It’s no secret that I’m an aspiring writer, and shameless plug time, I have a brand-new book out today! So, if you haven’t yet, be sure to get your copy of Chronicles of the Bear: Volume 1, available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine e-book retailers. In the process of getting it ready, I really got to thinking about a few things, wondering about the nature of fantasy works in general and how the genre seems to fall into two broad categories. There are the grand sweeping epics akin to the likes of Tolkien, Jordan, and Martin, where the very fate of the land, and sometimes the world itself, hangs in the balance. With these you have glorious battles, fantastic creatures, and wonderous magic as good squares off against a great evil, both vying for victory in an attempt to put an end to the other. And then on the other end of the spectrum there’s something that’s far more simple, best exemplified by the tales of Robert E. Howard, Firtz Lieber, or L. Sprague DeCamp. In these stories we often follow the adventures of but a single individual, and magic and many of the other fantastic elements are far more grounded. The debate between high and low fantasy has raged on for practically as long as the genre itself has existed, and everyone seems to have their preference for what they find superior, including myself.
To me, jumping into high fantasy has always been like entering a long-term investment project, as the story can often become overwhelming very quickly and sometimes stretch over a dozen or so volumes. There are some books that will focus almost exclusively on world building and introducing notions and concepts, while at the same time trying to lay the foundations of cultures and fantastic races that no one may have heard of before save for in those particular pages. Political dealings and hundreds of different characters may also become involved by story’s end as well, with some situations taking center stage for several novels in a row while others aren’t even mentioned or hinted at again. It can be frustrating to identify with, and then latch onto a particular character or story arc, only to have them in a prominent role once or twice and then not see them again for several books at a time. Or worse yet, having a part of the story you were really interested in dropped completely or a favorite character killed off, all to seemingly thin down an over-bloated plot that never should of have grown that big in the first place.
As a reader, epic fantasy has a tendency to really drag out for me, where as low fantasy, like sword and sorcery, is usually a much more enjoyable experience. I prefer the tighter plots and looser language that’s often used in a smaller and simpler story, and world building is often kept to a minimum, as the tales typically reflect a more historical like backdrop that’s easy to imagine and picture the action in. And speaking of action, it’s usually there in spades, with low fantasy embracing a grittier style of storytelling where magic and political hogwash are kept to a minimum, and cold steel and daring deeds often win the day. The genre itself just comes off as more raw and thrilling to read when compared to its counterpart, which is what I’m looking for in my fantasy literature rather than an eight hundred page slog that still can’t manage to finish a story in a single volume.
From the perspective of being a writer, low fantasy definitely appeals to me more over a grand epic, as I like what it allows me to do creatively when compared to the other. I’ve already mentioned how high fantasy can sometimes be overloaded with too many characters, with many becoming lost in the background of the setting and some being ignored altogether as the plot expands. Being an author, strong and interesting characters are what I feel really drives a book along, and with low fantasy it really allows me to focus on a single hero or small group of protagonists. By keeping the setting more down to earth I can really explore the characters’ backgrounds, motivations, and thoughts in a deeper way, along with the consequences of their actions on the people immediately around them by making things tight and employing a narrower scope. I also feel I can build a much better villain by keeping matters on the simpler side, looking at their motives and making the struggle between them and any heroes far more personal rather than push things to a larger scale. I believe the genre overall helps me make character interactions much more vivid and real, which helps me connect better with my readers, and those are the kinds of stories I want to write and tell.
To put them side by side, epic and low fantasy can often be as different as night and day, with one taking a big picture point of view while the other is more constrained and in your face. While there’s nothing wrong with world changers, it’s always going to be the tales that involve a few driven individuals that interest me the most and pull me back in, both as a loyal reader and an aspiring author that’s bringing my own stories to life. If you like wizards riding on the backs of dragons and battling through floating cities, then go for it, I say more power to you and have at it. But for me, it’s always going to be a grizzled barbarian roaming through the unknown, fighting evil sorcerers and his cabal of cultish minions and wicked demons. Tales of magic and mystical creatures are nice every now and again, but down and dirty swordplay is where it’s at, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon for yours truly. But regardless of what your taste is just go out there and have an adventure, just be sure to enjoy yourself along the way, because that’s what it’s all about. Oh, and while you’re at it, buy my book. It’s a hell of a ride and you’re missing out if you don’t. Later, gang.