Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Gritty fantasy vs Dark fantasy —

Recently I said that THE THOUSAND NAMES by Django Wexler is a bit gritty, but less so than Scott Lynch’s books; and a bit dark, but less so than Brent Weeks’ books. And then I thought: I definitely define “gritty” and “dark” differently, but I’m not sure how broad the agreement is about what each term comprises. So then I googled “gritty fantasy” and decided that my definition is perhaps idiosyncratic, because the first several definitions I found did not seem right to me.

I don’t agree that “gritty” fantasy is “painted in shades of gray, realistic, with more gory violence and sex.” That, to me, is probably dark fantasy. Or, if the author defines realistic as “everything starts off shitty and then gets worse,” and treats rape as the dominant conception of sex in that world, then it’s probably grimdark.

Dark fantasy: There may not be a clear good guy vs bad guy type of arrangement, because the characters you’re supposed to root for are not that good and morality is painted as this relative concept. You would probably not find that the word “integrity” leaps to your mind as the defining characteristic of any character, but you do find yourself rooting for the protagonist to succeed, even if he is an assassin, as in Brent Weeks’ Nightangel trilogy.

Night Angel

Violence is probably widespread, detailed and explicit, but there is probably an aim to it as the protagonists are probably trying to achieve a worthwhile goal. Rape may occur, but is certainly not presented as the typical or desirable sort of sexual encounter. The protagonist is probably in love with someone and this gives rise to a positive relationship that strengthens both people involved.

I don’t know. Something like that.

Gritty fantasy: in high fantasy, nobody needs to slip off behind the bushes and pee. Women probably do not have periods. If there are beggars, they are not too repulsively pathetic. If there are street urchins, they are not actually starving. If there are thieves, they probably have heart of gold, or at least redeeming features of some kind.

In gritty fantasy, on the other hand, we have, uh, grit. The grime is added back into the world.

Thieves

Streets are filthy, and we get a good look at the sewage. Beggars have rotting fingers, and we get to smell the putrification. Poor families may sell a child to slavers, and may not feel especially bad about the necessity, either.

But this doesn’t mean that the author doesn’t show us the beauty in the world, too. The grittiness is another layer added to the world, a layer that is more or less elided in high fantasy.

Or so it seems to me.

So Grimdark = unrealistically grim and dark; elides beauty, honor, love, and any sense of the ineffable; both protagonists and the world wind up worse off at the end; also probably gritty.

Dark = not unrealistically grim; includes the beautiful as well as the horrible — see Locke Lamora’s relationship with Jean, for example; if the protagonist is worse off at the end, it’s because there’s a cliffhanger and another book is expected, because in the end the story will reach a satisfying conclusion. May or may not be gritty, because it’s perfectly possible for a story to be dark high fantasy.

Gritty = the grimy details of the world are shown, but the story may either be grimdark fantasy, dark fantasy, or adventure fantasy. You can’t tell just from the word “gritty.”

Now, if only everyone would adopt my definitions, think how much easier it would be for me to find the books I would most like to read! None of this conflating “gritty” and “dark” and “grimdark.” We could have a simple letter code, like moving ratings! Tuck a little GD or DK or GRT or HF in the corner of the cover. Wouldn’t that be handy! Clear up all that confusion in a heartbeat!

(Hah hah hah, no, just kidding, can you imagine the arguments about what rating any particular book deserved?)

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9 Comments Gritty fantasy vs Dark fantasy —

  1. Darren+T

    So, under the new schema, Joe Abercrombie would probably have to be re-classified as a writer of ‘gritty’ fantasy rather than ‘grimdark’. I don’t remember a single one of Joe’s books which “elides beauty, honor, love, and any sense of the ineffable”. I’ll drop him a line, tell him he needs to change his Twitter handle to @LordGritty… ;)

  2. Mary

    I’ve heard “dark fantasy” used to mean works with demons and devils and other such dealings with Hell.

  3. Rachel

    Hi, Mary — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the term used that way myself. I imagine at least some novels dealing with demons and Hell would be dark, but I’m sure I can think of others that are actually humorous, too.

  4. Craig

    I think the general definition of “gritty” fantasy is that it adds an element of realism, hence grit — the “warts and all” idea. And then casting morality in shades of gray is viewed as an another element of added realism, or even part of the same thing.

    In principle, one could certainly have a gritty fantasy (your definition) with perfectly clear morality, and that would probably be enough to start arguments about whether it counted as gritty or not. I don’t know of examples, although Moon’s Paksennarion books intend to take steps in that direction.

    It’s entirely possible that (at least some) grimdark has the same impulse, either turned way up, or just as filtered through a really bleak view of life, the universe and everything.

  5. Rachel

    Yeah, I don’t know. I was just thinking how I said “not terribly gritty” and “not too dark” and was clearly thinking about those as two separate axes, so then I tried to take ’em apart. Not sure it worked too well. I guess I will go back to the drawing board for the Three Perfect Axes To Define Types of Fantasy. Actually, sounds like it might be fun to try to come up with those.

    Clean ……. Gritty could be one axis.

    Heroic ……. Dark? Could that be a dichotomy?

    Defined morality …….. Gray morality? Would that work?

    High …….. Low That would be a matter of tone and language

    Epic ……. Contained? Not sure.

    Anyway, it’s enough to keep me busy for a while.

  6. charlotte

    I’m thinking you can’t use “clean” because that already has the meaning of no sex; I think it’s possible for a book to include fictional sex that isn’t gritty because of satin sheets, or rose petals, or something…

    for Heroic…hmmm. dunno. unheroic would be lame. But I don’t think “dark” is quite right…is heroic always = the side of light? Maybe “flawed?”

    I’m fine with “gray morality” but other possibilities might be “dubious” “situational” “skewed, if present at all”

    Could the opposite of epic be “quotidian?” or “mundane?”

    thank you for the fun game!

  7. Rachel

    Charlotte, good! I know, tricky, isn’t it?

    I do like “Quotidian” a lot. But I almost think that fits better as the opposite of Heroic. I was really thinking of epic as broad. Yet I hardly want to suggest the reverse should be narrow, so then what?

    I think clear morality …. dubious or absent morality works pretty well.

    And yes, I agree, clean is actually already taken. But then how do you encapsulate “rose petals”? Through rose-colored glasses ….. gritty?

  8. Chantel

    Can you offer me your favorite “grimdark”, favorite” dark fantasy” and favorite” gritty ” novels or series?
    Where do vampires fit in? I feel like everything I’ve read has been paranormal fantasy….with a few landing in dark fantasy.

    Thanks love!!

  9. Rachel

    Hi, Chantel —

    I hate hate hate grimdark with a burning passion, but lots of people like The First Law series by Joe Abercrombe. The first book in that series is THE BLADE ITSELF.

    Dark fantasy intergrades with horror. THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman is supposed to be a really good example, but I haven’t read it myself.

    I personally think Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora series is a very good example of gritty fantasy. The first book of that one is THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA, and the last (4th) book isn’t out yet.

    Hope you enjoy these!

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