May 27, 2019, 04:29:59 AM

Author Topic: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)  (Read 1521 times)

Offline Yora

Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« on: December 16, 2017, 02:43:15 PM »
As I mentioned a while back, I've put my plans for a prehistoric Sword & Sorcery series on hold for the time being and instead turned my attention to trying something that is more similar to my favorite movies, comics, and videogames that I actually spend most of my time with. (There are sadly few books like that which I've found, but it's write what you would like to read after all.) I like stories that are introspective with gloomy atmosphere and moments of high tension potential violence and overwhelming obstacles, but which are ultimately about reaffirming identity and convictions in highly unfavorable situations and environments. And scary supernatural weirdness. So basically Dark Fantasy with a focus on gloom and not gore.

Discussing specifics seems to always be more productive than generalities, so here is the concept that has been emerging over the past month. Let me know what you think of it, or even just what comes to mind when reading something like this:

I've long been thinking that the influence of Northern European history and culture has always been almost limited to the western North Sea region of the Vikings and English. Which is admittedly cool, but it's not like we don't have anything interesting and fascinating in the eastern Baltic Sea region as well, where Skandinavians were just one of many different ethnic groups that all played major roles in its history. Some people might have heard of Finish gods and have a vague image of medieval Russia. But I would think that even here most people wouldn't know that German merchant lords and crusaders, pagan Lithuanian, Mongol hordes, and Byzantine Greeks were all engaged in the same big struggle for power and massive wealth. The period I am most interested in is the 13th and 14th century, where lots of stuff happened that ultimately concluded with a huge battle of Crusaders vs. Pirates. I first had the idea to make a fantasy adaptation of this period, but that would be a massive epic spanning 120 years and not really much about the themes I am most familiar with, so I decided to only draw lots of elements and influences from this region and period. (Still an option for a magnum opus one day if I end up making a career out of it, right?)

The world that is taking shape won't be very large. Half the size of Europe maybe, or perhaps Middle-Earth? There's a whole planet, but I think that only a small region needs to be described in detail. It is populated by a single race of human- and elf-like mortals, but a great ethnic diversity with differences as big as between homo sapiens, neanderthals, and homo heidelbergensis. Technologically, societies are about the level of 13th century Europe, but people are much wider dispersed and overall population density is quite low. (Again, think something like Middle-Earth.)
The One Big DifferenceTM of the setting is the presence of an allreaching field of supernatural power that not only is of different strength in different areas, but can also change in local strength over the course of centuries, but occasionally also years or just months. People have learned long ago that regions of low magical intensity are the most suitable for long term habitation as spirits tend to be drawn to regions of high magical strength where their own powers are greatest. Where the magial energies are weak, the numbers of spirits are low and they are less active, assertive, and capricious. But as the strength of magic is always changing, mass migrations are a persistent aspect of life. Kingdoms and great cities often last only a couple of hundred years until they decline and are eventually abandoned, with the diminished populations dispersing into neighboring realms or the wilds. At the same time, newly accessible regions are constantly being settled, often revealing the ruins of ancient cities whose origins have been forgotten by any of the short lived realms of the present.
Life in the kingdoms and even in newly settled areas is a pretty mundane affair of working the fields and the occasional minor wars. The decline and abandonment of a region is always a dreadful time, though. It's not that most of the returning spirits are directly attacking the inhabitants of the land, but their presence makes the land fight back harder against farming, logging, and hunting, making life harder and more dangerous to everyone. Common folk and merchants seeking a better life elsewhere are always the first to leave, but once the powerful landowners give up their claims and leave with all their remaining wealth to more prosperous lands, all that remains behind are lawless desolations. Eventually various megical phenomena appear in random places, which can make large areas completely uninhabitable and lethal dangers to anyone getting too close. It's a time of scavengers and brigands and the remaining villages become small forts highly distrusting of any outsiders. It is also a time of forgotten treasures left behind by those who didn't know what secrets have been hidden below their dwellings, which draws in plenty of treasure hunters and sorcerers.

The themes I want to deal with are the same I always want to write about. Wanting to do what feels right, when doing what's right is really hard. And coming to terms with real people not being invincible heroes and that courage and determination won't be letting you do the impossible. When you can't get what you want, what will you be doing instead?
Evil is not a cosmic force that compells people to spread suffering and destroy. Instead, evil is the result of people trying to force the world to be what they want instead of what it is. People have a great capacity to shape the world around them for the better, but there are many more things that can't be changed and people have to adapt to them and make compromises. The refusal to accept limitations, to adapt, and to compromise always leads to disaster for everyone involved. Knowing when to give up and when to persist to get the outcome you can live with the most is the big question that stands at the center of all important situations. It is what makes the difference between a hero and a villain. Closure is not getting everything you want, but to realize that you got everything you can.
Another thing that highly fascinates me is violence. Not combat (which I find rather meh), but the dynamics of agression.The threat of violence, the judging of danger, and the decision to commit, as well as considering and dealin with the consequences. For a heroic tale, the threat of violence needs to be common. But I feel that the outbreak of actual violence best works when it is very rare. When most threats of violence end without a fight and those fights that happen always have severe consequences, it makes every situation with potential violence much more tense. Ideally, the audience should always be hoping that there won't be a fight when the heroes are threatened with violence. I don't have the heart for blood and guts, but when someone swings a blade, I want it to change everything.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline The Gem Cutter

  • Captain Analogy
  • Writing Group
  • Khaleesi
  • *
  • Posts: 2957
  • Total likes: 2429
  • Gender: Male
  • We've exhausted all possibilities - time to begin.
    • View Profile
    • The Gem Cutter Tales
Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2017, 06:50:51 PM »

I appreciate all your musings and hope you move through the brainstorming process and put ink to paper with them, they're all compelling sources of drama to me in palpable ways.

But for discussion's sake, I wanted to point out the latter half of this statement and present an opposing view, based on my experience and those of real people I've known and read about:
And coming to terms with real people not being invincible heroes and that courage and determination won't be letting you do the impossible.

My counterpoint is this: you are not wrong here, but you're not right, either. Courage and determination do not let one do the impossible - they allow one to try. If you meant stories where a hero tries, and due to being a Chosen One or Mary Sue, they succeed because of character, well I agree that's lame and we're all bored with it.

But there's a gap between being courageous and determined and succeeding because of one's character, and being those things and being saved by legitimate, but unexpected outcomes. Tolkien used this a lot, and in Fantasy, he's not alone. If done well, this is hardcore good stuff.

And in real life though we can say trying to do something that is near-impossible, or actually considered to be impossible is silly, it really isn't; people achieve things believed to be impossible all the time. But in order for luck, fate, divine intervention, or whatever one calls the sources of unexpectedly good outcomes to intervene, one must first try. If a writer can capture the essence of this - that the character is being brave even knowing they are likely doomed, but that's who they are and/or that's what must be done, imho that is what drama IS. No one reads about people who give up.

And in real life, these things can and do occur all around us, all the time. I am alive because one time a missile pursuing my plane ran out of fuel; my knife arrested my fall off a cliff in Scotland; and scores of other close calls that were unlikely. And it's not just me. This is borne out by countless events in history, though perhaps one must seek them out. Watch the youtube videos of how Medal of Honor Recipients got their medals, and consider the ones who survived, even though most fully expected to die - but miraculously did not. The upcoming film "Twelve Strong" is about some friends of mine in Afghanistan, and they had their share of miracles and tragedies.

This sentiment is expressed in the arts all around us. One of my favorite films for the topic of stoicism and courage in the face of daunting odds is the movie "The 13th Warrior", which has realistic and plausible outcomes (good, bad, and mixed) that grow from courage and determination. The Viking poem is cool, but I actually like the hero's response when the Prince taunts him this way:
"You have the look of a great warrior; and no doubt you're very brave. But to beat the Ven, you'll need incredible ... luck."
"Luck, often enough, will save a man, if his courage holds."
« Last Edit: December 16, 2017, 06:53:26 PM by The Gem Cutter »
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #2 on: December 17, 2017, 09:41:25 AM »
.

And in real life though we can say trying to do something that is near-impossible, or actually considered to be impossible is silly, it really isn't; people achieve things believed to be impossible all the time. But in order for luck, fate, divine intervention, or whatever one calls the sources of unexpectedly good outcomes to intervene, one must first try. If a writer can capture the essence of this - that the character is being brave even knowing they are likely doomed, but that's who they are and/or that's what must be done, imho that is what drama IS. No one reads about people who give up.

Well, yes. But every try has a cost. If the cost is trivial, sure, give it a shot. No harm in trying. But when we're in the realm of darker fantasy stories, failure very often means someone is getting the head chopped off. Sometimes these consequences are still worth it and that's the moments where heroes can shine. They might even get lucky and pull it off without severe losses.
But realistically, of 32 teams going into a tournament, all of them are hoping to get lucky and win. There is one story of a team that made it against huge odds through skill and persistence, but 31 stories of teams that still failed. In a sports tournament there is no harm in trying. When blades are flying, failure usually means death or maiming, and the same might wait for those you're fighting for. The story of that one guy in a million for whom everything worked out in the end has been told a million times before and I don't think I have anything new to add to that. But success is not the only thing that makes the experiences of people in dangerous situations have meaning and their stories worth telling. Picking up your military references, I believe a good number of medals of honor were awarded for the successful rescue and evacuation of people during retreats. The battle was not won and the goal was abandoned so that no more lives were pointlessly lost. That's giving up. That is deciding to quit and admitting that the cost for completing the task is to high. It's realizing that in the long run more good will come from not throwing more lives and resources at something that might never be achieved.

I don't just see that as a sound military strategy, but as a good approach to life in general. I have much better odds at aiming for 70% and being content with my life, than to always insist on nothing but 100%. If only the best is ever good enough for me, than I most probably end up never be satisfied at all.
I would like to make much more money than I do. In my field of work, wages are a pittance. But it's a job that I enjoy and that has me work only 39 hours per week. I can afford what I need and I have the spare time to enjoy it. If I really wanted to become rich, I would have to work 50 hours on a job that I don't like. I might have the money, but what use would it be for me if I can't enjoy it?

It is rare that I come across stories where the protagonists realize that they have reached the limits of their capabilities and stop bashing their heads against an unbreakable wall to save what they can of what matters to them. But those are always the ones that I enjoy the most. They are stories with something real to say instead of wish fulfilment fantasies.
I've never seen any other parts of that movie, but I can't think of a more marvelous line to end a story on than "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."  :D
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Peat

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #3 on: December 17, 2017, 10:28:15 AM »
I wish I had something useful to add, but all I've got is "You've got your idea, now get and write it".
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline Skip

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #4 on: December 17, 2017, 03:33:13 PM »
Yora, have you read the noir classics? Chandler? Hammett? When I read your description, those were the first things I thought of. The gloom. The struggle against power, even if it's only another guy with a gun. The noir movies make the hero a little too clever; read the books.

The forests of Lithuania, the depths of the Pripet Marshes, the bitter isolation of towns like Riga or Reval, the wild sand dunes and eerie beech forests of Mecklenburg, these and more make for a great setting. Now I think of some of the modern Scandinavian detective novels.

You have theme and setting. I'd say to start your research (those two centuries have truckloads of good stuff) and in the meantime start trying to find your characters. I've long wanted to tell the story of two brothers (this is historical). They were Abodrites, a pagan people in ... Brandenburg? Mecklenburg? ... it's been too long since I researched this. Anyway, one converted the Christianity, the other did but then apostacized. Inevitably, they found themselves pitted in war against each other. It has all the elements of tragedy, but not too many known facts to get in the way. :)
Visit Altearth

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #5 on: December 17, 2017, 05:36:10 PM »
I've not read them, but neo-noir and to some extend classic noir are huge influences on me. Probably the biggest, as narratives go. Deciding on a plot is still my biggest hurdle, but this time I do feel very much prepared with a vast store of examples to draw from. Obviously it got to have something with do with dark magic, conspiracy, betrayal, and affirming identity. Maltese Falcon seems like a great template to use as a starting point.

Researching the period a bit, I did get a couple of great ideas to give the world some local color that adds specific dynamics.

One idea to add some "political tension" to the social environment is to have one city state that was abandoned some 500 years ago, with the rich nobility fleeing to the rich cities in the South (Byzantium) and establishing a good new life as vassals of the local lords (Varangians), while some of the poor commonfolk adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the still mostly safe borderlands to neighboring realms (Cossacks, though those are actually more 16th century). Now the abandoned lands become hospitable again, and mercenary captains from the South show up to reclaim the rightful lands of their supposed forefathers and resume their duties as protectors of the commonfolk. Which the later really are not appreciating very much.

The world also needs ludicrously powerful merchant lords who maintain their own mercenary armies to protect their ships, trading posts, and "economic interests". I'm not going to have them run their own cities (as I don't plan on having a lot of those), but they can still be more powerful than the noble figureheads in some places.

And a rivalry between the Faith of Fire in the east and the Faith of the Moon in the west.
Totally have to have some Moon Knights setting out into the haunted wilderness to bring the faith to the shamanistic barbarians. And high priests leading armies into battle.

And Black Death.

the wild sand dunes and eerie beech forests of Mecklenburg
That's how outsiders see it? This is where I grew up and live again.  :D (Technically I'm in Schleswig-Holstein, but it's only 1km to the border.)
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #6 on: December 22, 2017, 09:48:11 AM »
I found this article on the subject and I think it does a really good job.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Peat

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #7 on: December 22, 2017, 07:52:09 PM »
I found this article on the subject and I think it does a really good job.

Ahh. My initial thought when people say dark fantasy isn't SoIaF, but fantasy with really heavy Horror overtones. The Coldfire trilogy is usually held up as the epitome of this approach to fantasy. That's what I thought you were shooting for. I was quite excited about that bit.

You could do both of course.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #8 on: December 22, 2017, 08:16:43 PM »
That sounds more like Star Wars or Dune to me.

I think dark fantasy is just regular high fantasy with the shine worn off and no happily ever after.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Peat

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #9 on: December 22, 2017, 08:52:55 PM »
That sounds more like Star Wars or Dune to me.

I think dark fantasy is just regular high fantasy with the shine worn off and no happily ever after.

Huh? Star Wars and Dune have Horror overtones?

And each to their own, but the definition of Dark Fantasy as being Fantasy that has strong elements of Horror is pretty well established. You don't have to pay any attention to that though.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #10 on: December 22, 2017, 09:00:19 PM »
No, I mean the way Coldfire is described it sounds like science-fiction with fantasy archetypes.

Horror is definitly a crucial element I would say. It's not going to feel dark without a sense of dread. But the way it plays into the story and colors the world can differ immensely.

Though The Empire Strikes Back does have numerous horror elements in it. Which is part of why it's the best Star Wars movie.  :D
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!

Offline Peat

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #11 on: December 22, 2017, 09:09:32 PM »
No, I mean the way Coldfire is described it sounds like science-fiction with fantasy archetypes.

Horror is definitly a crucial element I would say. It's not going to feel dark without a sense of dread. But the way it plays into the story and colors the world can differ immensely.

Though The Empire Strikes Back does have numerous horror elements in it. Which is part of why it's the best Star Wars movie.  :D

Ohhh right. I never got that from the Coldfire descriptions, but then its one of those trilogies where everyone seems to know about it but no one's read it.
This is the blog of Peat - http://peatlong.blogspot.co.uk/

Offline Yora

Re: Writing Dark Fantasy (both in general and my specific case)
« Reply #12 on: February 02, 2018, 08:37:57 PM »
I am still working on this.

As always, I don't have anything like an outline yet, but I did refine a more sharper concept for it. I studied anthropology for four years and now train as a gardener, and that does provide some perhaps unique perspectives. From anthroplogy I learned that everything we consider socially and culturally normal is what is professionally called "human constructs". It's arbitrary and we just grew up with the understanding that it's normal, but it could also be anything else and we still would consider it the obvious right way to do things. There is no right and wrong, just what you've always assumed to be correct.
My insight in the everyday realities of the global industry of growing and selling flowers and vegetables exposed that the entire concept of nature and natural ways in Western culture is a completely made up fiction that arises from the population almost entirely isolating itself from the wilderness. What we consider forests in Central Europe are really highly cultivated tree plantations. Your average apple tree is a Frankensteinian abomination and a genetic freak. And has beem since long before anyone even thought of genetic manipulation. That whole idea of nature being beautiful and peaceful is just an illusion. Most natural places seen by people are artificial creations that have been highly altered so that they look pretty and peaceful if you stay in them only for a few hours or days before returning to urban areas.

Completely unrelated (at least conciously), I've been long very fascinated with the idea of a paralel Spiritworld that is actually more Real than the world perceived by people. And while dabbling around with the idea and how I could incorporate (human made) religion into that, I came up with the concept that the world has a naturally wild and chaotic state in which people are just some animal in the middle of the food chain, but human cult activities create artificial regions of relative stability and security for human populations. Civilization is entirely confined to these regions "protected" by tempels and sorcerer kings. People know about the dangerous wilderness, but it's a place that is somewhere out there, far away from here.

Now my idea is to write about exposing the ilussionary nature of the world that people believe they live in and confronting them with the reality of how little separates them from what they consider the Other. Their reality is extremely fragile and when it starts showing cracks they are at first unable to handle the things they thought nonexistent in their perceived world. It's a bit Lovecraftian, but the true horror of reality is not multidimensional tentacle monsters but simply the global forest and the weather. And unlike the despair of Lovecraft, the emotional core lies in coming to terms with this new reality and going forward with new purpose. While the opposition consists of characters who are trying to make the world fit their desired reality instead of remaking themselves to fit it.

I see a lot of potential for great creepiness and compelling villains with this.
Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

There is nothing to read!