How to start writing dark fantasy

Dark fantasy is certainly having a moment. Shows like Witcher and Wheel of Time, both of which I talked about on Haunted MTL, have gotten more fantasy fans interested in the creepier, more sinister side of the genre. And I love it. Not that I don’t enjoy the lighter side of fantasy. I wrote a whole series that could hardly be considered dark. Honestly, that’s just because I haven’t gotten to it yet. 

Yes, fantasy that is all about magic and adventure and dragon friends is awesome! But there is so much more that we can do with the genre if we’re willing to explore the shadowy side. 

Just in case you’re not sure what I mean by dark fantasy, another great example is the Spiderwick Chronicles. In here we see much of what I’d consider dark fantasy. We see the fai acting with malicious intent. We see dark magic slipping a young woman into a coma. We see characters who are menaced, rather than enchanted, by the fantasy world. There’s a lot more monster-slaying than finding fairy rings, is what I’m saying.

If you want to write some dark fantasy, here are some suggestions.

Details and world-building

A cornerstone of good fantasy is good world-building. And a dark fantasy is no different. But of course, the details of a dark fantasy world are going to be a bit different. We’ll see more danger, of course. More places our characters fear to tread. More people you don’t want to come across. Think of Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children. Yes, at the start the children are in a magical place frozen in time. But soon enough they find themselves mucking through dark allies, filled with monsters and men who want nothing more than to crush their heads against the pavement.

Don’t shy away from the gore

Speaking of pavement head crushing, any good horror story is going to have some moments of gore. That’s just a hallmark of the genre. 

I don’t love stories that rely on it. If there’s not an underlying terror, then all the blood and broken bones in the world aren’t going to do more than turn my stomach. But I do expect to see a little bloodshed. 

The best horror is based on reality

Horror that revolves around otherworldly creatures is great. I love a haunted house story, and I love a sentient demonic house even more. But the best horror story is the one that has a basis in real life.

Carrie was about more than a killer prom queen. It was about a young woman bullied at school and suffering abuse at home. Amityville Horror is about a house set on killing its inhabitants. It’s also about a family with money worries. These are things we can relate to, which makes the horror that much more satisfying. 

This can be a little trickier with dark fantasy, which is by definition not based on reality. But remember that characters are people. And people are generally scared by the same things. As Stephen King put it, we’re scared of the Bad Death. That’s pretty well universal, even if you are an elf. 

Anything that can befriend you can also kill you

I’d like to take this moment to point out something in fantasy that has always bothered me. Fairies are often seen as whimsical little friends, who might play a little prank on us from time to time but have our best interests at heart.

If you know anything about fai lore, you know that’s bullshit. They might be befriended, but they’re more likely to steal you away, take your babies, poison you, or otherwise mess up your day. 

The same can be said for mermaids. 

Any creature has a dark side. Any creature can be seen as either benevolent or malevolent. Think of fantasy creatures as dogs. Most of the time they’re our great little companions who sleep at our feet and keep us company while we type blog posts. But under the right circumstances, they’ll take a hand. 

If the good creatures exist, so do the dangerous ones

Finally, there is this. Fantasy creatures we like tend to get a lot of attention. But if they exist in your fantasy world, so do their darker counterparts. So do the banshees, the evil magic users, the werewolves, wendigos and vampires. Light casts a shadow, and you don’t get one without the other. So when creating your fantasy world, remember to write in the shadows as well. 

Fantasy and horror complement each other in many ways. A touch of one can make the other stronger, and often is unavoidable. How much you decide to let the darkness in is, of course, depended on how gruesome you want your fantasy story to be. 

What is your favorite dark fantasy? Let us know in the comments. 

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