What is High Fantasy?
The genre of fantasy covers a broad spectrum of subgenres, including "high fantasy," also called epic fantasy. But how do you write a high fantasy book or series? Does it need to have magic? Dragons? Epic battle scenes?
In this post, we'll explore the characteristics of a high fantasy story, and give you some tips you can use when writing your own.
Characteristics of high fantasy
While there may be many elements common to the fantasy genre, there are three core characteristics in high fantasy stories: secondary world setting, epic quests or world-level conflict, and magic or fantasy creatures.
Secondary world setting
High fantasy is set in a completely fictional world (a "secondary" or alternate world). This sets it apart from low fantasy, which is set in our world (the "primary world.") The fictional or secondary world is created from the author’s own imagination and has its own rules, systems, history, and functions. For example, J.R.R Tolkien's series The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy narrative that takes place in the fictional Middle Earth. In contrast, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians books take place in our world, with magical elements "intruding" into the real world.
An epic quest or world-level conflict
The stakes are always high in high fantasy— this may include a hero going on an epic quest or solving a conflict with world-level consequences. The fate of their entire world is literally in your hero’s hands. Can they save it, or will it be destroyed? Mary E. Pearson’s Kiss of Deception trilogy is an example of a heroine who must accept her role as a princess and leader in order to stop a great evil that threatens to destroy the kingdoms. In George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, the world-level conflict is twofold: the political turmoil between the warring noble families of Westeros is set against the backdrop of the looming global threat of the White Walkers.
Magical powers or fantastical creatures
High fantasy almost always incorporates an element of magic. This could be through humans with magical abilities (such as the Grisha in Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone and its sequels), mythical creatures like the dragons in A Song of Ice and Fire, or the use of magical items (for example, the jade in The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee).
Tips for writing high fantasy
Study high fantasy novels
Every genre has certain elements or tropes that are common and expected in that genre, such as the core characteristics of high fantasy mentioned above. By reading and studying high fantasy novels, you can learn what readers expect. Once you’ve learned what they expect, you can give it your own unique twist and subvert their expectations.
For example, when writing Jade City, the first novel in The Green Bone Saga, Fonda Lee wanted to create a high fantasy world influenced by Asian cultures rather than one based on medieval Europe. Even so, Lee still incorporates the characteristics of a secondary world, a magical element, and high stakes, all of which resonate with fans of the genre.
Develop your fantasy world
There’s a lot that goes into creating an entire fantasy world. Get to know your world and understand it before you do any plotting. How do your characters interact in this world? Is there a class system? What types of jobs or modes of transportation exist in this world?
These are all questions that will affect the plot of your story and the characters you create. If you’re new to writing high fantasy, it can seem overwhelming— you’re creating an entire universe from scratch! To make it less daunting, consider starting with the macro aspects before moving into the micro.
With macro worldbuilding, you’re starting with the physical environment your characters will be in. Think about the planet. What seasons does this world have, and how long do they last? Then look at your continents and regions. Zoom in on the locations your story takes place in. Are there lots of mountains, or is it in a desert region? Is it near any major bodies of water? The culture of characters that live on the coast will have different lifestyles, jobs, and even dietary needs than those that live near the mountains.
Micro worldbuilding starts with the species in your world. Are your characters human or non-human? Are there any magical or fantastical creatures in this world that your characters interact with regularly? How has the environment they’re in affected their evolution? Consider the values your characters’ cultures may develop because of environmental differences between groups. For example, language and communication can evolve based on the class system of a group.
Use a story bible
There’s going to be a lot of information you’ll need to keep track of when creating your world. There can be a vast amount of research you do, world-building templates you may use, or maps and images of your world. Creating a story bible will be indispensable and help you keep track of everything that has happened or needs to happen in your story.
A story bible will also help you stay consistent with the rules you've created for your world. For example, if you establish that in your world, magic cannot be used to create food, and there is a scene in which a character summons a sandwich out of thin air, your reader will probably notice. Inconsistencies in building your fantasy world will not only confuse your readers but take them out of the story and the world you’re trying to immerse them in.
Choose the best point of view
Who is the best character to follow through your story? Will you tell the story from your hero's point of view or use multiple POVs throughout the book? Will you use a first-person POV or an omniscient narrator? Consider how you want to reveal elements of the world and the plot to your reader.
If you want the reader to discover the world alongside the hero, a single, first-person point of view may be best. In Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, the story is told entirely from Alina Starkov's perspective— the reader learns about her Grisha power and life in the Little Palace as Alina discovers it.
In contrast, if you want to cover many conflicts across your fantasy realm, using multiple perspectives may be more effective. A classic example of this is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which jumps between the points of view of many characters spread out around the world. This gives the reader a fuller picture of the global conflict taking place.
Write short stories in your world
One way to create a secondary world that feels real and fleshed out is by writing short stories in that world. This tip is especially helpful for pantsers who may find it difficult to plan and build their world before diving into the story. This technique can also help develop your character’s backstory if you’re feeling stuck.
Writing short stories in your fantasy world gives you the opportunity to explore and learn about the world you’re creating alongside your characters. One short story could examine a historical war or conflict that takes place long before your story begins but still has major implications for the lives of your characters now. Another short story could be a slice of the life of an everyday person in your world who isn't part of the epic conflict. You might not end up using these short stories in the final novel, but writing them can really help you get your arms around the epic world you're building.
You're ready to write high fantasy!
High fantasy is a genre that can require a lot of effort, from the scope of the narrative to the details of your fantasy realm, but it's well worth it for the joy of crafting a unique world and an epic plot! By becoming familiar with the high fantasy genre and using the tips discussed above, you’ll be on your way to creating an immersive world and story your readers will fall in love with.