Don’t go full 41st millennium
There are a lot of us who like a little grimdark in our entertainment mix: the exploration of the less hopeful side of life, while definitely a “sometimes food,” can be very appealing. It can be a safe way to explore feelings and fears with the knowledge that they can’t really hurt us. For those who have been through terrible times, there’s the potential for catharsis. And sometimes, on a much less philosophical scale, we just crave a quick dose of action-packed angst.
Done well, a grimdark story can achieve all those things and more. But sometimes the story can get stifled by the writer’s need for you to know just how bad things are.
Grimdark fiction is a bit like a cake: a very depressing, gory cake, but a cake nonetheless. You want a cake to be sweet and delicious, but if you dump a bunch of sugar in and call it a day, you’re in trouble. If it’s not made structurally unsound by the imbalance of ingredients, it runs the risk of being so sweet that no one wants it.
A grimdark story can pull from different areas and experiences, and combine unexpected narrative ingredients. But if you fill it up solely with dark elements, the story runs the risk of collapsing in on itself. Or, if not that, it could simply be too dark and become off-putting.
As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I believe there are very few “ingredients” we shouldn’t be allowed to use in our stories. Also as a writer, I recognize that the best results come from a mix of experimentation and understanding of the effect of said ingredients. So while I don’t consider any of these points completely off-limits, I do consider them a bit like vanilla extract or turmeric: a little goes a long way, and dumping in the whole bottle will probably give your audience a bad time.
Piling on suffering is just piling on excuses
One of the biggest, most glaring issues in creating protagonists in grimdark works is the revelation of just how bad their lives are. Many series and books hit the ground running with depictions of criminally terrible lives of end-to-end suffering. And while it is absolutely, unfortunately true that life can be this way, the protagonists who lead these impossibly grim lives are rarely in a cultural situation or social class where this would be permitted to continue at length.
This is not to say that a person of any social standing or background can’t have a horrible life. But there are many, many different ways for this to come about. Some of the most miserable people in the world have perfectly passable days with one or two lurking, hideous elements that always return. Tragedies and suffering aren’t necessarily surface issues, and there are so many ways to create the background of a hard life without stacking up a morning-to-night menu of abuse.
Generally, this happens for one of two reasons: either the writer is looking to front-load reasons for the character’s future actions, or they really just want to squeeze out as much misery porn as possible. The latter gets pretty awful pretty quickly, and is more an aesthetic direction than a storytelling choice. In the case of the former, it’s lazy characterization… if it’s characterization at all.
“They suffered” isn’t characterization
We are the sum of all our experiences, good and bad. If we were chronically ill or bullied or abused in our childhood, it will contribute to our adult personality and influence our actions in later life. It’s also not all we are.
A telling quality of both real people and fictional characters is how they deal with their hardships. Do they take them in stride? Do they have coping mechanisms? Is there a breaking point? If so, how do their reactions change afterward, and what does this mean in their lives as a whole? No one likes a hero who doesn’t face at least some hardship, no matter the genre. We need to see them overcome challenges and learn how they change as a result.
Suffering can be partial exposition, and it can be a tool through which to bring out or test a personality. But if a character is simply Person Who Suffers, the entire work will, well, suffer. And if the writer attempts to shorthand that suffering with a convenient horrifying incident, it can be even worse.
Sex crimes aren’t shorthand for female unhappiness
How do you know if a woman has it super-bad in a grimdark story? Rape, apparently.
This goes back to the very beginning of my discussion, where as writers we shouldn’t be cut completely off from utilizing even difficult or unpleasant things in our work. Talking about real life crimes, abuse, and injustices can help shed light on how we treat them in our society, and what they do to people. For some, reading or writing about these issues can offer catharsis if handled properly.
What isn’t excusable is when a writer realizes they need to make a female character as miserable and broken as quickly as possible and just drops a sex crime on them. Bonus points if it’s a regular occurrence, extra bonus points if the story really drags out that scene and shows it primarily from the point of view of the assailant.
It’s another brand of piling on the misery, but there’s a whole extra set of complications to it. For one thing, it’s often used as quick-and-dirty characterization for the protagonist’s abusers: “This character is super bad, guys, look how rapey they are!” For another, if dwelled upon in a particularly long or graphic scene, it starts to look less like a problem and more like the writer’s kink.
There are very few things that don’t have a place in storytelling somewhere. But when dealing with female characters, resorting to rape or other forms of sexual assault/abuse as the nail in the coffin of How Bad It Is For Her doesn’t work on a variety of levels.
Motivate your negativity
Post-apocalyptic grimdark stories neatly evade issues of “How is this even allowed to happen?” by creating lawlessness, or at least some level of Bad Lawfulness. But non-fantasy, non-sci-fi stories that take place in a recognizable world and go outside the bounds of what’s particularly normal can get hairy.
Some stories will use this to their advantage. A Series of Unfortunate Events, for example, shows the Baudelaire children in impossibly bad situations at the hands of a person who is easily identifiable. And because the protagonists are children, their continued victimization is, unfortunately, perfectly believable.
If the over-the-top nature of the suffering is in some way thematic or metaphorical, then pushing as far as possible actually makes sense. Look at stories like American Psycho, where the complete lack of intervention into Patrick Bateman’s crimes becomes a major plot point and thematic element.
If there’s a ludicrous lack of intervention in a situation where realistically there would be, it pays to offer a satisfying explanation of why this is the case. “I know! Weird, right?” isn’t a satisfying explanation. “It just is” isn’t, either. Does this make creating the negative environment more complicated? Good. Complications are opportunities. Consider how characters needing to hide their behavior would do so, rather than just assuming they don’t need to because things are that way.
Really, it all comes down to one key point: throwing twelve cups of suffering into a souffle dish will not produce an interesting story. Even if your goal is to be as dark and dismal as possible, there has to be thought and balance. There are plenty of examples out there of how to do it badly—but done well, darker storylines can allow readers and viewers (and the writers themselves) to explore more difficult issues safely. If done exceptionally well, they can also be a good way to shake off a dark mood… and occasionally downright cool.