Realizing what kind of stories you want to tell is crucial to do it well. I got a sense of what I wanted early but only now taken the time to actually define it, so this is a work in progress. What exactly is a dark heroic fantasy story?
Fantasy has several subgenres when you look closer. Dark fantasy, high fantasy, heroic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and others.
The terminology is often mixed and has different meanings, which adds to the confusion. A much-used distinction is low vs. high fantasy, which appears to describe the world, the tone of the stories, and access to magic.
Lloyd Alexander defined high fantasy as fantasy in a made-up world. Low fantasy is set on Earth, but with a few fantastic elements.
High fantasy appears to involve characters that are fated or destined to perform some act. They are the Chosen Ones in a struggle between good and evil. High fantasy can also be worlds with great access to magic.
Low fantasy deal with more grounded struggles, or more realistic, if you prefer. Low fantasy can also be defined as worlds with limited access to magic.
Heroic fantasy is about characters who accomplish extraordinary deeds against poor odds. The characters should have an active agency over their stories. A clear distinction between high and heroic fantasy would be the presence of a chosen one protagonist. No one is chosen. The outcome relies on the characters’ skills and choices.
This terminology suggests J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy with low magic. Glen Cook’s The Black Company is low fantasy with high magic. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series would be low magic low fantasy.
Just about any Dungeons and Dragons novel would fit high fantasy high magic a category. Ed Greenwood’s many Forgotten Realms novels, notably Spellfire or Cormyr: A Novel, are my favorites, or perhaps Rich Baker’s Last Mythal series.
Another subgenre is dark fantasy, which includes elements of horror, or gothic fantasy that harkens back to Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. There is also Grimdark and its inevitable reaction Noblebright.
I realize it may be useful to clearly define my genre. This would make it easier to identify similar published works and to ensure I stay on target. What am I actually trying to accomplish?
My favorite is somewhere between dark fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, and heroic fantasy. I want strong character agency and arcs, not a chosen one, and the potential for world-shaking magic. What does that mean?
Dark Heroic References
I have a shortlist of inspirations that together perfectly captures my genre: Glen Cook’s Black Company and Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, and BioWare’s Dragon Age computer games. It is not a massive body of work, but what I’ve read (and played) perfectly nails what I am looking for. This is not about which book is best or I read the most, only defining what do I want to do with my own stories.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Joe Abercrombie, are close although all four differ in significant ways. Tolkien has a strong moral stance, and the magic is subtle. Howard and Lieber’s stories are episodic, allowing little growth. The characters stay the same character throughout their careers and do not change or learn anything. They just get older. Abercrombie is very light on magic.
The Features of Dark Heroic Fantasy
Using the definitions and references cited above gives me …dark heroic fantasy? Right. What does that even mean? A quick internet search actually gives me a list on Goodreads, which includes Janet E. Morris, Brent Weeks, and Scott Lynch.
Some I’ve read, and I’ve heard about a dozen more. I may be on to something. Can I distill my sources of inspiration into a clear definition?
Mature stories with hard choices and consequences in a world of powerful magic with wide-reaching impact.
High means characters have access to powerful magic, which may change the world in significant ways. Magic and the supernatural are widely known and available. Magic can be bought and sold, and often will.
Heroic means characters are complex people: good, bad, and often both. The characters are often motivated by self-interest and sometimes irrational. Morals are grey and ambiguous, and villainous acts are rooted in a series of bad choices and conflicting emotions that may have started the character with good intentions on a darker path.
Outcomes are uncertain and may appear random. Not all will end well. Antagonists are not necessarily evil, often just acting in their own self-interest. Evil can be defeated but is never truly gone.
Characters may be larger-than-life and accomplish incredible feats. The characters are exceptional and impact on their surroundings. They are not destined to save the world but may strive to do it regardless.
Luke Skywalker, Frodo, and Harry Potter are all not the most interesting character in their stories. Both the Warden and the Inquisitor In Dragon Age are arguably Chosen Ones, while Hawke clearly is not, which may explain why Dragon Age 2 is my favorite in the series.
I want stories involving a full spectrum of emotions: love, lust, fear, envy, loss, sadness, and they shift from scene to scene.
The Dark Heroic Fantasy Endgame
Obviously, dark heroic adventures often start as dark and grubby tales of theft, revenge, and murders ending with spending ill-gotten coins in seedy taverns. We have all been there, and I will not dwell on that.
Figuring out the endgame is far more challenging. What is the final act for these stories? What are the stakes in the big stories, and makes these stories interesting?
Becoming one of the gods would be the ultimate goal for a powerful character. Godhood is the definitive manifestation of self-interest. This appears mythic and grand at first glance, so keeping the story grounded requires an emphasis on motivation and consequences, not the goal itself. Why does the character want to become a god, and what are the consequences?
Ascendancy is the goal to a villain (or perhaps two) in Dragon Age: Inquisition and is likely prominent in Dragon Age 4, whenever that game is completed. Similar plots run through the Malazan books of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esselmont, authors who site Glen Cook as a source of inspiration.
The characters of this story either desire to become the god, or promote or oppose someone with this goal. Elements of the story could be the absurdity of this goal, and all the costs associated with becoming a god. This should allow relatable stories of darkness, magic, and wonder, despite the grand scale.
The Death of a God
A variant of ascendancy would be the death of a god, or the attempt to kill one. Where does that leave the world if victorious? The loss of a benevolent and beloved god would be a dark turn of events with dire consequences. What does this mean for the other gods, if any? The attempt to kill a god is undoubtedly a grand tale, and again motivations and consequences keep the story grounded, not the goal itself.
Again the Malazan stories and Dragon Age: Inquisition gives us templates to this story.
The character of this story must choose to support or oppose the attempt and must deal with the consequences. This could be a revenge story, an effort to pay back the god for past misdeeds, or a more noble attempt to rid the world of a perceived evil. Deicide raises questions of the role of the gods, a topic near and dear to my heart.
The Fate of the Kingdom
A struggle of control of the kingdom is as classic as it can be, with The Black Company (starting in Cook’s first books) and Dragon Age 2 (or the whole series for that matter) as excellent examples. Elric of Melnibone is the same, except this is where Moorcock starts, which says something about the scale we’re talking about.
The threat can be an invasion, civil war, or a struggle of succession. The characters grow from lowly citizens to champions and generals. They must involve themselves with any warring factions, and may eventually decide the outcome of the conflict.
The Returning Darkness
An ancient returning evil is a fantasy trope that is difficult to ignore. A supernatural terror of the past grows in power, and the day of its return draws closer. This darkness can be a sleeping god, an imprisoned archfiend, an undead archmage, or a variation.
Sauron of The Lord of the Rings, the archdemons or Corypheus of Dragon Age, Lord Voldemort of Harry Potter, and the Crippled God of the Malazan stories are excellent examples. The devil in the John Carpenter movie The Prince of Darkness is another.
Frodo and Harry Potter were fated to face this threat, while the scientists in Prince of Darkness was not.
The characters of this tale learn about the impending doom and may choose to rally against it. Plot points include learning about the threat, fighting minions along the way, and finally, some confrontation at the end. The power level and abundance of magic may vary, but there is no reason to hold back on magic if what you want.
A supernatural genocide means killing part of the population with magic. Dragon Age: Inquisition, and all likelihood Dragon Age 4, features elements of this story. Genocide is also a possible outcome if Voldemort and Sauron had won their wars.
Again motivations and consequences are what make the story enjoyable. How does the villain justify genocide, and can the characters relate to these reasons? What if the characters have their own grudges against those who are the target of the villain’s plot?
The story begins when the villain sets the plan in motion, and the characters must figure out how to deal with this once they learn about the plot. Perhaps the villain is preparing a dark ritual and is gathering the rituals to complete the spell. The laws of magic could be changing, leaving some vulnerable. The characters must investigate, deal with minions of the villain, and eventually deal with the source of the threat, and perhaps also the villain.
The End of the World
The end of the world would be the final threat, and could potentially be part of any of the plots above.
Considerations, Words of Caution
Stories include mature topics, although not necessarily graphic detail. Mature is not the same as sadistic and cruel, and is no excuse to be gross or mean. There is a difference between abuse as a topic and being abusive, and it is essential to realize that boundaries differ. “Mature” is not an acceptable excuse to be crude or a jerk.
My sources of inspiration above is a very white male list. The BioWare staff writers include women credited for some of my favorite storylines and chapters, so there is that. I hope anyone who wants to add to the reading list comment below.
Build your own dark heroic fantasy world today.
- Creating a Fantasy Setting
- Creating Fantasy Names and Languages
- Writing Fantasy Timelines
- Writing Fantasy Religions
- Write Fantasy Noble Houses
The Reading List
Six Consequences of High Magic by Oren Askenazi on Mythcreants discusses how high magic changes a fantasy world.
The Difficulties of Running Low Magic Campaigns thread started by Lewis Pulsipher on the Enworld forums offer some perspectives.
The Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) devotes a few pages to define fantasy genres. The book does not adequately describe what I’m looking for without crossing the streams but is a worthwhile read.
There is also this:
— Paul W (@palwwrites) September 26, 2019