Spec-Fic Subgenres: The Fantasies

Fantasy is where I feel most at home. I used to consider myself a fantasy fan, but as I dug into the genres I realized how ignorant I am. High fantasy? Low fantasy? Dark fantasy? What?

High Fantasy vs. Dark Fantasy

High Fantasy (sometimes called Epic Fantasy)

You may have been a high fantasy fan all your life and never known it. “One ring to rule them all…” If you know what that’s from (*hint* Lord of the Rings) then you’ve read or watched high fantasy (and hopefully liked it!)

As with most subgenres, high fantasy is a little tough to fully break down. The definition either gets too specific or too vague, but two common elements of high fantasy are an imaginary world and a battle of good versus evil (aka. epic theme.) That may sound like average fantasy to you, but what sets high fantasy apart is the fact it must be set in a fantasy world — a world completely fictional with its own rules, laws, setting, etc. There can be some hopping between normal worlds, though this is debatable.

High fantasy will also often have a large cast of characters (Game of Thrones, anyone?), some magical elements (Gandalf!), and races of non-human creatures (beware the trolls.) Here are some examples of High Fantasy books:


  • Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Blood of Kings Trilogy, by Jill Williamson
  • Eragon, by Christopher Paolini
  • Wheel of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
  • Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin



Low Fantasy

This is where it can get confusing with portal fantasy or alternate universes. I’ll get to those genres next time, but for now keep it simple and know that low fantasy is set in a rational world with much less magic (if any) than in high fantasy. Non-rational things will start happening, thus making it low fantasy.

The term “low” is mostly referring to the amount of fantasy present in the story. It does not demean the story or quality of the story in any way. Low fantasies can be based off the idea that there are things hidden in our world that aren’t known about, like werewolves or vampires. The real world must, at some point, interact with these elements.

Some examples of low fantasy are:

  • Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
  • Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers
  • The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
  • Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit
Dark Fantasy

Throw a little fantasy and horror in a blender. Voila! You’ve got dark fantasy. Some people will call it flat-out horror and others will call it fantasy with a little horror in it. Everyone draws their line in different places. I’m not going to try drawing my own.

Dark fantasy can include stories about demonic creatures, mummies, vampires, etc. Once you start seeing supernatural activity with a dark or brooding atmosphere, you’re entering the realm of what is generally known to be dark fantasy. (source)


Dark fantasy is all about the atmosphere. Here are some examples:

  • Never to Live, by Just B. Jordan is considered dark fantasy
  • The Vampire Chronicles, by Anne Rice
  • Beowulf




Which of these three fantasy genres do you tend to gravitate to most? Either answer me on Twitter or in the comments!



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13 Responses to Spec-Fic Subgenres: The Fantasies

  1. grace2give May 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm #

    Apparently I like “Low Fantasy” most and “High Fantasy” second. Never “Dark Fantasy.” Can’t do horror. Thanks for the info.

    • Nadine Brandes June 28, 2014 at 11:20 am #

      My pleasure! I enjoy low fantasy quite a bit, too. I’d say it’s my favorite of the three.

  2. Mary Steinbrenner November 28, 2014 at 6:14 pm #

    High or Low Fantasy, but not Dark Fantasy.
    Not into Horror at all. I still remember going to see
    “The House on the Haunted Hill” Horror movie with my older siblings.
    Since it came out in 1959, I was 8 years old, far too young for such hideous material. To this day I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach thinking of that movie.
    To quote Scripture:
    Philippians 4:8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

    There is no place in me that wants to ever read any dark Fantasy/Horror or see such in movies either.

    • Nadine Brandes May 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      I love applying that scripture to our reading choices! I, too, have an aversion toward horror stories.

  3. Peter Kazmaier May 5, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    Nadine, thank you for your fantasy classification. I suppose my strong preference is for high fantasy since I continue to enjoy Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS as I re-read it. I must admit I was a little surprised you included GAME OF THRONES in your high fantasy list, since from my point of view, Martin (arguably with the exception of the Starks) abandoned the “good versus evil” paradigm for an “evil versus really evil” story line. Can you elaborate on your reasons for the inclusion?

    I also have another question. I think by your taxonomy, Lewis’ NARNIA books would be low fantasy because the characters migrate from our world to Narnia. Am I understanding your classification correctly?

    Thank you for the blog post.


    • Nadine Brandes May 6, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

      Hi Peter, thank you for your comment.
      I included Game of Thrones in my list of high fantasy because it’s set in a fully fantasy world and it has a huge cast of characters. High fantasy is a very versatile genre and, while the “good vs evil” battle is common in high fantasies, it’s not a requirement for a book to be classified as high fantasy.

      And yes, I would classify Narnia as low fantasy. 🙂

  4. Dianne J. Wilson May 5, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    Thank you for this Nadine! I’ve been working on something that I wasn’t sure would fit into the fantasy genre, but I realize now is beautifully low fantasy. *breathes a sigh of relief* All the best with your debut!

    • Nadine Brandes May 6, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

      My pleasure, Dianne, and thank you! I’m so glad you were able to pinpoint a subgenre for your work! 🙂

  5. Allison May 6, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    Three minutes ago I would’ve sworn that I loved high fantasy… but now I realize that I actually gravitate toward low! Awesome post, Nadine. : D

    • Nadine Brandes May 6, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

      Thank you, Allison! I’m the same way! I gravitate toward low fantasy much more often.

  6. Heather May 7, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for sharing the differences in fantasy works. I suppose I tend to gravitate towards high fantasy. I’m a huge fan of Tolkien’s books and the wheel of Time. However, I also enjoy low fantasy and have a manuscript finished that is low fantasy. I am curious, is it possible to do a low fantasy/high fantasy book. Thanks

  7. Nora Beth November 7, 2018 at 3:55 pm #

    Reading this I realize that my story is sorta a mix of all three types of fantasy. (mostly dark & low though.) I’m guessing urban goes under low fantasy, right?


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