Walking a Tightrope Across a Grim, Dark Ravine (Designer Notes for Wayward Son)

A thought experiment, dear readers. Let me give you a story to read. The protagonist is a psychotic mass-murderer and he lives in a world where almost everyone else is a psychotic mass-murderer. The story revolves around him killing, raping, and eating (in a random order) helpless civilians for 500 pages before finally blowing up the entire universe right after delivering a speech about how morality is for “sheeple” and there’s no hope anywhere to be found.

Such a story wouldn’t be appealing, right? It would drive most readers away. In most cases, they’d be sickened and wouldn’t gain anything by reading it, in many cases they’d find the story to be outrightly ridiculous and crack up the moment they read through a few pages. What could you say about such a story? Yes, a bleak, hopeless setting can be interesting (like those of H.P Lovecraft) but this one just tries too hard and fails. Yes, sometimes violence ought to be depicted in prose, but that’s just gratuitous. And yes, a dark tale in which the protagonist is morally ambiguous, or even outright evil, and where many innocents die and the forces of good don’t seem like they often prevail, can be compelling. But a story like the one I described takes all of those concepts, which are obviously not bad in and of themselves, and ratchets them up to such a ludicrous extreme that it is no longer exciting or gripping, or even grim and gruesome, as intended. Instead, it becomes quite silly.

There’s a word which describes that sort of story. It is the term “Grimdark.” It comes from the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000, which has this tagline: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” The game is set 40,000 years in the future, where humanity is ruled by a tyrannical, utterly fanatical galactic theocracy that kills billions of its own citizens on a daily basis. The problem is, everything else in the galaxy is worse. That theocracy is the only thing standing between humanity and an entire dimension of demons wishing to slaughter them all (Chaos), trillions upon trillions of extra-galactic insect beasts wanting to eat them all (Tyranids), undead robots wanting to harvest them all (Necrons) and a bunch of other nasty things, most of them just as bad. As another tagline says, “there is no peace among the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.”

You can see why they took the term “Grimdark” from this game, right? It has some of the same characteristics as the silly hypothetical story I gave above. No real heroes or “force of good,” just varying shades of evil for the most part, a whole universe revolving around carnage and war, a bleak setting where a “bad guy” will almost inevitably win so there’s no hope, and so on. Now, I must hasten to add that I’m doing Warhammer 40k a disservice here, perhaps. In fact, I’m actually something of a fan of the setting, though I don’t play the game (miniatures are too expensive ;_; ). WH40k may be grimdark, but it’s grimdark in a good way, as strange as that sounds. A grimdark setting might not be appealing for a story (though there are many novels set in the WH40k universe), but it’s ideal for a wargame played by millions of people, since anyone can always find a plot to go along with their wargaming campaign if there’s an eternal universe filled with war for them to play with. Also, the setting of 40k is not high literature (or even highbrow literature) and it knows it, so the goofiness of such a beyond-belief, ludicrously bleak setting is a source of entertainment rather than mockery.

Why do I bring all of this up here, especially since I promised this entry would be about fanfiction? Because, dear reader, today I’d like to talk about how I tried to keep Wayward Son from becoming grimdark in a bad way. I thus wanted to give you a little background on the term I’d be using.

Personally—and perhaps this may sound a bit pretentious of me—I never worried too much about Wayward Son becoming so grimdark that it became straight-out silly. Now, I won’t call myself the best author ever, and will freely admit many people in the Fire Emblem section of FFn are better writers than I am. Still, I think even my skills would be sufficient to keep my stories from becoming overbearingly, oppressively bleak, at least to the point where they would be mocked for it. However, while I may not have run the risk of writing a story so try-hard grim it would’ve been laughable, I think I might have written one that was too dark to be believable, compelling, or (worst of all) ended up being untrue to Renault’s story in Fire Emblem.

Let’s look at Wayward Son as it is now (and, once again, I warn you, there’ll be tons of spoilers here!). It’s a pretty grim affair. Renault himself is a pretty nasty guy. In the first chapter he breaks his mother’s nose, later on he gets framed for killing an entire village, he becomes a pretty merciless mercenary, and then he gets framed *again* for killing a bunch of women and children. Things go downhill from there—after he watches two of his best friends die, he becomes so ruthless he threatens to dismember a pregnant woman at one point, and then when his best friend dies he goes full-on evil! He pledges allegiance to a world-domination type villain, kills one of his own allies, and slaughters an entire monastery of helpless monks. He  will end up killing the father of a character in FE7.

All that sounds pretty harsh, right? Well, let me tell you, the original drafts of Wayward Son were even worse. In my original author’s notes, Renault killed his mother instead of just battering her. He also committed intentional war crimes, such as raping a woman. In a later draft closer to the published fic, he assassinated the child of a friend of his as well, and in another intentionally caused a stampede at a pilgrimage site to cause a distraction.

Even if I had included all or any of these scenes, I don’t think it would have sent my story down the abyss of unintentional-comedy failure that is grimdark. Still, I either modified them or kept them out entirely for two reasons.

1: I would have lost readers. Wayward Son is M rated, but even within that rating there are limits to what people will endure. I surmised that scenes involving extreme violence or sexual violence would sicken my fans and drive them away, regardless of what the rating of my fic was.

2: More importantly, it would have made the last part of Wayward Son unbelievable, essentially wrecking the story. For those of you who haven’t played FE7 yet, I must warn you for spoilers, but Renault is a bishop rather than a mercenary in that game. A major part of his character is how religion turned him away from his bloody and thoughtless life as a mercenary. His story, in short, is about redemption. I obviously could not portray that story if I had him commit the most irredeemable crimes, like setting off large-scale disasters (such as a stampede) or rape.

For all of Renault’s viciousness and ruthlessness, there are some lines he doesn’t cross, even while under the thrall of Nergal, FE7’s world-domination villain. All of the crimes he commits are done out of a twisted, deluded sense of love—Nergal promises (and is of course lying) to resurrect Renault’s best friend from the dead if he carries out assassinations, such as those of his former allies and the monks. It’s not entirely base selfishness or psychopathy motivating Renault. Also, aside from how he’s not sexually aggressive (towards either men or women), he never kills children. He spares a single young monk and doesn’t harm the son of the man he kills (who grows up to be well-loved character in FE7). He also grows close to and goes out of his way to protect and guide a young squire in the latest chapters. This way, as evil as Renault becomes, it doesn’t seem…at least I hope it doesn’t seem…like he’s totally hopeless. The reader can still see slivers, here and there, of a conscience, of some redeeming quality. Those slivers, though they’re quite small, are what will eventually blossom and rescue Renault from the darkness he is in at this point in the story.

So, as grim and violent as Wayward Son may be, what are some other things I did to keep it from going full grimdark, and what were the reasonings behind them? Allow me to list a few examples, with the hopes they’ll provide inspiration for other authors struggling with these issues.

1: If you have a “morally questionable” protagonist, give him at least a few positive *and* endearing qualities, rather than making him entirely 100% unlikable.

In Renault’s case, his flaws are legion. He’s ruthless and violent, vindictive and ill-tempered, abrasive and sharp-tongued. Yet he also has a handful of virtues. He’s intelligent and perceptive, eager to learn when a subject really interests him, and very brave on and off the battlefield. Most importantly, he has one characteristic that makes him likable, or at least not purely hateable: He is very, very loyal and will never betray his true friends. His affection for them is genuine and he would move heaven and earth on their behalf. His love for his best friend, Braddock, is genuine, and even though it’s twisted (and exploited by Nergal) after Braddock’s death, the core of it is unimpeachably pure, and will form the basis of Renault’s redemption, as we’ll see later.

2: There should be at least a few decent—not perfect or pure, but fundamentally decent—characters in the supporting cast. At least one of them should have a happy ending, or at least live to the end.

This is a complaint I’ve actually heard leveled at authors who are much better than I am. For instance, in this thread, fans of “A Song of Ice and Fire” lament that so much bad stuff has happened to the good guys (the Starks) and that it’s unlikely they’ll have a happy ending. Now, obviously, I’m nowhere near as good a writer as George R. R. Martin (GRRM). Still, I think I’d be wise to note some of the things his fans are a bit disheartened about. Now, I also have to admit that Renault may not be the most pleasant character, and many “good guys” do die over the course of Wayward Son. Braddock is the foremost example; he is probably the most endearing character I’ve created and he was a genuinely decent man who ended up dying painfully. His love interest, a very decent woman, is left heartbroken. Similarly, a couple of other ‘good guys,’ who are also former allies of Renault, are murdered at his hands. However, it’s not all gloom and doom for the forces of light. Several of Renault’s other friends have very happy ending. His commander (who has a heart of gold despite being a bit of an arrogant jerk at times) becomes a renowned hero and gets married. Two of his other friends—a kind, gentle archer and a mousy young lady whose crush on Renault is rebuffed—get married and live happily as a family. Another friend of his moves to another country and gets married there, while yet another becomes a monk and eventually a “Church Father” (I’ll do more on FE7’s religion later) in his ecclesiastical organization.

I believe this adds a valuable counterbalance to all the misfortune that befalls the other heroic characters in Wayward Son. At least there is some evidence in the text—a great deal of evidence, actually—that decency and heroism are at least occasionally rewarded. Maybe not always, but just enough to give my setting a few rays of hope and keep it from descending wholly into grimdarkness.

(On that note, I should make it clear that I don’t think GRRM’s Westeros is at all grimdark in the bad sense. It may be bleak, but it’s not stupidly or gratuitously so, and indeed, he inspired the next and last suggestions I have here).

3: In terms of the world itself, while it’s fine to have one or two “antagonist” nations which are entirely evil (though you should try to avoid that), the rest of your countries or organizations should be at least pragmatic. If every single one of them is as crazy and fanatical (to the point of self-destruction) as WH40k’s theocracy, they won’t be interesting. At least a handful of countries, organizations, etc. should be motivated to do decent things occasionally out of self-interest if nothing else.

In Wayward Son, I’ve portrayed pretty much all the countries of Fire Emblem 6 and 7’s continental setting (Elibe) as having their own sets of problems. Bern is expansionist and militaristic, Etruria is corrupt, Lycia is rent by internal strife, Ilia is horribly impoverished, and Sacae is backwards and isolationist. Yet I’ve also taken care to show how all these nations aren’t pure evil, or at least insanely and self-destructively so. Bern has rational, “realpolitik” reasons for wanting to contest Etruria, Lycians have a strong streak of egalitarianism and independence, Ilians are just doing what they need to survive, Sacaens are self-reliant and don’t make war on others (though I do try to avoid the “noble savage” trope), and the corruption of Etruria is portrayed as (somewhat humorously) due more to incompetence and shortsightedness than outright malevolence. I don’t think any of the polities I’ve portrayed are as crazy as WH40k’s theocratic Imperium, much less as evil as Chaos, Necrons, Tyranids, and so on. Thus, I keep my story from going overboard with the grimdarkness, which I wouldn’t be able to do as amusingly as Warhammer does! And, of course, I’ll take the example of GRRM again: While his nations do compete with each other, often mercilessly, the only “pure evil” faction are the Others (supernatural/undead things), the other countries are more motivated by pragmatism and self-interest.

4: Related to the above, there should be “bright spots” in the setting. Some pieces of evidence, even if scant, that good, well-intentioned people can rise to power in certain countries and do good, or at least survive. A setting with no long-run hope at all whatsoever is one which will quickly grow boring.

As I mentioned above, at the end of the first half of Wayward Son, the good guy’s commander rises to a position of influence and makes many positive changes in the world around him. In fact, despite the aforementioned corruption and incompetency of the Etrurian government, my story generally makes the point that positive change is possible. For all the violence and atrocities I portrayed, following the war Renault and his friends helped win, his country ends up growing stronger and better from the experience. Its new leaders are more competent and concerned for their people, peace descends upon all of the other countries involved, and indeed, the entire continent of Elibe undergoes the equivalent of a Renaissance, enjoying peace, prosperity, and progress until the time period in which Fire Emblem 6 occurs. In Wayward Son, there is some proof that good men can do long-term good. A setting in which heroic acts are ultimately futile in the long run is one that quickly devolves into Grimdarkness, and I hope I’ve avoided that.

6: Finally, even in the worst of circumstances, more than a bit of (intentional) humor from the author can go a long way in leavening his story.

One thing I rather like about Wayward Son—and which I’ve been complimented on by several of my readers, including those who dislike me personally—is the fact that I’ve apparently been able to include a few genuinely and intentionally funny scenes here and there. The corrupt nobles of Etruria are worthy of mockery, Renault and Braddock poke fun at them regularly, and even when things get very grim and dark, such as in the aftermath of the heroes being framed for a war crime, a few dashes of gallows humor maintain a degree of levity. Again, I obviously don’t think I’m a great writer of humor, but again, George R.R. Martin certainly is, and he also demonstrates the sort of thing I’m talking about here. There’s enough witty wordplay and pointed jokes (the character of Tyrion Lannister is great for these) that his readers will occasionally smile and chuckle, even though Westeros has seen a great deal of war and bloodshed. The telltale sign of a grimdark setting is that it takes itself entirely seriously, without the slightest break for a bit of humor. That often results in the setting become funny…but not at all intentionally.

Well, those are all the ideas I have…my readers are, of course, more than encouraged to share their own suggestions about avoiding grimdarkness. Or critique mine, or contest my definition of the term, or really, do anything they want here (within reason, obviously XD). See all of you next week! The next entry might be on either what I’d like and what I’d change about Wayward Son or my perspectives on writing a big “epic” fic. Hope you’ll enjoy those too 😀

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7 comments

  1. Bartholomew Kamiro · · Reply

    I actually do appreciate the explanation of grimdark. I always just assumed it was super-dark stories but the bit of context was nice.

    I can understand what you’re talking about with not trying to make WS to dark. In a lot of the sketches (since it’s not all written yet) for Drifting Swordsman, some scenes started much darker than I would have liked and were toned down. In one of the chapters, my beta actually encouraged me to move it in a darker direction (the chapter with the off-screen rape) since it was more realistic and logical. In that case I tried to avoid over-emphasizing that element so that it wasn’t too big a focus.

    I think WS is certainly a dark tale but I would say you’ve done a fine job keeping it from going grimdark. Frankly, the more recent chapters have been lighter fare compared to the chapters of the Etrurian Civil War. Perhaps it was because we knew it was going to happen, but even Braddock’s death wasn’t super dark in my opinion.

    You know, regarding happy endings, I think I can understand where people come from on the matter. When you read a long series, like GRRM’s works, after all of that time and energy you’ve invested into the work you can’t help but hope that things will still work out somehow in the end. It’s why I have the quote, “I like sad people but love happy endings” on my FFn profile. I think there’s something very depressing about seeing a character struggle and suffer and then to see them fall without achieving any true success. Just my two cents on the matter.

    1. Whoah, that scene in Drifting Swordsman was actually supposed to be more dark than it was? 😮 Man, I didn’t know that. Seems like we were thinkin the same thing, then. 😮

  2. All your cookie are belong to us · · Reply

    Again, I must say, great tips.
    Is it okay if I ask you for some feedback about my story? I suppose my story could be considered a little bit of dark fantasy.

    There’s this fantasy world of might and magic a little bit similar to Lord of the Rings and some other stories. The basic idea is this: Imagine a world similar to middle earth after Sauron won.
    The forces of good failed to stop a powerful and corrupt general-turned evil wizard who took over the kingdom and corrupted it, dividing it between his dark knights and wizards. 45 years later, the kingdom suffers from a tyrranic role of the king’s ministers. The ministers are mostly corrupt and often fight among themselves. The only “free” city in the kingdom is a great fortress which succeeded to drive away the tyrant’s forces until he decided to let it be. But after 45 years passed, the young general Panorak prepares an assault on the city to take its treasures and gain the king’s honor and gratitude. Panorak is sadistic and cruel but also bored. At a certain point in the story he encounters a powerful wizard-wanderer (a bit like Gandalf), picks up a fight with him, and the wizard accidentally kills him. His body is then found by the king’s ghoul servants who drag it to the capital and resurrect him as an evil wraith controlled by dark forces.

    Grimdark enough for ya? 😉

  3. “He also committed intentional war crimes, such as raping a woman.” ”

    “In a later draft closer to the published fic, he assassinated the child of a friend of his as well”

    Did those happen to any named characters already in Wayward Son?

  4. Named characters? No, the unfortunate woman was a nameless victim and the daughter of his friend never showed up in the published work.

    (BTW, hi! Have we met before, or are you a new reader? Pardon my poor memory XD)

  5. Not that I recall.

    Also, I’m curious. Which friend was it, if it was somebody who is already in Wayward Son as it is now? And what led to Renault killing his friend’s daughter? And what did you have for her personality, looks, etc., assuming you wrote out that much?

    1. In any case, welcome to my blog, and I’m glad you like my writing 😀

      To answer your question, Renault was originally slated to kill Khyron’s daughter. She was supposed to be a powerful magic user (a prodigy) at a young age. While working for Nergal, he would have sneaked in to Castle Caerleon, bluffed his way into her chambers by telling her he was an old friend of her father’s, and then killed her to harvest her quintessence. I never had much about her personality except she had black hair, like Khyron’s. She never made it into the story, and even if she did I didn’t want Renault to do something *that* unforgivable, since one of his defining character traits is loyalty to his friends, and he would have still had a bit of loyalty to his old commander in the Autonomous Company.

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