How Dark is too Dark for Fiction?

There's a big trend toward dark and gritty in fantasy and prestige drama in general. Salon's Imran Siddiquee wrote this:

Dramas like “Thrones” or “True Detective” offer extreme violence, misogyny and white supremacy as thoughtful entertainment, but have little intention of showing audiences an alternative. A deathly winter is always on the horizon, because bleakness is more “realistic” (and badass) than hope.

 

As an author who's inspired by George R. R. Martin writing in a genre of dark fantasy, I think these are valid critiques. It's very easy to present the ills of the world as they happen. But I also struggle to see how presenting an alternative as Siddiqee suggests would look in the context of a gritty fantasy world. Mainly because we don't really have the answers for them in our modern society.

I don't typically like stories with a well defined good vs. evil philosophy. Anti heroes, grey areas... that's just more my speed. In part because I don't see the world in terms of any black or white morality so I love when things get messy and ambiguous.

But there's a fine line between moral ambiguity and nihilism. This last season of Thrones was pretty bleak and difficult to defend in many parts. It's also the first that's deliberately not like the books. It's Hollywood and there's a ton of nuance that gets missed in a ten episode season. Case in point-- the people who suffer the most tragedy in the books are the nameless peasants and farmers who are helpless victims in a war that leaves their homes and settlements destroyed. We don't see their POV but it's mentioned often enough.

It should also be noted that all of the violence and heart-wrenching death is something much of the fantasy genre has for a very long time simply ignored. You have benevolent kings and happy princesses and nothing about misogyny, racism, the horrors of war or the dangers of concentrating power in a small segment of the population. We are headed to a return of rule by aristocratic dynasties-- it's not really a coincidence  we might see Clinton vs. Bush in 2016.

So I think showing realism is an important part of telling a story that informs the world of the readers. But you're also there to entertain. And heavy-handed lecturing about social justice is generally not considered good reading. Hunger Games has a strong political message-- but it's never front and center to Katniss's goals.

Writers don't have to answer all of life's problems in a fictional story. For one, we probably don't know the answer anyway. There are better sources for ideas about change than fiction. That said we can always strive to make the world a better place through little acts of awareness in our writing.

A big area for fantasy in particular, is diversity. We need fewer white people. We need more people of different genders and sexual orientations. Another thing is to ask the hard questions in the books-- why does this terrible stuff need to happen? You can't convince anyone of anything. The best you can do is make people care and hopefully think about something they haven't considered.


Mike bode is the author of The Queen of Lies, the first installment in the ongoing series, Architects of the Grand Design. His next book comes out October. Sign up for the mailing list for more info.

You can find him on Facebook, Twitterand Pinterest . (You can also follow him on Goodreadsand even Amazon)

 


Mike bode is the author of The Queen of Lies, the first installment in the ongoing series, Architects of the Grand Design. His next book comes out October. Sign up for the mailing list for more info. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest . (You can also follow him on Goodreads and even Amazon)

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