What is Hard Fantasy?

Doug Landsborough
June 7, 2023

Fantasy, in my less than humble opinion, is the greatest genre in all of literature. Is that an objective statement? No. But I’m willing to die on this hill.

Within this magical genre is a broad, somewhat misunderstood subgenre: hard fantasy.

If you’ve never heard of the term before—or if you’ve heard conflicting information about it—worry not. We’re going to cover everything you need to know about this fantasy genre, including:

  • The characteristics of hard fantasy
  • Why you might want to write in this subgenre
  • The subgenres of hard fantasy (we’ve got layers here)
  • How to write compelling hard fantasy stories
  • Examples of successful hard fantasy novels

And, despite the name, there is nothing that difficult about understanding and writing this awesome genre, if you’re willing to put in the work. So let’s get working.

What is Hard Fantasy

So what is hard fantasy, anyway? That’s probably a great place to start.

Hard fantasy got its name from its sister subgenre, hard science fiction. This type of sci-fi puts most of its focus on the intricacies and details of the science in its story and how that science affects everything else.

Compare this to soft sci-fi, where technology fleshes out the world and plays an important role in your narrative but is more of a background player to character development and your plot lines.

Shifting this over to the fantasy genre, just replace “technology” with “magic.”

In fact, some hard fantasy readers and writers want it treated exactly like technology: it should have rules, a clear understanding of how magic works and why it works, and something about the magic should be the focus of the story.

That means your plot revolves around the mystical or one particular aspect of it (like a world-ending spell, a cursed relic, etc.) and your characters’ motivations and goals are related to your magic. The opposite would be soft fantasy, where magic takes a back seat to other narrative elements. 

Maybe that sounds straightforward… or maybe it sounds absolutely terrifying and stressful. 

Think about some of the most popular hard fantasy novels today to get a better grasp of the subgenre. These include classics, like The Lord of the Rings or The Iron Dragon’s Daughter by Michael Swanwick, but also includes Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Now let’s dive deeper into what makes hard fantasy what it is.

Characteristics of Hard Fantasy

When we’re writing in this subgenre, we want to stress internal consistency, logical systems, and adherence to established rules. Anything that flaunts or skirts the rules doesn’t really belong in hard fantasy.

That might not sound super fun, but it creates a thorough, rich world and narrative. To get there, consider the following:

Detailed worldbuilding - Hard fantasy features extensive and intricate worldbuilding, including comprehensive histories, unique cultures, and well-defined magic systems. Your magical world should be developed in a way that feels realistic and self-contained, with attention to geographical, political, and societal aspects. Remember, people reading these stories are all about the details.

Rigorous rules and laws - When writing this subgenre, establish clear rules and laws that govern the functioning of your world. This includes the rules of magic, the limitations of supernatural powers, or the workings of mythical creatures. Everything needs a sense of consistency and logic behind them. Your characters can then use these rules to explore and, when needed, exploit the world.

Complex magic systems - Magic in hard fantasy tends to be well-defined, structured, and (of course) consistent. It will follow specific principles, have inherent costs or limitations, and require study or skill to wield effectively. Dive deep into the inner workings of your magic system and explore how its rules and implications play a significant role in your story. For a complete guide to creating a magic system, click here.

Realistic consequences - Don’t be afraid to really lay on the consequences. Choices made by characters should have tangible and logical outcomes, and the world responds in a way that aligns with all those rules you’ve been establishing. This can lead to a more grounded and believable setting, even within fantasy.

Historical and cultural depth - More than most other genres, hard fantasy lets you delve into the history and culture of your fictional world. This can include ancient prophecies, legends, or conflicts that have shaped the present. The societies within the world should have distinct customs, traditions, and belief systems that influence the behavior and interactions of characters. Have I mentioned how important details are?

Emphasis on research and exploration - Because of how important magic is, characters in most hard fantasy books often engage in research, exploration, and problem-solving to uncover hidden knowledge, decipher ancient texts, or understand the workings of the world. This is usually a big part of the overall story.

Minimal use of deus ex machina - Deus ex machina is when a seemingly impossible problem is solved out of nowhere. Hard fantasy avoids these sorts of plot devices, instead emphasizing logical progression, cause and effect, and a sense that challenges are overcome through earned skills and knowledge.

Limited hand-waving - I don’t mean magical hand signs or the like, but waving off things that can’t be explained. You want to minimize unexplained phenomena in your story and instead aim to provide plausible explanations for the fantastical elements present in the story. That’s what we’re here for, after all.

Why Should You Write Hard Fantasy?

Honestly, it sounds easier to write a story where magic can just swoop in and save the day without any real explanation, right? I mean, that’s what makes magic magical.

If you aren’t sold on writing hard fantasy, here are some reasons that might sway you:

Personal growth - Hard fantasy pushes your imagination and skills as an author. Crafting detailed magic systems, consistent rules, and logical consequences requires careful thought and planning. This can be as difficult as it is rewarding, as it forces you to hone your writing craft more than almost any other genre.

Engage your readers - As you’re putting all this work into your worldbuilding, it should be paying off by gripping your readers and refusing to let them go. The more detail you put into your world, the more you invite your readers to become immersed in it. And that, assuming you get your exposition right, is why fantasy fans will love your book.

Explore themes - All this detail lets you explore more serious themes, like power dynamics, moral dilemmas, the consequences of choices, societal structures, and the nature of reality itself. By anchoring these themes in a living, detailed world, you give yourself more room to get down and dirty with your messaging.

Have fun - For all the talk of details and work, hard fantasy lets you have a lot of fun. Let your imagination run wild. Come up with incredible magic, legendary creatures, and an in-depth world, right down to the most obscure fact from a history you create. It’s like an excuse to succumb to worldbuilder’s disease.

Blending Fantasy Subgenres with Hard Fantasy

So, technically, hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t mix with the other subgenres to create something fresh and exciting.

If you want to harden up a different fantasy category, here are some quick tips to keep in mind.

Sword and sorcery - Establish rules about your magic early on so you don’t bog down your action scenes with too much filler. Your readers are here for an adrenaline-inducing pace, so focus on finding that balance of exposition and your flow.

Epic/high fantasy - Show the grand scope of your world and the quest of your heroes through your rich worldbuilding. Visit different cultures, create a thorough history behind conflicts, and bring your epic story to life with meticulous detail through the lenses of multiple characters to let the reader experience even more of what you’ve built.

Low fantasy - Magic should be rare or subtle in low fantasy, but that makes the rules and limitations all the more important. Spend time figuring out how you’re tying your fantasy elements into a more realistic setting. Combine your real world research with your imagination and double down on plausibility.

Dark fantasy - A personal favorite of mine, dark fantasy is hallmarked by gritty, harsh worlds and the incorporation of elements of horror and psychological depth. While crafting your world, pay particular attention to what makes it so freakin’ miserable and terrifying—it’s those details your readers crave.

Urban fantasy - There are no settings more familiar to readers than modern ones, so make sure you pay extra attention to the why and how behind everything fantasy in your hard urban fantasy world. Logic and consistency are key here, even when it comes to magic and magical elements.

Writing Compelling Hard Fantasy Stories

We have all the theory under our belts now. But before you embark on your quest to write your hard fantasy novel, here are a few more tips to wield in your battle of words.

Character Development

Complex motivations - Create well-rounded characters by giving them complex motivations that drive their actions. Avoid one-dimensional characters by exploring their desires, fears, and conflicts. Show how the world itself impacts their development and choices.

Growth and transformation - Allow characters to grow throughout the story. Challenge them with difficult choices and obstacles that force them to evolve. Show the consequences of their actions and how they learn from their experiences, making them more layered and relatable.

Moral ambiguity - Embrace moral ambiguity in character development. Hard fantasy often involves shades of gray rather than clear-cut heroes and villains. Allow characters to wrestle with ethical dilemmas and make morally questionable decisions. This adds depth and complexity to their journey and makes them more engaging for readers.

Plotting and Pacing

Clear story structure - Establish a clear story structure to ensure a coherent and engaging narrative. Outline the major plot points and character arcs in advance. Pay attention to the pacing of key events and the overall progression of the story so you don’t get too bogged down in the deets.

Tension and conflict - Adventures in fantasy are all about a series of conflicts that escalate tension. Introduce obstacles, challenges, and conflicts that test the characters' resolve. Vary the intensity of the conflicts, allowing for both quieter character-driven moments and high-stakes action sequences.

Subplots and interweaving narratives - Incorporate subplots and interweaving narratives to add depth and complexity to the plot. These additional storylines can enrich the world and provide different perspectives to explore it from. Ensure that they tie into the main plot and contribute to the overall narrative, avoiding unnecessary tangents.

Writing Style

Clarity and consistency - Even though we want our words to be mystical, avoid convoluted prose that might confuse readers. Maintain consistency in the rules and language of the world, providing explanations and descriptions that are easily understood. Strive for a balance between detailed descriptions and concise storytelling.

Evocative descriptions - At the same time, find a balance that lets you use evocative and sensory descriptions to bring the world to life. Engage the readers' senses by painting vivid images of the settings, creatures, and magical elements.

Show, don't tell - The most universal tip for better writing. Show the fantastical elements and their impact on the world rather than relying on exposition and telling. Use descriptive language and vivid scenes to allow readers to experience the magic and the world firsthand. Trust the readers' imagination and let them discover and interpret the details themselves. Need help? Check out our show, don’t tell worksheets.

Use a Writing Tool That Helps With All Those Details

I might have mentioned once or twice that hard fantasy is all about the details. Everything from the history of an empire to the medicinal use of a common weed all comes together to craft a world your readers crave.

But balancing all those details with character development and interweaving plots isn’t easy. In fact, it’s downright difficult.

But worry not, writing adventurer, because I have a magic item that can help with all that: Dabble.

With Dabble, you can organize each and every little detail of your worldbuilding in folders and files that—like your character templates and interviews—are always just one click away from your manuscript.

Tack on the Plot Grid to help with organizing your storylines, automatic backup while writing from any device, and goal setting to help you finally finish this behemoth of a book, and you’re all set for your epic journey.

The best part? You don’t even need to put your credit card info in to try Dabble for free for 14 days. All you have to do is click here and get writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.