Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What is The Difference Between Tragedy and Grimdark?

Labels are important, both for readers as well as for writers. How you classify a story helps libraries and bookstores sort which shelf it goes onto, and it can act as a big, red sign for readers who have a taste for particular fiction. Sometimes those labels can be helpful, like when a sub-genre emerges and grows into its own distinct category. Sometimes these labels can be used to pour shame onto books though, labeling them as surely as a big, scarlet A.

One of those labels is Grimdark, and it is still a battleground for readers and writers alike.

In the gutters of the genre ghettos there can be only one heir to the fantasy throne.

What Is Grimdark?

Before we get too far into the conversation we should all be on the same page. The phrase Grimdark, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, began with the quote, "In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war," which comes from the Warhammer 40,000 game. For those not familiar with the game it features a bleak, dystopian future where all races and species are locked in bloody, eternal conflict across the stars, and the millions of bodies and oceans of blood are justified by nothing so much as a need to feed the war machine.

The label has expanded beyond the war game and its brethren though; today it refers mostly to speculative fiction (a broad term encompassing sci-fi and fantasy alike) where there is A) a grim and dark tone (natch), B) a sense of realism, and C) the agency of the characters involved in the story.

For example, say you were writing a fantasy story. Let's say that this story depicted a world where deaths are visceral, and the politics behind wars are realistic. Kings are not noble, divine rulers but rather spoiled children or iron-fisted tyrants who took the throne by the sword and keep it the same way. The heroes of your story have flaws, and there is no guarantee that their actions are noble or good. There is, in fact, no guarantee that the protagonists will succeed (or even survive), or that in succeeding they will enact any real change.

Does this sound familiar?

Brace yourself... Martin is coming.
George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has become the standard-bearer for grimdark fantasy. It is, in its way, an anti-Tolkien where the world is full of human complexities, evil is present in the hearts of men rather than in some outside force that must be defeated, and where vicious killers and tortured souls can exist in the same character.

Grimdark has its detractors though. People who claim that this kind of fiction glorifies brutality, and that in its pursuit of "realism" it's simply creating soulless pornography. Where is the hero's journey? Where are the morality tales where knights in gleaming armor fight against the evils that plague humanity in the form of dragons, demons, and evil wizards? Lastly, and the most often asked question, who the hell gets catharsis out of this?

I have an answer to that last one, actually. Humans, and they have since the dawn of Western civilization.

Tragedy's Rockstar Child

The Grimdark sub-genre is seen by many as an unnecessary attempt at edginess. It's fantasy in a black leather jacket with bad boy shades, out to make you think he's going to change before he fucks your girlfriend, blows smoke in your face, and roars out onto that highway to hell with flames shooting from his tail pipe.

The catharsis in watching terrible things happen, and in seeing characters try to fight against overwhelming forces, goes back a long, long way though. According to the Wiki gods it goes back to about the 6th century BCE.

A couple thousand years before this fellow, if you're counting.
Greek tragedy is, in its basest form, watching fundamentally flawed characters struggle against things too big for them to beat. Oedipus fights against fate, and his quest for truth opens his eyes before he shuts them forever. Antigone doesn't fare much better, struggling against generations of tragedy before smashing against the rocks of her own. Watching a world where one wrong decision, or one perilous action can wreck bloody ruin on everything you held dear has been the preferred entertainment of people for more than a millennium.

Grimdark is just the latest child of this human desire to watch everything fall apart.

When Everything Ends in Blood and Tears

There will always be people who prefer happy endings and black-and-white stories, just as there were people in Ancient Greece who preferred comedy to tragedy. Some people like to pick up whichever mask most suits them that day, satisfying the need they have at the time. Some people, readers and writers alike, just can't get enough of that sensation of meeting a character just as flawed and lost as they themselves are, reading through that character's choices and adventures, and riding that roller-coaster all the way down until their Icarus smashes to paste on the rocks below.

Speaking of which...
To answer the question I posed in the title of this blog post, Grimdark and tragedy are related. Dark overtones and dystopian horrors are certainly right at home under tragedy's big tent, but not all tragedy is Grimdark. Some tragedy sneaks up on you, getting its fingers under your skin and gently caressing your heartstrings before it uses them as an instrument to play you a sad song. Sometimes it looks like everything's going to be all right, and you let yourself hope, before the sad mask brings down the curtain on another broken ending.

If you're a fan of tragedy, but you can only take Grimdark in small doses, check out my latest book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. Take a tour of a place where the brilliant light of science casts shadows dark enough to get lost in, and where down every alley there's a new story itching to be told. The first two tales, along with the introduction are free to all, so step up and take the $2 tour.

You've got nothing to lose but a few tears... and that's a small price to pay, don't you think?

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  1. Great clarification Neal. I write fantasy and tried my hand at grimdark with my latest book, The Bone Wall. My goal wasn't grueling violence for its own sake, but as a warning should human beings continue on our self-destructive path. Not a pretty picture. And it is tragic for many of the characters who are swept up in inevitable destruction. I have noticed the "long shadow" and recently added a Trigger Warning to my description. I doubt I'll write another quite so bleak. Great post.

  2. Great post and some interesting points. And I have read several of Diana's books and agree that The Bone Wall was grim. But I loved Myths of the Mirror and especially The Melding of Aeris.