Grimdark: More Realistic?

Isn’t the whole point of fantasy that it’s not real?

It seems a pretty odd point to debate, but it’s a question that gets thrown out quite a lot, especially when you’re being heralded as “The New Emperor of Grimdark.”* To those that say that** I say HAH! I write GrimHEART not Grimdark anyway but that’s really beside the point. Often, Grimdark type writing is seen as being more ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ than other types of fantasy – or at least, that’s how we like to play it.

What this generally means is that Grimdark writers end up writing low-fantasy (e.g. low levels of magic, few wizards, monsters are considered rare etc.) because it’s a more appropriate setting for our down and dirty characters. It’s not so easy to be a grizzled old grouch when you’re backed by a chorus of singing elves.

In a recent podcast I was asked about whether weapon usage in fantasy should be portrayed in a realistic manner, and I did end up having a good think on this. And the ultimate answer is: it depends on the story that the author is telling, and all levels of realism can be excellent.

Many years ago I read an excellent duology by Kim Hunter, The Red Pavillions. There was nothing realistic about what happens in the book but then, it was never meant to be. And that’s great.

Kim Hunter

In Blackwing, I did bring in my HEMA background; every hand-to-hand combat sequence is actually a historical play taken from a real fencing master. I did it because (a) I prefer that kind of fight scene in my book, (b) I like to know that it makes sense, and (c) because it’s that kind of world. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a rule applicable to all books. Take a look at Shardblades in Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Nothing realistic there, but still thrilling action sequences – but how can that make sense?

Shardblades

The amazing art above is by PeterMan2070
The Blackthorne

The answer is simple enough: as long as it works logically and consistently between the covers of the book, it’s going to be fun. Because logic and consistency can make anything believable.

There are plenty of aspects in BLACKWING that are far from ‘realistic.’ There’s lots of magic. The Misery is a wasteland that hates you, and is filled with devil-babies, gigantic insectoid abominations (and boy, if you think BLACKWING featured some messed-up monstrositites, wait until RAVENCRY hits next year) and the more I wrote about the crazy stuff, the more fun I was having. I’d always intended to write historical realism with low-level magic, but soon I was putting in neon lights and factories full of dying sorcerers. It’s nothing like the real world, but it makes sense within its own world. And that’s really all that matters.

So no. I don’t think that Grimdark is more realistic than other kinds of fantasy. It’s too broad, too diverse a category and frankly, none of us really agree what Grimdark means anyway… but realism? I’ll keep on writing about people who are capable of nuking the world with a wave of their sorcerous fingers and not worry about it.

* Nobody heralds me as that. If you wish to apply for the position of Herald, get in touch.
** I would like it if you would start saying that.

Misery

Published by EdMcDonald

Ed McDonald is the author of The Raven's Mark series of novels. He currently lives in the UK. Find me at www.edmcdonaldwriting.com

3 thoughts on “Grimdark: More Realistic?

  1. I hate the cry “this fantasy book is not realistic enough!”
    It’s a FANTASY
    You can suspend your disbelief for the sorcerer but not for the weapons usage? A similar blog post discussed this idea that magic needs to be explained; and as I argued there if you need to explain magic it takes away the magic. Like explaining a joke.

    So no, when I read fantasy, grimdark or otherwise, I don’t expect realism to the point of their footwork is correct and the trajectory of their swing is accurately calculated. Because I’m not going to know the difference either way.

    But I do feel there is a realism in emotions in grimdark that is missing from other fantasy. Characters are flawed, selfish, are motivated by questionable ethics; and I think this is a more accurate representation of humanity than is displayed in some other genres. Character arcs and developments are my favourite aspect of grimdark!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points! I really agree about the emotional/character realism. When it comes to magic I prefer for things to stay mystical, once it’s all explained I lose interest.

      Liked by 1 person

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