Dark Fantasy: A Definition

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When I talked about fantasy subgenres a few articles ago, I mentioned dark fantasy as a subgenre. But what exactly is dark fantasy? Where did it come from and what is its purpose?

Dark fantasy often includes “darker” elements in the story, including horror. Often horror and fantasy combine to make dark fantasy, or just horror elements insert themselves into the story. If you want to write dark fantasy or want to get at least started reading dark fantasy, take a look at some of the history and some examples below. Also, take a look at some tips for writing it!

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What Is Dark Fantasy?

This is more than just fantasy mixed with horror. This subgenre offers the following factors you need to know, especially if you want to write it.

Characters who act as anti-heroes – One reason the subgenre seems “darker” than typical fantasy is because it’s not a battle strictly between good and evil. Often the “protagonist” acts more like a morally gray character than anything else, and stories often don’t have happy endings. Speaking of morally gray…

Stories told from a monster’s point of view – with this genre, we get the chance to read from the monster’s perspective (which I love). The protagonist might be the so-called “monster” like a vampire, but it’s normal for the world for them to exist. It also better includes those dark elements.

Overall grim elements – This is where “horror” comes in, but it’s part of the worldbuilding. Horror elements – supernatural creatures like vampires or werewolves, threatening settings like dangerous forests – come into play here. But there’s also less hope, less capacity for change.

Kind of hard to be hopeful anyway when the world was designed to crumble around you.

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Some History

There’s not really a specific time period where this fantasy subgenre became a thing. However, the term “dark fantasy” might have first been coined by Charles L. Grant.

You see, back in its early days, people considered this kind of fantasy as a form of horror. Nowadays, the subgenre falls under fantasy with horror elements, but early on it fell under “supernatural horror” (horror with supernatural elements).

Nowadays, supernatural creatures like vampires classify a story as dark fantasy rather than full horror. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories fit this mold really well as an example, as those stories introduced supernatural elements while offering scares for readers. Other examples include H. P. Lovecraft, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

I say all this because these works characterize this subgenre, so they offer great examples if you want to write in it! Speaking of writing, check out these tips for this dark genre.

How Do You Write It?

Want to write in the genre? Keep these tips in mind.

Focus on horror and other “dark” elements in worldbuilding – What supernatural elements do you want to include, and how do they fit in the world you create? How can you make things unsettling in your world while maintaining a “typical” darkness? This might mean writing supernatural monsters, but ones that exist in your world like normal people. Include dark settings like a molding forest or haunted castle. Let the elements of your world act ambiguously, so readers get a feel for the dark tone as they learn more about your world.

Write anti-heroes – Not all characters are wholly good. Not all of them get a happy ending either. Whether you write from a monster’s point of view or not, make sure your characters do slightly darker things. An anti-hero does things in their own self-interest, out of revenge, and more. Often, what they do doesn’t involve the greater good, but we root for them anyway.

Keep a dark tone – Let bad things happen to your characters or your setting. Keep things grim but keep things interesting, leaving your readers with little hope but with the urge to go on reading and find out what happens next. Above all, make sure the world and the characters look grimmer whenever you write.

Some examples:

Some more examples of dark fantasy include Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Dark Tower by Stephen King, The Citadel of Fear by Gertrude Barrows (going by Francis Stevens), and The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

You can find a list of of these books on Goodreads.

If you want to learn more about the different types of fantasy besides dark fantasy, check out this article here. Stay tuned for another post next week in the meantime. Happy writing!

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