The Grimdark Issue

Yesterday I addressed a contentious social issue, so I might as well yak about Writing for a bit just so I can offend my fellow authors too.

Let’s get the first potential title gripe out of the way: I know ‘grimdark’ hasn’t achieved the dignified status of a dictionary adjective, probably because it’s just an inelegant mash-up of two smaller words that are adjectives. But where ‘grim’ may refer to anything from general attitude to simple lack of humor, and dark may mean either of those as well as the absence of light, put the two together they only mean one thing. Maybe you’re not aware of this current trend in writing, probably because it’s not a trend as such.

When I was younger, less discerning, and thought that ‘writing style’ meant the length of a given paragraph, I read some fantasy novels by [AUTHOR’S NAME REDACTED]. Being a tasteless youngster, I naturally thought it was just the greatest stuff, but time, refinement and collaboration with other young writers have not been kind to this unnamed series. SPOILER: It’s never named because the point here isn’t blame but acknowledgement. Different concepts, you see. To cut a long story short, the series featured a moralistic protagonist born into an otherwise uniformly evil species of knife-eared types- whoop, sorry to my readers from the Elder Races. I meant Dark Elves, which is as specific as I’m getting.

Leaving aside the problem that Dark Elves are pretty much invariably evil in fantasy writing (because it’s totally dissimilar to racism if you only perpetuate stereotypes about imaginary people), this is nothing we haven’t seen before. An extremely upstanding lead character with a wonderful sense of humor and- er… wait. Sorry, I just got this guy mixed up with any given character from Lord of the Rings, all of whom found time to laugh and even be silly in between bouts of Orc slaying and fighting over the Ring. The character from The Unnamed Example Series never even cracks a smile for anything less than divinely inspired levels of comedy. So, he’s really serious and has strong morals. I can’t think of any other traits because no others were ever laid out by the author. This guy doesn’t seem to have any particular likes or dislikes, and he’s probably less fully realized than most player-created leads in a standard RPG game.

Oh, but the series gets really dark later on! Or rather, everyone starts realizing that they’ve been doing basically the same stuff for more than half a century, a classic case of Midlife Adventurer’s Crisis. Having actual doubts about yourself and your place in the world is apparently a huge deal over at the corner of 19th and Felhammer (oblique reference, see if you can get it), so we now also know that this stalwart duelist- oh, yeah, he’s good at murdering people and uses a non-traditional weapon setup, real original- actually has less ability to cope with the world around him than the average 40-year-old man on Wall Street. Or maybe it’s just that he forgot what emotions were while adventuring- ones other than ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’, and ‘me like woman’, anyway- and now his greatest battle is actually against himself. Sounds like some winning character development right there.

In recent issues he’s even eschewed his old moral convictions. He didn’t give them up when friends died, he didn’t give them up in any one of several seemingly hopeless battles against superior foes, and several wars did nothing to change his views. So what finally breaks that iron resolve? Oh, well, there’s a really hot surface Elf who isn’t quite evil, but she’s not really good either. She lives in a moral gray area, because refusing to pick a worldview and stick with it is the hallmark of a courageous person who’s also edgy and mysterious. Politicians are just ahead of their time, everyone else will catch on soon. In any case, this beautiful but callous but not totally woman almost instantly shatters the main character’s full century of rigid self-discipline, because losing your moral convictions is pretty heavy stuff.

And it is, but there are literally forty reasons better than this throughout that same series, none of which are ever mentioned. It’s just this one woman, apparently. Now, here’s the thing: a series isn’t truly dark in tone just because people whine all the time- that’s depressive, another largely separate concept. Lord of the Rings is actually extremely dark: the forces of Good are on the run due to a series of crucial mistakes they’ve made throughout history, reversing situations where Sauron would otherwise have been annihilated. Heck, the Numenoreans landed on the coast of Harad with so much strength that Sauron had a little Dark Lord’s panic attack. Then the Numenorean Emperor (if you’re the dominant military power and the Dark Lord himself is actually surrendering peacefully to you, you’re a bit more than just a king) Ar Pharazon (I know I’m missing an accent mark there) completely screws the pooch by taking Sauron home rather than destroying him on the spot. So obviously the Dark Lord pulls his usual subtle corruptive word-magic and over the course of a few years corrupts the Numenoreans get really full of themselves, try to invade the lands to the West and get sunk to the bottom of the ocean, leaving Sauron ascendant once again.

A string of mistakes like that puts the survivors at constant risk of annihilation by Sauron’s forces, to the point where a military victory is completely impossible. Not even  really unlikely, it just isn’t happening. It’s a very dark situation that Tolkien nevertheless strings threads of hope, friendship and happiness through. It’s that juxtaposition of the terrible with the wonderful that makes his series so successful.

The example author- who I’m guessing at least a few of you will recognize- doesn’t have that. Maybe he could; my professors have taught me many things, and one of the most important is that very good writers can still produce very bad writing. Even writing that’s uniformly dark isn’t necessarily bad, though at that point you’re better off with one short story and a warm cup of coffee to help fight off the shivers from writing it. Darker emotions are still a crucial part of what it is to be human and ignoring them is pointless at best. But to convey those emotions in a way so that your reader experiences them with equal impact takes a lot of practice, excellent style and very careful topic choice. The series I mentioned started out as a fun read- the prose was mechanically sound thought not exactly inspired and many of the supporting characters were enjoyable imaginary companions, but as the book count swelled higher and the plotlines dragged on things got darker bit by bit.

Again, it’s not a bad thing for writers to address misery, rage and sullenness as well as the good things in life- if none of us do that, we can’t really claim we’re contributing anything much. But in a longer work the most important thing is a reasonable balance; not so much depression that your readers just scoff at every tear and see your whole universe as a bunch of whiners, but not such a nauseating amount of improbable joy that smiles start making people sick (though that’s more of a mainstream news issue, novelists tending to gripe rather than gush). The series I mentioned is just an example, and to be clear I used to think it was utterly amazing, which might mean I’m being a tad too scathing now.

But there’s way more involved in writing a good book- great I can’t begin to explain- than simply having technical proficiency, making sure your pages aren’t stuffed with unlimited errors and so on. The greatest writers in any genre are those who understand the concept of style and how to make even something crazy seem familiar and homey in just the right way. Tolkien and Rowling in Fantasy, Hemingway and Twain in Literary Fiction, (this next choice is a personal opinion, probably quite debatable) Lois McMaster Bujold in Science Fiction, and a bunch of people whose names I really ought to know in Nonfiction, but don’t because I’m terrible about seeking out good writers in that genre: all of them understand connotation as well as denotation, the use of rhythm (Tolkien’s songs and poems are actually very well put together and almost demand a little tune from you), how to evoke an image with just the right set of words.

The problem with the writers focusing on any sort of content- dark and depressing, satirical, realistic- without regard for style is that in grade school they only teach us Middle Style and in college you have to actively seek out a style course to get some basic instruction.  Middle style is exactly the same as a middle guard in sword practice, a balanced method but hardly the best choice for every situation. It may bore some people or strike others as overly down-to-earth (AKA colloquial in the scholastically appropriate but stylistically mind-numbing Low style), and it’s being aware of what works for your own chosen genre or topic that most helps a piece succeed. Anyone who finds that too complicated needs to seriously reevaluate why they choose to write. In sum- it’s okay to be dark, but by itself that doesn’t make your writing good or insightful and relying exclusively on that makes said writing crap.

For my next piece, I’ll go on for twenty paragraphs of amateur opinions about swordsmanship. That sounds fun, right? RIGHT?!

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