Hard Low Fantasy

Fantasy novels and fantasy works can transport readers to marvellous new settings and locations, in many cases creating worlds that are completely different to our own. These fantasy novels can be categorised into the sub-genres of hard fantasy or low fantasy, sometimes including elements from both. 

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Contents
Table of contents

    To understand what hard/low fantasy is, we’ll begin with a definition and some of the key characteristics of hard/low fantasy. We will then look at the difference between hard/low fantasy in world-building and finally some hard/low fantasy books.

    Hard/Low Fantasy in books

    The fantasy genre includes fantastical, supernatural or magical elements that are not present in the normal world.

    Hard fantasy (also known as high fantasy) and low fantasy (also known as soft fantasy) have different, unique elements that add to the overall plot of fantasy novels.

    Some of the subgenres of fantasy include:

    Magical realism: This is when magic and fantasy is a normal part of the realistic world the characters live in; for example, teleportation would be considered normal in a realistic world that looks very much like our own.

    Epic fantasy: Certain rules and principles govern the magical settings in these books; there is also usually a hero and the events in the story deal with large scale issues and themes.

    Fables: Fables have a moral message underlying the plot and use animals and supernatural elements in their stories.

    Hard Fantasy

    Hard fantasy includes a fantastical world that has its own detailed history and mythology, and certain rules, limitations and principles for the magic to work (such as cultural, social and political rules). Reason and logic are essential elements in hard fantasy as well as detailed world-building.

    When you think about hard fantasy, you would probably think of in-depth magic systems filled with sorcery, creatures, different beings and a world built on certain rules that are very different to our world.

    An example of a hard fantasy system is present in Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008). The ‘magic’ is divided into four elements (air, fire, water and earth) and element benders live in societies based on these elements (for example, the Southern Water Tribe live in an icy land filled with water). Each type of bender also has a set of characteristics specific to them (for example, the Air Nomads are known for their spiritual abilities and Earth for their defensive strategies).

    Low Fantasy

    On the other hand, low fantasy includes elements of the real world and fantasy elements. It incorporates accepted norms and constructs of the real world, real histories and places we are aware of with fantasy to change the way the world acts and the way we perceive it. It is governed by vague or undefined limitations and rules.

    The fantasy/magic in these worlds has no concrete limitations and rules. Rather, there is little information on what governs the soft magic which invokes wonder in readers. Low magic is usually the problem of the story and not the solution. Sometimes it can be used to help the protagonist but, in most cases, this magic complicates the events of the story. As a result, the protagonist must either rise against this magic, deal with the complications it is causing or succeed regardless of it.

    The Twilight Series (2005–2008) is a good example of low fantasy as the plot and action take place on earth and follow the norms in the society in which the characters live. But it adds a fantastical element as some characters are vampires or werewolves rather than normal human beings.

    High/Hard Fantasy vs Low/Soft Fantasy

    The key difference between hard/low fantasy is that hard fantasy requires readers to let go of their perceptions and beliefs of life and enter a world that has a completely different system from what they know. Low fantasy allows readers to use their current beliefs about the world and combine them with the new ideas in the novel.

    However, elements of both hard/low fantasy can be used at the same time. For example, C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia (1950) can be considered both a hard/low fantasy novel. This is because the world of Narnia is completely different to our own but it's also set in the real world. As to enter the world of Narnia, the characters must go through a wardrobe in the real world, during the Blitz in World War II.

    As a result, the main difference between hard/ low fantasy is that hard fantasy novels take place in a different fictional world completely different to our own. In contrast, low fantasy novels use existing knowledge to create new worlds that are still familiar.

    Hard Low fantasy, a sketch of a castle on a hill at night, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Fantasy fiction nearly always features a castle of some size.

    Hard/Low Fantasy and worldbuilding

    Worldbuilding is an essential part of any form of fantasy writing. It is the process of how the writer creates the world; this includes the politics, laws, social norms, cultures, religions etc. of the world.

    Worldbuilding is especially important in hard fantasy as the plot is governed by the rules of the world. In low fantasy works, worldbuilding is just as important however, it is not as obvious as in hard fantasy. This is because hard fantasy novels present readers with the facts and histories of the world explicitly and directly while low fantasy novels allow readers to figure out what the rules are along the way (and do directly not tell them the rules of the world).

    These two different types of worldbuilding in hard/low fantasy novels can be categorised into hard worldbuilding and soft worldbuilding.

    J.R.R Tolkien is a great example of an author who used hard worldbuilding in his writing. He spent more than ten years creating a cosmology, histories, cultures and languages for Middle-Earth. He understood all the elements in his world and tried to present this to readers. This is what hard worldbuilding is: providing intricate details to create a hard fantasy novel.

    J.R.R. Tolkien's fictive world of Middle-Earth is so intricate and detailed that people actually learned the languages he created for the series. He also created a new alphabet system for the language.

    An example of soft worldbuilding is Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001). In it, many different spirits and gods visit Yubaba’s bathhouse. It is never revealed to the audience where these spirits come from, what their purpose is and how their society is organised. There’s no need for an explanation as to why certain things are the way they are. As a result, soft worldbuilding is what gives low fantasy its sense of wonder due to its simplicity and subtleness in providing details of the world. The world takes over the story rather than the story taking over the world. Namely, it is not the character's actions that drive the plot, but rather what the protagonist comes across in this new world.

    It is possible to have elements of hard worldbuilding and soft worldbuilding in both hard/low fantasy. This could be done by constructing a world with as many details as possible (applying reason and logic to the rules of the world) but then only providing what is necessary for the readers to understand to follow the story.

    The American writer V. E. Schwab calls writers who prefer hard worldbuilding ‘door writers’ and refers to those who prefer soft worldbuilding as ‘window writers.1

    This is because writers who used hard worldbuilding give readers a door into the world by allowing them to walk in and see everything there is. ‘Window writers’ (writers who prefer soft worldbuilding) only provide readers with a window to the world, so the readers do not have a proper view of the world and must infer things themselves.

    Overall, hard worldbuilding is characterised by a sense of realism, consistency, transparency and concrete rules. Soft worldbuilding is characterised by imaginative involvement, otherworldliness as well as unknown and flexible rules.

    Magic in Worldbuilding

    Magic is also an important aspect of worldbuilding and the way it is used reveals whether the text uses hard/soft worldbuilding. In hard fantasy, the rules and laws surrounding magic would be more concrete and precise (as the author would have let the readers know the rules for the magic during the hard worldbuilding process). In low fantasy, the rules and laws surrounding the magic would be vague (as the author would not give precise rules for the magic used in the world if they are using a soft worldbuilding process).

    Brandon Sanderson, an American author of science fiction and epic fantasy, argues that magic shouldn’t be used to fix issues unless readers can understand that the magic used by the character can solve the problem. This rule is especially important in hard worldbuilding/ magic systems as the rules of the magic system must make sense to readers. Sanderson's law of magic is:

    An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic. 2

    Hard Low fantasy, a sketch of a skull lying on a top of a book with a candlestick beside it and books in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Magic & Sorcery can often characterise a fantasy novel.

    High Fantasy vs Low Fantasy Examples

    Hard Fantasy Books

    The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick

    Based in the world of Faerie, in this science fantasy novel the protagonist Jane is a changeling and is also a slave in a Faerie factory that creates flying iron dragons. She makes a deal with Cyborg dragon Melanchthon for revenge and freedom. But, as she starts to think about existence outside of the terrible magical world she knows, her life goes out of control.

    The Poppy War (2018) by R.F. Kuang

    This novel takes place in ancient China and draws particularly on events that happened in the Second-Sino Japanese War. The second and third books take inspiration from events in the Chinese Civil War. It is a historical fantasy and sometimes is viewed as an epic fantasy too (in which great focus is given to the structures of the world). As the worldbuilding is very detailed, it can be viewed as a hard fantasy novel.

    Rin is a young girl who is trying to find a place in the world and move away from her current position. Rin is willing to do anything to achieve her goals and enters a world of disturbing magic, demonic gods and warfare.

    Low Fantasy Books

    A Discovery of Witches (2011) by Deborah Harkness

    This contemporary fantasy novel is set at Oxford University, England. Specifically, it is an urban fantasy that does not provide the reader with a clear framework of the rules of magic.

    Urban fantasy is set in the present time but in a highly populated place or city and includes fantasy elements.

    When Diana Bishop accidentally finds a hidden, bewitched alchemy manuscript in a library at Oxford, she finds herself stuck in the middle of a supernatural war. Before long, the library is filled with vampires, witches and demons who are looking for this manuscript too. Together with a vampire geneticist, Diana works to break the curse and stop the war. Importantly, the reader learns about the supernatural war much at the same time as the protagonist Diana, suggesting its classification as low fantasy.

    Ninth House (2019) by Leigh Bardugo

    This paranormal fantasy novel is set at Yale University and deals with a series of dark themes such as abuse, cyber-bullying and murder.

    Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern got into Yale university because she can see dead people. She was only accepted into the university because she agreed to help oversee the occult rituals in the secret societies of Yale. But then a townie is murdered, and Alex is stuck in a game over which she has no control and where she may be the next victim.

    Hard/Low Fantasy - Key takeaways

    • Hard fantasy is also known as high fantasy. Low fantasy is also known as soft fantasy.
    • Hard fantasy includes a fantastical world that has its own detailed history and mythology, and certain rules, limitations and principles for the magic to work (such as cultural, social and political rules). Reason and logic are essential elements in hard fantasy as well as detailed world-building.
    • Low fantasy includes elements of the real world and fantasy elements, incorporating accepted norms and constructs of the real world as well as magical elements that are governed by vague or undefined limitations and rules.
    • The key difference between hard/low fantasy is that hard fantasy requires readers to let go of their current beliefs about life when reading, but low fantasy allows readers to use their current beliefs and combine them with new ideas.
    • Worldbuilding is the process of how the writer creates the world, including the economics, politics, laws, social norms, traditions, cultures, religions etc. of the world.


    1. Megan Otto, 'How to Master Worldbuilding: A Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy,' John the Fox, 2022.

    2. Brandon Sanderson, 'Sanderson's First Law,' 2007.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Hard Low Fantasy

    What is considered hard fantasy?

    Hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that presents stories in a world based on rationality and reason. The worlds in hard fantasy are often described in great detail and have in-depth backgrounds and histories.

    What are examples of low fantasy?

    Examples of low fantasy include Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2011).

    What's the difference between Low fantasy and urban fantasy?

    Low fantasy includes stories of various subgenres and is related to other genres. Urban fantasy takes place in a modern, urban setting (in large cities) rather than historical or rural settings and can be a type of low fantasy. 

    What are the 3 types of fantasy?

    The three types of fantasies are epic or high fantasy, magical realism and low fantasy.

    What is considered low fantasy?

    Low fantasy includes elements of the real world and fantasy elements. It incorporates accepted norms and constructs of the real world, real histories and places we are aware of with fantasy to change the way the world acts and the way we perceive it. It is governed by vague or undefined limitations and rules.


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