Since I feel the need to be very clear with this, I will add a disclaimer here that because I write Dark Fantasy, I am biased toward that subgenre and the Fantasy umbrella in general. However, I do not believe any genre or subgenre is “The Best”. I believe everything from Urban Fantasy to Romance to YA to Lit Fic and beyond has merit and should be explored. Other genres can also do many of the things I talk about; dark fantasy simply suits my tastes and needs the best.
Hey everybody! Today I want to talk about why I write dark fantasy. When I first decided to make this video I planned to discuss why I write dark fantasy and what I believe makes good dark fantasy. While writing my script I realised I was having trouble because those are two different albeit adjacent topics, so consider this video “part one”. I will likely make a follow-up sometime next month. I would also like to caution that these are my biggest reasons, not all of them, and have been condensed a bit to avoid turning this into an hour-long monologue. So, without further ado, onward!
The first reason is that dark fantasy allows me to explore situations and characters from angles that allow for more grey area than other types of fantasy. Most simply, generally “good” characters can do bad things and generally “evil” characters can do good things. To take that even further, there might not necessarily be any essentially good or evil characters, and I like that because it doesn’t box me in to any strict character morality archetypes like “the cleric” or “the assassin”. For example, it allows me to have a cleric who maybe actively and openly questions their faith or who bends the rules a bit in order to accomplish some goal.
Without spoiling any of my future works too much, a way I apply this reason to one of my projects is with a character I’ll call Gemma for now (not her actual name). She is in a leadership position and a lot of people are depending on her to figure out something that, if she fails at accomplishing, will result in a lot of people’s deaths. Due to the circumstances it will mostly be her fault. Before getting involved in her plotline she made a Herculean effort to be a force of good in a place where goodness was hard to come by, and she made a name for herself as sort of the “guardian angel” of the poor in her community. Now that the plot happened, Gemma has to take her efforts to the extreme to keep those affected whom she loves alive, going so far as to murder (not just once, but frequently), lie, and cheat in order to protect her found family from a problem that is far outside any of their control. And, just because she helps others doesn’t make her a saint in words or manners—she’s actually kind of abrasive and is easily exasperated if she feels her patience is being tested. She’s prone to aggressive outbursts, yells a lot, and came from a pretty rough background. By no means is she a “grizzled but has a heart of gold” type. But no one could ever say that she doesn’t have some goodness within.
Dark fantasy removes the need to censor certain aspects of a story that can enhance the plot, characters, or setting. These aspects could include graphic violence, physical intimacy, horror devices, or really anything that would warrant a “parental advisory” sticker or an 18+ movie designation. Portraying the events of a book without holding back can really serve to drive home the consequences of characters’ actions and the truth of what they’ve inflicted on others. It isn’t really within the scope of this video to talk about how far is too far or what constitutes realism vs gratuity (and I do believe there is a line), so I won’t comment on that much. But, there is something to be said for depicting violence and intimacy in a way that doesn’t “prettify” the reality of either but at the same time avoids romanticization or glorification, especially when the usual method of dealing with these subjects is to “clean up” either device to make them more palatable. On the less extreme side, not needing to censor things like profanity, substance ab/use, and exploring complicated or controversial topics opens an abundance of doors in every aspect of story–characterization, setting, backstory, plot conflicts and setups. I do believe all these topics can be discussed in a way that has artistic merit. I do not think most anything should be avoided in storytelling for decency’s sake.
An example of a complex topic I’ve written about in the past is fertility issues, which is something that probably wouldn’t come up (or at least not in the same way) in a story that has a lighter tone. If infertility, miscarriage, or stillbirth is sensitive to you, you may want to skip ahead.
In this application, a supporting character is in a deep struggle with herself over the fact that she is unable to have children, which is her most pressing goal in life. Motherhood is something she has always wanted for herself, and on the interpersonal side is something that her social status nigh-on requires. Grappling with her personal and social need to raise children leads to an affair, a destroyed friendship, and a suicide, all of which impact the greater story.
As far as intimacy goes, a project of mine contains two intimate scenes. In the first scene, the MC (“Jordan”) has lays with one man, Peter, who respects her as an equal. In the second she lays with Mark, who does not. The purpose of these scenes is threefold: one, to illustrate Jordan’s growth as a character and strengthen the worth and esteem in which she holds herself (although this is explored more in the aftermath of the second scene); two, to highlight the difference in treatment of women and female sexuality between two cultures; and three, as a conflict device to spur on the next stages of the story, although there are no love triangles here. Getting this close to a character in one of their most vulnerable states is extremely effective for characterizing not only them but the setting and society in which they live, and without these two scenes Jordan specifically would not come to terms with what she needs to do in order to seize her agency for good. The “dark” part comes in with the surrounding circumstances of the plot—which are way too identifiable and, y’know, spoilers.
Kind of tying in to the last two reasons is that dark fantasy forces me to think about limiting factors that might not have as immediate or long-lasting consequences in other genres of fantasy: death, disease, serious or disabling injury, psychological issues borne of plot points, and similar. All of these things lend themselves well to minor conflicts and character depth and can even seriously affect where a plot ends up.
One of my characters, Ruth, is one of only two main characters to survive her book. Her sisters both perish during the events of the novel, leading her in charge of something nobody had ever planned for her to need to govern—nor do some think she should, given her personal circumstances. What does this lead to? War, and an immense one: a period of conflict that lasts almost three hundred years, long after the original instigators have run out their natural life, and the conflict isn’t pretty. In fact, it fractures a once-stable Empire completely beyond repair. During Ruth’s lifetime, she grows from a good-natured, faithful, loving girl into a woman grieving for the loss of her sisters, her culture, and her nation. She begins to believe the lie that mortals are inherently motivated by selfishness and greed, and it contributes to her downfall. It is possible to have shown this transformation without also showing the violence behind it and the trauma it caused, but I don’t think it would have left the same impression.
A smaller application of limiting factors comes with yet another story in which a supporting character, Victoria, loses her livelihood due to an attack that left her unable to perform. Though it happened many years ago by the time her character is met, this loss of agency and ability makes her angry and bitter at pretty much everyone. However, she secretly adopts those whose circumstances have similarly made them unable to find work and gives them work, a bed, and companionship, something which was stolen from her at a very young age and because she feels obligated to apologise for something discovered about her family by the MC during this story. Victoria also takes a young woman who shares skills similar to hers under her direct mentorship in the hopes that her life won’t turn out the same.
My second-to-last reason is that dark fantasy has inherent stakes. Anything can happen, good or bad, and things can always get worse. All the things mentioned in reason three and more can happen through the course of the story, chaos is king, and the only true guiding light the characters have that anything they go through can be overcome is hope. I’ll talk more about the very important position of hope in dark fantasy in this video’s part two.
The best example of how I apply this reason is contained in my novels Silverblood and Marrow, but explaining how things go from bad to worse to absolutely abysmal would ruin both with spoilers, so it looks like we’ll have to move on to the next reason!
Reason Five may be my most controversial but is one I really can’t make a video about this without talking about. One of the reasons I write dark fantasy is to challenge the idea that women “only” write or are only good at writing YA/Romance/Urban Fantasy and that female leads aren’t a good choice for “serious” stories. I have had the following conversation with too many people, almost verbatim, to not have noticed a trend.
“So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, I also blog!”
“Oh, no, sorry, I write fantasy novels.”
“Oh, okay, so like Twilight?”
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I try to assume that most of them just aren’t familiar with fantasy beyond popular works like “Twilight”. However, when I get followup responses like…
- “Girls can’t write fantasy” (yes, seriously, someone has actually said this to me)
- “Female leads are boring”
- “Oh so you’re like Cassandra Clare/Stephanie Meyer/Suzanne Collins/”
- “You should use a male pen name or no one will buy your book”
- Women are better at romance and YA, you should write that instead
- No one will take you seriously
- Female leads can’t swordfight/wear real armour/swear/bleed/be strong and emotional/must have a male character to fall back on/have to be “womanly”
- So, what, like Harry Potter fanfic or…?
- Dark fantasy? Isn’t that a little “aggressive” for girls? (also an actual quote)
It’s just not something that I can blithely take at face value anymore without further context. So, by writing dark fantasy, I hope to prove if to no one other than myself that women CAN write good books that aren’t centered romance, urban fantasy, or YA, female leads CAN carry a novel without a male love interest or other male lead to fall back on, and that I DON’T need to use a clearly masculine pen name to sell books.
I mean, for pete’s sake, a woman invented the damn genre! Her name was Gertrude Barrows Bennett and she published under the name Francis Stevens between 1917 and 1923. She has been cited as “the woman who invented Dark Fantasy” and “the Mother of Dark Fantasy,” famously penning the novels The Citadel of Fear (1918) and Claimed (1920). Not only that, but it’s contended that she was the first female speculative fiction author in the US to publish under her real name, as her first short story was published at 17 (yes, 17!) under the name “G.M. Barrows”. Even more weighty is that according to Eric Leaf Davin, author of Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, her style and themes influenced the likes of H.P.-mother-lovin’-Lovecraft and A. Merrit, two of the most influential speculative fiction writers ever.
So in conclusion, women absolutely can and do and should write darker flavours of fantasy! End of rant!
Now that all that’s out, those are the top five reasons why I write Dark Fantasy. I hope you enjoyed this video and as always I appreciate all likes, comments, and subscriptions if you enjoy my content. Thank you all for watching and I’ll see you in the next one!