Is Black and White Fantasy Dead?

Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones
Jaime from Game of Thrones

Is black and white dead?

No, I’m not talking about film.

With the recent surge in popularity of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. Game of Thrones), fantasy as a genre has gained a new audience. Even those who have not ventured into fantasy before can easily find themselves engrossed in the world of Westeros.

Why is this so?

Typically, fantasy has been known for depicting the struggle between good and evil – a trope that, while tried and true, may be too conventional for today’s audiences. There, I said it.

One reason that Martin has enjoyed so much success is that by avoiding the simple ‘forces of good defeat the forces of evil’ cliché, he has crafted a more mysterious and unpredictable story. And with an invigorated interest in the possibilities and directions that the story may go, the genre can creep in and silently wrap itself around the audience.

The Allure of Grey Fantasy

One of the best aspects of Martin’s story is his cast of characters. They are compelling, in large part because their actions and motives seem real and feasible not only in Westeros, but in our world as well. Thankfully, though, we don’t have to worry about any dragons or hordes of undead.

Black and white characters, while unique and interesting in their own ways, tend to be far more predictable and trite. There’s something about the unpredictability of grey characters that clicks with contemporary audiences. Yes, there still are heroes in fantasy literature whom readers root for, but the explosiveness and wild nature of the grey character is something that keeps audiences on edge for every page and every frame.

Grey characters change the nature of fantasy. Instead of rooting for the forces of good, you’re rooting for a character (or group of characters) that you can connect with and understand. This really allows the audience to choose from the cast and find the strengths in the characters that they can get behind, and find others whom they despise.

It’s all about that soap opera charm.

The Pitfall of Grey Fantasy

The strength of grey fantasy can also be its major weakness.

With black and white fantasy, the struggle of good to overcome evil is an immediate – and easily identifiable – source of conflict.  It provides ready-made objectives and clear-cut goals. We know that the story must move forward, and that only one side will be triumphant.

Grey stories, on the other hand, are far more ambiguous.

These stories are typically driven by the plot-altering and complicating decisions of the characters.  For readers to stay engaged, the plot must decisively move forward. If characters keep skewing the plot over and over until the story becomes directionless, the audience will abandon it. Readers want some sort resolution after investing time in a story.

A plot that is too character driven may lack those key goals and objectives that act as milestones in a story. Without defined objectives, characters will just go about their own agendas and business forever, and that can result in an endless, repetitive soap opera.

The Future of Black and White Fantasy

So, does the future look bleak for black and white fantasy?

Not quite. Black and white fantasy will never completely die.

Look at the great fantasy stories that we’ve come to love, such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Conan the BarbarianThe ongoing popularity of each of these works demonstrates that black and white fantasy has perennial resonance and archetypal power.  These are the stories that stay close to our hearts.

So, what do think the future holds in store for black and white fantasy?

Is grey, morally ambiguous fantasy the long-term future of the genre, or is it a passing fad?

Codey is an aspiring fantasy writer and enthusiast who gets lost developing plot points inside of his head instead of paying attention to his factory job. Codey is slowly chipping away on a lifelong project of his, a saga of men and demons, the light and the dark, on a cataclysmic collision course that threatens the existence of both spectrums. In his free time, he enjoys long, romantic walks on Summoner’s Rift and gunning down aliens on Halo rings. Words of encouragement are always welcomed, as he may be contacted via Mythic Scribes or on his Facebook page.

29 Responses to Is Black and White Fantasy Dead?

  1. I think that movies in particular are possibly over-saturating the market with shades of grey. While grey characters and stories are interesting, if every protagonist is some tortured soul or anti-villain then eventually they become as trite as the hero on the white horse. Variety is probably the best thing, that and good writing whether you are going for black and white or for grey.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  2. I think that grey fantasy allows for a series of sorts to our writing that black and white doesn’t. With the old ways, there had to be a victor and the loser was almost always vanquished leaving nothing more than a new adventure with new characters and a lot more work for the author in the development phase.

  3. Good versus evil still makes for a great story. However, for an interesting twist, if some of the characters who appear to be on the good side, are in fact working for the evil side, you might call that a ‘grey’ character. I think that can add a huge amount of interest.

  4. The idea of plots driven by complicating decisions of the characters is not a new thing: it was a mainstay of Greek tragedy.  According to Aristotle it was the faults of the protagonist that brought about the tragic consequences.  What worked then can still be popular today.
    The concern I hear about GoT is the fear that the faults of the characters are not relevant to the outcome of the story.  And, of course, we don’t know yet, since GRRM has not finished.

    • Henry Hallan – I have to admit, this concern has crossed my mind a few times. There’s a fine line between narrative and exhibitionism; I’m a big fan of honesty and faults so long as they are there for the story and not just for spectacle. GRRM is clearly a master storyteller, so right now I’m trusting he’ll reveal the “ah ha!” in due time…

  5. I don’t think the black & white will be going anywhere anytime soon. As with any big hoopla over a book / series, other authors will jump the ban wagon and start writing the same genre with the same tones. 
    Look what happened with Twilight. BOOM – the series exploded and now everyone and their mother is writing paranormal romance stories about vampires. Seems that way anyway.
    Sure, gray fantasy will be ‘it’ for awhile, and will doubtless be around for as long as man puts pen to paper. Er … fingers to keyboard.

  6. I love the GoT series, but I’m not sure if I would call it ‘gray’ fantasy.  More like a reversal of the traditional ‘black’ and ‘white’ paradigm.
    The message I keep coming back from Westeros with is that bad — terrible, nasty, cruel, unjust — things always happen to good people.  This message permeates book one, with the fate of Ned Stark being the climax, as well as the event that epitomizes the tone of the series. Several books later I’m still wondering if that one awful act will ever be avenged, if justice can ever be served in Martin’s world. 
    Good acts very rarely lead to good consequences in Westeros. Bad acts seem to get the characters ahead in enough instances that it’s worth being bad most of the time. The world of Westeros is exhausting in this way, and one of the reasons why I haven’t gotten around to reading that 5th book.
    All that being said, I do prefer characters with shades of gray, though I also like the world itself to have something of a moral compass — the kind that allows consistently good behavior to get a character ahead despite all the obstacles, while characters that exhibit consistently bad behavior are eventually forced to pay the consequences.  I know the real world doesn’t always work that way, but hey — that’s one of the reasons why we call it ‘fantasy’.
    Here’s something to think about: The characters of contemporary fantasy may seem grayer, but the fantasy itself, sometimes, seems darker.  Why is that?  Do we simply have a desire to wash the “white” — the “good” — out of the equation completely?

  7. Compelling point, Codey. Thanks for bringing this up. I think my favorite fantasy is actually a combination of these two types. It sets “gray” characters in a world with a black-and-white conflict. For example, if two sides of a Truth (religious or otherwise) are struggling for supremacy, even if the desired winner is obvious, I love it when the characters on either side are not all good or all bad. 
    This to me is the power of multiple POV like Game of Thrones (even though there’s no overarching black-and-white Truth that’s undergoing battle). It highlights the fact that human beings on both sides of an issue can be partially right and partially wrong. While one side will triumph, or the other, the people within them all stand to gain or lose. 
    If we can walk the line between black-and-white, while still letting humans be gray as they always will be, I think there might be room to take the best of both worlds. Just a theory … which I’m going to try out and see how it shakes down. 🙂

  8. I like both of the choices. But I had a small problem with what someone said about black and white fantasy being bad for kids, but the reasons they state, physicality and just being ‘nice’ makes them good, and mean for bad. Even black and white fantasy is just different shades of grey.
    About the only time I see true black and white characters is in fairy tales.

  9. There’s always been variety in written fantasy.  Conan as written by
    Howard was not the wuss he’s been in the movies.  Fafhrd & the Grey
    Mouser were thieves.  Elric can be scarier than most villains.  Fantasy
    in movies & on TV have had less variety because those mediums are
    run by execs who pander to the lowest common denominator.

  10. I prefer black and white fantasy myself. When I read, I like being transported out of this world into another. If I want grey fantasy, I’ll just turn on the evening news.

  11. The bulk of the story should contain a bit of gray area. What isn’t grey is the reader’s, or in this case viewer’s response to the story, and every good writer understands this. Game of Thrones seems to indeed reflect our times, when it is hard to tell the good guys from the bad because the good guys sometimes do bad things for what they believe to be the right reasons only to risk everything they value in the process. In case you haven’t noticed, the bad guys are not winning in GofT.

  12. I prefer black and white stories with grey characters. Game of thrones is TOO grey – all the relateable characters keep dying. It took me 4 books and 3 seasons if tv to even figure out who I should be rooting for – and who I think will win. Incidentally one of the ‘whitest’ charactrs in the cast.

  13. I’d hardly call ambiguity a fad. If you look through literature it’s always been there, just as black and white has. People always want a variety of genres rather than more of the same. Now if we have a genre where everyone has to waddle into battle like a duck and speak as if they were breathing helium, then I think I might worry.

  14. I like the Grey(no not that “I’m Ghandoff the Grey” stupid scene but the much more mature dark and realistic fantasy of today.

    I will say its also very disturbingly reflecting our society., unlike Arthur mentioning of the Fair Time that will come again.  Many would doubt it.  The sad part is we have a jaded society and we will be lucky to advance to the next stage.

    Fantasy now reflects real life and people see it as very bleak.

  15. ….why else do you think zombie movies are so popular? Hald the population wants to shoot its neighbor in the head with no consequences. The other half wants to eat their neighbors.

  16. ….why else do you think zombie movies are so popular? Hald the population wants to shoot its neighbor in the head with no consequences. The other half wants to eat their neighbors.

  17. People want ambiguous fantasy because they want someone to tell them it’s okay to act like a savage.

  18. I don’t really care whether black and white fantasy lives or dies. If someone else enjoys it, let them have fun. I won’t read it and I won’t write it. I don’t even think it’s appropriate for children who’ve reached an age where they can think rationally (sort of); it gives them the mistaken idea that “nice” and/or pretty is the same as good, and bad guys openly embrace evil and have red eyes, warts, whatever. This leaves the real children unprepared for real people who act nice to hide their evil intentions, and uneducated about how to interact with a nice person who is horribly disfigured.

  19. I think that modern audiences will always like nuanced stories, but that does not have to mean amoral or nihilistic. I rather hope that the fantasy with no redemptive aspects is a passing phase.

  20. I like complex characters with human qualities, even fantasy types. But at the end of the day, I’m a purist at heart when it comes to wizards and dragonslayers etc.

  21. I think that there are still plenty of people who would prefer more black-and-white fiction over morally grey, because they still long for heroes and villains, which G.R.R.M. doesn’t really offer. As popular as Martin’s books are, he’s certainly not the only writer out there, and not everyone likes them.
    Stories where everyone is morally grey, especially as grey as in Martin’s books, can be so jarring for the readers that they also like other stories that are not as jarring to them. Essentially, not everyone is as cynical as Martin seems to be.

  22. People want to be challenged by what they are reading maybe not intellectually but emotionally. The job of black and white fantasy (as much as any literary work) is to engage without creating overly effuse or obvious moments of black and white i.e. making it cheesey. The knack is is to engage and make them identify (or desire to be like) without over doing and making it believable and plausible. That in a morally grey world is a difficult task indeed. Either that or write children’s fantasy where over sentiment does not matter on the whole.

  23. People want ambiguous fantasy because they want someone to tell them it’s okay to act like a savage.

  24. I think that black and white fantasy won’t die out completely but maybe a lot more grey fantasy stories will come about in equal number. Personally I enjoy reading the song of ice and fire books but will always some of the classics as well.


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