This is just me collecting a few thoughts about the Grimdark genre for myself in one spot, taken from recent posts and a comment. Like any other genre Grimdark is as much about the flavor as anything else, and flavor is something that’s difficult to put into words, but these are some of my current opinions.
I. Bad Choices
In response to “Alasdair Stuart said: you find yourself in a position when you can do the right thing or the thing that means you will survive for another day and they are most definitely not the same thing.”
For me the important part is “being forced into terrible choices” more than “lack of power.” The lack of power often leads to the being forced part, of course.
Really good grimdark will confront a protagonist with a choice between two very important but conflicting goals. This is most apparent when it’s something like “Don’t betray your lover” vs “Continue to live.” But it doesn’t have to be. It can be between something like “Protect your hated ethnic minority” vs “Don’t become a murderous monster.” The key is that both are integral to the character, so in picking one and sacrificing the other, the character is carving out and destroying a piece of their own soul. Willfully. It’s the psychological self-mutilation that I find endlessly fascinating.
In a non-grimdark story, there are ways around this. If you pursue the righteous path, you will be rewarded in the end. In grimdark you will fail, and sometimes that failure is lethal.
It’s also fascinating to watch characters reach the breaking point where they refuse to sink any lower, and observe the consequences of that as well.
II. Means Can Be Justified By Ends
In heroic fantasy, there are some things you simply don’t do. In the end, this will be for the best. Even if it costs you your life, the greater good has been served. Grimdark never assumes that things will end well, and so the characters within it are often willing to employ ugly means, if they think the ends are important enough.
It should be noted that sometimes they will fail anyway. Doing bad is not a way to achieve your goals. The real question is about what ends up being effective, not what is good or bad. Sometimes bad works, sometimes it doesn’t, and the uncertainty just makes the whole world even worse. But every now and then, every one of us has a certain thing we’d be willing to mutilate ourselves to achieve, because it’s simply that important.
III. Power Precedes Morality
When characters come into conflict, they don’t win due to their virtue. They succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want our heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. But in one case the moral goodness of the goal/person is the narrative reason for their victory, and in the other it is entirely orthogonal.
Of course there’s plenty of bad grimdark out there, just as there’s plenty of bad everything. And this is certainly not to everyone’s taste. But I like it, and these are some of the reasons why.