Dark fantasy rant, crossed with horror fantasy rant. I’ve read some good examples of this, but sooner or later they pick up the same constellation of sins.
1) If you’re going to write dark fantasy, write dark fantasy.
This is the one where I wish people knew what genre they were writing. Dark fantasy that includes too much horror, non-psychotic romance, cheesy escapes, and Diet Coke angst reads like very bad fanfiction.
Many authors are perfectly capable of writing cross-subgenre and producing readable works. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Trilogy has some dark fantasy elements, but also many erotic and high fantasy ones. I still liked reading it (most of it; the endless, flowery descriptions of beautiful people got on my nerves after a while, as did the infodumping). However, with dark fantasy more than any other, I think, the story has to have a certain tone in order to come off as its dominant subgenre rather than another subgenre or an insane mishmash. This is why I now find it impossible to take Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels Trilogy seriously as dark fantasy. The horrific tone is lightened with too much corny humor, stupid villains straight out of high fantasy, and teenage wish-fulfillment.
Therefore, if you know that the book’s plot is going to cost and cost your heroes, make sure your readers can tell that.
2) Don’t hold death back from only the characters the reader likes.
One of the most interesting things about dark fantasy is that it often doesn’t make sure the heroes all go home happy at the end of the day, but takes them and dumps them in situations that make the reader truly fear for their lives. If your narrator is not permitted to die, you can still kill his best friends, lovers, and family. If they do manage to win through, it should be at great cost (permanent physical and mental damage, for example). If they die, don’t have them come back in magical resurrections.
One reason I like dark fantasy is that it has a tense edge usually missing (at least for me) in books of other subgenres. I don’t take threats to main characters seriously in those other subgenres, unless there are several of them and the author has already demonstrated his willingness to kill off other characters (Berg, Kay, and Martin do this regularly). The hero really could die forever, or see his family expire screaming, which happens in other fantasies only if the deaths are grand and noble and serve some higher purpose, such as giving the hero a revenge motive. Death is a part of life in dark fantasy without being made powerless or always used in service of a higher motive. I like that.
3) If you don’t have the characters die, introduce some fates worse than death.
Being frozen into a stone statue that can feel every bit of pain but not move or scream or do anything to prevent it would be something I could fear more than death. So would having one of my own body parts under the control of an enemy and able to act against me, or having invisible enemies after me and never knowing whether they were real or the products of my own imagination. All those are ideas that fit quite well in the confines of dark fantasy.
Usually, to be worse than death, I think a fate has to depend on things most people can agree are horrific, such as eternal pain. It takes a very strong author and a very well-developed character and fear to convince me that something the character is only afraid of would be a fate worse than death (especially when the fate itself would lead to death). Thus, I can emphasize with Winston Smith’s fear of rats in 1984, and I understand his fear of having a cage of rats locked onto his face, giving the rats nowhere to go but into his body. But too many authors try to take a common fear, like a fear of the dark, give a few lackluster descriptions of the character reacting to it, and then lock the character in a dark dungeon and convince me that’s enough to make her go over to the evil side right this second, because that fate is worse than death. Sorry, doesn’t work. Focus truly hard on the character and description if you plan to use this one, because poor development in either will leave your readers snickering where you meant to have them shrieking.
4) Be creative with the horror elements.
Overuse of vampires and werewolves—and at this point, just like dragons, it’s truly hard to do something original with either one—doesn’t make a good dark fantasy. The author sometimes relies too hard on these characters alone to darken the book, making them little different from any mindless monster in a high fantasy novel. Other times, the vampire and werewolf characters turn out to be the noble, angsty, tormented kind, incapable of a truly evil act, which bleeds out the suspense with a dull knife. Even if they do make humans into vampires or werewolves, they often do it to save their lives. Humans are seen as equals, not prey, and the vampires and werewolves may even join the “good” humans in a battle against “evil” people of either kind. There goes the book from the realm of dark fantasy into bad high or urban fantasy (or, if you’re Laurell K. Hamilton, porn).
Likewise, don’t come up with one EVIL OBJECT, whether it’s a book, a mirror, a sword, or whatever. I can assure you that it’s been done before, either by a teenager convinced she’s the next great horror writer or by Terry Brooks. Unless you make a truly original choice and are already a good writer as far as description and a sense of brooding menace go, this trick will backfire on you the same way the trick with choosing a character’s fear as the fate worse than death will.
I think it’s charming—well, not charming in the usual way, obviously—when I can tell a dark fantasy writer is trying something unusual, something off the beaten track, and especially when he’s not obviously a one-trick pony whose trick only works right the first time. Simon R. Green is one of the few authors I can read despite his style being very simplistic, a mix of gore and one-liners. He’s incredibly creative with where the gore comes from. His Hawk and Fisher books, about a pair of cops (husband and wife) in the corrupt city of Haven, use monsters, elemental creatures of deepest evil, zombies, demons, chaos bombs that make fat men split apart so that thin men can climb out of them, and much, much more to make Haven a suitably fucking dangerous place to live.
5) Stupid villains are even more of a no-no than in your typical fantasy.
For one thing, the lines in most dark fantasies between good and evil should be a lot blurrier. The good characters will probably have to do desperate things to survive, or perhaps even convert to the “dark side” altogether. Will they immediately join the stupid villain crowd? Probably, given that most authors seem to think stupid excuses justify the transformation. The incredibly stupid villains somehow pin the heroes, who are so much smarter than they are, in transparent situations where the heroes can take the incredible risk of joining the dark side and being found out and having their mortal souls corrupted, or take a smaller risk and possibly die. Guess what they choose every time?
Yes, I know. Perhaps stupidity is a disease you catch from typical fantasy villains.
For another, a stupid villain does not make a convincing threat. If you present the book as a high fantasy, readers may be willing to overlook the Dark Lord’s mistakes if you make the Hero of Light a compelling character. In dark fantasy, they’ll be looking for someone who can convincingly put the Hero’s life in danger. Show them someone with one great weakness (typical of fantasy Dark Lords), and they’ll wonder why the Hero just doesn’t go ahead and use that. Again, it’s possible to manipulate the situation to come out well and make yourself smelling like roses, but most amateur writers don’t have the skill.
If you plan to write a series, it’s even more important to have a villain who’s clever, powerful, charismatic, or seemingly unstoppable (preferably all of these things at once). Otherwise, one defeat at the Hero’s hands would probably destroy him completely, just as it does with most fantasy villains.
6) Don’t cheat with the ending.
I hate it when a book sets me up to expect one kind of ending and pulls the other—not a surprise twist, but allowing me to think that the book, in the case of a dark fantasy, will be suitably brooding and tragic and then ending up with everyone married to their true loves, healed of mental scars, and, in the most heinous operations, pregnant mothers or expectant fathers. Such a happy ending is a rarity with any conviction in dark fantasy. Long before Hamilton’s Anita Blake series declined into porn, I thought she was trying too hard for happy endings, insuring that her character got more and more powers, more and more victories, and more and more men in love with her instead of allowing her to lose anything.
If you’ve spent the whole book setting up a character to die, and it would still make the most plot sense when you get to the end, don’t chicken out and have the character live. It’s a compromise between happy ending and angsty ending that doesn’t work well. See: Anne Bishop.
There’s a beauty in tragedy, both an inevitable one and one that could have been prevented if circumstances were just a little bit different. Both Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and several of Kay’s books, notably The Lions of Al-Rassan, have tragic endings. The fall is part of what makes the beauty. Tolkien’s Elves wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they had continued to live in peace and beauty in Valinor forever; nor would Kay’s Al-Rassan have been as bittersweet if it were unstirred by political troubles. (There’s a reason so very few stories are set in Golden Ages). Kay and Tolkien may both be said to cheat a little by having happy endings for other characters, but they succeed by keeping those happy endings in the shadow of the great tragedies, rather than acting as if they heal every wound.
If you write this kind of ending, be aware that some readers will hate you. (I think most authors do know this, and it’s a reason truly dark and tragic fantasies are so rare; most have happy endings or have bad endings happening to characters they deserve to happen to). Others will love you, especially if you manage to blend it with exultant joy. The best fantasies I’ve ever read are the ones where I can’t tell one kind of tears from the other. I think that, at least in some cases, it’s worth the risk.
Does anyone know any convincingly dark fantasy series I could try? Anne Bishop and Laurell K. Hamilton have both gone to the dogs, and I noted the problems I had with Carey’s trilogy. In particular, if anyone has read any dark fantasies that don’t have wimpy endings, let me know.