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How to Write a Bone-Chilling Dark Fantasy Tale

Are you tired of reading the classic fantasy stories of the protagonist encountering some kind of conflict and prevailing in the end, using their characteristic goodness to defeat evil? Are you into more gritty, ominous, and sometimes gory content that you can't find in other fantasy subgenres? Do your story ideas involve more moral ambiguity and blurred lines between good and evil? If you answered yes to these questions, then you might be interested in writing dark fantasy. What is dark fantasy? We're so glad you asked!

Dark fantasy

Dark fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy. Unlike other more easily defined fantasy subgenres such as fairytale or heroic fantasy, dark fantasy is a little harder to describe because, just like many of the characters found in these stories, the plots and elements of these stories can be quite ambiguous.

Dark fantasy stories bridge the gap between fantasy and horror, incorporating elements from both genres to produce a grim, harsh reality. Dark fantasies include evil creatures, dark magic, and disturbing imagery. There is a sinister tone to these stories, and the atmosphere will feel hostile to the protagonists and readers, alike. What makes dark fantasy so enticing for us as readers is its ability to explore the human psyche and expose harmful aspects of humanity.

Common elements of dark fantasy stories include:

The building basics

grotesque monster
Dark fantasies often include creepy, grotesque-looking supernatural creatures. Image from Daniel Eskridge.

Fantasy stories often differ from our own reality because writers will create their own fantasy worlds. This isn't to say that you need to create a whole new world for your story. In fact, many fantasy stories borrow events and locations from our world and incorporate those elements into their own world but with a twist. For example, when you are thinking about the politics of your world, you may take inspiration from the myriad of governments found across the world, taking some elements from each and creating your own government.

While building your world, it is essential to develop a history for your world. This is essential to creating the external conflicts of the story that will ultimately influence the internal conflicts of the protagonist. You might consider working backwards here. What we mean by this is you may consider the kinds of conflicts you want your character to face and what kinds of plot points you think will be essential to your story.

If you want to write a story where your protagonist must face off against hordes of supernatural beasts set on destroying your world, you have to consider where those beasts came from and why they exist. If you want dark magic to be the leading force in your world, you should consider where the magic originated from and who has access to that magic.

Make your world make sense. Writing a bone-chilling dark fantasy story involves using fear and suspense to create a dangerous world for your characters to live in and for your readers to read, so you should be incorporating elements of horror into your story, combining them with your fantasy world to create one horrifying storyline.

Be sure to take your time building your world. Rome wasn't built in a day, so your setting shouldn't be either. Only include what is necessary to your world, otherwise it may get confusing. On that note, here are some elements you might consider when building your world:

  • Terrain
  • Creatures (supernatural/magical and non-magical)
  • Politics (power struggles)
  • Magic (consider what role it plays)
  • Religion (may or may not exist)

Careless, or could they not care less?

When you think of fantasy stories, you probably think of the classic heroic protagonist that undergoes a series of challenges, battling evil forces and ultimately coming out triumphant. We love a good fantasy story, but we also love a good dark fantasy story. What is so appealing about dark fantasy? We are introduced to characters we love to hate and hate to love.

In a dark fantasy, your characters should be dark (cough, cough). This is easy to say, but what makes a character dark? Here are some things to consider when crafting your characters:

  • What is your protagonist's background? Establishing a history for your protagonist is key to creating a character arc and establishing development throughout the story. We want to know what makes your protagonist tick. Why is your character the way they are?
  • Does your protagonist have magic or supernatural abilities? This could influence the way they exist in their world and the roles they play.
  • What are your protagonist's morals or beliefs? Do they have any at all? This also influences the ways in which your protagonist acts throughout the story.

What kind of protagonist are you writing? Odds are, there is a lot of grey area with your characters. That's what makes them so interesting. Here are a few examples of popular dark fantasy characters:

  • The antihero: The antihero possesses characteristics different from those of your typical hero. Instead of being motivated by the common good and seeking justice, the antihero is more ambiguous, and they often have a dark side. Antiheroes do not have to be villains. In fact, many antiheroes have redemption arcs built into the story.
  • The immoral protagonist: Immoral characters have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, but they choose to do wrong regardless.
  • The amoral protagonist: Amoral characters lack any sense of morality and are not concerned with right and wrong. These characters do not think about what is right and what is wrong when they commit an act.

Dark fantasy characters are flawed, and that is preferred. Human beings are not exempt from committing evil acts. Temptation exists for a reason.

If you're really committed to creating a bone-chilling dark fantasy story, you should think outside the box. Having supernatural characters and morally ambiguous protagonists is good, but you should consider adding in some other unexpected characters. For example, if you're writing about a particular haunted house in your story, write that haunted house like it is a character. Bring your settings to life and make them as integral to the story as your living, breathing character.

Creating conflict

two hands reaching for each other
Dark fantasy protagonists struggle with choosing good over evil, and evil often wins. Photo from Rishabh Dharmani.

Your conflict should make sense in the realm of your story and should largely contribute to your protagonist's storyline. There should be internal and external conflict that creates palpable tension in your story.

As we mentioned before, you need to create a backstory for your protagonist. Perhaps dark moments are what shape their struggle and make them such immoral characters. For example, maybe your protagonist is an orphan with no magical abilities, so they were mistreated in an orphanage throughout their childhood. Now, free from the orphanage, they will do whatever it takes to never return to such a low point, even if it means committing crimes and deviating from what is considered good. Think about what types of conflict this particular character may experience, both internal and external.

Your characters need to be challenged. Therefore, the stakes should be high throughout your story. Conflicts should also test your characters. We talked about how many characters are morally ambiguous, so you should create conflicts where they can evaluate what is right and what is wrong and make a decision.

Keep the conflicts and decisions consistent with the characters you have created, but do not be afraid of creating conflict that results in your character's confusion. Just like your characters, your conflict shouldn't be cut and dry. Questions of good and bad are central to dark fantasy stories.

Some examples of conflict include:

  • Inequality: economic, racial, or supernatural (think about your fantasy world)
  • Politics/laws (think about who does and does not have power)
  • The loss or gain of magic/supernatural abilities
  • Loss of the self
  • Choosing the lesser of two evils (according to what your characters considers as good and evil)

Unlike most typical fantasy stories, dark fantasy stories do not always feature a happy ending with a resolved problem. This is part of what makes dark fantasy dark: Evil can and sometimes does win. You should think about where you want your character to end up. This will help you determine where your story should end. Who knows, perhaps there is room for a sequel or two!

Is there such a thing as too dark?

Before you begin writing your dark fantasy story, you should think about tone. This may seem obvious. Dark, right? Wrong! Well, kind of… When you're writing a bone-chilling dark fantasy story, you would assume that the tone should be dark, and it should be, to an extent.

Dark fantasy stories often involve lots of gore, blood, and violence. You would assume that this is what makes the story dark and it does, most of the time. However, gore only gets you so far. What I mean by that is you should not over rely on blood and violence because this is not enough to make a compelling story. Just like any other overused plot device, it can get tired.

Instead, make sure any violence or darker themes you incorporate into your story make sense within the given world. Do not include violence for the sake of violence or for a quick jump scare. While this may get your readers frightened or shaken, shock value should not be the goal of your writing. You should establish a purpose so every death and scare contribute to the plot in some meaningful way.

Establish a balance

a light shines down through a hole in a dark cave
You can use the readers' fear of the unknown to create an ominous tone. Photo from Jez Timms.

You should have a sinister tone to your story. There are multiple ways that you can achieve this kind of tone. You can do what we just discussed, writing about supernatural creatures that incite terror, brutal scenes of torture or gruesome deaths, but these are not the only ways to create that dark undertone in your story.

How can you create a healthy balance between expected darkness and intentional darkness? You should try focusing on the emotional impact of your story. Even more bone-chilling than a torture scene or a bloody death is the realization that human beings are capable of complex emotions and actions that deviate from the good. We don't want to believe that we are capable of being evil, so we are anxious and disturbed by these realizations.

You can also use the fear of the unknown as a trope within your writing. As human beings, we thrive off knowing what is going to happen next. There is a reason why so many people don't like surprises-it is the fear of the unknown. You can use this to your advantage in your writing to evoke feelings of fear and even dread within your readers. You want your readers to be uncomfortable. You have to take the phrase "expect the unexpected" to a whole new level in your writing.

Odds are, your characters will undergo uncomfortable and dangerous scenarios that will leave readers on the edges of their seats. You want to use these instances to make your readers feel as if they are characters in your story. The atmosphere of your story will feel hostile to your protagonist, but it should also feel hostile towards the readers' expectations, to some extent.

On this note, you should show and not tell. We're sure you've heard this phrase one million times. Although it may come off as a cliché, it's true: You want to describe your scene instead of telling it. This is what helps evoke feelings in the readers. For example, instead of saying something like, "She was scared of the darkness", you could write something like, "Her body trembled violently, goosebumps erupting across her cool, sweaty skin as she faced the pitch-black cave before her." The readers will be more affected by the second sentence than the first one.

Is there hope for any of us?

If dark fantasy can be so horrible and gruesome and scary, then what makes readers keep coming back for more? Why are we so drawn to a world where evil can prevail over good, destroying all our expectations and making us wonder what human beings are truly capable of doing? Hope. Not the answer you were expecting, considering all we've discussed? Yeah, that's kind of the point.

When we read a dark fantasy story, we might hope that the protagonist acts humanely despite their unfortunate past. We might hope that the antagonist reaches a turning point and acts according to what we define as good. We might hope for a happy ending, despite all of the fear and horror that we have been reading. Just because we hope for something doesn't mean our hopes will be fulfilled. In fact, in dark fantasy stories, they usually aren't. Despite this, we still hope. Hope is what ultimately drives readers to finish the story.

Are you scared yet?

Writing dark fantasy may be a daunting task, but we have discussed the main elements to keep in mind when writing your story. You shouldn't be afraid to experiment or write outside the box. Writing dark fantasy is an opportunity for you to explore ideas surrounding the supernatural and the human existence that you may not consider otherwise. If you are disturbed by your own writing or question your own existence when writing your story, then you have succeeded in your quest to write dark fantasy.

Header from Mohsen.

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