Surviving Grimdark Fantasy for the Squeamish

grimdarkWhile there is still some debate about whether it’s a legit sub-genre or not, grimdark has become part of the fantasy lexicon in recent years.

I actually like a lot of the authors that some label as grimdark, so I’m a bit torn on if it’s a good or bad thing. The term can be used to define fantasy with more realistic grit, where morals are gray and blood is bright red. Sounds cool to me.

However, on the flip side, it’s also used as a pejorative term for fiction that is perceived as too bleak, dark, and soul-sucking. This being the opposite of the good vs. evil type of conflicts that may be more familiar for fans of fantasy.

Well, I’m here to show you that grimdark doesn’t have to be unpleasant at all. Below are some helpful tips (for readers and writers) for surviving a grimdark book without losing your lunch and/or faith in humanity.

1. Audio Books are Your Friends

Do you get squeamish when the morally objectionable main character tears out someone’s spine and beats him to death with it? Well, the magic of audio books is that you can skip the icky parts and move right on to…um…more icky parts?

2. Clean Up the Potty Mouth

Grimdark tends to use lots of naughty language in order to develop characters and/or piss off people that don’t like that kind of thing. Before sitting down to write, go out in public and spew as many profanities as you can. Go to a train station, a rodeo, a petting zoo, wherever you feel comfortable. Once you’ve said #*&$! and *[email protected]!#*~ to every person you see within a five mile radius, you’ll feel no need to populate your novel with such foul language. You’ll also make the world a brighter place for made up fantasy curses like, “flimberpile” or “slackpoodle.”

3. Replace the Word “Blood” with “Ponies”

Going a step further, you may want to clean up some of the grotesque imagery as well. Go through your grimdark book and cross out all the instances of “blood.” After that, replace them with “ponies.” It’s definitely more pleasant to read “Ponies spilled from his ravaged throat” or “A pool of ponies spread out across the filthy dungeon floor.” Ponies make everything more pleasant. Note: If ponies aren’t your thing, you can try pudding, avocados, or Benedict Cumberbatch.

4. Why Have Gray Morality? Why Not Green or Fuscia?

While gray morality is all the rage in grimdark fiction, who says morality has to be black, white, or gray? Experiment with different colors. See if you can really stretch the definition of morality to new levels. “My main character has sort of a lime green morality. He just randomly butchers leprechauns.” Become a philosopher. That’s the ticket, Socrates!

5. Kill Things That Don’t Make Squishy Messes

It’s unavoidable to write a fantasy book without killing in it, right? If you’re going to have your grimdark cast go about wantonly killing things, make these graphic scenes easy on the eyes, ears, and stomach. Think of creatures that can be destroyed without making you feel queasy. For example, paper, wood, Styrofoam, jellybeans, etc. If your characters fight morally gray wood golems, when the battle is over, they’ll have a nice stack of morally gray firewood to set up camp. Everyone loves a good camp story!

6. Don’t Eat Before Writing

If you must splash the pages of your novel with bucketfuls of blood, then make sure to wait thirty minutes after eating before indulging in a bit of grimdark. After the time has passed, feel free to wade knee-deep into steaming mounds of goat demon viscera (or non-goat demon viscera, whichever works better.)

7. Write with Happy Music Playing

Want to shake off the grimdark blues? Characters saying things like “I don’t give a sh*t” or “Let him die” too much? Play some happy music while you’re writing and you might just get “I really care deeply about your emotional and physical well-being” or “Let him eat cake” instead. Happy music=well-adjusted characters.

8. Dogs Wearing Hats

Nothing un-grims a book like dogs wearing hats! Hell, make your main character a hat-wearing dog. For example, Miss Prissbottom Snickerdoodle, the Sorceress of Bleak Bonehouse. This dog should most likely be a pug because pugs look the cutest while wearing hats. (Feel free to vigorously discuss in the comment section.)

9. Make Up Your Own Objectionable Sub-Genre and See if it Catches On

You can do like I did and create your own sub-genre like my brainchild (brainfart?) Splatter-Elf. Splatter-Elf is like grimdark except that it’s weird, surreal, and sometimes bat doo-doo crazy. I imagine it’s like Mortal Kombat meets 80s cartoons meets that scene with the lawnmower in Braindead (aka Dead Alive). Cheese+gore+grim+undead unicorns+awesome=Splatter-Elf. I figure if I keep saying “_______ is totally Splatter-Elf” or “No, I don’t think _______ is Splatter-Elf, it’s more like dark YA potatopunk,” it will catch on. People like to debate what something is or isn’t. So give it a try! (And if you’re curious, here’s an introduction to Splatter-Elf.)

10. Stop Reading and/or Writing Period

The best solution to avoid something is to stop doing it. For instance, when I wanted acid-spitting imps to quit plaguing my dreams, I stopped sleeping. So if you really want to avoid being labeled as a grimdark reader or writer, just don’t partake in either activity. Problem solved!

You could also try “ostrichpunk” which is fiction where everyone buries their heads in the sand.

In conclusion, if you’re planning on visiting any grimdark worlds in the near future, you may need a sick bag, a psychiatrist, or this handy list.

Have you dabbled in any of the grittier, darker, grimmer, squishier kinds of fantasy? How did you survive? Please share your comments below.

Or as we say in grimdark, “Share or I’ll slice your face off and wear it as a hat.”

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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Andrew Krska
5 years ago

The problem with some writers who use grimdark is it’s often a crutch to try to make the story appear more mature whilst having the intellectual nutrition of processed cheese. I mean just look at comic books in the nineties, hugely popular works such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns made grim alternate realities with morally questionable characters and a bleak outlook, they were critically acclaimed and brought long time adult comic book fans out of the woodwork. However in trying to capitalise on those same fans comic books became grim drab affairs with gun toting maniacs, that were poorly written. I think people are more forgiving of something whimsical and fun that on the whole is poorly written than something portentous and moody that’s poorly written. Using comic books as an example again people tend to look at the Silver Age much more favourably than the Dark Age.

Philip Overby
Reply to  Andrew Krska
5 years ago

Thanks, Andrew! I agree that lighter fare tends to be judged less harshly than darker stuff. I tend to enjoy a mix of both. I like a dark world with dark humor. If a book can do that, it’ll win me over!

Juli D. Revezzo
6 years ago

I lovelovelove #4 esp. the bit about leprechauns! *beg* I was going to ask, Philip. You had me wondering if this is a new sub-sub-genre of dark fantasy…

Philip Overby
Reply to  Juli D. Revezzo
6 years ago

Juli: What kind of morality do you like? I prefer beige with blue stripes. 🙂

Splatter-Elf is sort of sub-sub-sub-genre I’m doing for my own entertainment. Other people have joined in and contributed some stuff as well, so it would be cool if it turned into something more. I have a Twitter handle @SplatterElf where I post weird, gory, and silly stuff.

Lisbeth Ames
6 years ago

This article cracked me up. #3 had me laughing so hard I almost wet myself. (Leaving a pool of ponies, one might presume.) Thank you for explaining “grimdark” to me. I’ve always wondered why my fave author Joe Abercrombie uses @LordGrimdark as his Twitter handle. Now I know. And lo and behold, it turns out grimdark is my fave genre. Who knew?

Philip Overby
Reply to  Lisbeth Ames
6 years ago

Glad you liked it!

Alesha
6 years ago

I’ll admit I haven’t dabbled in grimdark, but I don’t necessarily want to reject all of it outright. There just may be a story in that genre that will draw me in. I think it is true that many fantasy readers enjoy the black-and-white morality offered, but a well-written gray is also appreciated.

Aspasia
Aspasia
6 years ago

You, sir, have officially made me laugh out loud. Please establish the subgenre of dark YA potatopunk as soon as possible, I feel the fantasy genre is quite incomplete without it. Ostrichpunk is brilliant.

I don’t tend to read fantasy that can be categorized as “grimdark” or even “gritty” usually, preferring LOTR-style “There is always hope” epic fantasy tales. I have read a bit of Abercrombie, and I’m four books into ASoIaF, and Malazan is one of my favorite series. Too much darkness and hopelessness loses me as a reader, but mix a good amount of hope and decency in with the brutal realism and you’ve got me. If I’m desperately hoping someone can make it out alive — looking at you, Martin — I’ll be on tenterhooks for the next book, as opposed to novels where I’ve totally given up hope of anything good ever happening to the MC (oddly enough, this happened to me with Robin Hobb, who I expected to love).

Realistic fantasy fiction is great, but I want an good amount of realistic hope seasoning the realistic bleakness.

CD Gallant-King
6 years ago

I would suggest adding another point:

11. Play Splatter-Elf with Dave. Nothing else will ever shock or disturb you again.

Brandon S. Pilcher
6 years ago

I gravitate more towards idealistic fantasy myself. I appreciate tragic or bittersweet endings every now and then, but in general I’d like to see justice served. We already have too many villains getting their way in the real world as well as too many heroes not receiving the recognition they are due. Why should we see more of the same misery in fantasy?

Nicholas C. Rossis
6 years ago

Lol – “A pool of ponies spread out across the filthy dungeon floor”! An instant classic! You, sir, should be writing comedy… 😀

Thanks for a great post!

Sarah McCabe
6 years ago

I don’t know if “grimdark” is the right terminology to use, but I think there should be a separate subgenre for fantasy that wallows in darkness. The whole purpose of genre is to help readers find the books they will like to read, and there are a significant number of fantasy readers who do not want to read books set in worlds filled with nothing but grime and cruelty where every character they love will die horribly. However, as the genre labels stand right now, it can be very hard to know ahead of time whether you are about to read such a book. You might not realize you are reading such a book until you are already invested in the characters and plot and then suddenly everyone starts dying. (My experience with the first ASOIAF book.) So something that tells readers ahead of time: warning, don’t read this if you want a happy ending (or some such thing) would be greatly appreciated by many readers. We shouldn’t have to get half way into a book before we realize it’s precisely the kind of book we don’t want to read.

Sarah McCabe
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

That may be true but in the current publishing landscape you get the most readers by making it as easy as possible for them to find the kinds of books they like. I think there are fewer readers out there who want to be surprised by the content of the books they buy than that want to make sure their book dollars go to the books they will enjoy. As a mom of 5 with a VERY limited budget I do not want to waste any money on books that will disappoint me. This makes me very leery of buying anything I’m not really sure of. I’ve skipped over so many books because the product description was just a few snappy lines that the author thought would easily hook me in but that don’t actually tell me anything about the product I’m getting. Authors/publishers who go the extra mile to make sure they are connecting their books to the right audience will go farther than those that don’t. In my humble opinion. 😉

CD Gallant-King
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

I don’t want to know how the story ends. I don’t want to know who lives and dies. The most exciting, interesting and memorable characters are the ones who have to suffer, try to rise above, and ultimately fail. Hamlet and Oedipus are not remembered because they won in the end. (Sorry, spoilers)

I threw A Game of Thrones at the wall at the end the first time I read it, and it’s one of the very rare books that had that kind of visceral connection with me. It’s why the series is so popular, because it touches a chord with people, the same chord that touched Shakespeare’s audience and Sophocles’ audience. We want our heroes to be flawed, and to fail sometimes. The advantage that Martin has over his ancient peers is that he has continued his story and people keep reading, hoping, that maybe in the end it turns out okay.

Maybe we should just label books the same way it was done in the past. The only difference between Comedies and Tragedies is that Comedies had a happy ending and Tragedies did not.

Brandon S. Pilcher
Reply to  Sarah McCabe
6 years ago

I have seen at least one writer characterize her own work as “dark fantasy”. If there are more like her, maybe there will appear an official sub-genre soon.

Antonio del Drago
6 years ago

I haven’t read anything in the “grimdark” sub-genre yet, at least not that I’m aware of.

What are the defining characteristics of grimdark? What would be some examples of grimdark novels?

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

Thanks for the explanation.

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