Sitting in Judgment

[— Karen Myers —]

Playing god is a heady experience.

You may think you’re just telling a story, but really you’re creating a world and everything important in it. So, do you strive for moral objectivity about your characters (“this is just the way they are…nothing to do with me”) or do you encourage the heroes and gleefully punish the villains? (Or do you cheer on the darkness?). As the creator, you get to choose.

Choose wisely.

Let me post a Blast from the Past on the topic…

Grimdark vs Noblebright

The words grimdark and noblebright arose as technical terms in the gaming world. There’s a certain amount of dispute about the exact definitions there, with a tendency to paint them in black and white terms (such as the slur that noblebright is all about rainbows and unicorns and flawless heroes).

In fiction, by contrast, especially adventure fiction (in which I class things like Westerns and Fantasy) they have come to be used to reflect two different and opposed styles of story. Since there is some dispute about the definitions, it behooves me to offer my own.


The notion that the actions of one person can do little to improve this world in decline, that the forces of evil and inertia and temptation will ensure that all of us are doomed. The best we can hope for is a little struggle with morally ambiguous heroes to oppose danger and maybe rescue for a brief time a few others.


The notion that the actions of one person can make a difference, that even if the person is flawed and opposed by strong forces, he can (and wants to) rise to heroic actions that, even if they may cost him his life, improve the lives of others.

Let me explain why I am firmly in the noblebright camp.

Why we tell stories

All human cultures tell stories around the campfire. Some are just for humor, of course, but the adventure stories tell of the efforts of people presented with problems and what happened, whether it’s the youngest son going off to seek his fortune, or the girl determined to free her swan brothers, or the boy who saves his village from flooding.

The sort of hero who is successful embodies the values of the culture, and his solutions to his difficulties illustrate the virtues needed, and the flaws to be overcome, in the character of a hero. No traditional tale glorifies the futile efforts to stand against overwhelming foes and just give up.

And for obvious reasons. Any culture that thinks “the good” is not worth fighting for doesn’t survive in a meta-Darwinian world where culture, too, is a survival of the fittest.

Traditional stories well understand the flawed nature of man, but that doesn’t stop them from valuing bravery, perseverance, kindness, generosity, and all the other virtues that make for moral men and women in their societies.

A moral hero may well die in the performance of his deeds, but more often his strategy is successful, and he reaps the benefits of his work directly. The story is an idealized guide for how a man should live and conduct himself.

Traditional tales are of course heightened stories: simplified from pure realism, illustrative of what is valued by the culture. Not many are about perfect characters who can do no wrong. After all, we’re talking about stories — where would be the interest in that?

Moral characters in fiction

In the end, we all die, nature and physics are indifferent, and the best of us is flawed. This is terrible knowledge, but useless as a moral guide. How can we live meaningfully, in spite of this? That’s what stories illustrate and suggest.

If we’re going to die anyway, surely it’s better to go down fighting?

A man fights, despite overpowering obstacles and probable doom, because he cannot be the man who doesn’t fight. As they say in Zulu, a hundred-odd men facing four thousand:

Pte. Thomas Cole: Why is it us? Why us?

Colour Sergeant Bourne: Because we’re here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.

And that’s just bravery. There are other virtues in our cultures — the generosity that shares one’s last meal with a beggar, the kindness that notices and helps the struggle of the weak, the conviction that it is better to save others than yourself, if the choice must be made.

Heroes don’t want to die, but they recognize there are more important things than personal survival, that the price of personal survival can be too high. Stories about heroes teach us these values, make them strategies for how we live our own lives — hardening us even in the teeth of an indifferent natural world.

The rise of the anti-hero

Click on the image to enlarge.

The anti-hero concept rose most strongly in the early modern era with the Romantic movement. In fantasy, one of the startling archetype works was Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chonicles of Thomas Covenant, whose main character has no compunctions against rape when he thinks it isn’t real.

Anti-heroes are not nice people. They are self-interested to a degree not approved of in traditional cultures. If they do the right thing, it’s often for selfish motives. They tend to be untrustworthy, disagreeable, and vicious.

When an outlaw does a heroic deed, taking a break from his usual mayhem, which do we admire: the man or the heroic deed? Who would we rather spend time with? Who should our children look up to?

Grimdark stories call for anti-heroes, and some praise this because it is closer to reality, somehow — people really are deeply flawed, motives are truly mixed, not everyone can rise to the occasion. Ironic versions of traditional stories subvert their original teachings, and a style of “edginess” wins favor among those who wish to be labeled “cool.”

Does admiration for the anti-hero consist of a cultural value that should be endorsed? Or should his heroic deeds be admired despite his flaws, not because of them?

Polish winged hussars invoking the images of heroism to inspire the real thing.

If you admire the flaws, you are dragging the hero down to your level, rather than elevating your goals to the virtues of a true hero. And yet, thinking heroically can still motivate people in the real world, as our ancestors knew, around their campfires.

Motivating characters vs motivating the protagonist

Why do grimdark stories leave me deeply unsatisfied? Partly because they collapse any distinctions between the types of characters that make up a story.

All characters need motivation (to be heroes in their own eyes), but not all can be protagonists of the story.

The protagonist in the story needs to stand against the opposing forces — without conflict, there is no story. The protagonist stands with us — we have to care about what actions he takes and what happens to him.

But the more immoral the protagonist, the less we want to identify with him, because he drags us down instead of raising us up, and the less difference there is between him and the villains. The worship of anti-heroes collapses that difference.

If there’s no difference, the story teaches us little and makes us despise everyone. We still make judgments — we can’t help it, it’s built into all of us. If no one in the story is worth our admiration, or serves as a guide to living, then what’s the point of the story?

So, think carefully about the sort of world you want to create, with your godlike powers.

Where do you come down on the grimdark/noblebright scale, and why?


Footnote: Here’s an interesting generational-story-fashions theory of Grimdark/Noblebright cycling, using the template cycle of:

Strong men create good times.

Good times create weak men.

Weak men create hard times.

Hard times create strong men.

What do you make of this generational theory, if you read the article?

110 thoughts on “Sitting in Judgment

  1. I often wish I could be a Type V antihero. Alas, it is not to be.

    There is also the book “The Fourth Turning” that talks about cyclic history.

    1. That’s the book by Strauss and Howe that’s mentioned in the linked article, where the “Strong men create good times, etc.” idea comes from. (I have a comment lower down in the thread about how their cycle, or at least its popular understanding, is completely wrong).

  2. Moral Hero is exactly the problem– morality is hard.

    It means having standards, where something is beyond acceptable.

    This gives some folks utter hissyfits.

    And people may disagree with what you say is right.

    Worse, they may be right.

    Much, much safer to go the easy way and just have no real standards at all, everything sucks, so nothing really matters. You’re better than that guy over there, at least right now.

    1. THIS!

      The main use I have for the Type V Anti-hero is the redemption story (which is falling out of favor with a lot of authors these days but the readers still seem to love them.) Especially if the badguy is cunning enough to count on the Type V Anti-hero being… who he always has been and he has to change to win the day.

      Knight in shining armor is not an easy path to walk.

      (Side note, you ahve given me an ‘ah ha!’ moment into a back burner story. Thank you!)

      1. The redemption story is one of my favorite things, like Zuko’s story in Avatar: The Last Airbender. I tend to hope for the best for everyone, including redemption for bad guys.

        1. FWIW I read Zuko’s arc as character development, not redemption. He wasn’t bad by choice, and once he realized there were choices he made better ones.

          Scar, in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood has a redemption arc, and it’s the only complete one* I can think of.

          *complete meaning the guy does more than make one good decision after a bunch of bad choices, and die. Looking at Darth Vader, frex.

      2. Redemption stories are absolute crack to readers. They’re not as common because the PTB don’t want you to get the idea that people that there’s an alternative to endless grey goo suckage.

        1. Not so much that as the belief that happy endings are inherently shallower than depressing ones, and deep down most of these folks don’t believe in redemption.

        2. Actual redemption stories, or ones where the evil is excused? (I admit it’s easier to believe in the redemption of a character whose motives were at least mixed, but there are those who prefer excuses.)

          1. I just thought of an interesting story idea.

            Some really evil dude has a “Road To Damascus Event” and attempts to turn his life around.

            But he finds it hard to so because of the idiots who “excuse” his actions that he correctly finds inexcusable. [Very Very Big Crazy Grin]

            Note, basically he’d like to inflect on those idiots some of the actions that they are excusing. 😉

          2. Based on the evidence I’ve seen from readers… actual redemption stories. And yes, the willfully evil make it harder to believe in the redemption.

          3. I keep falling for “this is so and so, but not a villain!” and then when you watch or read, they are most assuredly still a villain, the victims are just made less sympathetic and they get some kind of prior trauma.

            Because that’s empathetic, not horribly insulting to the victims of violence, pretending like it will make them just as bad as their abuser.

    2. Lois McMaster Bujold: “Now there’s this about cynicism. It’s the universe’s most supine moral position. If nothing can be done, then you’re not some kind of shit for not doing it, and you can lie there and stink to yourself in perfect peace.”

      That one’s gotten me off my butt more times than I can count.

    3. This scene in El Cid summarizes for me the dilemma of the moral man. The King must prove to everyone’s satisfaction that he had nothing to do with his brother’s death, or the kingdom will continue to be torn apart by internal conflicts. Rodrigo sees no alternative but to insist that the king swear an oath to that effect.

    4. It works even better for puffing one’s ego when you take the assumption that everyone else in the world is a total scumbag to the point that, as someone once put it to me, ‘If you can walk down the street without killing or assaulting anyone/everyone you see, you’re automatically a great guy’.

      I’ve known, well, known of, some people who seem to honestly think that. And they they deserve a reward for not being a horrible person 24-7.

      1. :grumbles: When I make cracks about “I didn’t do [obviously bad thing], I want a cookie” it’s a joke, and it’s to my husband.

        (who usually reminds me I am the one who does the shopping, I can BUY cookies, orthe stuff to make them)

        1. Oh, no no no! I wasn’t accusing you of anything! That comment had to do with people I’ve met at other sites online, many of them years ago at places I no longer visit. My apologies if you thought I was aiming any barbs at yourself.

          1. :Waving hands in air: No, no! WAsn’t taking it as an accusation, this is a SAFE place, Eric! Promise! (If nothing else, our hosts would go smitey as heck in righteous defense if someone started those over-sensitive games.)

            I was casting shade at MYSELF because I do have a hint of that tendency, and I find it works best to mock it in myself so I don’t end up doing the “well, I didn’t murder anyone today– aren’t I grand?” thing!

            Agreeing with you!

            1. Okay. I do have a tendency to say the wrong thing to the wrong people, which has caused me and others no small amount of trouble in the past. I’m trying to avoid doing it again.

                1. Given the sort of trouble it got me into and the things I was accused of over a few comments, I’d prefer to avoid it happening again, thank you.

                1. Thanks, but as my mother once told me, you can’t do anything about how other people will react to your words but you can make the choice to not speak in the first place.

                2. And thanks for your kind words here. May you and your loved ones have a most blessed Easter.

      2. Reading essays by the “childfree” is like that. They brag of having no children for utterly selfish reasons and then demand admiration for it because it would have been more selfish to have children for selfish reasons.

  3. Strauss and Howe’s generational cycle sounds good, but if you actually know history, you’ll realize it’s complete bovine excrement. The simple summary has two false statements out of four. Both “good times create weak men” and “hard times create strong men” are false. What creates weak or strong men is the moral code their parents teach them, not the times they live in. The other two statements — that strong men create good times and weak men create bad times — are accurate, but just one false premise is enough to sink an otherwise-good argument, and this one has two false premises.

    1. What may be true is that hard times filter out weak men, so that only the strong men are left, while good times don’t filter out the weak and so they are more widely represented. And perhaps if I read Strauss and Howe’s book, I would find that that’s their argument. But the popularly-known version of their cycle, where hard times create strong men and good times create weak men, is totally wrong. Good parents can raise their child to be a strong man even in good times, and parents who don’t give their children a good moral code will end up raising weak children even in hard times.

      1. Strong does not mean good.

        The cattle baron in Kilkenny was a strong man, not a good one, and had he won he would not have created good times.

    2. A lengthy series critiquing the whole: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times” meme, here:
      I imagine the entire blog (written by a historian whose interest are classical/militaritly oriented) would be a useful resource for an author looking for potential shortcuts in their research.

    3. “What creates weak or strong men is the moral code their parents teach them, not the times they live in. ”

      If people were computers, then you would be right. They aren’t. They are individuals, with the capacity to follow what their parents taught them…. or not. With susceptibility to certain types of things… or not. A child with a lower pain threshold is more vulnerable to a villain willing to inflict it, for example. Or drug use… which is why Leila in Alma’s Familiars can be pressured by it…. but also recognizes it when present.

      As it is, “the times we live in” has an enormous influence on those choices. It also has a huge influence on the type of heroic behavior needed. A hero in good times may require warning people about the problems not addressed, against opposition both physical and mental; in bad times, the heroic behavior may be leading troops…. or preserving knowledge.

  4. In my evaluation, Thomas Covenant is a type II. His heroic flaw is that he doesn’t want to get involved. He is alienated from the real world by divorce and disease in a horribly unfair fashion, and his attitude resembles the one described in Simon and Garfunkel “the Sound of Silence”. I think it unfair to say he has no compunction. He begins regretting his wild impulse almost immediately, but spends three books having the fact that his own actions and inactions have consequences he cannot escape ground in his face. Eventually he decides that he can’t and doesn’t want to live like that and begins taking a stand against both the externalized Lord Foul and his own subtle and insidious inner Despiser.

    On the other hand, “A Song of Fire and Ice” is stuffed with type V types. After reading three books, I decided that I not only didn’t care if the author never finished the series, but that it would be better if he did not. And I actively avoided the TV series.

    1. Martin contributed a novella to a collection (with Pratchett and Jordan) called “Legends”. Martin’s contribution (called the Hedge Knight, as I recall) was so profoundly nihilistic that I have never re-read it (the other two get regular repeats), and have steadfastly refused to consider either the book or the TV series.

      1. I read Martin’s first book and probably half the second book and decided I didn’t need Game of Thrones in my life. Way too many anti-heroes. Sort of in a similar vein, I don’t have many Punisher comics in my library, and no Lobo. I read the first… 12? books of Wheel of Time but it took so long for the series to finish that my tastes changed a lot in the meantime and when I re-read The Eye of the World I was so annoyed with the reluctant protagonist that I could not bear to spend another page with him. I’m not sure I’d call Rand al’Thor an anti-hero, but he sure didn’t want to become one.

        1. Obviously, YMMV when it comes to fictional characters.

          But considering how the legends spoke of the Dragon, only an idiot/madman would want to be the Dragon. 😆

        2. Mundane and lowly person who doesn’t do heroic stuff is the original, original definition of anti-hero, the Type I.

          A reluctant hero is something that is easier to pull off with either a lot of humor (The Hobbit) or a lot of angst that makes the audience pity the hero (Hamlet), and humor and angst are both unreliable tools that the readers recoil from if used in a way that doesn’t suit the readers’ taste.

        3. Isn’t Lobo (if we’re talking the DC character) supposed to be a joke? Or at least he was meant as one until the fans went nuts for the guy.

          1. He was intended to be a parody of some of the “anti-heroes” people were pushing. 😀

            One joke in his earlier appearances was people asking if his name was from the Wolf and he’d start explaining that it meant “plenty of words related to how nasty he was”.

      2. Interesting. While Martin is full of nihilism, I wouldn’t have said that “The Hedge Knight” was particularly bad in that regard. Both Dunk and Egg are good people. Some of those at the tournament are selfish, but enough do the right thing to allow Dunk his trial. While the tragedy that results from that trial is unfortunate, I wouldn’t call that nihilistic so much as realistic: when you go around waving weapons at each other, sometimes people die.

        And in the end, I think the main characters choose to do what’s right rather than what’s easy: Egg chooses to remain Dunk’s squire, Dunk chooses to remain a hedge knight rather than accept the life of ease that he’s offered, and Egg’s father allows his son go with Dunk so that he can become a good man rather than a spoiled mess like his two oldest brothers.

        1. Martin is a [insert pungent epithet here]. I read the Sand Kings a million years ago, and have avoided that man’s writings like the plague ever since. I consider myself to have benefited greatly from said avoidance.

          Others may disagree of course, but I am surely right. ~:D

          1. Worse than that, it is not unlikely that he will A. die before he completes ASOIAF and B. will not pull a Jordan and leave copious notes and an outline to a designated successor, thereby breaking the storyteller’s first rule: Thou shalt not waste the audience’s time.

            1. Is he still writing on the antique DOS box using Wordstar? [I’m rolling my eyes so hard] I used to have Wordstar too, but I got rid of it as soon as I could and used Word Perfect instead.

              Honestly, that guy’s popularity just goes to show how weird I am. Can’t stand his writing. OMG, no no no.

            2. I don’t think he can leave copious notes and an outline. He’s famously a pantser, and I’m pretty sure that he has no more idea what happens in The Winds of Winter than the rest of us do. Further, I suspect that the ending he had vaguely in mind (Dany goes crazy, Jon kills her, Bran takes the throne) he gave to the TV show … and then found out that everyone HATED it. So now he has to pretend that, no, the show runners made that up, and come up with something entirely different….

              I’d feel sorry for the man, but he did get himself into this position through his own actions (or lack thereof).

          2. I’ve only read one thing by Martin. It was called the Ice Dragon and was written for children. It wasn’t terrible but I have no desire to seek out more of his work.

  5. Not enough coffee to really debate the anti-hero but just a thought.

    Some people believe that The Hero is a Perfect Person, no flaws or short-comings.

    Those sort of Heros can be hard to write about and all too often are written as “cardboard characters”.

    So the “anti-hero” could have started out as a Good Person acting heroically but with flaws/short-comings. (IIRC That’s a Type I above).

    To me, those aren’t anti-heroes. Those are realistic Heroes.

    Oh, I never saw Han Solo as an anti-hero. He was just a lesser bad-guy helping out the Good Guys. His storyline in the first series (as released) was a bad-guy turning into one of the Good Guys.

    So yes, Han shot first. 😆

    1. Obligatory statement that Han shooting first is justified self-defense under the circumstances and has little or no bearing on whether he is a good or bad person at that point in the story.

      1. Yep.

        That idiot Lucas decided that “good guys don’t shoot first” and he wanted Han to be a “good guy” so that kids would purchase Han Solo figures. 😆

        1. I once heard of a TV series from, I think, the 50’s or 60’s that was even weirder than that. According to my brother who saw it, it was a war series in which the heroic US soldiers never shot anyone. They just butt-stroked anyone they fought with their rifles and knocked them cold at once. And if anyone shot at them they missed.

          I suspect he’s either having me on or misremembering something, because I cannot see a war story, even one done for 1950’s American TV, as being /that/ unrealistic.

          1. I remember some TV westerns where the characters would let the Bad Guys ride away “because they couldn’t shoot the bad guys in the back”.

            At the time, I didn’t understand why they couldn’t shoot the bad guys in the back, but was very young.

            Mind you, it wasn’t like the Good Guys were walking into the tavern and shooting the Bad Guys in the back (without warning).

            1. Hah! Yeah. I once read a book that described the reaction of an elderly fellow who’d lived through the /real/ Wild West and lasted long enough to see the cleaned-up Hollywood version. He apparently said something to the effect that if they’d acted like that in real life ‘We’d all still be sitting on the east side of the Mississippi.’

    2. I didn’t see Han Solo as any kind of bad guy. Sure, he was an outlaw, but when the ‘law’ is the Empire that doesn’t say anything about your morals and in the EU novels and stories (decannonized now, I know) he was always honorable when possible. Heck he was downright heroic when earning Chewie’s life-debt.

      1. I saw Han as basically a loner type with few connections with other people and didn’t care about other people.

        Yes, he had his heroic moments as when he rescued Chewie and there was a definite connection between him and Chewie.

        Can’t remember it mentioned in the films but he disliked Chewie’s “life-oath” in the books.

        He was willing to have Chewie as a friend/partner but hated the idea that the “life-oath” because IIRC it might been seen as Chewie being Han’s slave.

        No, not really a bad-guy but I never saw the early Han as a good guy.

        Still, I got the idea that Obi-Wan Kenobi trusted Han to only a limited degree.

        Obi-Wan only said that they wanted to avoid “imperial entanglements” but nothing about “why the imperials wanted them”.

        Obi-Wan likely didn’t trust Han that far. 😉

        1. Could’ve just been good security: if Vader’d caught up to Han, he’d make him talk. Best way to keep a secret is to keep it.

          But yeah, if Han knew there was a big price on Luke’s and Ben’s heads, he might be tempted to sell them out, particularly if he didn’t know them. I’m not saying he’s perfect.

          But if Han thought these guys really – REALLY – had a chance to take down the Empire…well he might have been tempted to join up, as he eventually does.

  6. Before there was Thomas Covenant, there was Northwest Smith, a smuggler and all-around lowlife who sometimes had moments of glory, mostly because a pretty woman in danger aroused some bit of chivalrous instinct in him. One of the later Northwest Smith stories opens with him and his buddy Yarol idling while leaning against a wall, and the narrative voice explicitly tells us that they’re resting between activities that are best left undescribed.

    However, the Northwest Smith stories were old-school pulp sf adventure, while Thomas Covenant was fantasy, and was attracting readers who had just read Lord of the Rings and were wanting more of the same.

  7. I think there’s starting to be backlash against it, but for a period in the early 2000s, there was a definite trend of referring to any heroes who didn’t go around raping and stealing and generally being the sort of people you only wanted to see through rifle sites as “plaster saints.” They generally weren’t, but even if they were, all the “realistic” stories did was replace plaster saints with dashboard devils.

    1. Been to the bookstore lately? The backlash is all self-pub I think, because Dead Tree, Big Five remains disgusting. “People you only want to see through rifle sights” is still the majority of books, from my casual perusal of blurbs.

      I haven’t bought a dead-tree fiction book at the bookstore since 2021 I think. That one was a Monster Hunter.

    2. ‘Dashboard devils’? I like that term! Describes a lot of 90’s superhero comic ‘heroes’ very well.

  8. The one sword & sorcery type story I had published had protagonists that were selfish and basically amoral, although they did manage to destroy a great evil while pursuing their own goals. They did have the power to improve the world a bit, albeit with mass casualties of the innocent as well as the guilty.

    I’d probably rate them about Type IV antiheroes?

    Having read the linked article, I’m having a hard time deciding if it would count as “grimbright” or “grimdark.” (It was deliberately a throwback style to things like Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser and early depictions of Conan the Barbarian.)

  9. I go where the stories take me, so long as it’s not grimdark. The Star Master books feel more noblebright, like their role models (Star Wars OT and Original Galactica), but are arguably nobledark if you dig into the background of the setting. The Jaiya series is more grimbright (or “commonbright” if you prefer, feels to me like a better distinction from noblebright) in terms of good people dealing with fairly localized problems. Ancestors of Jaiya kind of waffles between nobledark and commonbright, with good people nudging the course of history in a less bad direction, or saving what can be saved from the wreckage. Regency Sleuth almost-WIP is probably commonbright (like most non-gritty mysteries), Gothic Dunedain WIP is inspired by Tolkien and the more nobledark side of Victorian and psueod-Victorian gothic, so I guess it’s nobledark until it proves otherwise.

    1. Grimbright tends, in my experience, to be people who map them on two axes:

      grim/noble — whether you can take effective action
      dark/bright — whether the world is a good place.

      So grimbright means that the protags can nothing very effectual in a good world, and then I wonder why you would want to make major changes in a good world. . . hmmm. . . that would be Silver Age comic books, basically, with lunatic villains committing crimes and being stopped by heroes to restore the status quo.

      Though noblebright would be silly, too, by that definition.

      Perhaps a bright world is one in which there is definite good even though there is also definite evil.

  10. Now you’ve gone and done it. You pushed one of my buttons. [Ahem.]

    “Grimdark stories call for anti-heroes, and some praise this because it is closer to reality, somehow — people really are deeply flawed, motives are truly mixed, not everyone can rise to the occasion.”

    Thomas Covenant was a sniveling, sneaking coward who was in great need of a serious beating. Having read that thing many years ago, I still recall my contempt for that character and my disgust at his choices. I hated those books, and I have never read anything by Donaldson since.

    Grimdark generally is socialist propaganda, IMHO. One person is helpless in the face of Evil, just give up there’s no point in trying, everybody does it so go ahead and steal that chocolate bar, you’re going to Hell anyway you may as well enjoy the ride, and so forth, ad nauseam.

    Makes you nice and depressed so they jackboots don’t have to work as hard when they kick in your door at 3AM.

    I have one rule in my books. Nobody gets killed on screen, named characters don’t die. You get to the end, and the characters may be bruised and busted but they survived.

    I did make one exception, I killed a bad guy once. He died as an unavoidable result of his own actions, not because the good guys killed him. Nobody celebrated, even though he killed as many people as Pol Pot. It was considered a failure.

    Currently in WIP I am dealing with WHY it matters if people die. That it does matter is something we are usually taking on faith. “Because God will smack your head” isn’t a reason not to kill. I’m not satisfied with that. I’m busy digging out the real reason you can’t just nuke Planet Evil from orbit and call it good. It’s a pretty tough go, really. Something so simple and obvious is surprisingly hard to talk about.

    As well, characters don’t do the Right Thing because they’re so noble and good. They’d really prefer to go and nuke the bad guys from orbit. They do the right thing because they have to. Morality is the minimum requirement for freedom and happiness. Anything else obviously leads to misery and death.

    Nobility and goodness arise from doing the right thing, even when it sucks, even when you might die. And yes, everyone CAN rise to the occasion, even if they might die. People do it all the time, even scumbags. To inspire the reader is to let them know even they can step up if they must.

    I’d be pretty happy to see more of that in fiction and a lot less of excuses for evil. I’m getting sick of the excuses.

    1. I would argue it is possible to have death and onscreen in a noblebright setting, but that it must respect the characters and what it means.

      It can be noble, tragic, regretful, or just about anything so long as it is not meaningless. Or at least their life has meaning, even if it was cut short.

      I suspect that may be part of why grimdark seems to be so cavalier about death; it starts from the assumption that life has no meaning. And if life has no meaning then death has neither meaning nor cost.

      But if life does have meaning, then death does as well, even if it is only the loss of life cut short before its due time.

      1. I agree it is certainly possible, Tolkien did it. Sarah Hoyt does it all the time.

        I just don’t want to. I want my characters to fight the Ultimate Eeeevile and -not- die.

        Alice Haddison carved her initials on the giant flying demon squid’s fundamental region with a plasma gun and then shot it with her 30mm as she jumped away, like it was no big thing. That’s what I want.

        Sad that to get what I want I have to write it myself, but that seems to be modern publishing. 😡

    2. “I’m busy digging out the real reason you can’t just nuke Planet Evil from orbit and call it good. It’s a pretty tough go, really. Something so simple and obvious is surprisingly hard to talk about.”

      Because nuking Planet Evil from orbit absolutely eliminates any possibility of somebody, somewhere on Planet Evil striving for redemption.

      And redemption, as mentioned before, is crack to readers. It’s crack to readers because it tells you that you CAN try again. Because failure is not merely possible, it is mandatory if you’re to do anything of worth, ever.

      The deeper the hole the character crawls out of, the more vile, wicked, and cruel he was, the better. One of my old plots (that’ll get written someday. Probably.) concerns the redemption arc of the man whose actions personally eliminated an entire race and enslaved their immortal souls. Yes, he had his reasons. But eternal torture is kind of a big no-no.

      He’s lied, cheated, stolen, basically done everything bad and wrong to get what he wanted. Well, he got it. And it wasn’t what he wanted after all.

      The climb back to respectability will be a long one. He’s going to backslide. Fail, often. He’s got bad habits to overcome. But accepting his burden of sin and working to make amends? Tall order, that.

      Anyway, there should always be the possibility of redemption. Even at the very last (viz Vader’s death scene). The real villains are the ones that spurn every path leading back to the light, always and forever, neve once doubting their path.

      Good men often doubt themselves. True evil is often filled with terrible certainty.

      1. I once had a “Vader turns to the Light” alt-hist and one of his problems was dealing with all the evil he had done as Vader.

        Of course, he also had the problem that few would accept him and trust him.

      2. I like a good redemption arc. I’ve redeemed quite the rogue’s gallery of characters. The worst people seem to show up and demand a chance to stop being the bad guy.

    3. It’s awkward and probably futile to play defense attorney for a fictional character. , but didn’t you just present an example of a “scumbag” IOW “a sneaking sniveling coward who deserved a serious beating,” who (eventually) stepped up and did the right thing? There are a lot of readers who take after Hile Troy’s evaluation of Covenant. I tend to sympathize with those characters, for instance Mhoram, Foamfollower, and even Bannor, who read him a little more deeply.

      That doesn’t mean I enjoy a steady diet of such characters or stories, but every once in a while I think a “man vs. himself”, when the dark side of himself is truly despicable and really needs to be opposed is salutary. Especially if he wins.

      1. I read it a long time ago when it first came out. I kept going in the faint hope that the author would finally have Covenant, that worthless waste of air, do something worthwhile. Finally, at the last possible moment, in end of the book, he finally does something that isn’t evil. (And then he wakes up and its all a dream, ffs.)

        Yay. Go team.

        Still, Martin would have done it uglier.

      2. I find That Scene in Thomas Covenant an interesting rebuke/paradox to hand to the people who think you can’t sin/commit evil at the thought stage (which is what Covenant thinks he’s at) but it makes for an unpleasant read and the overall thought experiment those books were trying for doesn’t really hold together well enough to justify the more edgelord moments.

        If you have to read Stephen Donaldson, I found the Mordaunt’s Need duology the most palatable of his specfic work (haven’t tried the Great God’s War trilogy). I found his Man Who mysteries (originally published as Reed Stephens) interesting, but they didn’t sell well. They weren’t going to win any sensitivity prizes, but I don’t recall anything in the ones I read that rivaled The Gap series or That Scene with Thomas Covenant.

        1. I liked Mordant’s Need. I couldn’t stomach the Gap series. Sampled the Great God’s War, and the sample did nothing for me. I can’t argue readers who despise a character into a more charitable reading, but in this case I can’t help thinking they are missing something. Beneath and between TC’s edgelord moments, I see an indomitable will to survive, which grows into something more than mere survival.

          1. And that is a valid perspective on TC; I guess I just don’t really think of him as a character so much as yet another component of the artistic experiment Stephenson is running.

    4. I am so happy to hear someone else hate on Thomas Covenant. I read the books because my girlfriend at the time (Hi Alisha!) loved the books. It was a painful experience for me. If I hadn’t cared so much about her, I would have quit.

      1. It might be that I am an unsophisticated lout without the ‘sensitivitah’ to unnerstand the ‘richenss’ and ‘wonderfully crafted sentences’ of the sublime narrative…

        … or it could be that any man worth a pinch of dog doody would have pounded that guy to a fine paste. Disgraceful.

        1. He does get beaten up. Several times.

          He also nearly dies saving a little girl’s life, and in the Second Chronicles he sacrifices himself to save his wife.

          The brilliance of the series is to take a man who has been utterly broken and has had to learn the lesson that the only reality is despair hope and dreams are a deadly trap that will doom you and it is death to believe otherwise, then put him in a fantastic world where capital-G Good and capital-E Evil are real and palpable.

          And yeah, this wretched and broken man? He’s your Chosen One, sent by the Creator to save or damn the Land.

          Don’t like it? Take it up with Him.

          To this day I’m still amazed and humbled at Atiaran Trell-mate, who restrained her rage at Covenant and aided his journey to Lord’s Keep because this man was the only hope of the Land and its people.

          1. “He does get beaten up. Several times.”

            Not enough, and not by the right people, IMHO. I don’t recall him saving anyone either, apparently that didn’t make much of an impression on me.

            I like things a little more clear-cut in my fiction. “The beatings will continue until you stop being an a-hole.”

    5. For Planet Evil: The existence of people fighting the evil would be enough, even if there’s only like 12 of them in a planet of billions. It shows they CAN become something else. (Abraham’s 10 righteous men.)

      1. Where I’ve gone with it in WIP is the leadership is Capital E Evil and the populace is being farmed as fuel for necromancers. Kill an AI person, raise a demon, use the demon’s infernal powers to run your pool heater.

        You can’t nuke ’em from orbit even though you might need to. It’s morally indefensible. That’s how you tie up an OP main character, you put them someplace where punching the bad guy in the face isn’t going to be sufficient. OPMC has to be smart, and has to develop some serious backbone.

        So, the bad guys are going to receive Justice instead. Capital J. >:D

      2. Even a whole Planet of Evil would need to keep some good people (or people who are trying to be good) around to enslave and torment, otherwise all they’d have is each other.

        That may be one of the worst things about hell from the perspective of its denizens: no more innocent victims to harm.

        As a side-benefit: Planet Evil now has some hostages against said nuking.

  11. I don’t know the source, but I’m given to understand that a certain truth was expressed as something like this :
    “The Golden Age of science fiction is what you were reading when you were twelve years old.”
    I was a bookworm from birth, so I created my own Golden Age when I was 10 or 11; it started with picking “Have Space Suit – Will Travel” from the school library when I was in the fifth grade. Maybe sixth.
    But I KNEW what I needed, even if I didn’t really know WHY I needed it so badly at that tender age: ESCAPISM. My life was bad in ways I couldn’t even comprehend, and my Golden Age permitted me to see, and believe in, something nicer.
    How in @#$*-&^%$-( G%$^ would Grimdark have helped me survive? If I had even been able to keep breathing in and out after taking my own misery and combining it with Grimdark, I expect my path would have taken me into Becoming-A-Monster-Land.
    Sixty years later, I’m still reading for escapism. YMMV.

    1. Nod on “reading for escapism”.

      I’ve passed on one Horror novel because the main character was a victim of abuse. I didn’t want to read about that kind of person. Oh, I also got the idea that the “Monster” (while real) would be used by the kid to “get back at his abusers”. I didn’t want to read about revenge stories at that time.

      Of course, Harry Potter’s “home life” turned me off of that series not to say anything bad about those who enjoyed the series.

      I don’t mind “dark settings” if the heroes are fighting the darkness but that’s not what IMO “grimdark” is about.

      1. Grimdark is when Harry Potter escapes from under the stairs by making chisels out of his own finger bones, then falls into the basement and gets eaten by rats.

        So entertaining.

    2. I’ve heard the same sentiment said about music. “What’s good is what was on the radio when you were a kid.” Must say I don’t think its true.

      I was a kid in the 60s and an angsty teen in the 70s, grew into an angsty man in the 80s. The 80s were objectively better than the 70s musically, there’s no question.

      Still, I don’t listen to the Oldies station, I mostly listen to melodic house and trance online. I’ve heard them all enough times now. I also don’t listen to pop radio, because it is -rubbish!- these days. Since 2012 I think. Maybe 2010.

      I do not appear to be alone, the music biz apparently is having a very hard time selling new pop these days, all the kids are listening to stuff from the 90s/2000s. That’s what Spotify and album sales indicate, anyway.

      Dear departed Kathy Shaidle said it best I think: “The Who is better than that band you like.”

      Books? I’d put “Have Spacesuit Will Travel” against any YA title of the last 10 years. We were blessed to have been born when we were.

      1. I think that’s more a function of the LA studio scene going the same way publishing has: artificial successes pushed to ensure the books are predictable, and push today’s Thing(tm).

        Compare anything on the radio to say this:

        I just don’t think the big labels have any real talent pipelines going anymore.

  12. I enjoy a good redemption arc, and seeing characters go through incredibly harrowing experiences, so long as they’ve had the agency to be there.

    Seeing a character go through their living nightmare because either they were the ones who made it, or because they chose to take it on so others don’t have to is compelling. But taking a character who has just come through the other side and found what they truly needed, and starting the next story with ‘and everything they had won withered away, because otherwise the story would not happen’? Do not want; contained live badger.

    I also feel like the anti-hero works best as a transitional state for a character. They have an internal tension between their heroic and anti-heroic impulses, and the question is, which side will they chose?

    The only anti-hero I’ve written so far started out as a literal monster who kept not quite going full on murder machine. I finally realized the hero had made then feel ashamed of what they were to the point they had to either destroy the hero or become like the hero. And they cannot destroy the hero.

    The other interesting one is the anti-villian. The antagonist who genuinely believes that what they are doing is in everyone’s best interests, but is horribly, tragically wrong. Those seem to be pretty hard to pull off effectively. I sort of think that that character needs a fairly tight exposure window. If they’re in the open for too long it seems like they would either get talked down, or the audience will decide they’re just a nut.

    True grimdark just gets dreary for me. I already deal with enough entropy in the real world.

  13. I hate grimdark. Or what it has become.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like reading about dystopias, but most grimdark seems to be much more about the author wallowing in their “issues”, than telling a story. 1984 and A Brave New World are certainly grim and dark, but don’t wallow in depravity. Wahammer 40k is the trope codifier, everyone in that universe is well and truly forked (except for da orks, who are living their best life), but even there, heroism abounds, and hope leaks through.
    The Silmarillion is fricking bleak
    There is something inspiring about soldiering on in the face of certain doom, to say “not this day” and spit in the face of Fate.
    Light shines brightest in the dark.
    If a firefighter saves a kid from a burning building, he’s just doing his job. If a pizza delivery guy who just happened to be driving by abandons his job and risks his life to save that same kid, it’s much more meaningful.
    It’s more inspiring to see a flawed person rise to the moment than a paragon just cruising above it all.

    That said, the whole torture porn, everyone and everything sucks?
    I hate that crap.

    1. Wahammer 40k is the trope codifier, everyone in that universe is well and truly forked (except for da orks, who are living their best life

      :snorts tea out her nose:

    2. 40K, of course, is simply a war game. Everything else is in support of that. Such a narrow window of view has its effects.

      Though of course the novels had to, in Dan Abnett’s words, say that there was more than war, there were real people too.

  14. I suppose all my stories in the last five years are about ordinary people finding a way to deal with an irrevocable bad thing they’ve done. It could be an accident; it could be something they honestly felt was the right thing at the time; it could be something they didn’t feel they had the strength or the bravery to deal with at the time.

    But they always includes an ordinary [not an exceptional] person who does something bad that can be mitigated but not totally fixed and works their back from that. Sort of a redemption arc, I guess. One WIP, it’s quite possible I’ll kill the MC. But I have no meaningless deaths. Or lives.

  15. Slight tangent. I know the trope of making things darker and edgier but what is the term used for the opposite? When you make a grim work lighter and fluffier.

    1. No idea, but that’s what I’m trying to do with some short stories (somewhere down on the “to write” list.”) Like “The Little Hut on Kitten Feet.”

  16. Little late to the party, but I had a lot of work this week.

    How would Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry stories fit into this dynamic? Best described as “James Bond in Space,” the Flandry stories’ eponymous main character main character is an agent of a far-future interplanetary empire devoted to staving off the civilizational collapse – the Long Night – that historical forces have made inevitable.

    There’s no shortage of adventure and fun in the Flandry stories, and readers will thrill as he triumphs over the odds, rescues the innocent and saves the day, yet there’s a sense of melancholy in all his adventures, for Flandry knows that all his victories are mere stopgaps and like a rising tide, the Long Night is coming.

    Strangely, this adds some piquancy to the character as he pauses to savor every pleasure or moment of happiness he can.

    It’s an amazing series, and perhaps something that would find a ready audience were it ever adapted faithfully to the screen – and so I suspect it never will be.

    1. Flandry himself would be a type II or III antihero, depending on the story.

      As to the setting, one variation I’ve seen on the theme is “nobledark,” and I think that fits it well–in the long run, the Empire is done and the Long Night will come no matter what Flandry does, but he can stave it off for a bit, and set things up so that when the collapse comes it’ll be gentle enough that rebuilding civilization will be possible.

  17. Doc Smith came up with the ultimate villain in the Skylark series. DuQuesne is totally honorable — if he gives his word, he will keep it. If he says he’ll rescue the hero, even at a time of danger, he will. He is smart, clever, a brilliant planner and scientist. He rescues innocent women from evil henchmen.

    But he intends to rule the Earth (or larger areas, as needed), and will ruthlessly destroy any obstacle in his way (except, of course, at times when he’s given his word to act with our hero until his release — at which time he helps the hero with a great deal of bravery and skill).

    I really regretted a redemption, and I tend to ignore the place where it happens. That book really didn’t fit, anyhow.

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