My Honest Thoughts on GRIMDARK
A common way to parody something is to exaggerate it until it becomes ridiculous. This is probably the biggest pitfall when it comes to writing Grimdark. Add too much grim darkness and it ceases being tragic and starts becoming funny. A vampire that feeds on orphans is dark. A vampire that devours an entire orphanage in a single sitting sounds like the punchline to a joke. Finding that balance is key to avoid getting made fun of. Now excuse me while I ignore the elephant in the room for a bit.
Pure Grimdark is somewhat of a niche genre. Breakout hits like Game of Thrones tend to soften the Grimdark a bit. A Song of Ice of Fire (AKA the book series that the TV series Game of Thrones is based on) works because it is a hybrid of epic fantasy with a dash of Grimdark. The Grimdark elements are grounded by characterization. The darker elements are balanced by (usually) well written characters and are in service of the themes. Though even it has its ups and downs (especially in the later books).
I think the main reason that so much Grimdark goes awry is because a lot of creators get enamored with the darkness itself and create much of the story in service of the dark tone rather than the other way around. Usually, when all elements are in service to the story, not to any one element of the story, said story turns out better for it. Grimdark is a dark tone and tone is merely one tool in the massive toolbox of writing.
Killing characters is a whole other tricky business. The first major character to die can be very shocking. The second major character to bite it is a lot less shocking. By the time you get to the 40th dead character, the shock value is replaced with irritation. The emotional impact of killing off characters greatly diminishes the more it is used. This is why so many stories just save their deaths for the climax. Kill off too many characters too often and an author will quickly find themselves subject to the law of diminishing returns.
So what makes a good Grimdark story? Well I don’t know! Good storytelling is all subjective. But if I had to guess, it would be that dark stories tend to work best when the dark tone meshes with the theme and the characters are compelling enough to keep the audience engaged. Now calm down elephant! I’ll get to you in a minute.
Okay. Confession time. I kind of like dark stories. I don’t like when they get too dark though. This will probably come as no surprise, but I am a rather cynical person. Back in my college days I thought I had the world all figured out. I thought everything sucked. It was the perfect excuse for me to stew in my own misery and take no responsibility for my unhappiness. One day I had a friend who went through a personal crisis that made my little internal angst look downright childish in comparison. It took a while longer, but I got over it when I realized that I was being stupid and that other people were carrying burdens far greater than I ever would. I finally got over myself.
That’s kind of how I feel about a lot of Grimdark stories. A protagonist who is cursed with amazing super powers and the attention of every attractive woman in the setting will come across as juvenile when he complains about it. Especially when a lot of the protagonist’s complaints boil down to “woe is me! Why must I be cursed with awesomeness!” Good God. It’s like they are intentionally making fun of early 20s JP Beaubien. It irritates me because it falls into the same sin I committed during my early college days; stewing in darkness without doing anything about it. Whine, complain, moan, but for God’s sake at least do something about it!
I think that’s why I like dark stories that have a bit of light in them. Sometimes all the edge in the world can’t save a story, but a small dash of hope can keep the whole thing together. Grimdark is at its best when it’s not about stewing in its own misery, but when the characters are actively struggling against it. The world maybe awful and creating any kind of positive change may be an uphill battle assuming it’s even possible at all, but having characters face that darkness down will be a lot more compelling than sheepishly accepting the inevitable. Even if it is hopeless. There is, after all, a certain romanticism about doomed last stands.
Oh look. There is that elephant again. Guess I better address it. Warhammer 40,000, for those not in the know, is a science fiction tabletop game setting that popularized the term Grimdark. Often shortened to 40k, it exists on the fine edge between being gritty, dark bleakness and being unintentionally (or intentionally, its hard to tell) funny. It’s part of the genius of 40k really. It understands what it is and revels in it. You can like it genuinely or ironically, whichever you prefer as it caters to both audiences. I loved it in my early college years. While I did eventually cool on the setting, I still have a certain fondness and respect for it. It’s ridiculous, but it tries so hard that it becomes endearing regardless if it fails or not. It also has some pretty novel concepts sprinkled in here and there (love me some Tyranids). I guess the lesson here is that enough genuine enthusiasm can make up for the absurdity of a 12 foot tall genetically engineered super soldier with skull pauldrons wielding a gun the size of an SUV in one hand and holding a chainsaw sword in the other. If you are going to make a setting, you might as well do so with a child’s enthusiasm rather than a moody teen’s pretension.