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 #*&$! and *$@!#*~ 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.

Philip Overby
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25 thoughts on “Surviving Grimdark Fantasy for the Squeamish”

  1. 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.

    • 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: What kind of morality do you like? I prefer beige with blue stripes. πŸ™‚

      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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • I’m glad I made you “lol.”

      I feel like the Malazan series is dark (what I’ve read so far) but it never feels hopeless. Ditto for Abercrombie’s work.

      It’s a good point to have a balance of realistic hope AND bleakness. I think too much hope and it becomes predictable. Too much bleakness and it becomes depressing. One thing I’m trying to do with Splatter-Elf (which started as a joke) is to go so far to the extreme of dark that it actually becomes humorous. I guess I want my fiction to be more like WTF fantasy rather than the standard fare. Not that the standard fare is bad, it’s just as I get older I’d like to read more daring fiction that bucks the trends. Those stories that have been labeled “grimdark” certainly bucked the trends when they were released.

  5. 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?

    • My viewpoint is that I want to read fantasy of all types, happy, sad, grim, dark, weird, silly, crazy, idealistic, everything. I don’t tend to shun any particular kind of book. I feel like reading about the happy and tragic points of life gives me some kind of balance. If I only read happy stories, it would make me feel as off-balance as if I only read depressing ones. Now I’m reading The Elfin Ship, a rather light comic fantasy novel, whereas I’m also reading Memories of Ice, which is full of death and misery. I understand though how some would want to avoid grittier fantasy because they look at the genre for escapism.

    • I consider my writing “YA pseudo-romantic tragicomic potatopunk” but Amazon doesn’t have that category yet. I have to hold out publishing anything until then.

      Thanks for reading! πŸ™‚

  6. 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.

    • I think people are already using grimdark as a way to warn each other. As I mentioned in my comment to Antonio, I often see people say, “This book is too grimdark for me” in reviews and such. I think it’s pretty easy to find out if a book is going to have this sort of world because most books labeled as grimdark set the stage pretty early. There might be some gruesome deaths, some characters that aren’t so cheery, whatever. I do think A Game of Thrones hides its “grimdarkness(?)” pretty well, so that’s a good point. However, if I had someone tell me, “Don’t read this book because a lot of the main characters are going to die” I would more than likely have said, “Dude, spoilers!” For me, part of the reading experience is enjoying not knowing what’s going to happen next. If someone even told me, “Don’t worry, this book has a happy ending,” I think that would frustrate me to no end.

      So I do think grimdark is already being used as a warning label by some. I guess the best way to avoid such books, if you don’t want to read them, is read reviews or talk to people you trust.

      • 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. πŸ˜‰

      • Well, I want to reply to your post, but it’s not letting me. So I’ll reply here instead.

        Anyway, I think you’re right in that readers are probably more discriminating when it comes to choosing books that aren’t going to be a waste of their time. I’m becoming increasingly selective myself. I do tend to think reading a quick sample usually gives me an idea if I want to invest time in a book or not. After reading A Game of Thrones’s prologue, I knew the world was going to be pretty grim. I’m sure this isn’t a spoiler anymore, but when Weymar Royce dies within the first bit of the book I thought, “Oh, well I guess he’s not the main character after all.” That prologue was enough to hook me in. For me, as mostly a Kindle reader now, the sample option is crucial for me.

      • 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.

    • I think some people may label Joe Abercrombie (who uses the Twitter handle LordGrimdark ironically), George R.R. Martin, Mark Lawrence, Daniel Polansky, Luke Scull and some others as grimdark. I don’t personally like to use that word to describe their books, because to me the grimdark name suggests that the books are only about bleak worlds where nothing good happens at all. I’ve mostly seen it used as a warning, “This book’s a little too grimdark for me” rather than a positive categorization. You don’t often hear people say, “This book is too steampunk-y for me.” Hell, maybe people do and I’m just running in the wrong circles.

      But my article takes the Life of Brian (which might be categorized by some as grimdark even) approach: “Always look on the bright side of life!” πŸ™‚


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