What is Dark Fantasy? Definition Examples

Fantasy has a multitude of reading sub-genres that can be laborious to differentiate from one another. If you are looking to pursue an interest in dark fantasy, deciphering the characteristics of this sub-genre can be a frustrating task.

I conducted some exhaustive research of my own with the aim to fix this problem. I created this comprehensive resource for those trying to understand the inner workings of dark fantasy.

With that introduction out of the way, lets get into the article!

Dark fantasy is defined as a fantasy sub-genre that is typified by a deliberately ominous tone, reinforcing what is commonly perceived as a gloomy atmosphere. Standard features of fantasy are deliberately intertwined with a sense of terror and dread to create this sinister subcategory of fantasy.

There is much ambiguity surrounding the exact characteristics of dark fantasy. Compared to other literary sub-genres, the defining features of dark fantasy are somewhat vague.

Thus, there has been some controversy over what fantasy novels fit this sub-genre. Below are some of the typical features the majority of authors accept as satisfactory models for dark fantasy.

Typical Characteristics of Dark Fantasy

What is the Difference Between the Dark Fantasy Sub-Genre and the Grimdark Sub-Genre?

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Example of Dark Fantasy Book Series

The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence

Typical Characteristics of Dark Fantasy

Not every dark fantasy novel incorporates all of the following characteristics. Nonetheless, the majority of dark fantasy novels encompass at least one of these features in some way, shape or form.

I mentioned the deliberate use of an ominous tone in the definition of dark fantasy. This brings up the question, What makes for an ominous tone?

Tone in literature refers to the mental outlook that an author, narrator or character projects into the writing passages.Thus, an ominous tone entails that the literature feels menacing or foreboding because of the manner in which it was written.

An author creates an ominous tone via the following methods:

Emphasizing grim character viewpoints

Reinforcing the sinister nature of character responses to plot events

Excluding, or minimally including, cheerful moods and feelings

Manipulating sense perceptions of characters (what they see, what they hear, what they smell, etc.)

This is key to dark fantasy since a deliberate use of an ominous tone is a concrete differentiating factor. When analyzing a novel to see if it fits the dark fantasy criteria, the tone is the first thing that should be scrutinized.

If the tone of a fantasy book is ominous in a purposeful fashion, there is a high likelihood that the novel qualifies as dark fantasy.

In contrast to other sub-genres, the prospect of evil reigning victorious in the end is not so far-fetched in the realm of dark fantasy.

Dark fantasy writers elect to change up the archetypical fantasy stories that readers are used to by entertaining the possibility of evil winning.

This characteristic markedly distinguishes this sub-genre from the likes of other fantasy sub-genres, such as high fantasy and childrens fantasy, where the heroes almost always prevail.

The volatility of the theme of good versus evil keeps the reading experience honest. Having to predict who will be labeled victorious in the end keeps the reader on the edge of their seat throughout the entire novel.

This remains part of the allure of dark fantasy. These novels are unequaled in terms of their suspense since you do not know which side will win!

The characters in dark fantasy typically grapple with the theme of good versus evil. The discrepancy between good and evil is not always so clear-cut.

In certain novels, the morals of particular characters are compromised. The protagonists lean toward good in certain circumstances and lean toward evil in other circumstances. This creates additional conflict that makes the framework of the story more complex and meaningful.

Dark fantasy authors write in protagonists that succumb to the forces of evil for a reason.In dark fantasy, theme of good versus serves to illustrate that people are not invulnerable to the temptations of evil.

Many other fantasy novels choose to ignore this truth to avoid scaring off their potential audience. They only choose to endorse the half of the theme that suits the plot. Dark fantasy novels do not only acknowledge that evil can corrupt anyone. They reinforce it.

Now this is a major difference between dark fantasy and other sub-genres.

In virtually all of the other fantasy novels, the protagonists are made out to be the pinnacle of humankind. Most of these protagonists are born leaders, ahead of the curve in terms of intelligence, strength, looks and reputation.

This is not the case in dark fantasy. In this sub-genre, heroes may not be present at all. Rather, all of the so called protagonists of the story may instead just be the lesser of two evils.

The protagonists are instead described as everyday humans. They are not made out to be noble or invincible. These characters are simply trying to pursue their own personal goals. To them, the price of fighting for the greater good is not worth the effort.

There may not be some bigger picture or end goal to the struggles of dark fantasy protagonists. Their fight may simply be one of survival and nothing more.

Horror is a fictional genre characterized by the deliberate solicitation of feelings of dread and terror through writing. The horror genre is embodied within certain novels of the dark fantasy genre.

Horror is commonly utilized as a tool to emphasize the prevalence of evil within a dark fantasy novel.Although darkness does not necessarily equate to horror in the pragmatic sense of the word, these two concepts go hand in hand.

To thoroughly create an ominous tone and gloomy atmosphere within a literary work, elements of horror are a convenient means to accomplish this.

Nonetheless, these elements must not be used in excess or the tone and atmosphere will revolve around terror instead.

A moderated use of horror compels the reader to feel that something threatening is always on the horizon. It reminds the reader that something unpleasant could happen at any time.

Without these traits of horror, the portentous, sinister atmosphere that marks the dark fantasy genre would wither away.

In literature, atmosphere refers to the particular feelings that an individual experiences whilst reading a novel. This differs from tone in that atmosphere does not allude to the attitude of the author or characters within the literary work.

Although atmosphere and tone are separate literary aspects, they work closely together. Thus, the ominous tone that characterizes dark fantasy often coincides with the gloomy atmosphere that the reader feels.

In most fantasy novels, the atmosphere tends to shift over the course of the story. With dark fantasy, the atmosphere remains relatively invariable throughout the work. Pleasant feelings and emotions invoked by the novel are usually fleeting at best.

Dark fantasy authors achieve a gloomy atmosphere via precise descriptive language.

Everything a dark fantasy author does is calculated and geared toward establishing a somber atmosphere. The dialogue between characters, choice of the setting, and diction of the author are deliberately tailored toward this goal.

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This is a common question among those that are interested in pursing the dark fantasy genre. It is a controversial question that has reached no real consensus.

Some people use dark fantasy and grimdark interchangeably. Others swear to these two topics being completely distinct from one another. The truth most likely lies in somewhere in the middle of these extrema.

From my research, I came across the following trend:

The concept of hope seems to be the primary differentiating factor between dark fantasy and grimdark.

Hope is still able to be an integral theme in dark fantasy narratives. In contrast, the central theme of grimdark almost never entertains the possibility of hope.

The central theme revolves around cynicism instead.

This differentiation is vague at best, which is why many of the works of dark fantasy and grimdark are so easily confused.

The Book of Kaneby Karl Edward Wagner is often referenced as the first fantasy novel to be officially labeled under the genre of dark fantasy.

Wagner was initially known for his work in the horror reading genre prior to 1985. That all changed with the release ofThe Book of Kanethat year.

Wagner did not believe any of the existing sub-genres could describe the main character of his novel, Kane. Thus, Wagner resorted to fabricating an altogether new fantasy sub-genre to describe his literary work.

Other writers quickly took notice and followed suit. Dark fantasy eventually gained enough traction from the general public to validate its claim as a fantasy sub-genre. This momentum continued to roll until dark fantasy became the sub-genre we know today.

The following novels epitomize what it means to be a dark fantasy novel. They include a number of the typical characteristics described above. These books will give you a better handle on the subtle intricacies that classify dark fantasy.

The deliberate use of an ominous tone. The conflict of good versus evil. The uncertainty of whether or not evil will reign victorious. All of these aspects are included inThe Dark Tower: The Gunslingerby Stephen King.

I included the following quotes to give you a sense of how an author actually goes about creating an ominous tone in their literary work:

Beyond the reach of human rageA drop of hell, a touch of strange

Once again there was the desert, and that only.

Take the dead from the dead, the old proverb said; only a corpse may speak true prophecy.

There was murder, there was rape, there were unspeakable practices, and all of them were for the good, the bloody good, the bloody myth, for the grail, for the Tower.

It is evident that Stephen Kingdeliberately attempts to establish an ominous tone through a variety of methods.

King focuses on the grim outlook of characters within the world, emphasizes the foreboding attitude of the narrator, and includes pessimistic word choice to communicate this tone to the reader. If this novel does not qualify as a dark fantasy novel, I do not know what does.

*If you are interested in reading The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King,check the latest price here on Amazon!

*If you are interested in reading any of the novels listed above, click on the links to check the latest prices on Amazon!

Some of you are probably wondering whether or not there are any prominent dark fantasy book series out there. The answer is a resounding yes! Here is an example of a trending dark fantasy series that incorporates many of the standard dark fantasy features that were listed above.

The Broken Empire Trilogyevidently tries to push an ominous tone and gloomy atmosphere onto the reader with its writing content. The author Mark Lawrence does not attempt to keep this effort subtle, nor should he.

These characteristics are a standard of the dark fantasy sub-genre. Lawrence has a knack for utilizing descriptive language to his advantage to showcase these elements of the dark fantasy sub-genre.

Take a look at the following quotes fromPrince of Thorns(the debut novel of the series) to get a handle of how these iconic aspects of dark fantasy are conveyed through writing:

Memories are dangerous things. You turn them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still youll find an edge to cut you.

Theres something brittle in me that will break before it bends.

Hate will keep you alive where love fails

Ill tell you now. That silence almost beat me. Its the silence that scares me. Its the blank page on which I can write my own fears. The spirits of the dead have nothing on it. The dead one tried to show me hell, but it was a pale imitation of the horror I can paint on the darkness in a quiet moment.

The nature of the thoughts of the characters, as well as the attitude of the narrator, are made evident to the reader. Lawrence does not leave these critical aspects of dark fantasy up for interpretation. The lack of ambiguity makes this novel a shining model of dark fantasy.

*If you are interested in reading The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence,check the latest price for book here on Amazon!

How popular is the dark fantasy sub-genre relative to other fantasy sub-genres?

Dark fantasy is still an up and coming branch of fantasy that has yet to gain a solid foothold in entertainment. Compared to the popularity of high fantasy and childrens fantasy, dark fantasy still has a long ways to go.

In short, dark fantasy is not as popular as other fantasy sub-genres.

Dark fantasy has encountered much difficulty with propelling itself to mainstream entertainment. I ascribe much of this hardship to dark fantasy lacking a concrete definition of what it is.

If this sub-genre were to have definitive characteristics and features, it may inspire fantasy writers to deliberately gear their writing toward building up the dark fantasy sub-genre. Until a clear consensus is reached on what dark fantasy is, however, this stumbling block will remain.

Why is there not a concrete definition of dark fantasy already?

Many works incorporate more than just one exclusive genre.Many dark fantasy novels incorporate elements of romance or high fantasy or tragedy.

Thus, it is difficult to encapsulate what literary aspects distinguish this fantasy sub-genre from others.

What are your personal thoughts on dark fantasy?

Honestly, I have not had much experience reading the dark fantasy genre.It is a fantasy sub-genre I would like to explore in the future.Thus far, I have always been pulled to high fantasy and low fantasy novels.

As time goes by, I plan to expand my fantasy horizons to include more dark fantasy novels. I want to share these experiences with you, my fellow fantasy book fanatics, so that you can more easily discover your next reading adventure!

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I am the founder of Fantasy Book Fanatic. I enjoy spending the snowy winters in the midwest by reading fantasy novels in my free time.

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