Like the headline boldly announces and the picture clearly illustrates, everything is cooler when it is grimdark, which seems to mean lots of amoral, ultra-realistic killing and maiming will even make the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turles badass.
Well, I’ve pondered that idea for a while now, and the thought that grimdark might become the face of fantasy has really begun to bother me. A feeling that came to a head after I finished reading two, very different fantasy novels in the last few weeks: one standard, old-school fare with “heroes” and the other a grimdark work with a “villain” at the helm. (While I don’t believe most grimdark fans would label the protagonist in that book a villain, by old school labels (which I’m using here) I really think he would be.) And as I sat there wondering why these books had called into question my desire to read anymore grimdark novels, I began asking myself “What kind of fantasy protagonists do you like and why?”
To be clear, the characters who brought this question to my mind were Hadrian and Royce from The Riyrian Revelations, as written by Michael J. Sullivan, and Jorg Ancrath of The Broken Empire, as penned by Mark Lawrence. For those unfamiliar with these famous fantasy protagonists, let us look closer at each.
Hadrian and Royce are two separate individuals: the former a great swordsman with chivalrous values,the later a cold and deadly thief/assassin. However, these two find themselves thrown together as business partners and have become friends of a sort, but their outlook on life remains distinctly different. I like to think of them as two-sides of the same coin. Hadrian being the “good” side; the classic hero who wishes to treat everyone well, rescue every person in distress, and never take advantage of anyone. Royce, on the other hand, is the “bad” side of the coin; he won’t flinch at killing whomever needs killing, finds it practical to use every advantage in a fight to win (even cheating), and really wonders how anyone as “naïve” as Hadrian could survive more than five minutes in the real world. However, through their constant interactions, Mr. Sullivan shows how gray morality really is, though it is definitely a lighter shade of gray.
The infamous Jorg Ancrath is a young man who I like to describe as Hannibal Lecter with a sword. Most reviewers (whether they love Jorg or not) concede he is a sociopathic narcissist, who views the world as revolving around himself and hates everyone, is willing to torture, rape, maim, or kill whomever he wishes, and views the survival or comfort of all humanity as meaningless, because their lives mean nothing to him – even his faithful followers. It has been suggested that Jorg’s egalitarian violence is merely his attempt to cope in a world that has failed him; a deeply held belief that since god, society, and humanity itself allowed a truly horrible event to happen to him and his family that he is justified in doing whatever he wishes to whomever he wants.
Wow, talk about two extreme differences in characters!
So, what “kind” of lead character do I prefer in my novels.
Since I’m a human being, I’ve went back into my memories to contemplate those characters who had an emotional impact on me in the past. Frodo from Lord of the Rings comes to mind. Thomas Covenant from the series of the same name popped up. Croaker from The Black Company novels by Glen Cook reared his head. There are many more, but these stand above the rest in my memory.
I believe each of the guys listed above were heroes or anti-heroes. Frodo was the absolute “good guy,” doing what was right because it was right. Thomas Covenant was the “anti-hero: the leper, the whiner, the unbeliever, the rapist, who both ruined everything around him and saved it. And perhaps my favorite, Croaker, who was somewhere in the middle; the mercenary who had killed, raped, maimed for years and still did when the occasion required it, but who tries to avoid it where possible. Yet, even in their differences, these lead characters showed me what I was looking for: someone with a set of moral beliefs, who tries to do what they perceive as the right thing.
“Classic heroes,” I hear you saying to yourself.
Well, Frodo obviously is that. However, I don’t think Thomas Covenant was a classic hero by most accounts. Generally, readers hate him, even if they enjoyed the books. Croaker cannot be labeled a classic “good-guy” at all; he fights for the “bad guys” a large majority of the time, is not afraid to commit atrocities when necessary, and generally lives by the mantra “the end justifies the means.” However, Croaker and the other two have one important thing in common: they have an invisible line drawn in their head, and when they are about to go over that line into the realm of villainy, they usually stop just short.
“But everyone perceives the right thing differently” I can hear some of you saying.
Yes, everyone does see right and wrong differently. But there are some general, moral principles almost universally agreed upon by humanity. Simple things like “It isn’t right to eat other people!” I think that one is generally accepted by most of humanity, though it might not be per se “illegal” in many countries. “You can’t rape someone just because you feel like it!” Don’t know anyone who disagrees with that one. “You shouldn’t torture people just because you like to hear them scream!” If you disagree with that statement there are some mental health diagnosis to describe your condition. Those are the type of universal morality I’m speaking about; the big “no-nos” humans generally agree upon.
After reflection, it seems I prefer traditional fantasy protagonists because they don’t glorify the breaking of all the big “no- nos” of mankind. These traditional heroes can be gritty. They can be merciless and gory in battle. They can assassinate people. Hell, they can be “ultra-realistic” with their own jaded morality! But since they pull themselves back from crossing that final line into absolute depravity, I can live with their decisions not being what I personally agree with. These characters are individuals, after all, and while I might not conceive of doing certain things in the comfort of my recliner at home that doesn’t mean these fantasy characters living through extraordinary circumstances wouldn’t do something completely different from me. However, too many grimdark authors seem to be obsessed with lead characters who glorify violating all the big “no-nos” of humanity.
Now Mr./Ms. Grimdark Writer, I know you are an artist, and in the fantasy world of today, “grimdark” seems to be the place to show how sophisticated your writing is by making it gruesomely realistic. I understand. I even agree more realism is an improvement over some of the campy nonsense in fantasy from decades past. But please go easy on the “All sentient beings are animals to be raped, tortured, killed and feasted upon for entertainment value!” Honestly, it isn’t sophisticated to write that sort of story nor is it “artistic.” Rather it is simply “shock writing,” where you throw atrocity after atrocity at a reader in an attempt to keep them entertained. Very similar to Hollywood movies where every other scene has an explosion or killing to distract a viewer from the fact nothing else is really going on.
So my point is that I hate grimdark and want every fantasy novel to be headlined by a Hadrian or Royce clone?
Nope. I am not saying either of those things. Grimdark can be terribly entertaining. I personally thought Prince of Thorns was an amazing novel; I merely hated Jorg Ancrath. And while I love reading about Hadrian and Royce, what makes them interesting is that together they aren’t either “good or bad” but a shade of gray. So what I’m actually attempting to put into words is that I personally have an invisible line regarding human decency that even a fantasy character shouldn’t cross too many times before I begin to view them as a monster and shut their book. I mean, I love big action movies as much as the next person, but if I hate all the characters the number of explosions really isn’t going to keep me watching.