Writing Dark Academia Aesthetics
It's time for another writing post! We couldn't very well let our Dark Academia theme end without an aesthetics post, could we? Follow us down the darkened halls of old manors, into the hidden passages, to learn the secrets behind creating the perfect dark academia vibe 😉
There are countless books, movies, and tv shows featuring this aesthetic. Let's take a look at a few examples:
Film & Literature
Alex Stern has never been privileged, but after surviving a multiple homicide, she's given the opportunity to go to Yale—provided she uses her ability to navigate the secret societies and stop a serial killer. Murderer aside, Alex must also be wary of ghosts, forbidden magic, and cruel scholars.
After being abandoned on their doorstep, Elisabeth was raised in one of the Great Libraries of Austermeer. Here, she has been trained to look after magical, sentient grimoires, protecting them from the outside world and vice versa. After her home is targeted, unleashing the monster within their most powerful grimoire, Elisabeth finds herself in the middle of an investigation, hoping to solve the mystery before the other Great Libraries are hit.
This novel by Lev Grossman was adapted into a five-season show by Netflix. The premise: childhood friends Quentin and and Julia seek to train as magicians at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy. When Quentin gets in he discovers that his favorite childhood story is more real than he imagined, and poses a great threat. Julia, on the other hand, is denied, and goes in search of magic elsewhere.
Adapted from Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy (and named after the first book), A Discovery of Witches follows Diana, a witch working at Oxford's Bodleian Library, as she finds a spelled manuscript and makes a pact with a vampire to help protect it and fend off other magical creatures.
In perfect timing with this post, the new Netflix original Wednesday follows a teen Wednesday Addams as she navigates the secrets of Nevermore, an academy for Outcasts like her—supernatural beings and odd folks with uncanny abilities. Hauntings, murders, and secret societies, taking place in a gothic manor with an investigative protagonist, check all the boxes for a dark academia show!
Art & Music
Aesthetic photos and mood boards on sites like Pinterest can help inspire the visuals for your work. Just punch in "dark academia," "gothic academia," and similar phrases to find references for your spooky school. Likewise, sites like Spotify have elegant, haunting playlists to help set the tone for your writing session. You should definitely check out the playlist we made.
SETTING THE TONE
Now that you've got plenty of sources for inspiration, let's dig into what really makes Dark Academia a vibe.
Most of these stories take places in libraries or schools; places a bookworm would feel right at home (which is probably why so many of us enjoy this aesthetic). Other popular settings include gothic mansions, run-down manors, elaborate gardens, or the home of a witch or wizard.
No matter what setting(s) you choose, there is often a sense of coziness to help balance the darkness—a lit fireplace in a darkened space, gas lamps to penetrate the fog, torches to light an underground tunnel, etc.
PLAYING WITH TROPES
While setting pulls a lot of the weight when it comes to atmosphere, Dark Academia stories would not be complete without some of the following popular tropes and plot elements:
It should come as no surprise that these types of stories tend to involve bookish characters, from the quiet bookworm to the "insufferable know-it-all." Characters like these are ideal for creating intellectual rivals and/or enemies-to-lovers. Bonus points if they're dapperly dressed.
Important Reading Material
Mysterious journals, sentient tomes, hidden or lost knowledge, secret libraries or studies, occult books, grimoires, ancient scrolls...you can't have Dark Academia without some kind of special literature or library to level up the atmosphere or further the plot.
What good is intelligence if it's not used to solve riddles, puzzles, and mysteries? This is a good way to flesh out your characters' strengths, put the setting to good use, and keep readers entertained and guessing what will happen next.
Muder can (and often is) lumped in with mystery. But there are some stories, like The Atlas Six, in which murder is a plot point or consequence rather than the inciting incident. Either way, it's a fantastic way to kick off a mystery or up the stakes in one.
Get enough people together and clubs or cliques are bound to happen. And when magic, secret knowledge, or privilege is involved, you can bet characters will toy with things better left alone.
Monsters & the Supernatural
Dark academia is an especially popular aesthetic to use in dark fantasy or magical realism, where characters might dabble in mystical arts, the occult, or be/meet supernatural folks or monsters. It adds another layer of appeal and spookiness to an already gothic atmosphere.
Whether the setting is a boarding school, secret society, or magical community, there are sure to be those who feel superior to their peers. This provides plenty of opportunity for conflict while adding to the world-building of your story.
Being sent to a boarding school, uncovering secrets, discovering magic powers or realms, surviving murderers . . . there are plenty of hardships just waiting to bring your characters closer together. Especially if they have issues with their family back home.
We love this aesthetic so much, we could probably gush about it all day, but we'll stop here (for now). Let us know what your favorite parts of this aesthetic are in the comments below, or hit us up on bookstagram or Twitter!