genre stuff

On Grimdark Fantasy

Damien Walter has a discussion on the Guardian blog about ‘grimdark’ fantasy, or ultra-violent fantasy, and he talks about the use of rape as a substitute for character development in fantasy narratives.

there’s no doubt that fantasy writers have left her an open goal by filling their books with scenes of rape and torture in a misguided attempt to provide psychological depth that they aren’t skilled enough to create in other ways. And beware the writer who strays into this territory blindly. acrackedmoon is only one of a growing army of #feminazgul, women fantasy fans who take it on themselves to hound writers of Grimdark to their dooms. Such is the rough justice of the internet.

A brief tangent on this subject. I’ve been noticing the rise of grimdark for some time (though I didn’t know it by that name). Maybe I’ve been guilty of committing some of the sins of grimdark myself to some extent – though certainly not the rapey bits – and they’re also not the first of my literary errors.

I suspect the rise of such fantasy novels is in many ways a response to the somewhat Manichean fantasy blueprint of yesteryear, in which there’s nearly always this inherent duality of good and evil in narratives.

No problem with moving on from that, of course, but perhaps this effort to see ‘gritty‘ and spuriously realistic fantasy has led to an over-mining of grey areas, where characters can seem to be be pretty nasty and violent – and yet likeable. Not merely the anti-hero, but the anti-heroMAX, so much so that it’s become par for the course. And that’s where some things can start to go wrong, and grimdark unfurls itself.

I’ve been trying to write the opposite of that for my new series, which is why the subject has been on my mind recently. I think there is room for exploring genuinely good characters, who can be realistic, mature, sophisticated. It makes things more interesting, creatively, when things go against them, that’s for sure. I was reminded of the Hercule Poirot story (or at least, certainly the more recent TV portrayal), of Murder on the Orient Express, in which his faith in the Catholic church – or rather, his goodness – is tested. Goodness and evil can perhaps be questioned in a more interesting way. Perhaps a more mature way, who knows.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

14 replies on “On Grimdark Fantasy”

I think the grimdark phase is like all revolutions against the status quo, in that it has to swing into extremism before it can settle back down into moderation. I certainly hope so! I agree that there’s much more satisfaction in reading (and writing) about “mostly good” characters struggling with everyday flaws – where’s the narrative tension if you know the grimdark protagonist is always going to choose to do evil?

Ultimately, it’s about artistic choice. I’m currently writing about an era in which rape and torture were not uncommon, but I have no intention of writing about the former unless it becomes an inevitable development of an existing storyline (unlikely) and I try to write the latter without it descending into torture-porn, since it’s not something I enjoy reading in detail – and I have to re-read what I write over and over during revisions! I don’t include torture scenes deliberately, but when your protagonist is a spy, it is somewhat inevitable…

I think there’s been a similar cyclical trend in the comics industry, with patterns of cheesy, up-beat stories alternating with much more cynical, dark fare.

I suspect the rise of such fantasy novels is in many ways a response to
the somewhat Manichean fantasy blueprint of yesteryear, in which there’s
nearly always this inherent duality of good and evil in narratives.

There also tended to be a kind of pulpy-ness to a lot of the fantasy that grimdark is reacting against, although that doesn’t include Tolkien.

Hi Anne. Yeah, I’d like to think it will swing back to reality. I think what gets me is the perceived awesomeness of this type of violent fantasy fiction. As in, readers – many of them, at least – don’t look at the quality of the book, but at the amount of kick-assery. As if that’s some value of how good the book is. 

Hi TheBrett. Interesting that it shadows comics. I wonder if it’s being replicated in other parts of geek culture – gaming and so on? You see, I find a lot of that pulpy-ness is being copied, or is a point of inspiration. Maybe that’s a perception thing, I don’t know. Suffice to say that some of these books come across as no more/less pulpy than the kinds of stories that, say, C.L. Moore wrote. 

 It’s harder to say with gaming, but I think the answer is “yes”. We’re seeing a bit more grimdark in games these days, including established franchises (such as the Max Payne franchise).

So my question would be: do the two opposing sides have to be necessarily “good” and “evil”? Could a fantasy writer not create two opposing—let’s say Kingdoms for the sake of discussion—both of which have valid goals, some the reader agrees with and some the reader does not? That way, there is no good and evil, but simply differences?

Of course, I think if the kingdom is made up entirely of rapists then it looses its impartiality…

More-over,  Damien Walter has misundestood the term ‘grimdark’. It doesn’t mean gritty, at least it doesn’t any more, and hasn’t for some time.

It means gritty to the point of silliness. Darkness to point and daftness. The term has mostly been adopted by those NYT bestselling authors over at the Black Library, to desrcribe the ‘so gritty it’s daft’ warhammer novels.

I think we can appreciate the shades of grey, that there’s no strict good and bad, I just think that the grimdark tends to turn it up to 11, and it becomes unintentionally about being very good and very bad at the same time. 

But the rapey bit is still lazy writing. 

The grimdark is, perhaps, a reference to ‘In the grim darkness of the far future…’ which is a reference to Warhammer 40k, not the fantasy game system – out of which come the Black Library novels.

The use of it on Twitter – from casual observance, admittedly – has been as an umbrella term for rapey-killy-over-the-top fantasy. Among other things.

I’m not an expert, but I’ve been under the impression that one of the main hallmarks of “grimdark” is “moral greyness.” The problem is that, at least in the grimdark I’ve consumed–the Game of Thrones TV series (not the books) and Joe Abercrombie’s novels–moral greyness is sort of a silly cloak, because we still know who’s good and bad. There was an article in, I believe, The Atlantic (can’t find it now, unfortunately), about how stupid it was to call Game of Thrones anything like morally subtle because of how obvious it is the Starks are good and the Lannisters are bad. I find this with Abercrombie, too. Bad guys may win and be mentally subtle (rather than Manichean), but “the heroes” are still painfully obvious.

Anyhoo, I’ve enjoyed these things, even despite the fact that they are terribly problematic vis-a-vis sexism and racism. Especially Game of Thrones. So, so sexist and racist, all the time. Actually it’s pretty disgusting and I hate myself for having enjoyed it.

Interesting points there, Ben. Yeah, I think that moral greyness is that point people have hammered way too hard. And people, really, aren’t don’t much act in that hyper-grey manner. 

Must admit, it’s been far too long since I read Game of Thrones. I should probably read that book again at some point. 

Did Walter use “feminazgul” to get around using “feminazi”? I know that’s not massively important in the grand scheme of things, but it distracted me.

Like you said, there is no harm in trying something new, and making fantasy more realistic, but as with everything it needs to come with some limitations. Human beings are capable of some ridiculous things, all over the moral spectrum, and it can be an intriguing study. 

Personally, the rapey-bit hits a little close to home, and it does annoy me when people use it for the shock factor, or like they’re claming with the Lara Croft thing that it’ll give her more depth, but it’s ok, because it’s “just fantasy”. Some people just need to grow up a little bit when it comes to this sort of thing.

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