As some people may know, I’m writing a novel. Specifically, it’s a fantasy novel for children in the 10-14 age range. When I set out to do this, I gave a lot of thought to the overall tone of the book, which spawned a number of questions:
Was it going to be dark, or light-hearted?
What sort of humour would I try to insert? (more on this in a later post)
What sort of family life and socioeconomic background would the characters have?
And very importantly (to me), would this story be high or low fantasy?
This last question is very important to me, because the “fantasy level” of a story affects the degree to which the reader can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the plot. Before I go on, though, I should explain what I mean by these terms:
High fantasy stories are those in which fantastic monsters like dragons, griffons, and the like wander the land, wizards are common (and in some cases a public institution unto themselves), and magic itself is pervasive. Some could argue that high fantasy worlds, taken to an extreme, can be stand-ins for our own world if you simply replace our technology with magic.
Low fantasy stories are those where magic and monsters exist, but they are largely unknown to the average person. Wizards are rare and secretive, and the discovery of a magic item (even an enchanted bottle opener) is something experienced by very few people. Such a world can very closely resemble one of our own historical periods.
In my view both sub-genres are great in their own right; however, high fantasy backdrops can become a crutch to a writer. How did the heroes manage to survive that terrible fall? Easy, one of them had flying boots and held his friends’ hands so they could fly, too. How did they sneak by that army? The scout was silenced by magic. I could go on, but I think you can see that almost any potential problem could have a convenient, magical solution. And this works, provided that the reader is prepared to accept a highly magical world.
Not so with low fantasy worlds. With no easy magical explanation available, the writer has to come up with creative ways to help his or her characters get past whatever obstacles they face, and reserve magic only for the critical points. The reader doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief to as great a degree, and the writer can inject just enough wonder into the story to make the fantasy world more compelling than the real thing.
Which is, in the end, the whole point of writing a story.