“What power would hell have if those imprisoned here would not be able to dream of heaven?”
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
Grim fantasy and horror have their charms, but they also have their limits. A world of pure darkness or light lacks contrast. Missing the vibrancy of possibility, it runs the risk of committing fiction’s worst sin, which is boring the reader.
(Am I Boring?)
Hope and light can be powerful tools in darker fiction. They can tempt your heroes and your readers with the chance of escape or a happy ending.
Darkening your fiction is easy. Use a Socratic approach, asking yourself questions along the lines of: How can I make this worse? How can I take away resources, allies, or abilities and give the heroes fewer ways to win? How can I make it hurt?
Think of the worst possible scenario, everything you can do short of death—and sometimes even that—to imperil your protagonists. This is one reason why the hero’s journey is often preferred over the heroine’s: the hero’s journey isolates the main character while the heroine’s triumph is achieved through building a group or a found family. A hero is often stripped of allies and must face the threat alone. The darkest moment comes and the hero is isolated, at their weakest, their most vulnerable. They are the closest they will get to defeat.
Horror dangles a carrot in front of the hero, the hope of escape, slim as it might be. The possibility of survival, of winning, is essential to keeping your reader on board.
Just as readers need hope, they need contrasts, changes in rhythm and pace, even if those changes are fleeting. Think of an endless drive through grassy plains. It all runs together. Your mind drifts. Your story should have enough peaks and valleys to keep the reader engaged. Even in total darkness, there should be glimmers of hope. Much like the lights along the highway, offering breadcrumbs of possibility can lead your reader forward.
Your hero, too, needs a chance at winning, a reason to keep fighting. Without such a chance, they’d give up and the story would grind to a halt.
Hope can be spoon fed to the reader and the protagonist via many of your story’s elements.
Setting, for example, doesn’t need to be monolithic. There can be beauty even in Mordor.
The harshest desert blooms from time to time. There is magic in the sparkle of starlight on snow. The flattest plain is broken up by a copse of trees, a gulley, or a dilapidated farmhouse.
Find ways to contrast the harshest or most dangerous setting with what can be beautiful or unique about it. Look at how your characters relate to it, what shelter or solace that beauty might provide. A lonely campfire can give them a warm respite from the terrors of the night. It can tease them with a dawn that may never come or distract them from what lies in wait beyond the glow of the embers.
Like your setting, your characters—even and especially your antagonist—can have hidden depths.
Check out David R. Slayton’s Dark Moon, Shallow Sea here:
(WD uses affiliate links)
Few people act purely out of malice. Most villains usually believe they are doing the right thing or the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s common to hear someone say “he seemed so nice” before learning that the person in question was a serial killer, but don’t hesitate to look beyond the halo effect.
That’s not to say that your villain cannot be handsome, but a beautiful devil is common. Give them soft spots, an appreciation for art or love for a pet or child. Knowing that your antagonist cares for something outside their self, and letting your hero see this, provides the hope of mercy. Maybe, just maybe, the villain will spare the hero’s life. Perhaps they will be honorable and spare the hero’s family. After all, they have one of their own.
Giving your antagonist something to care about can also provide you with a means of tempting your hero to the dark side, as maybe that soft spot also gives them something to threaten or use as leverage.
A villain with a heart also has the hope of redemption, something your reader may wish for, whether or not you choose to let them join the good guys in the end.
Anti-heroes should have similar traits. For all of his capacity for violence, John Wick loved his dog. The Punisher loved his family, and in both characters we see how their quest for vengeance is fueled by their deep capacity for love.
Your plot too, has the potential for peaks and valleys. Darkening it can help cement your story more firmly in its genre, but even the grimmest fantasy doesn’t have to be a ceaseless march toward the hero’s destruction.
Look at the pace and tone of your plot. Consider adding quieter or even happier moments that act like the calm before the storm or the night before a hopeless battle. Giving your heroes a chance to rest or engage in camaraderie can show them what life would be like were the world not so dark and were they not facing impossible odds.
Part of pacing, the rhythm of your story, is knowing when to strike a fatal blow. A character’s death, especially a loved one or an ally, should be a means to an end. It raises the stakes, helps to isolate the hero, and is likely responsible for the staggering number of orphans in young adult fantasy.
At the same time, consider whether or not the hero sees the death or the body. If the character takes their final breath off the page, they become something of a Schrödinger’s cat, giving us the hope that they may return. Sustaining that feeling can provide a glimmer of light while snuffing it out at a crucial moment can worsen the darkest moment and add a sense of finality to the plot’s tension.
These elements are just some ways you can sow light or hope into dark fantasy and horror. As you ask yourself questions about how to make things worse for your heroes, also look for counterpoints. Where can you let a little light into the darkness? Where can you sow hope, even if you intend to squash it later?
Give your readers contrasts, lights in the darkness. Unexpected hope can surprise them, and surprised readers will keep reading.