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Painting With Grey: The Development and Popularity of “Gritty Fantasy”

Game of ThronesIn the last ten years, the fantasy community has seen an upsurge in the popularity of so-called “gritty fantasy”. However, this sub-genre of fantasy is evident even earlier than this. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has been ongoing since the mid 90s. Glen Cook’s Black Company series arguably pioneered the way for authors such as Martin in the mid 80s. But it is only in the last 10-12 years that this genre has really “kicked off”.

The emergence and subsequent popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, K. J. Parker, Mark Lawrence and Steven Erikson has shown the increased popularity in both reading and writing for this genre. The enormous surge in demand for fantasy as a whole in the last 18 months can mostly be attributed to the popularity of the hit TV show, Game of Thrones – based on George R. R. Martin’s series of epic novels. But this grim, reality rooted fantasy sub-genre has seen a large popularity boost in the wider fantasy reader’s community in the last decade.

But why?

Well, people have changed. Society has changed. The turbulent events across the world at the start of the last decade can arguably be attributed to this; the world is more serious. We want entertainment that speaks to us on more than one level. Although it may not always be the case, we want to enjoy something that is multi-layered, which contains characters that we can empathise with. We want worlds that face similar challenges to the ones we do. Of course, it could certainly be argued that this was always the case. But the feel of entertainment seems to have changed in the last 10 years.

The Wire (poster)For example, in television we have (mostly) moved on from the police procedural; from the soap opera. The most popular shows are the ones where we become invested in the characters; in the setting; in the story as a whole. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Wire. Although it wasn’t the most popular show on television at the time, it has become hailed universally as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) TV show of all time. It shows us that people want something to become invested in. Great characters who can’t be painted with anything but shades of grey. Vast landscapes that feel lived in. Stories that require a significant investment on the part of the viewer/reader.

Shows like Breaking Bad, where we follow the downfall of an ordinary man into the very pits of despair, self-loathing and (eventually) outright villainy. But we come back every week. We want that sense of investment, and that pay-off in the end.

The same is evident in film – although there are several examples I could go into, I am going to touch on one that is particularly relevant at the moment. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. This take on Batman is significantly different from any previous iterations (although partly based on many storylines from the comics). Nolan has stripped Batman (and his villains) of his glamour; the camp, fairground style of the 90s versions, and taken the story of Bruce Wayne down to its most human roots. We love these films so much because of the deep human investment we have in the characters, and the grounded realism of the setting. Nolan’s Gotham City is terrorised in ways that seem (if not familiar) certainly possible in the grand scheme of things. And it seems that gritty fantasy is popular for much of the same reasons.

The Dark Knight (Joker poster)Yes we still want escapism. Sometimes there is nothing better than picking up the latest Pratchett book, or going to see something where we can switch our brains off for two hours. But in fantasy, so many of us come back to the grittier authors time and time again. We want to attach ourselves to characters – to have the feeling that a character is like us; that he or she has the same emotions and reactions that we would. That no one is safe. Gandalf came back from the dead, but when George R. R. Martin kills off our most beloved character, we have to deal with the fact that they are not coming back.

Not only is Martin now one of the biggest selling authors in the world, but British authors like Joe Abercrombie are starting to prove themselves a force to be reckoned; not only in the world of fantasy but in the mainstream charts too. Joe’s last book, The Heroes, went to the top of the Sunday Times bestsellers list when it was released. If this is the beginning of a trend, then long may it continue, for fantasy authors all over the world.

I personally read all kinds of fantasy – the “Farm boy versus Dark Lord”, the “bunch of heroes on a quest”. But I am consistently drawn back to the “Shades of Grey” approach. I don’t expect these stories to drop the classic concepts in fantasy, but rather take them and put a new spin on them. For me, these authors are keeping the fantasy genre fresh and exciting – they are touching on concepts which are important in a real-world way. Just like The Wire, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire takes in the politics, inter-house (gang) relationships and shows them to us at a personal level. Best Served Cold (cover)Joe Abercrombie consistently presents us with characters so deep, we could be half-expected to see them turn up at our door (albeit wielding an axe coated in blood).

It seems to me that the more casual reader of fantasy looks for something that is more grounded in a sense of reality. Something that they can connect with on a level that is similar to their typical reading fare. Something less reliant on complicated magic systems and outrageously strange monsters. The characters, the stories and the worlds in gritty fantasy are what keeps them, and the wider fantasy readership (us!), coming back for more.

We seem to have entered a second “Golden Age” for fantasy. Reading fantasy is what the cool kids do once again. We have the names of Martin, Abercrombie, Cook, Erikson, Lawrence, Brett et al to thank for that. They have created characters that we used to think of simply as brave knights, bad witches, good carpenters and evil wizards and turned each concept on its head, painting each one with an endless supply of the colour grey.

In the words of Joe Abercrombie in Best Served Cold:

“That was the difference between a hero and a villain, a soldier and a murderer, a victory and a crime. Which side of a river you called home.”

This article was originally posted in July 27, 2012.

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38 Comments

  1. Avatar Fordy says:

    Here here. I think fantasy has become popular with mainstream readers not only because of the LotR films and the GoT series, but because the genre has moved away from the farmboy-becomes-hero clichés of the past. It’s proven itself to be as complex in plot and character as any other genre – if not more so. The relatively recent move towards gritty and ‘real’ characters is only a good thing – long may it reign!

  2. Avatar Larik says:

    Awesome article. I completely agree. May authors like Abercrombie and Martin continue to sprout up with new and original plots. Let’s just hope they don’t kill our favorite characters, too. xD

  3. Avatar Phil Norris says:

    Great article, and totally agree.

    I started out on the “classics” in my youth – Conan, Lord Of The Rings, Shannara – stories with the same mix of heroes, villains and ideals of good overcoming evil.

    But in later life I’ve steered more towards the “grey” writers like Abercrombie, Lynch and GRRM. I think it is because I can associate more with their characters than those that appeared in the “classics”, they are like people who could exist in the real world.

    In the past, whenever I wrote a fantasy story, it was always in the vein of a “classic” tale, but now, not so much. I tend to lean towards more ambiguous characters and less quests and swooning maidens.

  4. Interesting article, but I’m wondering why you chose to ignore the Warhammer Fantasy setting, which has been giving us “Gritty Fantasy” since around the same time as “A Game of Thrones” was published, fifteen long, prolific years now. Dozens of authors have written dozens of novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies, audio dramas etc for it.

    • Avatar Dominic Stevens says:

      Good job Idlewilder. Dark and gritty has always been there, but has only recently become so prevalent in the fantasy genre. Just like Alan Miller and Frank Moore giving comics a shot in the arms in the 90s, Martin and the ilk have really given the fantasy genre a similar shot and the fact that now its happening on our tv screens has made it even more of a talking point. I think as well that the mass media era has made it easier as well to produce dark and gritty fantasy, as it is easier to get more books and tv shows out there, and publishing companies and film studios are beginning to realise that there is an intelligent audience out there which are much easier to reach than before. In the past tv shows, films and books were aimed at much broader audiences, and so had to have more of a general appeal.

      And @Abhibav, lots of things will slip through the cracks, Gemmell was mentioned as well on the comment page, so not really surprising that the poorly written Warhammer cash ins were ignored.

  5. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Great article. I’d just like to add that, to anyone who hasn’t watched The Wire yet, please do so immediately. It’s the best TV show of all time, even considering the way the technical aspects of policing and crime are outdated.

  6. Avatar Lionwalker says:

    Hey, very well written article!
    The one thing I would like to point out about the grey theme of current characters is that it is more difficult to make them individuals. If they are all suffering moral ambiguity and questioning everything then that becomes as bad as all characters being ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    I think the current trend is a reaction too far in the other direction away from traditional black/white clear cut fantasy distinctions, and will swing back to settle somewhere in the middle. You need all the various types of characters to make them distinct, we only see details and uniqueness through contrast, so if all the characters are grey then that makes a very bland landscape….

    • I don’t think it’s a matter of light or dark or gray that makes a character interesting: it’s the writing. You can have unique characters and worlds and stories of any shade, just as you can have predictable ones as well.

      Just because something is trending (or not) doesn’t speak to some inherent value or over/under use of the setting itself: that comes down to the individual tale & the person writing it.

  7. Avatar Mazarkis Williams says:

    Great article, but I disagree that “the world is more serious” now. The world has always been serious.

  8. Avatar AE Marling says:

    Fantasy is a hydra of sub genres, each head with its own beautiful and terrible breath attack, its own patterning of scales. The grittier fantasy is colored mainly in blood and mud, but there’s elegance and purity in it.

  9. Avatar Alex Janaway says:

    Glen Cook and David Gemmell (let’s not forget his shades of grey) set me on the dark path many years ago. God bless gritty – once you’ve had it, there’s no going back…

  10. Perception is an interesting thing. In this post you said, “But in fantasy, so many of us come back to the grittier authors time and time again. We want to attach ourselves to characters – to have the feeling that a character is like us; that he or she has the same emotions and reactions that we would.”

    I totally agree but that is exactly why I’m NOT drawn to the grittier fantasy works. When I read characters in some of these books I find it stretches my suspension of disbelief too far. I’ve never met anyone who think or act like these people do. I see nothing that resembles me, nor would I aspire to be like any of them. Can I appreciate these books for the tale being told? Sure. But I must admit that I prefer to walk away from a movie or book feeling better than when I sat down. I prefer to “hang with” characters that I like and go on adventures that would be considered fun. I don’t wish to interject myself into a world where I have to take Prozac to get by. Old fashioned? Probably. Not part of the trend…obviously so. But that is the great thing about books, there are styles for all kinds of tastes, and I’m just happy that a fair number of people feel as I do and have been entertained by the stories I tell. I don’t write to capture the biggest audience. I write what I would like to read, and if there are others that feel similarly I’ll be able to earn money at it. But if I can’t…that’s fine too.

    • Amen to that. I’m the same way when I write. I’d rather write a story I’d enjoy reading than try to write for the biggest audience. I think it would seem fake if I tried, and I know I wouldn’t enjoy it.

      I’m not afraid of the darker side of fantasy, but as you said, I don’t want to visit a world where I have to take Prozac to get by. 🙂

    • I’ll chime in with agreement as well, but from the other end of the pool. I got tired of lighter/brighter fantasy fare a long time ago, and now have a very hard time becoming engaged with characters and stories in the more classic/”Adventure: ha-HA!” mold. It doesn’t have to be dark, but if everything is easy & breezy, I lose interest. I want characters who have to slog a bit to get things done, and I don’t mind seeing it on the page. Shows me they’re working for it, I suppose. 😉

      But yes, there’s plenty of room in the pool for every taste, which is for the best for everyone.

    • I’m finding this quite a bit in the self-published authors I’m reading – they often say they want to write about fantasy in the heroic tradition, with strong characters who are NOT rapists or torturers or assassins or blood-thirsty warrior killing machines. Or perhaps they just want to write smaller-scale fantasy, without the massive battlefields strewn with body parts. Maybe it’s lag in the mainstream publishing industry, or maybe it’s just that the grittier works are more spectacular and draw more attention, but there is a market out there for a fresh modern take on a more traditional style of fantasy. Authors want to write them, and readers want to read them.

  11. I think there is a big difference between “grey” and “dark and gritty.” Grey simply indicates characters that aren’t exclusively defined as black or white. To me this means that the author is providing a complex or well rounded character portrayal by exposing both the good and bad aspects of their creations.

    But when I think of “dark and gritty” it denotes an overall morass of hopelessness. Often I see worlds portrayed where there is no joy, or even hope of joy. I’m not saying the world should be portrayed as filled with sunshine and unicorns. Of course there should be struggles (and the harder the better), death, and loss. After all it is through conflicts that plots are made, and it is how the characters adapt and grow that makes us feel invested in their tales. But shouldn’t there be the hope for triumph over adversity? Is it somehow wrong to hope that the world will be a better place? As mentioned in one of my favorite movies:

    “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

    What I don’t like in my fantasy books are places and situations where hope seems to have no place.

    • Avatar Quillet says:

      Very, very well said!

      I completely agree with this, and with your previous comment. In fact, you expressed my own opinions so well, I have nothing to add. My thanks. *bows*

  12. Avatar acosmistmachine says:

    I enjoy reading and writing fantasy with a lot of historical realism and detail. Thus some of these stories can be darker, more morally ambiguous and grittier since that is the nature of historical realism. I worry sometimes though with the “darker and grittier” fantasy that some authors interpret this to mean dark for dark’s sake, rather than allowing the moral ambiguity and dark elements be side affects of a certain level of realism in the world and character building. I think that some of these books push the line between dark fantasy and gorn, which is fine in its own right, but not any more realistic or deeper than you’re average farm boy with a sword can be. Yet there also seems to be a real ego developing about writing this way. Some authors and readers seem to think because the story is dark that obviously means it’s better written and better thought out than fantasy novels about fairy tales, elves or Dark Lords. It makes me uncomfortable because I’m not sure it’s true. I don’t hate this new trend of “gritty fantasy” I’m just a little cautious of it.

  13. Avatar Elfy says:

    I think gritty has been around as long as the genre itself. Even going back to the old legends and fairy tales, the originals are quite dark. What the newer writers are doing is giving us realistic historical settings and peopling them with morally ambiguous characters, which is also quite realistic, because how many of us are either all good or all bad? I think the genre is big and broad enough for both the ‘gritty’, harder edged fantasy and the lighter, more old style adventure fantasy.

  14. Avatar BenGalley says:

    I think fantasy is seeing a blurring of the lines, as Elfy just said. A time of morally ambiguous characters, a time when the main character is not an upstanding citizen, but rather a changeable, selfish, not-afraid-to-get-dirty, soldier of fortune. Or, in the case of Mr Mark Lawrence, a downright evil bastard. We’re seeing the hero occasionally become the villain

    But conversely, I think we’re also seeing our villains betray themselves as humans, and showing a little emotion, rather than have an impassive, unreachable, obscenely powerful, dark lord. I think the lines are blurring in both directions, and I think the key to this, as we’ve all said, is authors of this generation are not afraid of tipping stereotypes on their head, mugging them of their coin, and leaving them naked and bruised in the gutter.

    I think it’s a great thing that they do. Personally, I like grit, and I like a lot it. I like that our heroes are darker and more ambiguous than they used to be, and the supporting cast as equally as dark and as deep. Just as long, as Michael Sulivan so succinctly put it, that there is a little splash of colour here and there, and not just the colour red.

    Great article 🙂

  15. Avatar J.M. Martin says:

    This trend in readership of “gray” fantasy is fun and I enjoy it. Gemmell and Abercrombie are two of my favorite authors, but lest we think this genre is something new, I would agree with Elfy (above), that gritty has been around a long time. I point to Homer, especially The Iliad. That is some mean stuff right there.

    I will also say that these times, they are a’changin does hold true somewhat, but primarily because global consciousness tends to take a circuitous course. I might point to the upsurge in popularity of the urban fantasy genre versus the popularity of hard and gritty fantasy. The UF genre is chugging along full bore and I, for one, am loving it, as well. It’s a good time to be a fantasy enthusiast, be it reader or writer (or both, like me!).

  16. Avatar Spinks says:

    I don’t usually get along well with ‘gritty’ fiction. It’s not that I want my fantasy to be brainless bubblegum fluff, but there’s realism and then there’s wallowing in nihilism. I find it interesting that the article brings up Terry Practhett as an example of ‘escapism’. Terry Pratchett has far more to say on the meaning of life than most misery-smiths and the man can pontificate reality while also being funny. A world without joy or humour is no more ‘realistic’ than a world without bloodshed. Any angst-riddled teenager can tell you that the world sucks.

    Having an edge doesn’t have to mean everybody gets stabbed.

  17. Avatar Arlyn says:

    Eh, I still like Pratchett more. Life is depressing enough. Not saying I don’t read darker fantasies, I do enjoy some but when life is hard I want something to cheer me up.

  18. Avatar Obscenic says:

    I was fascinated when I first read GRRM, having read nothing like it before. I gobbled it all up, but by the fourth book I was more or less disenchanted. After the last book I was pissed off. Most of the characters I had come to love were slain, the story progression came to nearly an abrupt halt, and now I don’t even see how the series could possibly be finished.

    If it does get finished, to what end? When every character is good and evil, what difference does it make anyway?

    It’s like The Sopranos. Characters you love die, and sure, the main characters you love are all bad guys. Tony It’s something like this that’s fun to watch, but is usually disappointing in the end.

  19. Avatar Daniel says:

    Once when I told a friend that I liked fantasy, she asked me if it was the airy fairy kind. You know, maidens and unicorns, knights and dragons, silly, childish stuff. I told her no, darker stuff. Granted, my definition of darker at the time was R A Salvatore and Terry Brooks (I was young, and hadn’t read very much fantasy yet, because I clung to the notion that my parents didn’t want me to be a nerd).

    My most recent purchase is Joe Abercrombie, and I look forward to trying him out. I figure an author that well praised is worth at least one chance. I’m told I won’t be disappointed.

    Jim Butcher is also a great read. It’s dark, sometimes, like in the world around Harry, but man does Harry’s personality rock. His humour is something that really contrasts to the dark stuff the baddies do.

  20. Avatar Sim says:

    Nice article and well thought through. I think there is, and has always been a need for grim and dark, gritty storytelling if for no other reason than to identify that somebody else’s lot is worse than yours. A little terror is a good thing. Beowulf, the Viking saga’s and any fairytale not sanitised to death and changed beyond all recognition attest to this.

  21. Great article and I do agree. At present grittier forms of fantasy do seem to be very popular. It is true in younger fantasy fiction too as even Harry Potter had to face some pretty grim events and the deaths of many major characters. Perhaps knowing that a main character may well die, gives the readers a visceral thrill that in turn makes them invest more in the story. A story that has more edge, danger and realistic story lines will always grab my attention.

  22. Avatar Sarah says:

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more, love fantasy that feels real, whether that’s real problems/dangers, flawed grey characters, or realistic feel to magic and its consequences. Most important thing to me in fiction is real characters, the greyer they are the better, I want to worry for them and about them.

  23. On International Men’s Day, praise all the mens for their great gritty fantasies. Like Yorkies, these are NOT FOR GIRLS (to write) (apparently).

  24. Avatar ZG says:

    I don’t get why readers praise Abercrombie! Sure his caracters are interesting – few of them pretty genious, i’ll admit that, but his stories tend to be … Not so interesting. When I read the first law and half a king, i often though I really didn’t care. At worst the stories got to constructed and unbeliavable.

    • Avatar @mangozoid says:

      May I suggest anyone confused by Abercrombie’s popularity should read “Best Served Cold” — this is the first of his books I ever read, and I’ve remained a fan ever since, despite the odd ‘hiccup’ over the years (yes, I’m looking at you, The Heroes). Like you said, his characters are highly memorable and engaging, and for many that really is all you need to get the best out of a story, even a crap one…

      • Avatar Overlord says:

        I really liked (A) Red Country, although I know people who haven’t enjoyed that as much as his others. I guess, the thing with Joe, is that all his books are very different and so you are naturally going to have favourites.

  25. Avatar Simon Ellberger says:

    I love this article! A few posters have mentioned that they don’t like books that are so dark and gritty that they lack any hope in them, and have implied (at least to my understanding) that these bleak books primarily make up the gritty fantasy “subgenre,” yet they haven’t mentioned any specific titles. I’m curious which fantasy books they’ve read from competent authors that they are referring to. I’m not saying they are wrong, nor am I disparaging their opinions; I’m just genuinely curious.

  26. […] de ce fantasy-ul “realist” are (tot mai mare) […]

  27. Avatar @mangozoid says:

    While I agree in principle with a lot of what’s been said, I’d say both GRRM and Abercrombie have made it that much easier for fans to find ‘gritty’ if that’s what they’re after. And I’m not knocking ‘gritty’ btw: Abercrombie is far and away one of my favourite authors at the moment, but in truth he doesn’t polarise my interest so much that I look exclusively for ‘grim-itty’ in my fictional hideaways. Sure, it’s a treat to devour Abercrombie’s latest work(s), but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the somewhat more laid back, relaxed, and more accommodating universes of a great many other writers. If the universe is indeed infinite, so is the variety of the stories we can tell, read, and enjoy…
    And if we’re talking about ‘grit TV’, I’d like to add both Daredevil and especially Marvel’s Jessica Jones to the list – the world of Jessica Jones is a mess, she’s a mess, and most of the characters in her ‘bubble’ are seriously messed up in some way or other, and yet the whole series achieves such a neat play on the concept of psychological warfare and torment that it practically demands your fervent attention: highly recommended to those yearning for a ‘screwed up horrible world’ and haven’t yet had the pleasure of encountering it.

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