What is dark fantasy? [let's talk about this genre]

If a book starts out with a happy tone and then shows that “nothing is what it seems” and goes dark, but then goes back to a happy tone, can that book still be dark fantasy?

Does dark fantasy always have to have dark elements in the beginning to set the tone? I looked up “dark fantasy books” on Google and you know how they suggest photos of books? Well, the first one was Shadow and Bone. And I remember how it begins: not dark. It does eventually get dark, but it takes a while for it to get there.

Maybe we don’t trust Google then, what about websites that suggest dark fantasy books? White Stag by Kara Barbieri was listed as one. And I went on Amazon. It begins with a haunting castle and the first chapter has a sudden fight scene with blood and everything (which seemed to come out of nowhere for shock value, but that’s just my opinion and I haven’t read the entire book). It did give the sense that it would continue to be dark.

So, yes, that IS dark and fantasy, so it’s dark fantasy, right?

But can you have a book that is continuously dark? Wouldn’t you get exhausted reading? If there’s no rest from the unknown, the horror, the fear, the tension…isn’t that just kind of depressing?

That’s why something like Shadow and Bone which doesn’t begin dark is considered dark fantasy.


Extra questions:

  1. Off the top of your head, what are some other dark fantasy books you can think of?
  2. Would you consider His Dark Materials trilogy as dark fantasy? Harry Potter as dark fantasy? Warrior Cats as dark fantasy? Where do you draw the line between “this fantasy is kinda dark, but it’s not in the dark fantasy genre” and “this is in the dark fantasy genre”?

Tvtropes can help a bit better.


I don’t think the tone necessarily constitutes a book to be considered “dark”.


Then what do you think makes a fantasy book “dark fantasy” and not just fantasy? Where’s the distinction?

Is there a distinction?

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I guess when it darker and grittier than most fantasy. Like dark fantasy has some of that horror element to it while still being fantasy based.

The only dark fantasy that comes to my mind is Berserk (anime/manga).

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Is Harry Potter dark fantasy at all? Or just fantasy with dark elements?

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Harry Potter doesn’t feel dark enough to be a dark fantasy story.

HP is more low fantasy than anything.

Just my thoughts.

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Dark Fantasy would be A Song of ice and fire/A Game of Thrones.

Books of that nature are considered dark fantasy.


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Books get labeled for their overall feel. Generally speaking, a book that has no hopes from the start is a pizza cutter (all edge and no point), so if there is no light element, then its likely a stagnant mess, as far as Im concerned


I guess we need to establish the definition of “dark”. People say it’s horror and demons and whatnot, but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate.

I think it comes down to harm. I think this is a definition that can be used across genres (i.e. dark romance) How is harm portrayed in a story physically and/or psychologically? Is it explicit? Is it taboo? Is it nightmare-inducing? Is it gratuitous?

So a regular fantasy book, say Harry Potter, while it deals with themes like death and grief, is not explicit in its depiction of harm. A dark fantasy, like Prince of Thorns, might go hard on the violence. Not every depiction of death, grief and violence or other heavy themes make a story dark. It depends on how it’s depicted.


I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I think it should continuously get darker. Obviously there would be breaks in a well written book. I forget technical term for it. De-escalating? It’s at the end of every plot point, where the characters take some breathing space and reflect on what’s happening and prepare for their next move (while still being under a constant threat).

Nope, nope and I’m not familiar Warrior Cats but it’s probably not dark fantasy. According to my definition, if it’s YA then it’s probably not dark. Whoops Shadow & Bone :sweat_smile:


Depends on how much screen time the happy and dark tones get. If its only dark for a third of the book, i’d definitely so no.

I mean you could probbaly get away with this easy, but the first chapter is usually what sets the tone/sets up the rest of the story. And depending on the reader and how much time they guve a book to lure them in, it could be the one and only chapter that makes or breaks their attention. It definitely doesnt have to be full out dark or as dark as the rest of the book, but should definitely not hide those tones either. Lets readers know what is going to come.

Absolutely. And dark fantasy never is dark 100% of the time. People who love reading and writing dark fantasy (like myself) dont want it 100% of the time. Unless the book is acitvely promoted as such (think A Series of Unfortunate Events, but even that i felt had its good moments). Hell, dark fantasy doesnt even have to have a dark or tragic/sad ending. (I dont in my books. Theyre usually happy-toned or bittersweet.)

Belladonna. It deals with a huge theme of death which is…dark to say the least.
The Serpent and the Wings of Night. This one also deals with lots of death and bloodshed. Its like hunger games meets vampires, so it deals with lots of death and sad tones, and gaining power through murder.

Themes. Based on what kinds of themes it deals with. And obviously fantasy will deal with some things like death, or addiction, or other dark topics. But its not the vibe of the book. Its not the message. Its not what the plot centers around. Dark fantasy deals with dark topics that take up the majority of the story and are weaved into the message, themes, and plot.

Take for example my current WIP, Tainted. Its a vampire romance that deals a ton with death and grief and violence and learning to make your path in a world you weren’t raised in. It involves lots of trauma, and bloodshed, and dark things. But theres also light moments of second chance romance, new friendships, found family…

It can be tricky sometimes, for sure.


HP is honestly more magical realism than fantasy, imo.

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That makes sense. :thinking:

Yeah, for me it would, but it also depends how ‘dark’ the middle portion was. If it was so heavy that there are effects felt till the end, then yes. If it was a foray into dark fantasy, but gets back on track soon, then no, it’s not a dark fantasy. It’s just a fantasy with dark elements.

Not necessarily. For me, when I think about the book’s tone, if it gives a dark, gritty effect, that’s what I consider dark fantasy.

Not necessarily. There are books in the grimdark genre like that, and while there is hope, the world is just so dark that it’s just dark all through. Books by Joe Abercrombie are usually described this way (I have not read them, but this is what I see in reviews.)

No. Harry Potter’s later books do have darker elements, from Goblet of Fire, and Order of Phoenix is one of the darkest in the series, but it’s not a dark fantasy. Harry potter still has an underlying sort of upbeat tone to it, and doesn’t really descibe the dark elements in detail. For me, this is a series with dark elements, but not necessarily dark fantasy.

What comes to me when I think of it in terms of tone. If the tone seems dark instantly, it’s dark fantasy. If not, then it has dark elements, but it’s not dark.

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I would think so. I feel as if “dark” anything has its own interpretation, though.

Yes you can have a book like that, and no not necessarily. Horror and thrillers don’t always come with a resting point where nothing just happens. Something is always happening that continues the story, and it can be pretty dark throughout the whole thing. Like, for example, Precious is a movie that, to me, can only be watched once because of its heavy depressing themes. It’s continuously depressing, and even though there is a decent ending, it’s still very heavy.

But darkness doesn’t have to include depressing themes—it’s just the edgier version of fantasy. Tim Burton movies and shows, for example, are of dark fantasy. Think of Coraline, Corpse Bride, and Wednesday. Tim Burton, to me, is the king of gothic-style films and portrays dark fantasy as such.

Coraline which was written by Neil Gaiman.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco.

And Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco.

Off the top of my head, anyway.

I have not read His Dark Materials, so I cannot give an answer. But Harry Potter, on the other hand, merged from fantasy to dark fantasy as the series went on. I believe it mostly changed around book four or five, because the themes became more dark and sinister. Though, the series did change a lot for various reasons. Harry grew up along with his audience, for example. The first three books are middle grade (meant for readers 8-12), and from book four on, it bloomed into YA fiction (readers 13-18). Because of this shift, Rowling was able to have more leeway on how it was written based on the content.

The darkness of the content even matched with the movies:

Warner Bros. knew what was up with how serious the series gets.

Based on the content. If the story has fearful content, or there is a lot of darkened themes that make it gloomy, then I’d probably mark it as dark fantasy. However, you can always do your own homework if you aren’t particularly sure on if it’s dark fantasy or not.

Like for example, my sci-fi fantasy may have dark themes but it’s not a dark fantasy. I don’t have much “fear factor” within it, and while it can be depressing, it shows more of a dystopian feel to it than “this is just downright edgy.”

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I talked with my partner about it, too. We both agreed A Game of Thrones is dark fantasy.

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So, after posting this, my partner and I discussed and we weren’t entirely sure about LOTR (both of us referring to the movies and not the books). It does get quite deep and philosophical at times, and does have some pretty gruesome fight scenes. There is a sense of dread with a sense of hope throughout the story.

I looked up a little more and it seems that some people think dark fantasy are dreadful stories that are driven by hope. It’s not the gore or the unknown or the fear that make up dark fantasy, but the hope.

Thought that was interesting.


Hmm, that’s an interesting take. So, harm as in violence? Like a battle where characters are hurt? Could the harm be more on the mental level? Like losing hope? Throughout the story, the characters gain and lose hope over and over. Makes me think of LOTR (only seen the movies) where there’s this constant dread, and everyone’s hope is hanging by a thread (unintentional rhyme).

Ah, I like this distinction. Seems quite clear.

You could have a fantasy story that has a death or two or three, but the main theme and topic of the story is not about death, but about the hero overcoming the villain and finally loving themselves. There can still be a bittersweet ending though.

Then if you have a story that has a lot of death, and there are topics about using murder to gain things, and the story revolves around a character going on a revenge journey with the outcome being unsolved, that would probably be a dark fantasy? Peace is had, but the issues were not really resolved and probably never would be because that’s life, or whatever.

(just coming up with these examples off the top of my head, so they might not be so good :stuck_out_tongue: )