Why can’t I write high fantasy?

So I’ve always struggled to write high fantasy.

“High fantasy” was a term coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander, author of The Black Cauldron and other novels, to describe fantasy set in a secondary world that is not a version of the “real” world. The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.

I like reading high fantasy; I just struggle to write it. (Unless it’s set in Wonderland, for some reason; I’ll take a guess at it in a minute.)


I designed a short story to be told about a 1920s-style secondary, high-fantasy world in which all the machines were really enslaved fae. The high elves ran everything; humans thought they were the lowest of the low, but then discovered that the machines that everyone took for granted were even worse off.

I couldn’t write it.

I ended up using the core idea about the machines for a short fantasy story set in 1920s Hollywood, where Baba Yaga sets herself to reclaim two house fae from a movie actress.

That story? Easy to write.

I remained mystified until I read an article by Emma Whitney called, “What Is It with Us and ‘Good Royalty’?”

She says that “good royalty” seems to be a big factor in YA fantasy set in secondary worlds. She posits that some reasons may be that we’re used to seeing monarchy in fantasy and have internalized it; that monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger; and that making people part of the monarchy gives them access to power, which makes stories move faster (so you don’t have to spend a lot of time with a poverty-stricken, uneducated newbie character).

It’s the second part that resonates with me: monarchy tends to make the scope of stories bigger.

That’s just it. I don’t like stories that have a big scope. I like stories about one person experiencing personal wonder, personal horror, personal mysteries. I love it when those things have wider implications, but please don’t start me out in a book by trying to save the world. I would much rather read about characters acting for small, petty reasons.

I am always going to like The Hobbit (where a story of small scope gets out of hand) over The Lord of the Rings, where the fate of the world was always at stake.  I like Stephen Brust’s Dragaera series, because when the tale goes epic, it also gets petty: an apocalypse happens because some arrogant (noble) dipshit thought he could control a pony nuke near a uranium mine, as it were.  Don’t tell them that I meant well…

In video games, I’m always looking for an excuse to reset a character or start over with a new one. (I just did this in Grim Dawn.) My favorite fairy tales aren’t the ones about kings and queens, but about the braggart tailor who killed “seven with one blow”–seven flies, that is. High-powered characters just don’t do it for me.

In case you were wondering, I see Wonderland as the tale of a girl who thinks power is just as crazy as anything else that’s going on: royalty is obviously corrupt, possibly horrifying (as in the case of the Red King’s Dream, in which if he wakes, we’ll all “go out–bang!–like a candle”), and all of the characters, Alice included, are foolish and petty.

I think the core of my issue is: I don’t trust the concept of “heroism.” People trying to do the right thing? Sure. But when I see a hero, I look for the sleight of hand; such stories always seem like propaganda to me.

I think the closest I’ve come to a high fantasy that works for me is The House Without a Summer. The main character is a marquis, the son of an earl.  The wealth, power, and magical resources are all high-leveled. The scope is the universe (potentially).


Wealth and power aren’t just there to expand the scope of the story, but are the story problem itself: if it weren’t for wealth and power, none of this ever would have happened, and the characters could just leave. And the scope…well, the scope gets very small indeed.

All of which make me comfortable with the world of the story.

(Mostly; there’s one chapter that always makes me go, “This book is terrible! I should at least delete this chapter,” but that’s because I put my own hot-button fear and dreads in there, and my subconscious wants to avoid even having to think about it.)

Will I ever write “regular” high fantasy? Probably not. But I would like to be able to write in secondary worlds.  So thinking all of this through has me at least a little hopeful. It might not be that I can’t write well in secondary worlds, but that I have to be more careful about what stories and worlds I attempt them with.

Like what you read here? More of the same at the Wonderland Press newsletter!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *