There are things in life that have a “Death and Taxes” level sense of inevitability to them. Two buses coming at once after waiting forever. Screaming at the Pittsburgh Penguins powerplay.
The “What is Grimdark” conversation.
Now, I have nailed my colours to the mast when it comes to fantasy genres. They are horribly confusing and we should start again. But that’s not happening. As such, inspired by these endless conversations, morbid curiosity, and a conversation with JonBob at Parsecs & Parchment about the grimdarkness of Elric of Melnibone, I decided to do a little test if there was in fact a consensus.
For this, I decided to operate on the idea that genre is about a set of traits, with membership to a genre depending on having a lot of the traits rather than all. I don’t know who first came up with this idea – I can’t even remember who introduced me to it other than multiple people – but I like it. It seems the best way of capturing the way genres mutate and of creating a definition that allows for easy categorization instead of endless argument over details.
Operating with this model, I went and asked people on my twitter and at three different communities – SFFChronicles, Fantasy Faction, and The Fantasy Inn Discord – what they’d pick if asked to give a list of 3-5 attributes for grimdark. I got about 20-30 responses, although not all full, from a mixed-ish sample of the fantasy community, and then started to tally responses to build a list of responses based on what was said. What I didn’t do:
- Listen specifically to what any authors or publishers had to say. Why? I wanted to build something off what the fantasy community believes and that means not giving anyone any particular greater share of the voice. I did have a few authors answer this but they’re one peep, one vote, just like everyone else. Is there an argument that the creators should have a great authority over what something is? Maybe, but the community’s clearly not buying it as a whole.
- Go to every community I know, in particular r/Fantasy. Why? Well for one thing I didn’t want to be counting responses forever. But for another, I wanted to try and get a response free of any one particular community’s groupthink and r/Fantasy would drown out the other responses. Should I really post this up to more communities in time to get a wider consensus? Probably, if I want to try and push this as a standard, but right now I’m happy to present it as a small slice and see what people think.
What did I get? This
The Four Primary Attributes
These attributes came up again and again, with a considerable majority pointing to them –
Graphic Content – Torture scenes, explicit sex scenes, high number of fight scenes with graphic detail, and so on.
Grey/Villainous Protagonists/PoV Characters – Amoral, conflicted, mercenary, troubled, ruthless, shady, or downright evil
World of Suffering – Violence, corruption, danger, plagues, and so on, are common
That Grimdark Tone – Arguably a combination of the above, but also a case of authorial word choice, content choice, and storytelling choices; nihilistic and/or savage and/or deeply cynical; a tone chosen to convey a reaction and difference to the perceived image of Lord of the Rings and 80s/90s type fantasy.
Obviously any work that contains all four of these attributes would be considered Grimdark. This is mostly the case in arguments today. A work that only has one or none wouldn’t be. But what if it has two or three? What if it kinda on the fence on attributes? As a way of helping settle borderline cases, I present
The Secondary Attributes
These attributes were given multiple times without attracting majority listings
Unhappy/Bittersweet Book/Character Arc Endings – Major character deaths, endings where the evil overlord wins, pyrrhic victories and so on
Dark Humour – Regular use of a comedic or semi-comedic tone and scenes that will make readers laugh
Protagonists with high levels of agency/motivation – Protagonists who deliberately take action that will bring them into conflict rather than waiting for it to be an action of last recourse; protagonists with big individual goals
Worlds with Bleak/Gritty Aesthetics – Descriptions of grey, lack of bathing, and so on. Arguably, this is included in World of Suffering, but it is possible to have a world that feels colourless and dirty without feeling particularly more dangerous and full of suffering than most fantasy worlds
The absence and/or snuffing out of hope – Again, this is arguably included in tone, but it is possible for a work to have a tone that is savage and cynical without this level of nihilism; including this here is a way of indicating a really grimdark tone, or to allow for tones that are nihilistic in a non-savage/cynical way. Besides, people mentioned it in directly and above tone.
This list could be expanded – or indeed, contracted. I have had pushback on pretty much every attribute here at some point, although less pushback than support. Nevertheless, this is what I have for now.
Other Things Suggested
Some people didn’t respond with a list of attributes, they just replied nihilism.
I had a fair amount of support for ‘Deliberate Disregard for Human Life’ as an attribute, but I didn’t feel like it added anything new and it got less support than the secondary attributes above. Maybe it should be in there. ‘Selfishness’ is in a similar boat.
I had a few people talk about Grimdark as a reaction to perceptions of Trad Fantasy, but not enough outright calling it an attribute for it to make the list (although I would consider it if making my own list, which I didn’t). I had one comment talking about this in terms of class, which I totally disagree with but maybe that will gain support out there.
I got suggestions for both ‘More Realistic’ and ‘Deliberately Exaggerated’, which amuses me if nothing else.
The Protagonists and Dark Humour secondary attributes were both things that I got heavy pushback from on from one person. I had one comment on seeing Grimdark protagonists as more buffeted by fate than anything. I had one person list a lack of upbeat moments or humour as an attribute.
I had one person list an equal balance between protagonists and antagonists, rather than scrappy underdog vs heavyweight champion, as an attribute. Nobody else did, but the idea intrigues me.
Last minute, should a lack of magic wielding protagonists be considered grimdark?
Possible Inferences from these Attributes
- Every now and again I see discussion on whether books from before grimdark such The Black Company, Elric of Melnibone, Conan, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, and so on. This list of attributes would suggest they could be added, but the relative non-graphicness of earlier works means they would need to work at it and hit every other primary attribute. This seems fair to me. Grimdark is part-descended from a long heritage of fantasy books about nefarious types but that doesn’t make this particular iteration exactly the same.
- The morality of the characters seems to be a big, big part, and I’m not sure everyone will accept characters that mean to do well but fail awfully as grimdark. That is what the attribute list suggests though. I’m interested to see what people think – I personally find this acceptable, but that’s just me and not the point of the exercise.
- The extent to which people see this as a genre about hopelessness and depression surprised me a little. I’m not sure with those who see it as the entire genre (although it’s obviously a view with some minority backing) but it seems clear to me that any book that takes a hopeless, nihilistic view will have to work very hard to stay out of the genre as currently conceived. I’m not sure that’s a good thing – it seems to limit possibilities – but it is a thing.
An alternate way of doing this
This is something that only occurred to me halfway through writing the article. I could simply stick to the primary attributes, and just grade them High Moderate Low. Would that make more sense? Who can say.
This is pretty far from definitive or authoritative. I don’t want to even imagine the amount of work that would be needed to produce something where we could say “this is probably a consensus definition”, and it’d probably involve lurking in book shops and surprising poor sods who just want to browse the fantasy shelves.
But it’s something. I haven’t seen too many attempts to put together consensus ideas of how to define the genre, or ideas built around lists of what it can be rather than one set take it or leave it template. Maybe this will spark a discussion that leads to something better. Or maybe this will just be a fun exercise I did.
In any case, thanks for reading, and please all thoughts and comments below.