Sunday 19 May 2013

What is Grimdark?

Here's a wordle made from the text of a dozen or so articles on grimdark:

On the reddit fantasy forum I asked:

What is Grimdark? It's a phrase that gets thrown around a lot - often as an accusation.
Variously it seems to mean:
  • this thing I don't approve of
  • how close you live to Joe Abercrombie
  • how similar a book's atmosphere is to that of Game of Thrones

I've seen lots of articles describe the terrible properties of grimdark and then fail to name any book that has those properties.

So what would be really useful is
a) what you think grimdark is
b) some actual books that are that thing.

There were ~150 comments. Here are the authors who were either mentioned as having written a grimdark book or having been mentioned in that category then had somebody else argue that they were not.

So, that should have cleared that up then!

Or if you prefer the proximity to Abercrombie theory...

Here's the lethality radius of a modest (1 megaton) nuclear bomb dropped on Joe Abercrombie's house. You can see it would be a poor day for myself and Luke Scull too - both of whom have in the past (though not in this exploration) been accused of / praised for writing grimdark.

The same bomb drop on a larger scale map!


  1. Grimdark is more real than other. More focused on the darker aspects than anything else. Sarcasm and morbid humour/gallows humour goes well with grimdark stuff.
    And who is more Grimdark than @LordGrimdark - Joe Abercrombie? Glokta from The blade itself really personifies Grimdark for me.
    Grimdark fantasy depicts fights more detailed, got more grit, more of the shadowside of life. Grimdark movies.. the only one I an think of in one go is Sweeney Todd. Even with the singing. My two cents at least!

  2. Grimdark is looking for the dark sides of a character or actually anything. Be it a city, state, system. But first and foremost of the characters in a novel. The emphasis is on the dark and evil things. Warhammer 40k tagline "In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war."

    This usually leads to an overemphasis of the negative aspects of a character and sometimes you wonder if there is not a single person in a book who isn't a fatally flawed psycho! Happens a lot in Abercrombies books.

    Movies: The Dirty Dozen, just even way way dirtier. That's Grimdark. It's so dark that there are often no "light" things left.

    Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs and A Land Fit for Heroes novels are also very grim. Little positive things are even shown, which is putting off a lot of people and sometimes it's getting too much for me as well. And you know how easily people can be put off by Jorg, right after the very first pages.

    Interestingly it's mostly British authors who do this Grimdark stuff. This is probably because of the poor food they usually get and lack of sunlight.

  3. Well, the Warhammer 40k reference is the origin, which in and of itself implies that grimdark is a caricature (Warhammer not being the most serious of settings). Basically, take all the knights in shining armor, fairy princesses, and kindly old wizards and murder them in brutal fashion, first thing. If you're of a mind, it can even have happened in the backstory.

    If you have a hero, he has to be flawed, tormented, or otherwise broken. If you were to take your grimdark hero into a heroic fantasy, he'd make a plausible villain. Villains in this sort of tale are merely by degree.

    Books: I think these days ASoIaF is pretty much the definition people are using. It's overshadowing much of the genre.

    Movies: The Crow, Bladerunner, Sin City. It's hard to find fantasy movies that fit the bill since it's mainly Harry Potter and LoTR stuff that's making it big these days. Give it a few years and maybe some of the newer stuff might break through.

  4. Grimdark is usually a work set in a world where the writer has taken love and compassion behind the shed out back to shoot them between the eyes execution style. Many of it is often viewed as more "real", especially in the fantasy genre, but it's really just as extreme as writing something that is all sunshine riding unicorns who fart rainbows.

    In fact, on a writing website I've already had a discussion similar to this with other writers. "Realism" fantasy is often in the Grimdark category. I pretty much summed it up as a lot of mud, blood, and swearing. Throw in some entrails and dead children, and I think you have it covered.

  5. Grimdark...

    Grim: The opposite of hopeful, happy, cheerful.
    Dark: The opposite of illuminated, lucid, vivid.

    A happy story where all the main protagonists are cooperative and hopeful of a good outcome and they follow a clear path to achieve their ultimate victories culminating in great feasts and merriment.

    This, grimdark is not.

  6. I'm no expert on the "official definition" of Grimdark (although universally Warhammer 40K seems to be the origins, and I recognize the English language is constantly evolving and changing terms from their origins).

    Whether officially labeled "grimdark" or not the trend that I have seen in recent years is a proliferation of fantasy novels where all the characters seem mired in a morass of hopelessness. Their lives are weighed down by misery, there is no possibility for joy, and no reason to aspire to anything because in the end there is no chance of a better life or a greater good.

    1. First, I am a big fan of your work Mr. Sullivan. However, I am also a big fan of Abercrombie, Lawrence, and Martin. I think there is room under the tent for all of you.
      The key to a great character, for me, is growth and transformation. Abercrombie's Glokta grows a great deal and that makes him interest. Same with ole Jorgy, princess Arista, and Jaime Lanister inter alia.
      Different locations and times are more grim than others. Stories set during those grim times are likely to have broken characters. Watching those characters grow and attempt to fix themselves a mid horror and with little incentive to do so is encouraging to me. It speaks to the resilience of the human spirit and that redemption may be found for us all.

  7. First of all I’m not a fan of the whole “Grimdark” word, but it does feel like there is a genre within the genre developing that is leaning more towards some of these R-rated themes. The two Gimdark authors that haven’t been mentioned yet are the Canadians up north, Steven Erickson and his holiness R. Scott Bakker. (I’m a huge Bakker fan-boy, no weeping on the slog)

    I read Prince of Thorns and really enjoyed it, the same with Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy. While these are great stories, to me they weren't that dark. I think this is due to the fact that Jorg, the bloody nine, and Glotka had a good sense of humor. Bakker or Erickson on the other hand have very very few elements of humor or even hope, so their novels tend to have a “darker” tone to them. That’s my two cents. Check out Valhalla Rising for a fucked up “grimdark” kind of film. No humor, just an eerie feeling of dread and hopelessness. My kind of stuff;)

    1. Hey, Beg to differ on Erikson being humourless - Kruppe is super funny. The banter between the marines is often chuckle inducing. The conversations involving Bugg and Tehol are rib-tickling in the extreme. Me thinks you should read thebooks again!

  8. Oh, yes, Valhalla Rising is one hell of a grimdark tale...

    And yes, for me it's a lack of hope that defines grimdark. There's not even a spark of it on the horizon. A lot of the Warhammer books have it -- no matter what they do, a thousand souls will still be sacrificed every day, chaos will still try to get through, it's neverending, with no hope of eventual happy victory...I can think of a few others too, but that might be more subjective on the hope part.

  9. If you extend the blast radius a little you also get to nuke Richard Ford, author of the excellent new grimdark fantasy novel Herald of the Storm. He lives just outside Swindon, though like Joe Abercrombie he is a northern barbarian by birth...

  10. I'd agree with Michael and Francis - it's the hopelessness that defines it. That's why I feel GRRM has a grimdark-ish tone - the noble characters like Ned Stark tend to come to a sticky end whereas the schemers and bastards flourish. Well, except for Dany, BECAUSE DRAGONS :)

    I prefer characters who, though down in the gutter, at least have a view of the stars...

  11. Heh, fortunately I'm in Oxford where we're protected from any Grimdark bomb by the Golden Radiance of Inklings which offers a +6 armour bonus.

  12. Fantasy authors have the best sense of humour. I love you guys.

  13. "Grimdark" was a term initially coined by unintuitive bloggers and critics to be a catch-all term for "I don't like this type of fiction, and you shouldn't either, because if you DO dare to like it, you are depraved."

    However, I LOVE that Joe, Mark, Richard and all the other authors "accused" of "grimdark" (by these same unintuitive critics) like it's a bad thing have all co-opted the word, dismantled it, and turned it into a banner that says "We aren't afraid of your names. Call us this all you like."

    Thus, grimdark is now officially a word for a style of fiction that I enjoy!

    Great post Mark!

  14. Fantasy has evolved, and it was only natural the black and white would turn into shades of grey eventually.
    Regarding the characters, I don't think all of them are psychopaths (while some of them are ofcourse are). Most of them are normal people, in a much more diffucult world than ours. Getting an insight into someone's thoughts is not something we should be doing in real life, and some of you may disagree with me, but deep inside you know I'm right. But thoughts are thoughts. Sometimes it's very good we keep our thoughts to ourselves, or atleast some of them. What these 'Grimdark' writers intended to give us is a full portrait of a normal person, and sometimes, the contrast between his thoughts, which are free to roam without stopping, and his deeds, which are eventaully the way he filters those thoughts into what he thinks is right by his morales.
    I talk especially in regard to GRRM and Abercrombie's works because I haven't yet read other writers, but I do believe all this 'Grimdark' nonesense should actually be called 'modern fantasy' as the genere evolved into a more realistic, down to earth stories.
    Unlike the high fantasy of the 20th century (which has my deepest respect, I'm actually re-reading Tolkein now), the 21st century belongs to 'Grimdark' writers, and hell, I'm looking forward to read more of you guys (recommendations would be more than welcome).

    Great post, haven't been familliar with the subject, got here only through Abercrombie's blog, Thanks Joe!

    1. Gal, a couple points on your comment.

      I'm pretty sure just being 'realistic' isn't what grimdark is all about. Moral greyscale and complex characters have nothing to do with it; that part is just modern sensibilities in writing. Grimdark is actually the flip side of heroic fantasy. Strip all the shine off every knight, the purity from every maiden. I generally find it rather unrealistic, in fact, since it turns human nature so completely on its head.

      Look at any real-world tragedy and you'll find the best parts of humanity coming together. Not everyone, mind you, but the majority find some way to pull together. The grimdark answers are hoarding, exploitation, opportunity.

      The other point is a nitpicky pet peeve of mine. "High" fantasy refers to the pervasiveness of magic in the world, not the ideals of the protagonist. A lot of heroic fantasy is high fantasy as well (evil wizards make great foils for the farmboy-knight) but it's mostly coincidental.

    2. Points well made all in all. But perhaps u misunderstood me.

      I disagree with the term 'Grimdark', or at least the way I see it being presented here - a term critics use to define a new phenomenon of writers intentionally darkening things up to make them more interesting and using it as a gimmick to increase sales - I don't think that was the purpose of the writers, their purpose was to present the portraits of the characters more fully, because the knight in shining armor is rarely pure of mind, but in past creations, they just didn't tell us that, I felt like I was being censored, didn't get a full view of the characters, alot of characters were portrayed as perfect, take Gandalf, Aragorn, Bilbo, Drizzt, Harry etc. I wanted to see that knight's fantasies and musings on his outside world. Hell, when the prince saves the princess from the dragon he's expected to get something in return, and all my childhood Disney movies are based on tales that were softened up to fit the eyes of children (which is of course legit), but 20 years later I expect more from my literature.

      Without spoiling too much, take Collem West, a stalwart soldier with outstanding manners and a bright future. In high fantasy he may well be your shining knight after a bit of softening up, but in what I call 'modern fantasy' you get his full view, and see that he's human and he has dark thoughts, Most of them he keeps to himself. My point remains: Our world is not black and white, it's grey. By calling literature Grimdark perhaps you're trying to say that there's too much black in it, and maybe in some pieces it's true, but the pieces I've read (which as I said are mainly Abercrombie, who refers to himself as Lord Grimdark, and GRRM) aren't black, they're just trying to show us normal people (and once in a while a psychopath) trying to live in harsh circumstances. I love the insights into the characters' dark thoughts, I love the way I feel I see the scene as a whole and not just the pretty pieces of it. I believe this is the natural direction for the genre, and not a bad thing as critics would have us think.

      About real-world tragedies pulling us together - that's true of course. But when you talk about us you actually talk about people who watch the tragedies from afar. I (and I hope you too, god forbid) haven't been a part of any tragedy, this makes your comparison inaccurate due to the fact that the characters are right in the middle of said tragedy, in the middle of all the process of the creation of a tragedy, and I don't know how much people are being pulled together in those stages and in that perspective of a tragedy. Sometimes you can actually see how people outside the tragedy relate to it in a very realistic way by pulling together and saying how awful and barbaric it is.

      Regarding your 'High Fantasy' point, I'd take your word on that if you're an expert, I've had my own perception on that but hell I'm not going to argue about it. 'Dragonlance', 'Forgotten Realms', 'Lord of the Rings' are all high fantasy on my opinion, magic is very widespread and known, but (perhaps coincidental but I don't think so) you also have a very keen perception of good and bad. It's the forces of good, with whom you identify completely against the forces of evil. Also you only get the perspective of one side of the coin, giving you half the story. This worked well in the 20th century (it worked very well for me, reading R.A Salvatore, Weiss and Hickman and ofcourse Tolkein), but at some point it stopped working, and some writers moved on.

      To sum it up, what people refer to as 'Grimdark' i refer to as evolution of the fantasy genre. Because let's face it, in high fantasy we've seen it all and most of the new attempts are quite boring. It was only natural writers would go in a different, more gritty direction.

      Good Day

  15. About 5 years before A Game of Thrones Mary Gentle published 'Grunts' which, although very funny, I think of as my first inkling of grimdark (i.e. the infamous Orc rape scene quote "Pass me another Elf Sergeant, this one's split") her White Crow novels also had a similar 'gritty historical' style.

  16. Captain Fluffy26 May 2013 at 09:36

    I think the Warhammer 40k origin of the term is pretty telling. To make a workable wargame you need to make sure every group in the setting has a reason to fight every other group (including themselves). Ideally you also need to make sure that none of the groups if identifiable as the 'good' guys. So you end up with a world which would be pretty horrible to actually live in. And that I think is the essence of Grimdark. Its is a book, game or film, set in a world which you would never want to live in.

  17. I get the concept of Grimdark. is George R.R. Martin NOT Grimdark?

    1. If you're using GRIMDARK as a stand in for 'this thing (I likely haven't read and) I don't approve of' but you actually have read GRRM and like his work, then you say 'GRRM is not grimdark'. Simples.

    2. A lot of it had to do with the shift in tone and setting somewhere in the late 80s for a lot of fantasy.The Black Company in my mind is probably one of the first real "dark" fantasies after the deluge of Tolkein riffs in the 70s. As a kid I read Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. As a whole, that series was dark especially for a series aimed at older kids and young teens. A world where children can't grow up and are eaten by spectral figures is dark. The dead have little hope and children powered interdimensional portals. The characters were morally ambigious but had a mixture of personal/ideal intermixed.

      It's about the presentation I think. It's not so much the characters but the overall compisition of the setting that allows for said characters to function in that matter. GRRM's stories are dark with heroic figures dying and morally depraved people winning. Yet, the so called villains in the later stories suffered negative fates as well. Grimdark is the opposite.

      Grimdark would be Roose Bolton somehow taking over the North and Ramsay Bolton becoming a terror across the north. It would be a savage and brutal regime where men are flayed and the peasantry lives in terror at all times. Grimdark is where everyone is a piece of shit without any hope of change or redemption. It's the tone and sense of absolute despair. It's where justice is mocked, debased and sacrificed. It's where villains don't suffer and instead succeed in almost all their plans.

      It's also extremely tear inducing for some of the stupidity of it. Warhammer 40k is great because it is so over the top it doesn't take itself seriously. It knows its universe is demented and a carcicature of the darker side of life. The problem is Grimdark settings take their shit so seriously it becomes a question of "when are they going to die?" I don't think Grimdark is something stories should aspire to it. It's a sub-genre that had its time in the past decade but still deserves the right to exist just like the cheesy Lord of the Ring knock offs.

    3. Interesting ... so given this lengthy description ... let's have at least one example? I've never read a book that comes close to that description.

    4. Yyyyyyeaaah...I'm gonna have to...uh...go ahead and, ah, disagree with you there.

      As Mark asked, can we have an example of a world EVERYONE is a piece of shit without hope of change or redemption, where villains don't suffer and succeed in almost all their plans?

      Because I've never read such a book and I read a LOT of grimdark. It's not even true of Mark's books, and he's created one of the most evil "protagonists" to ever exist.

      Grimdark can mean many things, which is why it's so hard to define. But what all the works seem to have in common is that they understand human nature, which is not naturally good as we've all been brought up to believe, but fundamentally flawed and it's usually only some higher ideal that keeps people from giving into their true natures.

      In grimdark fiction, some people cling desperately to a higher ideal, either forcing themselves to believe that there even is some ideal higher than self-preservation, and often find that the ideal they believe in so desperately doesn't help them. Others have a sense of wrong and right but it's tempered by years of hard living. Some have no higher ideal at all.

      Good people do bad things, both accidentally and on purpose. Bad people do good things, both accidentally and on purpose because maybe even they are clinging to some sort of ideal. People make wrong choices, or good choices for them with dire consequences for others. In other words, it's like life, or life's seamy underbelly.

      What I like about Grimdark is its propensity to take a familiar, "safe" environment and twist it right round so that nothing you expected is going to happen, and when it does, THAT is what takes you by surprise. The heroes don't have to be assholes; maybe they're villains thinking of turning over a new leaf, or "good bad guys", which is to say men who do bad things but are ultimately likeable, perhaps they're motivated by money rather than honor, or perhaps their motives, while dark, are more relateable than the villain's.

      One good example is Monza Murcatto from Abercrombie's Best Served Cold. She wants revenge because a powerful man killed her brother and tried to kill her, all because he merely suspected that she would try to steal his throne after achieving several victories for him. Sounds like ample reason to be on her side, right? Well...just read it. By the time we're done, we're asking ourselves "Couldn't she have just let it go?" or "Maybe she SHOULD have died."

  18. Hi

    I just finished writing a novel that I'm trying to classify for the agent & publishing queries, and Grimdark is the closest I have come to nailing it yet, However, my story features no knights, no thrones, none of the standard features that seem to be common in the examples in the comments.

    It is actually the loss-of-innocence story of a young, idealistic girl who dies and is granted to a suicide-bomber as one of his 72 virgins. I'll leave a brief summary here of the plot: When Aarzoo wakes up on a floating cloud alongside thousands of identically dressed Burkha-clad women, she is quickly told by an angel, Castiel, that she and all her companions are dead. They are on Cloud Nine – at the Gates of Paradise – but before they are granted their eternal resting in its Gardens, the Lord has chosen them to deliver one last Task; a Task He only reserves for His handpicked, favourite children.
    Tricked by the promise of such an extraordinary legacy, Aarzoo and her unsuspecting companions buy into the angel’s story with utmost sincerity and dedication. Except, the angel has lied, and their real Task begins to become clear when the first of their lot of seventy-two gets raped while the others are made to watch in a chameleonic, paranormal land called Seventh Heaven – they too must suffer the same fate whenever their master, a suicide-bomber, chooses them.
    To Aarzoo betrayal & sexual slavery is plain abhorrent, but not everyone shares her opinion and even as Aarzoo plans her ingenious jail-break, her companions learn to conform to what they cannot circumvent and sexuality becomes currency on Heaven, leaving Aarzoo alone and ostracized. Her escape efforts are in vain too, and she finally realizes that being chosen is the only way out of Seventh Heaven. That is what she must do too, except her master seems to have no interest in choosing her, and as the numbers thin on Seventh Heaven her daily rejection plants into Aarzoo’s mind an insecure inquiry whose manifestations will make her into everything that she has ever hated: “Why won’t Shahid choose me next?”

    So here everyone is a normal girl besides the angels and Seventh Heaven itself. Does this still count as Grimdark?

  19. In grimmdark, when someone is hit, it hurts - even if that someone is the hero. Oh and if anyone dies of anything horribly unheroic like infection, dysentary, being graphically tortured and breaking under said torture etc. that's probably grimdark. And if a likable character unexpectedly, painfully or ungracefully or is raped - probably grimdark. So I'm pretty sure Bambi is grimdark.

  20. Extreme cynicism in a fantasy world, or using the first season of True Detective as gauge, extreme nihilism, although "extreme" might be considered superfluous in this context. Yeah, I think that basically describes Grimdark.