This week’s study of fantasy sub-genres is all about gothic or dark fantasy. This genre can be quite interesting since the definitions of it vary depending on who is defining it. However, there are some common points in the definitions, so we’ll go over how it can be commonly defined and what elements you need in the writing to make it gothic or dark fantasy.
Defining Gothic/Dark Fantasy
To start off with, gothic or dark fantasy is not horror. It may contain some elements that are reminiscent of or common to the genre of horror, but horror is written with the intent to scare while gothic and dark fantasy is written with more of an intent to explore a topic that looks at the darker side of life. To that end, then, gothic and dark fantasy aren’t horror.
They do, however, typically deal with the darker side of life and human nature. Commonly, the stories may be written from the monster’s perspective or from a villain’s point-of-view. This isn’t a necessity, however. Just one popular option. Whoever the lead character is, the books classified as dark or gothic fantasy will deal with darker themes. They aren’t horror, but they also won’t shy away from gritty, gory topics.
This usually means that dark and gothic fantasy is not where you’re going to find your knights in shining armor being pristine, upstanding citizens or your villains being pure evil with no good quality to them. While dark and gothic fantasy may not blur the lines between right and wrong, necessarily, it certainly examines the fact that our nature is not one-sided. Those who do what we would say is good may not do it for good reasons, and those who do what we term evil may do it with the best intentions. It doesn’t change what is right or wrong, of course, but it means that the novel may be more subtle in its presentation of good versus evil compared to novels of other sub-genres.
Writing Gothic and Dark Fantasy
When it comes to writing Gothic or dark fantasy, the rules are similar to writing weird fantasy. This is because, often, Gothic and dark fantasy are similar to the weird fantasy genre. However, the two aren’t exactly the same, so let’s look at some elements of Gothic and dark fantasy that you can use to make that distinction in your writing.
The Dark Side
First off, weird fantasy’s focus in on what is weird and unusual. Gothic and dark fantasy may look at that too, but it isn’t the focus. Instead, your focus in writing Gothic and dark fantasy is on the darker side of life. This could include exploring the darker aspects of human nature, human psychology, or the world as a whole. Really, anything that is a darker aspect of the world could be your focus, but the stories in the Gothic and dark fantasy sub-genre must focus on the dark side.
I’m not saying that characters in other sub-genres aren’t complex. They are. But in dark and Gothic fantasy, these characters are a little bit more complex in another way. For example, you might have a character who is an assassin but only kills those who have displayed behavior that warrants their death. Or, you may have the knight who is supposedly very altruistic but is really only doing the right things because he wants power and control or he wants to be in a position to force a girl to marry him. Any number of things could be a part of why the character is complex, but dark and Gothic fantasy usually involve characters who look all good or all evil on the surface when in fact the truth is something quite different. This is part of exploring the darker nature of humanity and our psychology, and it manifests itself most clearly in the characters and their complex psychological side.
It’s a given that any fantasy sub-genre is going to have aspects of the fantastical or supernatural involved. It wouldn’t be fantasy without it. But with dark and Gothic fantasy, these elements are blended with horror-like elements to produce something truly dark and uncanny. Now, this is done, again, with the intent of exploring some darker theme or reflection, not with the intent to horrify. But the key here is that the world and setting used for dark and Gothic fantasy isn’t going to be pretty. It will reflect the same darkness and, in many cases, straight up twisted wickedness of the people whose hearts will be explored or exposed in the exploration of the dark side we discussed earlier. This doesn’t mean everything has to be shown or has to be allowable or approved. While some authors may choose to blur lines, that isn’t a requirement. It just means that the author can’t create a perfect fairy-tale world where everything dark is swept under the rug out of the readers’ sight. No. It will be visible in varying levels of darkness and uncannyness, depending on the author’s preference. Whether or not that darkness is shown as being wrong, right, or grey area-material is dependent entirely on the author’s worldview and preferences.
Hopefully this has given you a strong starting point for writing Gothic and dark fantasy. If you’ve already been writing it but haven’t been sure what your work would actually be considered, I hope this has helped to clarify the issue for you.
You can find the further reading and resources below as always. A note of caution here is that I wouldn’t recommend any of these books for children, whether I’ve read them or not, because usually the subject matter of dark and Gothic fantasy makes it too mature for younger teens and children. Doesn’t mean the books are bad. It just means the intended audience is rarely children.
Have questions or more suggestions for writing Gothic and dark fantasy? Feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to get back to any questions promptly. Have a great week, everyone!
Further Reading and Resources
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline
Gothic Fantasy’s Short Story Compilations
Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Jewel of Seven Stars (This is an exception to my general recommendation not to give these books to children. Teens can read these books without a problem, but they likely need a strong constitution and shouldn’t read them before bed unless they’re not easily scared.)
Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat
Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Grey Woman and Other Tales