What is Dark Fantasy? Your Guide to Literary Devastation

Abi Wurdeman
May 21, 2024

Do you love dark and decaying landscapes, depraved sorcerers who dabble in mind control, and full-on armies of the undead?

It’s okay. You can say so here. This is a safe place for discussing the magnetic pull of the grim, gruesome, and grotesque. 

After all, we’re here to talk about the dark fantasy genre—the genre that takes all the mystery and magic of traditional fantasy and adds nonstop horror and devastation. 

Dark fantasy throws despicable characters into the spotlight. It toys with themes of hopelessness, oppression, and death. It paints unspeakable horrors that challenge readers to confront the darkness within themselves and cast a wary eye toward humanity as a whole.

And somehow, in doing all these things, dark fantasy serves as a cathartic outlet for many of its fans… sometimes even a refuge from the harsh realities of the real world. 

If you can relate to that, you’re in the right place—especially if your goal is to write dark fantasy yourself.

We’re about to cover everything you need to know to dip your toes into the murky waters of fantasy’s most chilling subgenre. You’ll learn:

  • What dark fantasy is
  • How it’s different from other fantasy subgenres
  • The elements of dark fantasy
  • Famous works in this genre
  • Tips for writing a dark fantasy story
  • What readers love about it

So join me, won’t you? The wind will be howling. The cannibalistic villagers will stare at you with sunken, hungry eyes. The ending will not be happy.

It will be the perfect journey.

What is Dark Fantasy?

A fantasy character with pointy ears, long narrow horns, and a marking on their forehead touches a finger to their chin and looks off into the distance.

Our first order of business is to define dark fantasy.

A dark fantasy is a fantasy narrative in which supernatural horror is woven into the story elements.

That is to say, it’s not just “fantasy meets horror.” In horror novels, the gory and grotesque hide in dark corners and leap out at you. Monsters disrupt normal life. 

But in dark fantasy?

The monsters are normal life.

Dark fantasy settings are horrifying by nature, with dystopian landscapes, oppressive rulers, and dark magic. The horror genre presents a shocking departure from reality, while dark fantasy presents a hideous reality from which there is no escape. 

Fun stuff.

For the most part, the characters who populate dark fantasy stories are either rotten to the bone (literally and/or figuratively), miserable and oppressed, or—in the case of the main characters—morally ambiguous anti-heroes

There can be altruistic, hopeful characters in a dark fantasy novel. But, as we’ll discuss, that personality will probably get you killed in this kind of world.

See, dark fantasies tend to take a more pessimistic view of things. They tell tales of power falling into the wrong hands and greed prevailing over generosity. It’s a genre that suggests that the potential for evil is baked into all human souls—that we might all be villains under the right circumstances.

This seems like a good time to mention that dark fantasy stories rarely have a happy ending


You might occasionally hear the word “grimdark” used interchangeably with dark fantasy. Grimdark is actually, technically, a dark fantasy subgenre. 

We won’t spend a lot of time breaking these subgenres down today, but here’s a quick rundown of two big ones just so you’re familiar with the terms:

Grimdark - This is peak hopelessness. The world of a grimdark story isn’t just dark and hellish. It’s virtually impossible to improve. The good are always punished, the protagonist is only concerned with their own advancement and survival, and the ending is reliably unhappy.

Nobledark - I can’t say this is the opposite of grimdark. We’re still in the realm of dark fantasy, after all, with all its unspeakable horrors. But while grimdark stories feature anti-heroic protagonists who are incurably self-interested, nobledark heroes and heroines are good people trying to improve the nightmare for everyone.

Grimdark might be the way to go if you like your dark fantasy dark. Nobledark is a good option if you love a little black magic and armies of the undead, but would still like to let a little hope into the narrative.

Dark Fantasy vs. Other Fantasy Subgenres

An old leather journal sits open on a desk beside bottles of potion, a key, and a feather quill.

We’ve talked a bit about what separates the dark fantasy genre from the horror genre. But what about other fantasy subgenres? How is dark fantasy different?

It actually might help to start with the similarities. Dark fantasy tends to share many characteristics with high fantasy. Both genres are set in imaginary worlds (or horrifying distortions of our real world) populated with fictional creatures and captivating magic. 

But when you start digging into the storytelling elements of each one, you can see that dark fantasy twists and deconstructs the norms of high fantasy.

Here’s what I mean:

The main character - In most fantasy subgenres, especially high fantasy, the protagonist is a noble hero(ine) who ultimately cares deeply for the greater good, even if they stumble into their mission reluctantly.

As we’ve discussed, dark fantasies largely feature anti-heroic main characters or even villain protagonists.

All the other characters - In most other fantasy novels, you’ll encounter beings who land on all parts of the morality spectrum. You’ll see villains, heroes, and ethically neutral side characters who are just trying to get through their day.

In dark fantasy, most characters are despicable, depraved, or—at the very least—purely self-interested. Many of them come by these vices honestly. After all, the sweet don’t survive in this hellish universe.

You sometimes see good-hearted folk in dark fantasies, but they’re usually punished for it, especially in grimdark stories.

The magic -  In other subgenres, magic can be a tool for both good and evil. In dark fantasy, however, it’s almost always a terrifying force. The few who wield it are power-hungry oppressors who have no ethical qualms about using magic for torture, mind control, and other bone-chilling purposes. 

The mood - While all fantasy stories deal in marvelous worlds and large-scale drama, the vibe varies quite a bit between subgenres. Unlike the adventurous and optimistic mood of high fantasy, for example, dark fantasy goes for something more along the lines of chilling, hopeless, and foul.

The themes - Light triumphs over darkness. The greatest power is a pure heart. When the oppressed band together, they can change the world for the better.

These are not dark fantasy themes. Dark fantasy themes are more like: 

  • No good deed goes unpunished. 
  • Only the ruthless survive. 
  • Morality is relative.

The conflict - You’ve probably figured this one out by now. In dark fantasy conflicts, the baddie wins a lot. And when the main character wins, the victory does very little—if anything—to improve the devastating reality of their horrific existence.

Even in nobledark stories, a triumph for the greater good is usually just a tiny little plink of improvement in a vast ocean of living nightmares.

Common Elements in the Dark Fantasy Genre

Human skulls piled on top of one another in neat lines.

So, how do you bring your grim and grotesque tale to life for your reader? When an avid dark fantasy fan picks up a book in this genre, what exactly are they expecting to see?

Here are a few staple elements of dark fantasy stories:

Death and decay - Ruins and graveyards. Zombies and body horror. Pretty much every dark fantasy novel features a world that seems to be decomposing before the reader’s eyes.

Abuse of power - Good people barely exist in dark fantasy, let alone hold power. Those in control are profoundly corrupt. Governments are oppressive. Sorcerers are sadistic. Even the gods… well, we’ll get to them in a minute.

Graphic violence - Torture, mutilation, and brutal murder are pretty standard in this genre. Readers expect it. There are, however, some important things to keep in mind as you weave violence into your narrative. We’ll explore those issues later.

Scars and disfigurement - The characters in this world have been through it, and they wear the proof on their bodies. Dark fantasy is packed with beings who have endured everything from near-starvation to violent attacks to actual death, and it shows.

One quick tip on this, though: be careful about making direct associations between body differences and evil, as we live in a world full of good people in all kinds of different bodies. I also recommend researching the topic of ableism in horror/dark fantasy so you can make thoughtful decisions about how you apply this element in your story.

Dark magic - The magic in dark fantasy novels isn’t there to heal wounds, remove barriers, and grow crops. It’s there to manipulate, murder, and arrange playdates with evil spirits.

Cruel deities - The gods of dark fantasy aren’t exactly nurturers, protectors, and providers. At best, they’re indifferent to lower beings and observe their suffering with mild amusement. Other times, they take joy in torturing those beings themselves. 

They may also be violent and jealous, punishing those who don’t give them proper adoration. 

Moral relativity - Do the ends justify the means? Are all beings capable of wickedness when pushed to the brink? What does it even mean to be moral in a world where your survival depends on your willingness to cheat, manipulate, and even kill?

The extremely dystopian nature of dark fantasy sets the stage for a lot of questions designed to make readers squirm. We find ourselves seeing this universe through the eyes of a morally ambiguous protagonist, asking ourselves who we would be under the same circumstances…

…and what we really believe about humanity’s capacity for evil.

Famous Examples of Dark Fantasy

A person in a white dress and crooked crown stands in an old cathedral, stretching their arms wide as loose book pages fall around them.

Is all this dark stuff sounding like your jam? Think you might want to write a dark fantasy story of your own?

Then your first step is reading dark fantasy stories. Reading is the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t. It helps you understand what fans of the genre look for in books like yours and nail the tone and tropes every time.

Plus, it’s a well-documented fact that the most successful authors are voracious readers.

So here are some famous dark fantasy novels to get you started:

The Poppy War Series by R. F. Kuang

Kuang has summarized this series as an answer to the question, “What if Mao Zedong was a teenage girl?”

Heavily inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, this trilogy follows Rin, a girl orphaned by war who trains in an elite military academy, allies herself with a vengeful god, and gradually transforms from a victim of oppression into a genocidal oppressor.

Talk about a negative character arc.

If you’re interested in writing dark fantasy that draws from real history, this trilogy might inspire your process.

A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin

This is the series that inspired the HBO series, Game of Thrones. (That’s also the name of the first book in the series.)

This series is both epic and dark, centering on a violent fictional world where the rules of morality are pretty tough to nail down. You’ve got political corruption, sexual taboos (not to mention violence), constant power struggles, and looming supernatural threats.

Standard dark fantasy stuff.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ready for fun with deities? American Gods features a host of gods from several different cultures all scattered across America. That includes ancient deities like Odin, Anansi, and Shiva, as well as gods of the modern world like Media and Technology Boy. And they’re all battling for relevance.

This is a good one to read if you’re interested in exploring dark fantasy in a context that hits a little closer to home. It also features a protagonist who’s actually a fairly decent human being, so if you’re curious about venturing outside the norm of the nasty main character, American Gods might offer some inspiration.

Writing Dark Fantasy

A person writes by candlelight in a dark room.

Ready to get to work on your own dark fantasy novel?

We’ve got a ton of articles on writing fantasy, including guides for:

The tips you find in these articles will help you brainstorm, plan, and draft a spellbinding fantasy no matter what subgenre you’re working with.

But, as we’ve discussed, dark fantasy is its own kind of grotesque beast. We might as well explore a few bonus tips that apply specifically to writing dreadful tales set in devastating worlds.  

Finding the Perfect Blend

When you write dark fantasy, you’re essentially blending three different styles: fantasy, horror, and realism.

The fantasy part includes all the supernatural and magical elements, including all creatures, beings, and worlds you imagined into literary existence.

The horrific elements include all that is shocking, disturbing, and outright terrifying. In dark fantasy, we’re largely talking about supernatural horror, but there can also be acts of brutality that are just as possible in the real world.

Realism is the ingredient you might not have recognized immediately, but it’s in there. After all, as an artistic movement, Realism is all about refusing to pretty things up and instead showing the full truth of existence. The scowl on the face. The scab on the hand. 

Dark fantasy does that in, like, a really aggressive way. Though it’s decked out in the imaginary trappings of fantasy and horror, its tales of subjugation, oppression, and manipulation through fear reflect the very real failings of our own world. 

The trick to writing this genre, however, is to know how to balance and blend these three distinct styles.

Ultimately, you’re writing a fantasy—that’s your base. The world and its history, the characters that inhabit it, the conflict and presence of magic—it’s all rooted in fantasy storytelling.

Then you weave in the horror. Like, generously. The world is dark, dangerous, and in a constant state of decay. The characters either bear the scars (literal or figurative) of a violent world or they are the source of brutality. Monsters roam freely. Villains are powerful beyond comprehension.

Then there’s the realism. This comes through in the inner lives of your characters: their fears, goals, and motivations. Who do they choose to be under the circumstances? What are they willing to do to survive or dominate? How does the chain of cause and effect—of suffering and fighting, of greed and manipulation—reflect worst in our real world?

And that’s your special blend. Hope you like it bitter.  

Crafting Dark Fantasy Characters

A warlock in a dark clock reaches out with a crooked scepter.

All the same rules of character building apply when you’re writing a dark fantasy. You want to give these people (or beings) defined goals and clear motivations, a balance of strengths and weaknesses, relevant backstories, and compelling personality traits

You can click those links for help on any of those things or start with this ultimate character template.

Beyond those basics, dark fantasy characters come with a few extra considerations.

First, let’s talk about those morally ambiguous protagonists. The main characters of dark fantasy stories tend to be opportunistic at best, nasty and villainous at worst. They don’t care about anyone but themselves and any good they do for the world is an accidental side effect of their own selfish pursuits.

Unless you’re writing nobledark fiction, your main character probably has zero interest in improving their hellish universe. It’s too big of a job and not their problem. They just want to survive and thrive within it.

The trick here is to paint this character’s perspective and inner life in such a way that the reader honestly kinda gets it. They may not admire your protagonist. They probably won’t celebrate this character’s choices. But they’ll understand how your anti-hero(ine) got to this point.

After all, your supporting characters will primarily fall into these three categories:

  • Nightmarish villains
  • Oppressed beings trying to keep their head down and stay alive
  • Kind optimists whose hopefulness only gets them brutalized or killed

In a world where those appear to be the only options, morally ambiguous protagonists are about the best you can hope for.

Nailing the Gray Areas

As we’ve discussed, this is not a genre for black-and-white thinking. In a setting this dystopian, good and bad are laughably simplistic concepts. The challenge for you as the author is to get your readers on board with your cynical thought experiment.

So how can you usher your audience into the gray with your dark fantasy novel?

All the character development we just discussed is a great start. After all, main characters are the readers’ eyes and ears. Your audience experiences the story through your protagonist, and if your protagonist can help them understand why traditional morality makes no sense in this world, you’re well on your way to getting your readers to squirm around in the gray areas.

On that note, artful worldbuilding is key here, too. What kind of environment, society, or system of governance would be so destructive that all its inhabitants would favor depravity and self-interest over organization and community?

Finally, you’ll want to work a lot of gray into your story’s conflicts, too, especially the central conflict. In many dark fantasy stories, it’s not a battle between Goodie and Baddie. It’s between Baddie and Worsie. In which case, how bad is the baddie really

Strategic Brutality

As I mentioned before, it’s not at all unusual to find graphic violence in a dark fantasy novel.

But while brutality is one of the more horrific elements in these stories, it’s still a narrative element. That is to say, it should have a role to play in your story beyond shocking your readers.

How do the scenes further the narrative? How do they heighten the conflict? What do they communicate about the characters involved or your dark fantasy setting? Try to be more specific than “It shows he’s really evil” or “It makes the protagonist madder.”

Don’t just think up the most horrifying scenario you can and then shove it into your story. Know why it has to be this scene involving these characters in this moment.

Also, if you’re thinking of including sexual assault in your novel, please give it thoughtful consideration first. Statistically speaking, you’ll have many readers who’ve experienced that form of violence in their lives. 

Please think twice before adding a scene like that merely for shock value, because it’s easy, or because the assault of a female character will motivate a male character to do something dangerous or heroic. If you decide to include it, do your research so you can write your survivor with respect and realistic complexity.

Worldbuilding and Atmosphere

A ghost floats between the trees of a dense forest.

Worldbuilding is just as essential in dark fantasy as it is in traditional fantasy. Your setting establishes the tone for your story, sets the stage for conflict, and helps your readers understand your characters better.

Just as with traditional fantasy, your goal is to create a rich and complex universe and immerse your audience in that universe from the very first page.

I already linked our fantasy worldbuilding guide above, but here it is again so you don’t have to scroll back. The same principles you learn in that article apply to your darker tales, too, but I’d like to share a few additional tips for crafting dark fantasy settings: 

The Physical Space

The physical location is usually what comes to mind first when we talk about a story’s setting. Landscapes, architecture, flora and fauna, the boundaries between territories… all that stuff is just as important in a dark fantasy as it is in traditional fantasy.

As you’ve likely figured out by now, you’re going to want to go dark with this particular setting. Life is miserable here. Everything is marked by death and suffering.

It’s giving gothic. It’s giving undead. It’s giving maniacal laughter emanating from the unseen depths of a decaying cathedral.

Dark fantasies often include settings like graveyards and ancient ruins. There are foreboding fortresses shielding those in power from those they’ve oppressed. Haunted forests conceal depraved witches and warlocks.

And, of course, nature doesn’t do much to brighten the vibe. The so-called fauna are more like abominations. Any crops or natural resources can do harm than good. It’s not uncommon for dark fantasy characters to suffer violence at the hands of nature, whether they’re pummeled in a raging windstorm or see their home turned to rubble in an unexplained earthquake. 

In short, what’s the least hospitable world you can imagine? Start your brainstorming there. Pick what speaks to you. Dim the sun and add some rot.

The Role of Magic

Fantasy worldbuilding almost always involves creating magic systems. It doesn’t matter which subgenre you’re writing. 

Whether your story operates in hard or soft magic, there should always be some base level of understanding for your readers. Who can use this magic? Who can’t? What are the risks and limitations of wielding supernatural powers?

In the dark fantasy genre, there are already some implied restrictions for your magic system. In these types of stories, the supernatural is almost always linked to evil. The wicked use magic to manipulate, torture, kill, or commune with dark spirits.

At the very least, magic has a corrupting effect. It fuels greed and makes the user thirst for even more power. It might inspire interest from those who believe they can use it for good, but in a dark fantasy story, magic comes at a high price. Anyone who initially seeks it out with good intentions is sure to be corrupted by it or punished for using it.

To sum up: there are no fun flying spells and self-stirring teaspoons here. Just a lot of dark magic that will eat your soul or get you killed.

Governing Systems

Another important question to ask yourself when building any fantasy world is “Who holds the power here?”

In a dark fantasy setting, the answer is never reassuring. The being or beings in power are corrupt and cruel. They most likely live much more comfortably than those they govern—relative to the hellish nature of their physical world, of course. In fact, in many cases, they manipulate the monsters and magic of this world to terrorize and subjugate their citizens.

As is the case in traditional fantasy, you’ll probably want to explore how this system of governance came to be what it is. 

How did the highest-ranking beings claim the power they now hold? Did they meet with resistance then? Do they meet with resistance now? What do their citizens know about them? 

This is a dark fantasy story, so the odds are good that they seized power through war, murder, or some other form of oppressive force.

Explore this history even if your current ruler is a monarch. How long has this family been in power? Were they all tyrants or is this one uniquely evil?

In the process of creating your governing system, you’ll discover several other critical details about your fictional world. You’ll learn what your characters have been through, what they fear most, and why they’d never dream of attempting to change their circumstances.

Deities and Religion

Dark fantasy provides endless opportunities to explore the darker side of religion.

This subgenre is full of cults, brutal rituals, and atrocities committed in the name of blind faith. You might have a charismatic leader who brainwashes the masses or a maniacal ruler who demands to be worshiped on penalty of death.

Then there are the gods.

As we’ve discussed, the deities in a dark fantasy story are giddily antagonistic. They take joy in the suffering of mortals and delight in the power to cause pain.

An apathetic god is the best-case scenario for a dark fantasy character. Because if the deities aren’t apathetic, they’re actively sadistic.


Once you’ve built out all the other horrific elements of your fictional world, it will be fairly easy to imagine the society that emerges from it.

Typically, the beings that populate a universe like this live in a constant state of fear and distrust. They’re trying to either survive the harsh conditions of their physical world, avoid the brutal punishment of a fickle and tyrannical ruler, or both.

It is, without question, an every-being-for-themselves situation.

Everyone has secrets. Everyone exists in psychological and emotional isolation. Everyone’s giving the side-eye. 

This is a world where it’s virtually impossible to build something that resembles a true community. Alliances are risky. And, as I said before, it’s kind of no wonder that the main character only knows how to look out for number one.

Naturally, this ensures that the powers that be continue to be. After all, a fractured society is easier to control than a united one.

Why Dark Fantasy Readers Love the Genre

A dark fantasy style landscape—dark and deserted with the milky way above an unusual, wave-shaped rock formation.

Now for the fun question.

Why does anyone read dark fantasy? What does your audience get out of disappearing inside a world that’s even more painful and devastating than the one they already live in?

For one thing, this subgenre creates a safe place where readers can confront difficult themes. Our aggressive news cycle gives us nonstop horrors to process. Genocide, cults, corrupt politicians… it’s overwhelming, especially when it feels so close.

In a dark fantasy, we can explore those themes from a distance, as if they’re separate from us. After all, we’re not living in a decaying city bordered by a haunted forest and controlled by an army of demons. (At least, not at the time of this writing.)

Not only does dark fantasy offer a less threatening way to examine real-life atrocities, it provides a cathartic experience for many readers. In the real world, a person can start to feel like no one else sees or cares about vast corruption in government or societies that are splintered by fear and discrimination.

But in dark fantasy, it’s all there. The ending might not be happy. The villain probably won’t get what’s coming to them. But there’s no denying who the villain is or how this scab of a universe came to be such a living nightmare.

Finally, this subgenre invites readers to indulge in dark, unanswerable questions—the kind of questions that aren’t always encouraged in polite conversation.

Is every person capable of evil under the right circumstances? Does our society use a broken scale to weigh morality? Will fear and greed ultimately outpower our desire to create and connect?

I suppose what it all comes down to is that dark fantasy is a place where we’re free to sit with the darker side of being human. There aren’t many taboos here. We can be curious about death and suffering and cruelty without having to explain ourselves or clarify that we’re not deviants.

And that’s oddly lovely, like a decaying mausoleum in the blood-red moonlight.

Venture Into the Darkness

It’s a big job, writing dark fantasy. It requires complex worldbuilding, next-level character creation, and a devious imagination.

But I know you’re up to the task. And if you could use a little extra help balancing it all, I’ve got one last tip for you.

Write your dark fantasy novel with Dabble.

If you’re not familiar with Dabble, it’s an all-in-one writing tool with everything you need to brainstorm, plot, draft, revise, and format your novel. Craft detailed character profiles. Use Story Notes to create a worldbuilding bible that lives just one click away from your manuscript.

Then there’s Dabble’s most famous feature, the Plot Grid. This plotting tool makes it easy to track all elements of your fantasy story visually, including character arcs, timelines, and more.

You can even use Dabble’s fantasy novel template to guide your story-planning process. 

Not a Dabbler yet? I’ve got more good news. You can try all the features I just mentioned plus a bajillion others for free for 14 days. To start your free trial, click this link and keep your credit card in your wallet. You won’t need it to sign up.

Now get out there and start writing. Your fantastical world of horrors isn’t going to create itself.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.