ lives and relationships. Show how magic affects their motivations, choices, and personal growth.

4. Emphasize Realism and Believability

Pay attention to realistic details in your descriptions. Show how people live, work, and interact in the world you’ve created. Incorporate historical or cultural research to add depth and authenticity to your setting. Ensure that the fantastical elements blend seamlessly with the realistic aspects.

5. Balancing the Extraordinary and the Ordinary

Maintain a balance between the magical and mundane aspects of your story. Ensure that magical occurrences feel special and significant rather than commonplace. Use magic sparingly and strategically, focusing on key moments or pivotal plot developments to maintain a sense of wonder and intrigue.

6. Explore Themes and Consequences

Low fantasy often lends itself to exploring themes such as personal growth, identity, morality, and the consequences of using magic. Consider the ethical dilemmas characters may face when confronted with the use of magic and the potential repercussions that come with it.

7. Craft Engaging Plotlines

Develop a compelling plot that is driven by the characters’ personal journeys and conflicts rather than solely relying on epic quests or battles. Incorporate tension, suspense, and emotional stakes to keep readers engaged. Focus on the consequences and impact of the characters’ choices and actions.

How you ultimately craft your story is fully up to you! The elements above will give you a rounded narrative, but you can take your own spin on every one of them. Don’t let format or writing rules hold back your imagination!

Examples of low fantasy

Here are a few examples of low fantasy stories you might want to check out before writing your own!

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

This urban low fantasy novel follows the story of Richard Mayhew, who discovers an alternate reality called London Below. It’s a hidden world inhabited by magical creatures and forgotten places that exist beneath the bustling city of London.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Set in a city reminiscent of Renaissance Venice, this low fantasy novel follows a group of skilled thieves led by the clever and charismatic Locke Lamora. While magic exists in this world, it plays a more subtle role, and the focus is on the elaborate heists and political intrigue.

The First Law by Joe Abercrombie

This gritty and character-driven low fantasy series takes place in a world filled with political scheming, war, and morally complex characters. While magic exists in the form of mysterious powers possessed by certain individuals, it remains limited and enigmatic.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Set in an alternate version of early 19th-century England, this novel explores the return of practical magic in a world where it was long forgotten. It delves into the intricacies of magic and the clash between two magicians as they navigate society and their own ambitions.

The City & The City by China Miéville

This novel combines elements of low fantasy and crime fiction. It follows a detective investigating a murder in a unique setting where two cities overlap but are distinct and have their own rules and identities, despite sharing the same physical space.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Set in early 20th-century New York, this low fantasy novel tells the story of a golem and a jinni who find themselves navigating human society. It blends mythology, folklore, and magical creatures with a vivid portrayal of immigrant communities and the challenges they face.

Low fantasy vs High fantasy

Low fantasy and high fantasy are two distinct subgenres within the broader genre of fantasy. Here are a couple key difference between them:

Setting and scope

Low fantasy is typically set in a world closely resembling either present day reality, or some point in history. It can be historical, contemporary, or a blend of both, but the main portion of the world will be something that has existed in reality at some point. This gives low fantasy a bit of a narrower scope, since it focuses on events and locations that have existed in reality.

High fantasy, on the other hand, can take place in a completely fabricated world, held back only by the writer’s scope of imagination.

Magic system

In low fantasy, magical or fantastical elements are limited and play a subtler role in the narrative. While magic is often integrated into the everyday life of the world, it is not the central focus. The magic system in low fantasy is usually more ambiguous with fewer defined rules and limitations.

In high fantasy, an elaborate and prominent magic system is expected. Magic is usually a pervasive element with detailed systems, rules, and hierarchies. You’ll see wizards, magic creatures, enchanted objects, and entire worlds and plots based on the magic system alone.Qsjwtccczpp0Mgs T5Qfgydzayvymj6Crqjhbrfvr1Zzokew6Bcwymecqe887Dv Qe14Nec3U 6Nxjry7G7Dk

Low fantasy vs magic realism

Low fantasy and magic realism are very similar genres often confused for each other. Here are a couple differences: 

Cultural and historical context

Low fantasy may draw inspiration from specific historical periods or cultures, but it is not primarily defined by them. The setting and cultural elements serve as a backdrop to the story, with the focus on the characters and their journeys.

Magic realism often has a strong connection to cultural and historical contexts. It frequently explores the cultural, social, and political realities of specific regions or communities. The blending of magical and real elements is used to reflect the unique cultural perspectives and experiences of those contexts.

Literary magic realism is a chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy. Although, conceptually, it has been a literary strategy in many cultures throughout the ages, the term magic realism itself is relatively new in literary application.

Magic system

In low fantasy, magical elements are integrated into the world but may be more mysterious, unexplained, or ambiguous. Magic is often portrayed subtly, and the rules or limitations may be less defined. The magical elements may have personal significance for the characters but don’t necessarily permeate every aspect of the story.

Magic realism presents magical or fantastical elements as an inherent part of the everyday reality. These elements are often depicted matter-of-factly and are accepted by the characters and society as normal occurrences. Magic realism blurs the line between what is real and what is magical, often challenging the reader’s perception of reality.

Low fantasy vs urban fantasy

Low fantasy and urban fantasy are similar subgenres with a few distinctions:

Setting

Low fantasy can take place in various settings, including historical, contemporary, or a blend of both. The setting may closely resemble our own world or a specific historical period. The focus is on the interplay between realistic elements and subtle magical or fantastical elements.

Urban fantasy is primarily set in a contemporary, urban environment. It takes place in real-world cities or urban areas and often incorporates familiar elements of modern society. The setting may be a backdrop for supernatural or fantastical occurrences that exist alongside everyday life.

Magic system

In low fantasy, magical elements are present but limited. They may be subtle, mysterious, or unexplained. The magical elements may be integrated into the fabric of everyday life or have a more personal significance for the characters. However, they are not usually the dominant or defining feature of the story.

Urban fantasy prominently features magical or supernatural elements that coexist with the modern urban setting. Magical creatures, mythical beings, or supernatural entities often play significant roles. These elements are typically integrated into the cityscape, with magical societies, hidden realms, or secret supernatural communities existing alongside human society. Think Vampire Diaries.

Conclusion

In all of the above subgenre comparisons, you can expect slightly different tones, themes, and narrative focuses in each, but it’s such a gray area that it would be hard to nail solid categorizing elements within them.

Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that presents magical or fantastical elements in a world closely resembling our own or a specific historical period. It combines the ordinary with the extraordinary, exploring personal journeys, moral choices, and the impact of magic on the lives of characters within a grounded setting. While similar to some other subgenres, low fantasy distinguishes itself with an unobtrusive, fairly vague magic system and a real-world setting.

To write low fantasy effectively, authors should focus on integrating subtle magical elements into a realistic world while emphasizing character development, moral dilemmas, and the consequences of magic. Balancing the fantastical with relatable themes and exploring the interplay between magic and ordinary life are crucial in creating an engaging low fantasy narrative.

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