Author Topic: 'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?  (Read 1375 times)

SDragon

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« on: February 10, 2008, 11:55:27 AM »
Recently, I've noticed a trend that's a bit confusing to me, personally. It seems as if many people equate dark and/or gritty settings and stories in literature as having some sort of twisted realism to them. Dystopian fiction in particular seems to automatically be considered as some sort of social commentary, sometimes even after the social environment in which the stories were written is long gone. To this day, works such as Akira, 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm are considered "relevant" to the current world.

Meanwhile, however, the equally cliché "good vs. evil epic fantasy" is looked upon as much more "escapist" fiction. Don't get me wrong, I do see the lack of realism in chainmail bikinis that deflect crossbow bolts, but I'm not quite sure if that's truly any less "realistic" then a world where everybody, even the heroes, are fundamentally corrupt beyond all possible hope. It almost seems as if a single Good Samaritan somehow tosses out all the believability and "relevance" of a world.

What I want to know, is why this is. Is the objective real world actually a dreary dystopian one? Is it just human nature to subjectively view the world so depressingly? Why is one end of a spectrum viewed as more "realistic" then the other? Please, share your thoughts.
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beejazz

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #1 on: February 10, 2008, 12:27:34 PM »
Quote from: Sdragon1984

Recently, I've noticed a trend that's a bit confusing to me, personally. It seems as if many people equate dark and/or gritty settings and stories in literature as having some sort of twisted realism to them. Dystopian fiction in particular seems to automatically be considered as some sort of social commentary, sometimes even after the social environment in which the stories were written is long gone. To this day, works such as Akira, 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm are considered "relevant" to the current world.
Meanwhile, however, the equally cliché "good vs. evil epic fantasy" is looked upon as much more "escapist" fiction. Don't get me wrong, I do see the lack of realism in chainmail bikinis that deflect crossbow bolts, but I'm not quite sure if that's truly any less "realistic" then a world where everybody, even the heroes, are fundamentally corrupt beyond all possible hope. It almost seems as if a single Good Samaritan somehow tosses out all the believability and "relevance" of a world.[/quote]What I want to know, is why this is. Is the objective real world actually a dreary dystopian one? Is it just human nature to subjectively view the world so depressingly? Why is one end of a spectrum viewed as more "realistic" then the other? Please, share your thoughts.
[/quote]
The idea that gritty morality is more "real" than the heroic fantasy is a misconception on the same level as the misconception that dark/gritty protagonists are always "badguys." It's just fans of one disparaging the other. Heroic fantasy isn't really the opposite of grittiness to begin with. I mentioned the Arthurian stuff specifically because it's both really.
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Wensleydale

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #2 on: February 10, 2008, 12:39:21 PM »
Mrm. I think many cynics see the 'corrupted world' as a much more likely thing than good-vs-evil because they're... well, they're cynics. I find worlds with lots of conflict, depression, and grit (and some darkness, I suppose) more believable because that's what I think OUR world's like. But, heroic fantasy (as Beeblebrox said) can be equally dark and gritty. I echo him here, I think.

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #3 on: February 10, 2008, 01:25:17 PM »
Quote from: beeblebrox
Haven't we had this discussion?

A version of it.

And one thing I got out of that discussion (plus what little I know about how comic book tone evolved from Silver to Iron Age) is that dark and grit are often a reaction to the super-soft tone of an earlier era.  It was specifically talked about in RPG context as people coming to like darkness and/or grittiness because their tastes "mature" away from the less serious'”and thus less "realistic"'”light and smooth tones of earlier games.  If we keep the continuum at "light and smooth (less serious/realistic)" vs. "dark and gritty (???)" it can be inferred that the dark and gritty crowd thinks that less serious/realistic is a closely-tied property of light and smooth and thus its opposite of dark and gritty must be more serious/realistic.

Either that, or it's that fact that they're working backwards: "realistic" things (TV shows, movies, etc.) are often dark and/or gritty and rarely light and/or smooth, and indeed it seems that one cannot do any realistic portrayal of anything without it getting dark and gritty in some way.  Therefore one could erroniously conclude that darkness and/or grittiness are inherent in realism.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #4 on: February 10, 2008, 01:37:18 PM »
I said in a recent SCMP (SilvercatMoonpaw)thread that gritty is used as a synonym for realism, but is used primarily due to people tryimg to avoid the 'realism vs playability' conversation.  And as the artman Beeblebrox mentioned, haven't we done this topic to death recently?

The reason your thread is different is the inclusion of the term 'Dark'.  Or, to wit, 'dark', dystopian protagonists are seen as more realistic since they are are conflicted and thus more complicated.  Many very classic themes deal with more complicated characters.  Odysseus and Lancelot are both 'Goodguys', but are much more interesting due to their internal struggles. Reluctant heroes that discover some sense of internal morality like Elric, or fallen heroes that rise again are made more heroic by their overcoming of obstacles.  The greatest heroes in my setting both have lost many battles and spent time on the wrong side, tricked or beguiled.

So it is not that they are corrupted beyond hope.  But more conflicted and more complicated heroes are both more realistic and believable.  And if these heroes find their way to still be heroic in some measure after defeating internal and external demons, if they rise from facedown in the mud and take the hard road back, it can be even more heroic...

 
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #5 on: February 10, 2008, 02:23:34 PM »
To various extents, we are always going to be rebelling against the dominant tropes of our genre, like any genre. We'll tear down the established norms to usher in the new, and when those become established in turn, we'll tear those down as well. People who avoid "gritty" fantasy for more epic storytelling, and people who avoid that same lighthearted fare in search of more "realism", are on different stages of the same cycle: similar in their (quite admirable) search for something refreshing and exciting.

I really am pretty tired of all these labels, though. I hate saying "gritty," or "dark," or "realistic," or "epic," or any of that sort of thing, because I don't know precisely what they mean, and I'm not sure that anybody actually does.

For my money, LordVreeg strikes at the heart of this issue, as he often does. People seize upon these styles of writing as "realistic" because, like so much of real life, it tends to involve complex issues where the right choices are not always easy to identify, much less act upon. All I have to do is turn on the news to find characters as rich and complex as Odysseus, as tormented as Oedipus, as driven as Ahab-- and sometimes it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

Some people, myself included, embrace these ideas in their fiction, and others strive to escape them, so we get our two differing schools of thought. I think the two need each other quite desperately. Too much rebellion from reality and we lose the ability to relate to our themes and characters, and our worlds and stories lose their power. Too much adherence to reality, and we start to forget why we are writing fantasy in the first place.

The discussion only really dies when we start tossing around hyperbole and strawmen. For instance,
Quote from: sdragon1984
but I'm not quite sure if that's truly any less "realistic" then a world where everybody, even the heroes, are fundamentally corrupt beyond all possible hope. It almost seems as if a single Good Samaritan somehow tosses out all the believability and "relevance" of a world.
I can't think of many settings this statement accurately describes. Can you? Start talking in these terms and in no time flat, we're suddenly talking about whether the universe is fundamentally good or evil, or some other sidetrack topic that distracts us completely from reaching meaningful conclusions about the issue at hand.

I find it helpful to look at morality as a continuum, rather than as a simple on/off switch. On one end are your Mother Teresas, on the other end are your Adolf Hitlers. But the vast, overwhelming majority of people are somewhere in the middle, with some selfish tendencies and some altruistic ones, with the potential to become either nobler or more despicable. It works that way in life, and I try to emulate it in my world-building.

To me, that says much more about a world's supposed "realism" than the arrow-deflecting capabilities of chainmail.

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SDragon

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #6 on: February 10, 2008, 04:25:20 PM »
First, I'm not really equating the two. Poe and Rice, for example, are two writers that I would consider dark, but not gritty, whereas "street vigilante" stories like the Mac Bolan series are gritty, but not really dark. I'm refering mostly to the stories-- particularly dystopian fiction-- that have a decent amount of both. Granted, Animal Farm is an exception, as I don't really consider it all that "dark", but still.

I guess a hopelessly corrupt protagonist wasn't really what I meant. I probably should have gone with a hopelessly corrupt setting, such as that which tends to define dystopia. In Animal Farm, ultimately, the corruption of the "government" was never destroyed. It simply changed hands. Akira wasn't much more hopeful, because there was only one way to improve Neo-Tokyo (if you've seen Akira, you should have an idea of what I'm refering to; I don't want to spoil the movie for those who still haven't seen it).

Quote from: Wensleydale

Mrm. I think many cynics see the 'corrupted world' as a much more likely thing than good-vs-evil because they're... well, they're cynics. I find worlds with lots of conflict, depression, and grit (and some darkness, I suppose) more believable because that's what I think OUR world's like.


I think this is probably what I'm trying to get at. I'm sure it's a cynical worldview that views this sort of fiction as "realistic", but is that cynicism a more objective worldview, or is it a more subjective worldview? If it's the latter, then is that subjective cynicism, to some degree, a fundamental part of human nature, or is it just something that seems to be relatively popular?
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #7 on: February 10, 2008, 05:03:28 PM »
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I think this is probably what I'm trying to get at. I'm sure it's a cynical worldview that views this sort of fiction as "realistic", but is that cynicism a more objective worldview, or is it a more subjective worldview? If it's the latter, then is that subjective cynicism, to some degree, a fundamental part of human nature, or is it just something that seems to be relatively popular?
Again, I don't think this is a particularly constructive question.

I'm convinced that the cynics and the "realism-seekers" have merely arrived at similar results via unrelated thought processes. There's not necessarily a grand conclusion to be drawn about human nature because of it.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #8 on: February 10, 2008, 09:49:59 PM »
You know, it's funny: sometimes I think I find non dark and/or gritty world more realistic.  And it's not because I think darkness and/or grittiness aren't a lot of what the real world is like, but more because I keep expecting everyone in the world to be smarter than they are.  The real world defies my logic, and so defies the feeling of "real" I use in "realistic".

As you can guess I'm highly cynical.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #9 on: February 11, 2008, 01:43:33 PM »
Given how most modern writing is done I'm not entirely sure what you mean by dark or gritty. Is there some kind of scale? For example at a glance Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books are rather dark--they cover things like massacres, rape, spiritual violation and so on, yet at the same time the good guys are of such a high moral calibre that it's amazing that they exist in a world where such things are possible. On the other hand Terry Goodkind's books are certainly very dark at times and if gritty means sometimes crudely realistic then they fit the bill for that, and yet the ideals of the author for humanity make me raise my eyebrows and think, "Who resurrected the dreadful shade of Ayn Rand?"

Possibly what's really disliked is the sense of cliche. It gets tiresome when you realize that there's yet another Dark Lord in an inaccessible place who has a diabolical plan to rule the world, and that an unlikely person is the only person who can defeat him. Or something like that. Whereas George R.R. Martin comes on the scene and suddenly offers a world wherein you have no idea what's going to happen. Because he has some darkness and grit in his writing, perhaps then someone thinks, "aha, this is the key!" And certainly some might think they are being innovative by imitating Rob Zombie and just having more unpleasantness in their stories, but I think that what is really needed is just to tell a story from a fresh perspective.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #10 on: February 11, 2008, 02:33:05 PM »
Which is not to say that part of Martin's appeal doesn't come from the fact that he doesn't pull his punches. It's not just that it's dark. It's that he's taken fantasy and made it feel more like we might expect the real Middle Ages to feel, if there was fantasy. That is, scary, no matter what side you're on.

Also, Martin quotes someone (I don't remember who), saying that "the villain is just the hero of the other side." That kind of mindset, I think, is what really embodies why some people might call his work dark. The fact that bad things (war, wounds, disease, etc) have real repercussions is why people might call it gritty.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #11 on: February 11, 2008, 02:45:57 PM »
I may be drifting off topic here, but I consider the whole "shades of grey, no defined bad-guy" just as cliché as "dark lord".  I feel like I've read the back of way too many books at my bookstore that say "Political Intrigue: you won't know who to trust!"  And just as often "The Chosen One must fight the Bad Influence!"  (And sometimes this is the same book.)  They've both been done to death.

And maybe that's why we have people asking "Why do so many people think dark and gritty is so great?": those of us asking can feel it becoming a cliché even if we aren't conscious of it and are trying to avoid the pitfalls the same way one might try to avoid the pitfalls of the "dark lord" style.  (Or maybe it's just me.)
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beejazz

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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #12 on: February 11, 2008, 03:32:31 PM »
Shades of gray can be done well or poorly, just as can a virtuous hero or a truly villainous villain. I mean, I think it's just taking one approach or the other in the morality of the setting that's ridiculous. In real life, there are people who are selfish but not hateful, people who justify otherwise "bad" things in the service of a cause, those whose only virtue stems from a fear of the repercussions or their actions, etc. But in real life one in every couple thousand will be paragons of virtue, by their care for others, their asceticism, their intellectual integrity, whatever. This isn't to say even these people aren't flawed, even if it's only in the sense that they aren't necessarily good at everything just because they're pure at heart. And the reverse is also true. A handful of people in this world really are rotten to the core, maybe not without a shot at redemption, but certainly with no intention of being redeemed.

But there's a better feeling of verisimilitude if you mix things up. For example, nearly pure good and evil exist, but neither is monolithic. In Flash Gordon, many factions wanted to rebel against Ming's empire, but couldn't until they could be convinced to work together. Likewise, one of many things that stretches the suspension of disbelief in LotR is not so much that the "evil" forces are soooo evil or that it's so very arbitrary, but that evil just seems so monolithic, and with only a few isolated exceptions like the tentacled thing or the balrog. This as opposed to say... Order of the Stick, where you've got a "dark lord" and a party of adventurers who have a more personal vendetta against the heroes acting independently. And the other example I listed, of giving each hero some minor flaw or each villain some virtue that might act as a chink in their armor.

Shades of gray can be dull as black and white, but I see morality as a rich and colorful thing. Likewise the factions and the interests they pursue don't need to be so strictly tied to their respective moralities.
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'Dark N' Gritty' as realism?
« Reply #13 on: February 11, 2008, 03:45:20 PM »
Quote from: SilvercatMoonpaw

And maybe that's why we have people asking "Why do so many people think dark and gritty is so great?": those of us asking can feel it becoming a cliché even if we aren't conscious of it and are trying to avoid the pitfalls the same way one might try to avoid the pitfalls of the "dark lord" style.  (Or maybe it's just me.)
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To various extents, we are always going to be rebelling against the dominant tropes of our genre, like any genre. We'll tear down the established norms to usher in the new, and when those become established in turn, we'll tear those down as well. People who avoid "gritty" fantasy for more epic storytelling, and people who avoid that same lighthearted fare in search of more "realism", are on different stages of the same cycle: similar in their (quite admirable) search for something refreshing and exciting.

...

Some people, myself included, embrace these ideas in their fiction, and others strive to escape them, so we get our two differing schools of thought. I think the two need each other quite desperately. Too much rebellion from reality and we lose the ability to relate to our themes and characters, and our worlds and stories lose their power. Too much adherence to reality, and we start to forget why we are writing fantasy in the first place.

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Slapzilla

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« Reply #14 on: February 16, 2008, 11:47:04 AM »
It's all a reflection of the times, or better, reaction.  The pure and virtuous hero Superman came out of WW2.  Escapist to be sure. Batman did too but the character changed forever with Miller's Dark Knight Returns in 1988.  Again a dark and gritty reflection of ostensibly bright, shiny, happy times.  I think the best stuff captures a time or a mood and makes it universal.  Animal Farm is still relevant because you can see it happening all around you, just follow the presidential nomination process for a week.  Brave New World is a fear that the individual is to be lost in favor of the communal-a tremendous social fear in the '40s.

I'm a big fan of video games but how many of them feature one dude/thing trying to gain absolute control over all that is surveyable?  Pick an RPG.  Any of them.  An individual's struggle do do the right thing in the face of the impossible (Final Fantasy 12) to the power of teamwork (Lunar: The Silver Star Story) and a hundred others all lead to the same scene... whomping on the dude/thing.

It's all entertainment anyway and how you get there is your path to take.  A cynic in happy times might be drawn to dark and gritty and an escapist in rough times may be drawn to epic tales of heroics.  We are all at different places on our own paths.  But "Dark-N-Gritty" as Realism..?  Depends on where you are on your path.

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