A Mouth Full of Grit: Writing Grimdark Sci-Fi and Fantasy
By C.T. Phipps
Fantasy has a bad reputation with casual readers, in part because literature snobs have an issue with it (I know, I work in academia) and because a lot of people just don't understand the genre. Their experience with it was the Hobbit and Narnia when they were younger or Disney films. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice of Ice and Fire along with their adaptations in the past two decades have done a lot to change that but the reputation of it as a somewhat childish genre lingers.
Interestingly, this attitude persists in fantasy fandom as well with some of them believing the genre has been polluted with far too many Tolkien-clones that lack the original novels complexity and depth. Indeed, part of why A Song of Ice and Fire was so well-received was that it was a darker and edgier take on the genre with not only realistic consequences to events but showing just how horrible the usually idealized Middle Ages could be.
I, myself, am a fan of writing grimdark and work which pushes the envelope of traditional fantasy rules. My sci-fi novel, AGENT G: INFILTRATOR, was created with the premise of, "What would a novel be like from the perspective of the corporate samurai bad guys who work for the megacorporations?" I thought of my space opera LUCIFER'S STAR as following up the equivalent to Return of the Jedi but lacking a heroic Rebel Alliance to replace it but a far more cynical "realistic" revolution. Finally, WRAITH KNIGHT stars a Dark Lord and tells the story of how someone might become one with the greatest of intentions.
I'm not quite as gritty as some authors but I thought I would share my advice for those who want to try to be a bit darker and edgier with their writing. Here's ten tips which I've found useful when creating my stories.
1. Flaws make the protagonist
The first piece of advice I have for any writer when creating their protagonists is DON'T try to make them likable as that's actually counterproductive in many places. Flaws make protagonists more interesting and things like bad attitudes, greed, old grudges, and more are what generate reader interest. "The Good Guy" is the most absolute boring kind of character you can create. Indeed, some of the best novels have been thoroughly awful people who are, nevertheless, interesting.
2. Bad decisions have consequences
Bad decisions happen all the time in books as heroes are expected to violate common sense. They go back for the man left behind, they try to rescue the princess, and go into battle against forces which heavily outnumber them. Which is why you should have these bad ideas...fail miserably. Not all the time but enough that it makes the setting work better. Like the hero bravely turning around to face the attacking horde then getting knocked out and all of his men slaughtered.
3. Good doesn't mean right
Similarly to the above, it's a good idea to have the most moral characters challenged in their actions. Say Prince Such and Such receives a bunch of refugees from outside of his kingdom which he fights the nobility for the protection of. Make it so this leads to other consequences like overcrowding or, if you don't want to make him the bad guy, a massive riot from the racist citizens which leads to purges. Decent actions can be hard and there's no guarantee they'll work out.
4. Happy endings or not
Happy endings are something which aren't terrible to have but it's also good to make things not quite as neat as they could be. Tolkien knew this when he had Frodo unable to cope with normal society and need to go to the Blessed Realm (which is a metaphor for premature death if I ever heard one). But yes, maybe the orcs are still around and will cause trouble for years to come. Maybe it turns out the girl who the hero has been pining for the entire time doesn't like him, is married to someone else, or is gay. Maybe the bad guys weren't entirely defeated but one got away scott free in the end. It makes things a bit more bittersweet and (again) interesting.
5. People are complicated
It's important to make sure you layer your cast with multiple dimensions. Bad people should have good qualities, even if they're monstrous terrorists who love killing, maybe they have a fondness for fine art as well as a love of children. Maybe the king who is kind, compassionate, and a decent ruler is an unrepentant misogynist or considers the peasants to be people who must obey him by divine right. Throwing in these complications makes the reader uneasy for getting a handle on them--which means they pay more attention.
6. Violence is not fun (except when it is)
Violence is inherently exciting but making it heroic is often a cheat for the reader and there should be opportunities to make it more visceral as well as upsetting. Having awkward like a mook running away, only for the hero to instinctively shoot them in the back or the smell which accompanies the disembowelment of another person with a sword is good. It makes the violence have punch rather than be a sanitized affair. In the original Star Wars there was a lot of blood leaking out of the guy who lost his arm in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Then there's the chaos and brutality of a large scale battle, which might end up in war crimes depending on the time period. These details can make battle and its aftermath more engaging prospect for readers.
7. Society sucks
To make a gritty sci-fi or fantasy novel you should definitely make a world where there's lots of casual corruption as well as injustice. These should be features which the heroes can't actively engage with. Everyone expects it from the evil Empire but if the world just has no easy answers then it's a place which will feel real to most of us. The petty evils of bureaucracy, indifference, and so on should be everywhere even during the worst of struggles.
8. Kill your darlings
Characters have to die in gritty works. If you can develop them before they die, so much the better. It helps to make individuals who are likable, on the protagonist's side, and who suffer a grizzly fate for their goodness. It also makes sure even if you're not going to kill or maim your protagonists that the audience isn't sure about any of their supporting cast. When developing a story, set aside some characters to be slaughtered like lambs on the altar of good storytelling.
9. The Smell of the Streets
The streets should always smell in gritty fiction. They should have the taste of asphalt, desperation, and sadness. You should always make sure to assault all of the senses of your reader when writing as that will make things stronger.
Hopefully, these tips will help you write a grittier, darker, and better story.
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