So You Want To: Write A Dark Fantasy
Dark Fantasy, the Darker and Edgier cousin of standard fantasy. Where there are no heroes, The Bad Guy Wins and Gray and Gray Morality rules the day. Unlike High Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy, Dark Fantasy is based at the far end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. It is often the product of standard fantasy meeting a craptastic world with extra suck stirred in, standard fantasy tropes are usually deconstructed, inverted or played straight to the darkest tone possible. Dark fantasy may sometimes cross into Science-Fiction usually with a dystopian style world like the kind seen in Orwellian-style fiction. Why write such a thing, you ask? Well, don't look at us, it's you who just came in here. Some authors do it, for lack of a better word, naturally, when they suffer Creator Breakdown. Others do it as an exploration of some world-building concept. Others yet do it tongue-in-cheek, piling misfortune upon misfortune upon his or her characters as a sort of a meta-Black Comedy. If you belong to the first two, you probably don't really need any of our lessons. Nevertheless, we'll try to provide you with a quick round-up of things that a writer of Dark Fantasy may consider.
- Before we begin, we may ponder what are we trying to achieve. For a story to count as Dark Fantasy, it needs to be fantasy, and it has to be dark. After all, we aren't trying to write sci-fi or drama, and making it happy and upbeat isn't our goal either. This is obvious, but it is good to remind ourselves of that before we go on to discussing the specific necessary elements.
- World Building - like in Heroic Fantasy and High Fantasy, it is highly important, especially if you are planning a series. The world the characters inhabit can help build on the already dark tone of the story, especially through the history and atmosphere you create. Getting the world right can provide the proper background for the story, in turn making it easier to set the mood for the rest of the work.
- Scale – Dark Fantasy can have a scale as large as High Fantasy, or as low as Urban Fantasy or Heroic Fantasy. How big you make it is up to you, although it reflects on the world building and plot options you will have to take. A depressing story of a Street Urchin's life probably won't involve the (inevitably grim) fate of the entire world.
- Magic – it is fantasy we speak of, after all. It is not strictly necessary to do anything specific with magic in your story, but it's got a great potential. Many Dark Fantasy stories, as you would imagine, take the opportunity. There's a reason tropes like Magic Is Evil and Black Magic exist. You may build upon real-world stories and legends, which offer plenty of examples to pick from. It could include grisly prices such as a Deal with the Devil or Human Sacrifice, or just as well, magic users are not nice people either. Your wizarding order may be a tyrannical magocracy that meddles in the affairs of empires and believes in wizard supremacy over muggles - or in their order's supremacy over "witches", "hedge-magicians" or whatever slur they prefer for independent magic users. Anyway, even without all of that, it's pretty much given it won't be about harmless joy and helping upstart heroes.
- Chances of success - it's rather safe to assume the heroes rarely win, or if they do, then it’s usually at a high cost or because they are not saints themselves. Defeating the Great Evil once and for all would hardly make the story dark — unless, of course, you aren't averse to ending the story on an optimistic note. Just don't do it before you complete the story, or else we'd be left with a Genre Shift.
- Moral ambiguity - this is an important point, and it's here in the end to highlight that. Often the simplest way — albeit not always in the sense of amount of work necessary — to make the story dark isn't about magic or world-building or whatever, but about doing away with cheap Black and White Morality. Once you take out the comfort of knowing at first glance who's right and who's wrong, things suddenly become a lot dimmer. Black and Gray Morality is not uncommon, as it allows to create less-than-perfect heroes and still make their victory preferable.
- Let's start with world building details. For example, let's assume it's a Standard Fantasy Setting. Will the Five Races be present? If they are present, then how corrupted/evil will each race be? The answer is that, likely, their darker side will be brought to light. Standard tropes of the Elves allow them to be portrayed as absolute asses rather easily - and going further, we get at their original depiction, where they can easily become just plain inhuman. Or you can turn them on their heads, make the Elves enslaved or wiped out. Dwarves' love of gold means they're greedy and couldn’t care less about everyone else. Hobbits, even if they are still the merry small folk, are probably keeping a monumental collection of skeletons in their closets... if they're not being enslaved in various horrible ways. Still, it's pretty likely that Humans Are the Real Monsters.
- Use racism. Averting the high-fantasy alliance of standard fantasy races and making them hate each other helps estabilish a dark fantasy atmosphere. They may even not be corrupted or evil, but believe that everyone but them is corrupted and evil. And a high-fantasy climactic victory of said alliance over your chosen Threat to the Entire World becomes impossible. Perhaps forging an empire with blood and steel will work instead?
- Your hero could be, at best, a Knight in Sour Armor or maybe someone darker and more morally ambiguous. Considering the setting, how likely it is that he/she will win in the end? How about joining the villain? And then, perhaps, the "hero" is a Villain Protagonist from the start.
- Who are the gods of this Crapsack World? Do they exist at all? Are they assholes of the highest calibre only interested in sitting back and watching humanity fail? Maybe the only active god is the one trying to destroy everything with The Legions of Hell. Going even further, there could be Devils but No Gods.
- Any religious organisations are corrupt beyond belief or actively trying to help bring about the End of the World as We Know It. This is so prevalent, there's pretty much no discussion on this one. You can spice up things, by making them Necessarily Evil or throwing in a single relatively decent confession. In the latter case, likely with too low influence to improve things on a bigger scale.
- Let's start by bringing up the fantasy element again. For example, in High Fantasy and Heroic Fantasy, take care when making maps of your world. It is quite easy to slip into Artistic License – Geography. Looking at real world maps and plate tectonics can definitely help you avoid this. Many of the problems of this kind are shared with other fantasy genres, so it is advisable to study their potential pitfalls.
- Narm is the general pitfall here. It’s easy to think something is being dark but actually will provoke laughter and eye rolling. The subtle approach tends to be the best when trying to avoid this.
- Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. That's probably the most important thing to watch out for in Dark Fantasy. No matter how good you are at making the audience depressed, make sure that they still care about your character. That is, don't invoke dark elements pointlessly, and don't make the characters the reader is supposed to root for, too unlikable (and, presumably, vice versa). You don't need to give Hope Spots to keep the audience to the end — sometime they're aware from start that your character won't make it, yet they will continue the story since they want to know how it will end. Angst is to be expected, but try not to put it on too thick.
- Make sure you don't overdo it. Sure, a hapless wench once in a while is to be expected, but don't spend too much time on the lovingly detailed description, and resist the temptation to insert gratuitous Gorn or rape scenes for the sake of shock value. It's one thing to write a bad story, entirely another to deal with accusations of creepy fetishes or extremist politics. Just think twice before you do that. And, God-Emperor help us, we do hope these weren't your actual beliefs or fetishes. (See also: Avoid Unfortunate Implications)
- Reconstruction. It may turn out this world is like ours — most would say that, with time and effort, it improved, so the same can happen in fiction.
- The Crapsaccharine World ends to be a subversion of this. It is very dark and very creepy when you really look at it, but nobody inside the work will usually notice or care.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Deconstruction: You may have noticed that quite a number of elements suggested above are of deconstructive nature, so you may opt to follow this trend. It's been done, but "repetitive", when done well, doesn't have to mean "bad".
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: Also done, and runs a risk of alienating the audience, but if you feel you can take it, the theme of the story can be that it's a part of human nature to treat others badly. This would require some skill to be pulled off both seriously and well — it's too easy to make the message overbearing or even insulting.
- Was It Really Worth It?: Perhaps the heroes end up in a situation so bad, they'd rather just not bother.
- Anti-Hero, The Extremist Was Right, and related. Perhaps the Great Evil can only be defeated by another kind of Evil. Perfect for disturbing "morals" that, paradoxically, make the reader happy in a twisted way (in the vein of "however bad the world is, Nazism still isn't our only chance").
- Earn Your Happy Ending: It's only too easy to fail in this world, so if you want a happy ending for yourself, you have to take on the whole world and make it stay your way. Or go for the easy route and do it at the others' expense.
Suggested PlotsIt's quite easy to look at the Tropes in Fantasy and twist them to suit the darker tone. Maybe a retelling of a classic fairy tale like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty but adding a darker flavour to the tale? Some Alternate Character Interpretation can play into this, a previously good character could quite easily be twisted into a Chessmaster villain who is simply putting on a cute and innocent act to achieve their own ends. Putting focus on political elements within the fantasy world can also greatly fuel the Grey and Gray Morality.
Set Designer/Location Scout
- A common location for this is a Dystopia of some kind. Maybe the Ruins of the Modern Age or a Scavenger World.
- The Standard Fantasy Setting can also work well in Dark Fantasy.
- An eternally corpse-strewn, blood-soaked ancient battlefield where undead soldiers play out their final moments again, and again forever.
- A big sprawling city where the the crime rate is through the roof and everyone is either corrupt or psychotic and violent criminals.
- The Dung Ages are a common setting for the countryside, where the peasants are Medieval Morons and their lords can do all manner of evil and get away with it.
- Swords, guns or functional magical objects can all be included, but exact details would depend on the setting. Evil Weapon is a choice to consider, and if the Artifact of Doom shows up, count on it being a source of much horror, especially if its purpose is to bring big bad supernatural nastiness to this world.
- Chances are, there'll be above-average need for torture and execution devices.
- Take Costume Porn and swap the "porn" for "gorn". Rags, mud, dirt, and diseases of skin and mouth are what you will need. Upper classes are somewhat exempt, though. At least in the clothing department.
- The Cthulhu Mythos is a great of this genre with evil gods and Eldritch Abominations galore. Whilst magic isn't present, it doesn't mean that the wrong word won't attract unwanted attention. As it is set in our world, it is however lacking in general nastiness.
- A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO series Game of Thrones with Anyone Can Die in full swing. The list of dead characters is longer than the list of surviving characters. It also acts a massive Deconstruction, picking apart just about every trope and character archetype found in more standard fantasy works to the bone.
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay certainly deserves a mention, especially in the older editions, before heroics started to leak in from the battlegame.