This is a genre that’s been popularized, I think, by the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones based on his A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Personally, I love the sub-genre. There is something beautiful and sublime in tragedy. Ever since I first read Hamlet as a kid. Even Romeo and Juliet is pretty damn dark, despite how much people dislike the play and how many mediocre productions butcher it.
Dark fantasy plunges to new levels of suspense, tension, authenticity, and fear. It gets our hearts racing and then broken over and over.
So let’s talk about it
Balance is Key
If you want your fantasy dark, it will have to be dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s all dark all the time. Dark fantasy can be funny, satisfying, passionate, romantic, etc. You need to offset the darkness with hope. Does it have to be a happy story? No. But there should be something more to it.
One of the great questions of our world that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries is the goodness of the world. Is the world we live in inherently dark and horrible? Are humans inherently good or bad? Maybe it’s one or the other, maybe it’s both. There’s not a clear answer.
This is the key to dark fantasy. There isn’t a clear answer. That’s where the balance comes in. A ruler that slaughters entire villages can still make selfless choices. A guy who betrays his faction can still be loyal to something. A scheming, conniving character can still love someone.
The problem with making it all dark all the time is that you will wear your reader out emotionally. Remember, this isn’t real life, this is a story. It can’t be all bad all the time. Your characters are resilient enough to laugh as well as cry.
Use Violence Carefully
If I pick up a dark fantasy book, I know going in that it’s going to be bloody. That’s fine. However, if it’s just one horrifically violent event after another, I’m going to put it down.
Dark fantasy can be (and should be, in my opinion) way more subtle. You can have a war, but what internal stuff are your characters struggling with. Darkness exists also in grief, loss, failure, betrayal, fear, survival, secrets, etc.
Violence is almost too powerful of a tool. If you use it over and over, you risk desensitizing your reader to it, so that they become numb too your huge, tragic, and violent events.
The more you use violence, the more you’ll have to up the ante for the big stuff. You can have a violent world and premise without overloading it.
Choices Matter that Much More
A lot of times I see “dark fantasy” to mean “look at all these bad external things that happen to my powerless characters”. You can have a powerless character, but the problem is that they’ll become too passive. Active characters are usually a much stronger choice in this kind of work (and any for that matter).
Your characters need to make choices that directly have an impact on the story. They don’t have to like their options, but they need to make a choice. It shouldn’t be all external bad things happening to them. They need to act, to make choices, and be involved.
Choices have consequences. Show the choice and then show the consequence.
Avoid Shock Value
I’ve never been a fan of horror movies. Part of it is they gross me out for the most part, but the other thing is that the violence is always gratuitous. Sometimes less is more.
Don’t have some horrific thing happen because you want to shock your reader. If it needs to be there and you don’t overdo, that’s fine, of course. Unless you’re writing horror (which I won’t even get into) keep the shock value thing to a minimum. You run the risk of just grossing our your reader. There’s a difference between moving the reader and seriously disturbing them.
Save the really big stuff for big parts of the story. That’s where they belong.
Cheese, Melodrama, and Unintentional Humor
We’ve all seen at least one movie or read one book where a character is supposed to be having a dramatic, frightening, or otherwise upsetting moment and it comes off as funny.
So how do you avoid it? The baseline advice for this is to follow your characters, who they are and what they would authentically do. Follow the tone of the scene, what’s happening, and go for clarity.
The main problem is that writers are trying too hard for a moment instead of authentically writing a moment. The writer tries too hard to make the reader feel something instead of letting the reader feel it for themselves. The writer tries too hard to make a character look cool or witty and it all feels so forced it becomes corny and cheesy.
The simpler, the better. Your protagonist’s big monologue might be great, but check back in with the tone, who this character is, and what is actually happening in the scene that would prompt this.
No long winded last words from the dying lover, no witty one liners from the “cool” faction of assassins, no inauthentic random garbage that was never mentioned before and doesn’t fit.
Go for simplicity and clarity in the scene. Let the writing speak for itself.
The problem with protagonists is that (most of the time) on page one, I know the protagonist is going to make through to the end. They’re going to survive.
Not all of your characters can die. You’ll have no story left. Plot armor is very easy to see. Maybe it’s the “coolest”, smartest, favorite character. Maybe it’s the protagonist. Maybe it’s the guy/gal that fits all the prophetic legends.
Personally, I don’t think plot armor is the worst thing in the world. Like I said, someone has to live long enough to the end.
It becomes a problem when the character acts like they know they have plot armor. They run head long into battle and fights without careful consideration or planning. They make snarky remarks to the royal who would usually lop off someone’s head for giving them lip. They walk around like they own the place.
You might know your character survives, but the character cannot know that. They cannot move through the story like they know that.
Worldbuilding is Huge
You need to establish that this isn’t happy-go-lucky FantasyLand. Even if your characters start out happy, it needs to dissolve fast. What is the background of this world? What went wrong? Was the world always this violent and unstable or is it a new development?
Remember that the longer your world has been a violent, scary place, the more normal it’s going to be for your characters. The less they were exposed to the darkness of your world, the more they’ll struggle and be disturbed by it.
Especially if you’re involving elements like dark magic and stuff, you’re going to have to establish that more.
Give it all reasons for being there, justify it. If you’re going to make an incredibly dark and violent world, tell the reader what happened that made it that way and why.
Villains Can’t be Campy
You can have a dark lord, sure, but at the same time dark fantasy seems to call for other levels of moral ambiguity. Why does the villain do what they do? How do they justify their choices and actions? What is evil?
Your villain needs to be a real and constant threat. They should be smart and motivated. Avoid dumb villains. Avoid making them melodramatic. Make them authentic and give them real reasons for why they are the way they are.
More than One Side
There’s usually two sides to every conflict. Sometimes there’s even more than that. Maybe your villain has good reasons for doing what they do.
Show the other sides of the conflicts. Who is on what side? Why? What about their background makes them take that side. Can they exist together or are they mutually exclusive?
I’ve done a whole thing about character flaws, but the flaws matter so much more in darker fantasy. Often times, a good attribute can be turned around to become a downfall. Ned Stark was too honorable and trusting for example.
The flaws need to be deeply engrained as well as the good attributes. Use the flaws when they matter. How do their flaws actually lead to real consequences as a direct result?
Death and Sacrifice
I did a whole post about character death so I’m only going to touch on it here. Again, don’t overdo it. Make sure the death makes sense. Was it justified? Did the actions of the characters directly lead to this point?
Remember there are more ways to torture your characters other than death/the threat of death. There are other sacrifices a character can make other than dying.
Don’t do death unless a character must absolutely die because of the plot and definitely don’t do it if comes way too out of left field. The reader should be able to look back and say “Oh, that’s where DeadCharacter screwed up.”
Why do your characters keep going in this horrifically violent world? Why do they even try to achieve their goals instead of retreating into their corner?
Their motivations must be as strong as their goal. Is it loyalty? Is it for love? Is it because the only thing they know how to do is survive?
Anything is valid so long as it is strong and authentic.
Give them a Win
Your characters should lose. They should be put through the wringer and some aren’t going to make it. However, you need to offset that with a win every once in a while so long as it’s an earned one that fits.
They win the battle, they uncover some secret or plot, they manage to kill the evil lord, they save the village from being burned to the ground.
Whatever it is, make sure it’s authentic. It can’t come from no where. It should be hard and difficult, but technically feasible for them.
But if They Win in the End
They have to earn it. You have to earn it as a writer.
This is presumably a world where the deck is stacked against the hero when it’s critical. This is a world where no one is safe. Where the odds are not in anyone’s favor.
This means that if your heroes make it to the end and come out ahead, they better have earned it. They better have done it without Deus ex Machina. There better have been something either internal or some sort of help (that was previously established) to aid them and give them that one edge they need to win.
How you do this is entirely up to you.
Moral Grayness or Moral Ambiguity
This is the stuff I live for as a reader and writer. I love it when the characters I read and love aren’t all good or bad.
You can have a deeply bitter, troubled, hero. You can have a very sympathetic villain. The key is really I need to understand why they are that way. I need to understand why the villain does what he/she does. I need to understand why the hero is reluctant or bitter or what have you.
Force your characters to make choices, really hard ones. Force your “good” characters into positions where their is no morally good option. Force your villains too and maybe they even make the wiser or “morally better” choice.
Show the aftermath of these choices. Show the consequences. Did the good guy make a choice they thought was the “right” thing and get hell rained on them for it? Does a morally “wrong” decision actually lead to a decent, morally “good” outcome?
Don’t make your characters black and white in this way. Make them something else instead. Even if they believe they are the “good” guy or would always do the right thing, test it and push them to their limit. Dark fantasy is the perfect place for this.
Dark fantasy is awesome. It can run the risk of going overboard, being too much, and becoming cheesy. However, you shouldn’t limit yourself. If anything, the options are pretty infinite and this is the perfect place to create amazingly complicated characters.
Push your characters to the limit. Characters are the backbone of fiction, and especially in dark fantasy.
Write a dark fantasy. It can be a chapter or a scene. It can be a part of a work in progress or something completely new. Write a morally ambiguous scene where a character is forced to make a choice where there is no good option.
- What is the recent history that led to this point?
- How scared for their life is the character at this point?
- Does the character think they are morally good? How do they justify themselves?
- What are the potential consequences of their choice?
- What is the hope or the positive thing that keeps them going in this very negative world?