Fantasy: Too Gritty?

Lots of fiction, especially fantasy fiction, seems to be quickly succumbing to all that is grimy, gritty, and grim. Game of Thrones, Prince of Thorns, The Night Angel Trilogy, The Blade Itself, The Song of the Beast, and many other titles besides take their readers into the darkest, roughest, sharpest, most cynical corners of the genre.

As far as I’m concerned, a little darkness and despair goes a long way in fiction in the same way a little spice adds to the flavor of a given food. But too much ruins the dish, and pretty soon you’re only eating that buffalo wing because one of your buddies promised you $20. (I might actually read The Blade Itself for $100; everything I’ve read about Joe Abercrombie indicates I wouldn’t touch his books otherwise)

Maybe it’s because I’m a big softy, and am immature or naive or expect too much fun in fiction. I don’t know. What I do know is that more books are coming out where the characters’ loved ones get mutilated, raped, and murdered. Literally no one cares about showing them kindness or understanding. It’s pretty much casual, sneering brutality and suffering all the time. And that’s just in the first chapter.

At what point did this start sounding realistic or reasonable? It’s a classic overcorrection against much of the fantasy of yesteryear. Adventures were treated like paintball matches in these books, and you never got the sense your heroes were in any danger. And of course lots of people got tired of the Disney movies that defanged the folktales of the Brothers Grimm.

Reasons abound for why that grit is there. It’s for the sake of honesty and realism, making people care about characters, flavoring the book, and many other reasons besides. Nevertheless, this isn’t really a trend I want to give in to. If possible, I’d rather show more restraint with darkness and make it count for the moments when it’s really needed. Little black needles jammed deep into the story’s nerves.

I got into fiction for adventure and discovery, not to watch the genuinely good guys get betrayed and beheaded, while everyone else gets into petty fights, then they drunkenly amble off to the local whorehouse. That’s all good and fine for a few chapters, but a book becomes manipulative and dishonest when that tone takes up almost every page in the book.

Understand, this grit isn’t the same thing as realism, despite many writers’ claims to the contrary. A cut getting infected if someone doesn’t tend to it? That’s realistic. Getting knocked unconscious causing lasting, even permanent damage (as opposed to all the characters who get knocked out and are perfectly fine afterwards)? That’s realistic, too.

No one at all showing your protagonist any kind of pity or compassion? That’s not so realistic. Everyone in their family being either depraved or a victim of moral degeneracy? Unlikely, albeit not impossible. Every event in someone’s life being meaningless, spent in squalor and sewage, and punctuated by failure, rape, and torture? Definitely not realistic.

Edit: It’s also not necessarily a sign that the genre as a whole is maturing. Grit isn’t the same thing as maturity, even if a story can use some as one ingredient among others (three-dimensional characters, consequences to their actions, etc.) to become more mature. Whatever the case, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of maturity in the “arms race” where the newest big name in fantasy tries to display more rapes, more severed limbs, more sociopathic protagonists, and more excrement than the last big name. One day this movement is going to run out of steam. It truly cannot go on forever, and fantasy will grow out of it.

It is so much easier to contemplate the terrors of Hell than the beauties of Heaven. Anyone can tell a story that basically says “Life sucks, and then you die.” It takes patience and care to see the light that shines through anyway. Sometimes you have to look hard to see something beautiful, like a character doing a noble act for the right reasons (and not losing his head afterwards), but that doesn’t imply the absence of good. I admire those stories that combine grit and smoothness, acting appropriately when one is needed more than the other. Show some kind of balance in your work, and you’ll make the light shine brighter even as the darkness is deepened. Plus, it will be a more convincing story.

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