The fantasy genre is defined as speculative fiction, often inspired by myth or folklore from the real world. The setting most often featured in fantasy is medieval or heavily inspired by the medieval era, though that is not an absolute through all fantasy stories.
Subgenres of fantasy include fairytale fantasy (inspired by fairytale or folklore), comic fantasy (humorous in tone), contemporary fantasy (usually set in the real world but including magical or supernatural elements), and gaslamp fantasy (set in Victorian or Edwardian eras, usually with gothic influence).
There are several subgenres categorized by levels or tiers of fantasy, based on how fantastical the story is. These subgenres include contemporary fantasy, low fantasy, and high fantasy.
Today we’re talking about high fantasy. For an inside perspective on writing fantasy, I reached out to bestselling science fiction and fantasy author, Jenna Moreci.
Jenna is the author of the low fantasy/science fiction novel, EVE: The Awakening, the high fantasy novel The Savior’s Champion, and its upcoming companion novel, The Savior’s Sister (pre-order here!).
Here’s what you’ll learn about writing high fantasy:
- What is high fantasy?
- How to write high fantasy
- High fantasy vs low fantasy
- High fantasy examples
What is high fantasy?
As I mentioned, there are different levels of fantasy. High fantasy is the most fantastical level, defined by the epic nature of its setting, characters, themes, or plot. High fantasy is set in an alternative fantasy world, rather than the real world (like in contemporary fantasy).
Think of the fantasy genre as a sliding scale, with one end being a realistic, modern world with a very subtle fantasy influence, and the other end being a magical world of complete fabrication.
We’re talking about the far end of that scale: high fantasy, with completely fabricated worlds, characters, and stories.
Jenna, what attracted you to writing high fantasy?
“High fantasy has been my favorite genre since I was six years old, particularly high fantasy adventure. While my friends were pretending to be Belle from Beauty and the Beast, I was calling myself “Super Perseus” from Clash of the Titans (true story – we’ve got it on home video). Adventure, romance, and magic—in my opinion—are the perfect trifecta for entertainment. I want to be whisked away into another world. I want to battle dangers, marvel over monsters, and explore hidden powers. I want to fall in love. Writing high fantasy puts little to no limits on your creativity and imagination. It’s the closest thing there is to playing make believe as an adult—aside from LARPing, maybe, but that’s not really my thing.”
Jenna enjoys the freedom of writing a story in high fantasy, but there are certainly obstacles to overcome as well.
How to write high fantasy
High fantasy is one of the genres with the most required world-building. You’re creating completely original settings, characters, religions, political and economic systems, societies, cultures, magic systems—it’s all up to you to build.
That’s a big undertaking, and you’ll have tons to consider! To name a few elements:
- Politics – What is the political climate? Who are the rulers and how did they come to power? What systems are in place, by accident or intentionally?
- Religion – Monotheistic, polytheistic, actual, interpreted, proven false? Are there different religions? How do your character’s religion influence their outlooks and behavior?
- Economy – Is there a system of currency? Is it trade or barter?
- Weather and climate – Weather and climate can have a big impact on your setting. They can also provide an obstacle for your characters to overcome.
- Species – Are your species human, humanoid, fantasy, a mix?
- Magic system – What are the rules, capabilities, and limitations of your magic system?
- Culture – What do your people value? How do they think, and why do they think that way? What kind of traditions and norms exist?
- History – What’s happened in the world before your story takes place? How has it impacted the present?
- Flora and fauna – The plants and animals that live in your world.
- Character motivation – This isn’t something a lot of writers think about needing to develop when they think about a high fantasy story, but what characters want and are motivated by are incredibly influenced by their environment. The culture, history, society, religion, and everything else about your world should directly influence the things your character is trying to achieve. They’re not going to want the same things people in the real world want.
But don’t let all of that scare you off! High fantasy can be an exciting and freeing genre to try out.
Jenna, do you have any advice for writers wanting to try high fantasy?
“You are not Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, or J.K. Rowling. Don’t try to be. People remember these authors not because their stories are superior, or because their stories follow particular formats; they’re remembered because they’re original.
Mimicry isn’t going to get you far. Half the high fantasy writers out there are already trying that. Tell your own story.”
Do you think people have to read a lot of fantasy in order to write good fantasy of their own?
“I think writers need to read a lot, period, in order to gain skill in the craft. Reading within your own genre is going to be the most beneficial, but I always encourage writers to diversify. Different genres can teach different skills, and having a well-rounded wheelhouse of tricks can help separate you from other fantasy buffs.”
That’s great advice, and it certainly applies to any genre.
High fantasy vs low fantasy
The difference between high fantasy and low fantasy is simply the amount of fantastic or supernatural elements present in your story.
High fantasy, like we’ve mentioned, is when you’re crafting an entirely new world.
Low fantasy is like a contemporary fantasy story, based in the real world, likely present-day, with some amount of magical content. Maybe there are make-believe creatures, maybe dragons exist, maybe a regular human finds a portal to another universe.
Think of The Chronicles of Narnia as a mix of low fantasy and high fantasy—when the children are in the real world with the fact that other worlds exist, that could be considered low fantasy. When they’re in Narnia or the Wood Between The Worlds, that could be considered high fantasy. Overall, The Chronicles of Narnia is a high fantasy series because so much of it takes place in a completely fabricated universe.
How did you approach writing The Savior’s Series (high fantasy) differently than you approached EVE: The Awakening (low fantasy/science fiction)?
“The Savior’s Series provided a lot more freedom than EVE: The Awakening. TSC takes place in the realm of Thessen, a kingdom of my design. I got to choose the climate. I got to choose the system of government. If I wanted my characters to dress, speak, or act a certain way, I could work that into their customs. And of course, magic is always fun to play with.
While EVE takes place in the future, it’s still in our timeline on planet Earth. History had to line up. Changes in customs had to make sense. Sci-fi provides a ton more freedom than many other genres, which I do enjoy, but not quite as much as high fantasy—unless you’re inventing an entirely new planet.
Low fantasy has the double-edged sword of normalcy. On the one hand, if you struggle with world building, good news: that’s 75% done for you. On the other, normalcy creates confines you have to work within. If you’re looking for freedom to create whoever or whatever you want, that might be a problem.
High fantasy is the polar opposite. Good news: the world is your oyster. You can create whatever you please. The bad news? You have to make everything. Literally. You are starting with a completely blank page. Try not to get too overwhelmed.”
That’s a solid summary of what we discussed earlier—high fantasy gives you complete freedom to be as imaginative as you’d like, but it’s a lot of work!
High fantasy examples
When you think of fantasy stories, most of the examples you could come up with would likely be high fantasy.
Here are examples of high fantasy books:
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
- The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- Eragon by Christopher Paolini
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Here are a few other examples of novels in different fantasy subgenres:
- Contemporary fantasy – The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
This is contemporary fantasy because it’s set in modern (or what was modern at the time) day, everything is realistic, but there happen to be magical rings that can transport you to other realms.
- Comic fantasy – The Mis-Adventures (An Almost Epic Tale) by Steven Partridge
This is a comedic story of a band of friends going on a wacky adventure, set in a high fantasy world.
- Fairytale fantasy – Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella Enchanted is a fairytale fantasy because of the fairytale elements—fairy godmothers, ogres, giants, elves, enchanted mirrors, magic books, curses, etc.
- Dark fantasy – The Savior’s Champion by Jenna Moreci
Dark fantasy is categorized by thematic elements like gore, violence, and adult content. It has a gloomier tone, often combining with elements you’d find in horror genres. The Savior’s Champion slaughters the majority of its character cast, categorizing it as dark fantasy.
- Historical fantasy – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander takes a modern (1940s) woman from a realistic setting and drops her back into the 18th century Scottish highlands.
What are your favorite fantasy books, Jenna?
“This may sound silly, considering I write adult dark fantasy, but the first book that immediately pops into my mind is Ella Enchanted. I’m a bit of a control freak, and when I read, I can’t help but think of what I would’ve done had I written the story instead. This makes it difficult for me to immerse myself fully when I read or get that book hangover feeling people are always talking about. But when I read Ella Enchanted back in the fourth grade, damn, that book ruined me in the best way. It had everything I wanted, and I was living for it. I remember finishing it and thinking, this is exactly how I want to make people feel when they read my work.
Obviously I’m not in the fourth grade anymore, and I’ve read a bunch of fantasy books I’ve enjoyed since then. And even more obviously, my work is starkly different from Ella Enchanted. But I still put that book on a pedestal for breaking through my nitpicky reader wall and giving my childhood self the exact story I needed at the time.”
Ella Enchanted is a great book. I really liked Fairest when I was a kid, by the same author. Still waiting for my film adaptation…
Writing a high fantasy story is a big undertaking! There are so many elements to consider, which can be intimidating, but the freedom to create literally any universe you want is exciting.
If high fantasy is totally new to you and you’re looking for an introduction to the genre, Jenna’s new book, The Savior’s Sister, is a good place to start!