If I had to pick one and only one defining difference between vanilla high fantasy and dark [chocolate—sorry!] high fantasy, it’s in the core modus operandi of the protagonist. Heroes in vanilla fantasy grow to overcome their trauma, or at least succeed despite their inner wounds. Not so in dark fantasy: antiheroes embrace their trauma (willingly or unwittingly) and conquer their foes by wielding it like the weapon it is.
Part of the reason for this is that vanilla fantasy does not often permit our heroes to suffer greatly due to their traumas. Vanilla heroes rarely acknowledge the violence they give or receive as emotionally traumatic. Because they are righteous!
Yes, vanilla heroes need to face an irredeemable evil or nearly impossible odds in order to succeed. Thus, there’s trauma galore, both in the backstory and in the pages you read. But in vanilla fantasy, only villains and victims are portrayed as the weak-minded who cannot overcome, forgive, and forget. Heroes ride off into the sunset, and if they’re particularly shiny, they get a happily ever after.
Conversely, in dark fantasy, the world they navigate itself is fantastically horrible. The stakes are merciless. When the world is out to get you, the best you can win is to fight the unbeatable odds to a draw at the cost of buckets of blood, sweat, tears, and loss. Survival itself must be earned.
These dark fantasy stakes even go back to stories originally meant for children. In the folktale Vasilisa, the protagonist is abused by her stepmother and sent into the woods as food for a hungry witch. After completing impossible tasks for the witch, the infamous Baba Yaga, she earns Yaga’s blessing, a fiery skull that she takes home. With it, she torches her evil stepmother and stepsisters and burns their house to the ground. Booyah!
In a more nuanced reading (perhaps), Vasilisa’s austere upbringing gives her the resilience to rise to Baba Yaga’s challenges. Vasilisa is conditioned by deplorable circumstances to rise to Baba Yaga’s impossible-sounding demands. Her traumatic upbringing empowers her to think outside the box when Baba Yaga tells her to sort seeds in an hour or Baba Yaga will eat her – trivial tasks with deadly consequences for failure.
In contrast to the sanitized media of today, original tales for kids were dark. However, the darkness of fairy tales was due to one part metaphor and another part reassurance. In the words of theologian and literary critic G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Dragonslayer or Dragontamer?
As a metaphor for the evils the protagonist has to navigate, dragons are among our oldest and most ubiquitous in English literature. Metaphorically, the dragon could be anyone or anything: an incestuous uncle, a wickedly abusive stepmother that would put Elizabeth Bathory to shame, or a tyrannical regime hell-bent on enslaving the world under deplorable conditions.
In a vanilla fantasy, the dragon might be slain in glorious battle or won over to friendship when the feckless hero overcomes his prejudice against dragonkind. That’s lovely, either way, but that’s not how it goes in my kind of world. In a dark fantasy, the antiheroine is the dragon herself wounded and rejected by the world, driven to render the world safe for herself…even if it all must burn! If not the dragon, she’s up against armies far too advanced and powerful to be beaten or escaped: all the she can hope for is to survive to fight another day.
Speaking of Dragons
No modern mention of these magnificent creatures is complete without Daenerys, the self-proclaimed Mother of Dragons. (We’ll stick to the books, if you don’t mind, for Reasons™.) It is Daenerys’ fugitive and abused childhood which powers her meteoric rise to bride-slave into savior of slaves and (maybe someday, when the book is written) empress of all she surveys in Westeros.
Similarly, George R.R. Martin establishes all of his protagonists’ trauma clearly in The Song of Ice And Fire. And none more clearly than Arya Stark. In the first book, she not only must watch her father beheaded, but loses her home and any protectors at a very young age. Her drive for vengeance born of that trauma becomes a chant: a litany of the names upon which she prays for death. Her future profession as an assassin is inevitable.
One of my favorite recent reads (listens, actually, in this case) was Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. Nona Grey does more than survive her childhood manifestation of monstrous power, betrayal by her parents and village, and being sold into slavery, she fights for the opportunity to thrive.
Nona finally comes into her own and finds her own way to walk The Path of the Ancestor when she embraces her rage and taps the power boiling in her soul.
Mark does an amazing job of portraying Nona’s struggle against the outside world and against her own self-loathing and doubt.
I’ve already gushed about revenge plots. Whether it’s the gritty underbelly of New York City or a demon-infested fantasy world where the gods have forsaken their charges, revenge fantasy is the ultimate realization of trauma as power. After all, power can be the motivation to keep going and right the way you were wrongs. And unlike in Middle-Earth, sometimes, rewards have to be seized, and that’s where the power comes in.
Ready to read a revenge fantasy that speaks to trauma as power? Look no further that Raven Queen, Arise. Illyria is torn from her sheltered life as a highland warden where her two biggest worries might have been which man or woman to bed next, and how much stolen Elysian cattle might bring at market.
Illyria’s journey only truly begins when she is brutalized and murdered… Read it today.