Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gritty Fantasy

I've seen many blog posts, interviews, and articles over the past couple years talking about the new wave of gritty fantasy. The usual authors mentioned include Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and George R. R. Martin. Mostly what the articles mention is the focus on realism and everything being shades of gray rather than the old black and white of high fantasy.

I agree with the assessments only in regards to Martin. I love his shades of gray and the truly gritty, mostly realistic portrayals of human nature. I tend to disagree, though, when it comes to the other writers.

I love gritty realism if done properly. This is why Martin is my favorite living fantasy writer. Created worlds that are treated with the same seriousness of our own real world appeal to me.

Abercrombie and Morgan certainly do gritty and absolutely do shades of gray, but what they don't do, in my opinion, is realism. You see, realism doesn't mean only gray, with no admirable people, as we mainly get in their novels. In the real life that I know, people have lots of faults, and there are truly some bad characters out there, but mostly what I see are people who truly try their best to be decent. I've found this to be true even in the most backwards countries that I visit.

That's where these writers go wrong for me. They make everyone pretty much repugnant. No one in their worlds seems to have much altruism. One might argue that their times are different than ours, but I would argue back that regardless of how bad life may have been at any time in history, there have always been at least some people with more positive attitudes toward life or generally more cheerful dispositions. There have always been a few who try to do right. There have always been some heroes, even if not perfect. In Best Served Cold Abercrombie did briefly have one character make a few noises in the direction of wishing to be a better person, but that died quickly as the character evolved into a monster. He did also have another character have a generally cheerful disposition...while being utterly vile in all other respects (and this was the character I liked best in the book).

Martin does a great job of getting this balance right. He has a few flat out bad characters, such as The Mountain That Rides or Tywin Lannister, but mostly he gives us characters that may appear evil at first, but once you get to know them a little better you can see that your first thoughts about them were not necessarily the entire story. This would apply to Jaime Lannister, Tyrion, and a few others.

I don't mean to be overly harsh with Abercrombie and Morgan. I got some enjoyment from their books, and I certainly believe there is an audience for what they do. Their work just doesn't seem as realistic to me as so many bloggers or critics suggest.

My own aim in writing has been to take the sweetness that I love in high fantasy and instill some of the serious realism that I love from Martin. I put shades of gray, but I also have altruism and real heroes...even if flawed.


  1. Hmmm . . I'll have to read these two writers.

    I like this sentiment of yours: there have always been at least some people with more positive attitudes toward life or generally more cheerful dispositions.

    Yep; heroes do not have to be perfect (IMHO), they just have to see what needs done and set about doing it. To me, that is true courage


  2. I have never heard of that type of fantasy before. I do agree though, shades of grey are much more realistic in novels than the Jedi/Sith combo.

  3. Oh, I agree with you. I have found myself groaning at stories where no one has a heart or wants to help the poor kid with his head stuck in the pillory.

  4. I haven't read any of these, but I would echo your opinion that most characters really should have more good than bad to them if you want to have readers root for them. I read a book this past year... not remembering the title, but NOBODY was likeable, and it's TIRING. And I would agree with your assessment of human nature, most people are not really villains. Most bad acts are committed by people who think they HAVE TO circumstantially, have been misled or have faulty thinking, or based on some impulse. Even the VILLAINS should have a REASON. Greed and selfishness only thrive in absense of some big life needs.

  5. very interesting ted!
    ohman! i'm really loving game of thrones so far! there are a few moments that make me squirm, but i'm sure others would enjoy them. ohman! you're right-on about your assessment of people. i don't think that people set out to be monsters... and i have known people who have acted monsterously. they always seem to have their reasons in their own warped sense of morality. whether it's a worship of ambition- like the lannisters seem to have- or a arrogant belief in their own superiority - like catelyn stark at the point where i am in the novel- or a sense that they have suffered a great injustice and must be avenged- that dragon jerk that i can't remember his name-
    villains have motives, and don't often see themselves as villains. often they think they have a right to whatever they take or even that they are teaching the world a lesson.
    i haven't read any of those other guys, but i'll agree with you that so far as i'm into this game of thrones novel, martin is doing a great job writing believable characters. :) and i feel really sad for anyone who think realistic means that all people are nonsensically manipulative and selfish... i mean people ARE manipulative and selfish- but there IS usually a reason for it, and they THINK they are doing "right." :)

  6. Yeah, people generally strive for goodness. Is that Richard K. Morgan of Takashi Novaks fame.

  7. I don't know much about fantasy but I like the way you explain these authors use of realism.

  8. I write grim and gritty myself, so my interest was piqued when I heard there were others beside Martin. I didn't find it so much grim and gritty as vile and dickish, which doesn't interest me very much.

  9. Budd, that is exactly right. His style worked well for me with sci-fi, but not as much for fantasy.

  10. You just described the reason why I hated watching Stargate: Universe - all dispicable characters.

  11. I am so behind this post, Ted, except for one thing: Jaime, really?

    Don't get me wrong, Jaime Lannister is one of my favourite characters ever (which says something because twin characters start with a strike in my case), but when you do what he did at the start of A Game of Thrones, you're out of the 'good' section for ever. He's not all-out evil, though. Not like Tywin.

    Anyway. I agree that most people at least try to be decent, and I can't imagine a world where most don't care about the child with its head in the pillori. People have their faults - sometimes lots of them - but most strive not to let them get the better of them.

  12. Nicely put. Frankly, I didn't finish the Morgan novel. The characterizations irked me, and it wasn't nearly so well-written as I had thought it would be. For a guy with his reputation, I was a little surprised by all the throw-in actions scenes.

  13. Claudie, don't get me wrong, I would never consider Jaime 'good', but he certainly went from plain evil to at least 'shades of gray'.

    Bryan, I had to struggle through to the end, because it really didn't work for me. After liking his sci-fi books so much, it did surprise me.

  14. Oh yeah, he did. It's probably why I love him so much. :)

  15. "Created worlds that are treated with the same seriousness of our own real world appeal to me."

    This is EXACTLY the way of thinking I have for my own work and for the fiction I enjoy. Good post all round.

  16. I'm not sure that's entirely fair to Abercrombie (who, I confess, is my favorite living writer). Craw and Beck, in the Heroes, are certainly sympathetic characters that seem to have a streak of good in them. Shivers as well, at the end of the First Law -- his (understandable) failure to become a better man notwithstanding during BSC. The Dogman also seems to be a good sort.

    Even Monza turns out not to be as evil as she thinks she is -- she gets pissed at Morveer for his indiscriminate killing at the bank, and lets the families squatting in their building stay there (oops!).

    That said, I'll admit that the end of the First Law trilogy was too dark for me. Still, excellent writing! And to me, Abercrombie's characters are more "real" in that they seem to have a sense of humor, cynical and ironic as it might be in many cases.

  17. There are a few others out there (such as Glen Cook) that can write with fantasy and reality intermingled, but it must be incredibly hard to come up with a world that suspends only some reality. Where do you draw the line?