When I am not writing informative articles, I focus on fiction. Notably, my favorite form of this is Dark Fantasy. This genre is very misunderstood, but when done well, accounts for high-quality writing. Because I find more dark fantasy work to be valuable, I have decided to write a mini guide on how I believe that Dark Fantasy can be constructed.
Before I begin, I want to give credit to a major website that has aided me significantly in writing my own Dark Fantasy. Here is a link to the guide on TV Tropes that helped inspire my own. The one listed there is far more comprehensive than this one, but I offer some of my own input on this guide. It is mine after all. I recommend reading both.
Moving right along...Dark Fantasy is a fantasy genre that is dark. Now, I could stop right there if I was lazy. However, I am not lazy in the slightest. I want to give a comprehensive explanation. Let's begin with defining these two terms: fantasy and dark.
Fantasy is the easier of the two words, as its definition is more concrete. Fantasy stories involve the fantastic. This can include but is not limited to: fairy tails, magic, strange creatures, and usually a medieval Europe or Eastern Asia setting. These are examples but are not limitations. There are modern day fairy tails just as there are science fiction stories in the past.
Dark is a much harder term to define. It can mean many things. The rest of this guide deals with adding some darkness to a fantasy world. I will do my best to bring up examples in writing, but as some of the best cases of implementation of Dark Fantasy are more obscure stories, I might have to use the same sources repeatedly so that everyone reading this is on the same page.
Let's start with the setting. As in all fantasy, world building is vital in Dark Fantasy. The scope can be anything you want: a large city, a multiverse, or anything both in between and beyond those parameters is perfectly fine. I personally tend to eventually end up in Cosmic Worlds, and I'll explain why a little bit later. Remember that while creating this, we are writing Dark Fantasy, so the world needs to be messed up on some fundamental level. Many writers jump right into Dystopian, but this is not a requirement. Some of the most intense Dark Fantasy comes from stories where it is unexpected.
World building also means creating characters. Since this is no longer a heroic fantasy, it does well to create characters with flaws. This is especially vital for the main characters. This setting will not work well if our hero/heroine is the embodiment of pureness. Though I will add that a way to truly make a powerful Dark Fantasy story is to take a character that is pure and corrupt them. Destroying their sense of self and tearing out the flaws that change them for the worse makes for one dark story.
Creating antagonists is extremely important in Dark Fantasy. Without conflict, there is no story. In Dark Fantasy, writers have more freedom with villains. One could try making a visionary villain. One that seeks to make the world a better place, but with morally dubious means. I personally recommend staying away from Disney style evil antagonists. Dark Fantasy exists to change the limitations of the genre and does not function as well with the stereotypical characters. This is not to say they cannot be used, but it makes for a harder story to write. Blurring the line between good and evil can be a great way to showcase how dark a story is capable of becoming.
Don't forget about the monsters! Fighting horrible creatures with uncanny powers is a great way to spice things up. Insanity-inducing auras? A fire that never goes out? The ways to be cruel to characters in endless in Dark Fantasy. Have at it. Sometimes it is OK to have some sadistic pleasure when writing a story. This genre thrives on it.
Before I go further, I need to define one final term that I will be using a lot for the rest of this how-to article. One of the most important tropes and ideas in Dark Fantasy is Deconstruction. Deconstruction is where one takes an idea that is common in a story and then points out how silly the idea is. For an even nastier take on tropes using Deconstruction, one could elect instead to play them more realistically.
For an example that points out the flaw in the trope, let's look at the first Austin Powers Movie. Although it is not Dark Fantasy, parodies done well also do a lot of deconstruction. The scene I want to take a look at is when Doctor Evil chooses to lower Austin into a pity filled with dangerous Sea Bass. Sharks became an endangered species and so cannot be used. The other deconstruction utilized is that Scott Evil, Doctor Evil's son, walks in and points out that it would be far more intelligent to shoot Austin Power right there and then. Doctor Evil elects to play the evil overlord tropes straight by lowering the hero into the tank. If he had followed Scott's advice, it would have been a major deconstructive action. Also, Austin would probably have died.
With that out of the way, let's look at what I feel is one of the most important issues that appear in Dark Fantasy: Racism. If all the races of the world get along, the conflict will be much more simple to solve. However, making it so that the free people hate each other or taking it even further and making the free peoples not so free in the first place allows for a lot of Dark Fantasy as well as deconstruction.
Imagine that the Dwarves and Elves of "Lord of the Rings" are even more violent towards each other than in the books and movies. Well as it turns out, you need not look far. In the Silmarillion, the pre-"Lord of the Rings" Era of Middle Earth, there is rampant racism between Elves, Dwarves, and Men. Indeed, specifically the Children of Hurin part of the Silmarillion is a perfect example of a Dark Fantasy story. I won't spoil the details, but it is certainly worth the read.
Now let's look at Magic. This is a mainstay of fantasy and for good reason. Magic in Dark Fantasy can be whatever you the writer deem it to be. But remember this is Dark Fantasy, so it is assumed that Magic is dangerous or will take a high price to use. It could be something like human sacrifice or blood magic. Perhaps the magic slowly makes the user waste away either physically or mentally? Or maybe there is no positive application for Magic and only a truly evil person would ever consider it.
This comes into play frequently in A Song of Ice and Fire. Indeed, Dark Fantasy has become much more mainstream thanks to Game of Thrones, the show based on the books. Let's look at the Red Priestesses specifically. I won't spoil the show, but their magic requires blood, some sex, and human sacrifice. The results range from uncanny to outright horrific. This to me is how Dark Fantasy works best. In fact, Harry Potter not being dark enough for my tastes is what drove me to write in this genre in the first place.
Next let's look at a related genre: Cosmic Horror. There are some in the writing community that will define Dark Fantasy as Fanatic Elements meet Horror and there are some merits to this idea. Cosmic Horror is one of the darkest genres out there. In these tales, the Gods are very real and even more dangerous. Humanity lives in a delusion of safety that tends to be shattered really fast in this type of story. Cosmic horror stories rarely if ever have a happy ending. More likely, most of the main characters will all end up dead like in Stephen King's The Mist. Or even if the heroes prevail, it is only a temporary setback like in the graphic novel Berserk.
The main attraction of Cosmic Horror is the Eldritch Abomination. Beings so horrible that even looking at them can cause death or even worse. These are the creatures that distort reality and science just by existing. Special care must be taken when using such being in a story, but when done correctly, there are few ways to get darker than having such a creature exist in the setting (or outside it for some extra mind screw as well)
Speaking of Berserk, this story is a great example of a fusion of Cosmic Horror and Dark Fantasy. There is a lot of reasons why the two overlap and one of the main among them is the fact that at certain points, the two genres are hard to separate from each other. Guts is the anti-hero you expect in the story with Casca as the tragic secondary protagonist. Former Hero Griffith, the Godhand, and the Apostles are the villains and horrible monsters. The first two groups are literal Gods with near infinite power which creates a Cosmic Horror Story, the third group is their servants. Called Angels in setting, the Apostles would be Demons in basically any other story. But of course, Evil Gods are a mainstay of Dark Fantasy.
Berserk also has racism as a major proponent as there are many races and ethnicity groups at each other's throats. The Godhand are far from the only villains. They just happen to be at the top of the food chain. There are evil churches and dangerous empires. And most importantly, Guts himself is suffering corruption thanks to all sorts of circumstances. If he is not careful, he might end up becoming an Apostle himself. Oh right, did I forget the part that the Demons and Godhand used to be humans at one point?
Everything I outlined in the paragraph above is important to consider with Dark Fantasy. I will list them up as a sum up to ensure that I have been clear.
Religions of Evil
Flawed and Tragic Main Characters
Deadly Gods that one does not wish to attract the attention of
Monsters that used to be regular people
Heroes who become Villains
Now before I wrap things up, I want to warn of a few pitfalls that can occur as a result of writing Dark Fantasy. First and foremost, beware of writing a story that the readers will not be able to read. Characters need to be flawed, but if they are unlikable, then the readers won't care and ultimately will give up on the story. Second, do not insert horrific scenes simply for shock value. Dark Fantasy is not Torture Porn. When horrible tragedy strikes characters, it needs to drive the plot, not exist simply to surprise the reader.
Last, and most importantly, do not get so bogged down in your own story that you become depressed or worse. Mental health matters. There is a reason that there is more than one case of a writer coming up with a Dark Fantasy Story because of mental illness causing as a serious shift in the stories goal. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most infamous examples of this, but it is not the only one. Stay safe while writing!
Keep the above things in mind and you will do fine. At the bottom I will include a list of what I feel are great examples of Dark Fantasy to help with more research: