I was watching a new movie the other day, and since I don’t want to spoil anything, I’m leaving the movie nameless. The point isn’t the movie anyway, it’s about the hero’s tactics. Or rather, their ultimate goal.
You see, these heroes’ goals don’t involve killing the dangerous, maniacal villains that threaten their world anymore. No. Their stated strategy was to “cure” or “save” the villains.
To be fair, I wasn’t watching a grimdark movie. It was highly entertaining (with fan service galore), there were stakes, there was violence too, but violence was seen more as a last resort. Violence was treated as a “save it for when a peaceful, more humane solution isn’t available” sort of thing.
It got me thinking about how grimdark characters, especially our antiheroes, don’t have the luxury, time, or inclination to walk a peaceful path. In vanilla fantasy, only mercenaries, assassins, and torturers choose violence first. Whereas violence often must be the first resort of our antiheroes simply to survive. Ruthlessness is not evil. In a grimdark world, it’s simply necessary.
The dark nature of the world may even warp our protagonist so much, they take a cruel pleasure in inflicting violence on their enemies.
High Stakes, Necessary Evil
The difference between grimdark and most other types of fiction are the stakes. Whereas shades of grey exist everywhere in fiction (and the real world), the landscape of grimdark is a hellscape. Antagonists will show no mercy to their prey, social systems also support immeasurable cruelty, so what’s a protagonist to do?
Antiheroes have to match their environment if they want to stay alive. Trust no one. Strike first. Be calculating. No mercy.
It’s common sense. There’s no 911 to call. No hue and cry for the weak and powerless. No cavalry is coming. If there is any sort of authority (as Paul Darling said), “my idols are dead, and my enemies are in power.”
The crapsack environment common to grimdark fiction also makes motivation different. If there’s no justice in the world as it is, there’s no one else but our protagonist to hold others accountable to the standards they set.
If it’s evil but it works, it’s not evil.
Honor’s for Schmucks
Therefore, the motivation of grimdark protagonists is different. If there’s no justice to be served, you can’t fight for justice, can you? If righteousness flees the field or hides out of sight, there’s just nothing Good or Right to fight for.
If a character does fight for honor, integrity, or any sort of sense of right or wrong, in grimdark fantasy, they’re kicked in the teeth. Witness Ned Stark. In a grimdark land, being a good person is bad for your health.
More specifically, being pacifist and choosing nonviolence will get your happy ass killed. Giving your enemies warning, only engaging in fair fights, letting them escape so you can save the hapless villagers, or other half-measures and weaknesses pave the road to the executioner’s block.
Speaking of the executioner’s block, characters that would be considered villains in vanilla fantasy are often the protagonists of grimdark tales. Executioners, soldiers of fortune, and assassins. Dirty deeds are not done dirt cheap. (Sorry, AC/DC.) Sometimes they’re very, very expensive. And sometimes they’re done for free.
Writing a character who chooses violence first is hard. Are they affable enough that we like the bastards? Do we just hate the guys on the chopping block more? Is there just so much suspense and fascination that the reader can’t look away from the horror?
Joe Abercrombie’s character Sand de Glokta is a prime example. Despite being a torturer, he’s often cited as the driving force being what makes Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy epic.
After earning renown as a fierce warrior, this guy is captured, tortured, and put through the ringer. When he emerges a broken man, he becomes an inquisitor, torturing other people himself to extract a confession from them. The political intrigue’s the clincher, but also the mystery: I couldn’t tell which way Sand de Glokta was going to turn until the end, and that kept me hooked.
Sympathy for the Devil
Of course, violence can be addicting. The rush of glee you feel when you see some bastard getting what he deserves is the reason I’m here, writing dark revenge fantasy.
It’s no stretch that a character can enjoy the violence they’re committing, especially if they’re dishing it out to some vile fuck who definitely deserves it. But what if the antihero’s victims aren’t awful? What if they’re actually *gasp* innocent bystanders?
Protagonists and good aren’t synonyms. Duh. Having some character who mows down innocents can fit a bunch of different categories and honestly, this topic will be its own post in the future.
Going back to professional violence, others hurt innocent people because it’s their job. Crime victims sometimes just don’t cooperate with muggers. Do assassins ask about their victims before they take them out? The innocent are casualties of war all the damn time. Collateral damage is a fact of life.
To serve their mission, some protagonists choose violence against the innocent because they’re in the way. Need that tome of forbidden magic and the stalwart angel guarding the library won’t let you in? Stab him through the base of his skull when he’s distracted by your companion and take his soul to feed your power.
The Raven Queen herself will tell you, it’s better to be the hammer than the nail.