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Writing Dark Fantasy: Tropes, Tips & Tricks.

by Sarah Butcher

Corruption, dark magic, and dread—dark fantasy is a popular genre for readers and writers, but what makes fantasy dark? How do you differentiate dark fantasy from horror? And how do we create a dark fantasy story that will engross, disturb, and stay with our readers long after they’ve set down the book?

The fantastical elements in fantasy can range from magic in the real world to entirely fictional universes with grand scales of plot and power. Dark fantasy is similar in its broad scale of magic and plot, but as a genre that largely deconstructs tropes, the way magic is used in dark fantasy differs from how it is used in other genres. Dark fantasy magic is often corrupt or easily corrupted—think deals with devils or sacrifices to evil gods. If it isn’t inherently corrupt, it often comes with a heavy price: reputation, sanity, human life, or souls.

Dark fantasy also shares traits with horror, but the two are distinct. Though horror can have fantastical elements, they aren’t necessary to the genre. If these fantastical elements are present in a horror story, it’s generally to cause suspense or fear. While dark fantasy can frighten its readers, fear is not its purpose.

But if the magic in dark fantasy is so dangerous, why would our characters touch it with a ten-foot pole? In this genre, characters are often corrupt and possibly unlikable (though ideally we still root for them). Or, if your character starts out innocent or noble, your story will likely guide them to corruption.

They’ll make morally gray or altogether immoral decisions. As the writer and their creator, you have to decide why. What purpose does their corruption serve? Or, if your character starts out noble, what do they want or need so badly that they’re willing to abandon their morality? Maybe their goal seems pure on the surface, like saving someone they love. But if you dig deeper, are their motives selfish? Will they harm others to save that loved one?

A major trope of dark fantasy is the idea that humans are the real monsters. Sure, you’ll have your scary creatures, demons, and gods, but the spotlight is on our cynical view of humanity. These stories are usually set in “Crapsack Worlds” wherein things will go wrong—very, very wrong. The nastiness of these worlds pits characters against one another, and it eats the innocent alive.

All that said, one of the major pitfalls writers get into when writing dark fantasy—and writing in general—is overdoing conflict for the sake of conflict. Writing certain genres comes with a level of sadism. We enjoy picturing the dread, sadness, and fear our readers will feel alongside our characters. We want readers to react. The problem comes when writers forget the story in favor of conflict; in other words, torturing our characters without considering character arcs, plot, or theme.

It’s a bit like throwing spaghetti noodles at a wall and seeing what sticks. This makes a plot disjointed, melodramatic, and overly bleak.

You may be thinking, “But this sounds like it’s supposed to be bleak!” Sure, but the conflict should be relevant to the characters and story. And remember that our characters are generally in the driver’s seat of conflict. Our main character’s wants and needs drive the story by leading them into immoral or possibly fatal decisions.

Dark fantasy is not a genre of happy endings. The bad guys often win, and if your hero ends up on top, they may have sold their soul to do so. Maybe your main character joined the bad guy or is the bad guy. Evil won’t be entirely vanquished in this genre as it might be in other forms of fantasy. At your story’s end, it will at best be lurking around a dark corner, waiting for its next chance to strike.

When you write dark fantasy, don’t be afraid to go for the throat. This genre requires us to look at the worst of our characters, and possibly do the worst to our characters. Turn their flaws and wants into a ticking time bomb (or something more fantasy-esque). Pack your cynicism and your pens, build your Crapsack World, sell your soul to the devil, then get to writing.

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