Why Winterbirth Was Gritty, Grimdark Or Whatever You Want To Call It (Part 2)

I’ll try to wrap up a couple more thoughts on this topic a bit more concisely than I managed in the first post.

Yes, I have yet more reasons why Winterbirth had a somewhat bleak tone to it.  The first of which is …

It wasn’t just a reaction to history, but to the contemporary world.  As I mentioned in Part 1, part of the reason the book/trilogy has the feel it does was my enthusiasm for narrative historical non-fiction, and the notion of borrowing some of its texture to create the illusion of reading about real people in a real world.  It wasn’t just the past of the real world that fed into it, though.  It was also the present when I was coming up with the story.  At the time – at any time, let’s be honest – it wasn’t hard to find dramatic and disturbing things being reported in the news, and the stuff that was at the back of my mind when I was pondering ideas for Winterbirth was the post-Yugoslavia convulsions affecting the Balkans.

Thousands of people were killed there as long-suppressed national, religious and cultural divisions resurfaced.  You could trace back some aspects (not all, by any means, but some) of what was going on many, many centuries.  I was struck by the notion that the present remained a prisoner of the past.  That the capacity for extraordinary and horrible violence remained latent in even apparently ordered societies.  The last bit of the 20th century saw us move away from the long era of vast empires confronting one another on vast battlefields, to one which was more chaotic.  More gruesome in some ways.  Everything looked greyer than it had once done.  Good and evil were more subjective, locally defined, transient qualities.  A lot of evil was going unpunished, in those days.  It always has done, of course; but a pervasive media has made it steadily more obvious.

Obviously you don’t have to write what you see around you, when you’re writing speculative fiction.  But it’s hardly surprising that sometimes people do.

Authorial inexperience.  I mentioned in Part 1 that sometimes an author, especially a novice author, might be making fewer conscious choices, and doing more going with the flow, than readers assume.  Separate but related point: perhaps an inexperienced author isn’t always as fully aware of the tonal effect his or her writing is generating as he/she might be.

I mention this only because I wonder – and I specifically don’t know, can’t remember quite clearly enough – whether I fully understood the cumulative effect of the style in which I was writing the Godless World trilogy.  Some of the small choices I was making.  I’ve got a feeling, and it’s no more than that, that were I writing the trilogy now, I’d probably lighten the tone a little bit.  Reading fantasy of this sort should, after all, be entertaining if nothing else.  It should provide enjoyment, excitement, alongside whatever other responses it’s generating in the reader.

Setting a bleak overlay to the whole thing doesn’t preclude entertainment and enjoyment by any means, but perhaps it does mean that entertainment and enjoyment have to work a bit harder to express themselves.  It’s possible I overdid the bleakness a bit, because my inexperience made it that bit trickier to step back from the day to day business of writing sentences, paragraphs and see the big picture; project myself into the reader’s shoes and visualise the cumulative effect of those sentences and paragraphs.

The thing about violence is …  I’m on thinner ice with this point than with most of the other stuff I’ve mentioned.  I’m not totally sure what I feel about it.  It’s complicated.  But there’s no denying I’ve thought about it, and that I had it in mind while writing the trilogy.

I’m a great big softie.  Never been in a fight in my life, so far as I remember.  Not a big fan of violence in general.  Except in entertainment, obviously.  It makes for exciting books, films, whatever, I do not deny.  But when I really think about it, I can’t get away from the notion that actually, really killing someone with a sword, or an axe, or a spear, is – it must be – by our modern standards an absolutely, horrifically dreadful business.  Cutting, hacking, stabbing a living human being at close range is not romantic or clean or easy.  Any world in which it was any of those things, not just for certain individuals (there will always be some, sadly), but on a widespread cultural level, would be a world I emphatically did not want to live in.

What’s odd, and makes this a bit complicated, is that I’m perfectly happy to watch, or read, and enjoy fictions that to a very great extent sanitize such violence, or revel in it, or completely ignore its inherent brutality. For some reason, when I’m the one doing the writing, things become more problematic.

There is a part of me, I think, that just instinctively rebels at the idea of painting a world in which people habitually kill each other, face to face, with blades as anything other than in some way cruel, bleak and traumatising.  I am, rather obviously, more than happy to write violent scenes.  In fact, I confess I actively enjoy it.  But it’s possible that I’m just on some level not happy, or perhaps not able, to write violent scenes that do not have unpleasant consequences, that do not reflect my personal repulsion at the very idea of killing someone with a sword.  That do not acknowledge that to my way of thinking, any imaginary world in which such violence is necessary on a large scale, or is celebrated, or is treated as normal, is to at least some extent inherently and inescapably grim.  Dark.  Grimdark, if you like.

And that’s a wrap.  Let there be no more talk of bleakness.  It’s the Vernal Equinox, after all.  The first day of Spring!  Sunshine and flowers will be with us any day now.  (But yes, it is true that it is currently snowing outside my window …. ho hum).

And P.S. here’s a random and trivial teaser: the word ‘vernal’ appears a lot in my next book, The Free.


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  1. Mihai A.’s avatar

    Killing with a sword, knife or bare hands is a very personal way of killing. It brings a closeness to the victim. Unlike the fire arms that put a distance between the shooter and the intended target. There are plenty of things resulting from here and almost every single one of them is unpleasant. Most of the modern fantasy is dark, gritty and grim, but it is better for the fiction to be like that and not the real life. Unfortunately, we do live violent times although they are not similar to the old days of violence.
    The reason for my attraction to such fiction is not because I am a violent man, I do like to think of myself as a peaceful one. But I do prefer to see violence on screen or fiction rather than real life. I do prefer to learn a lesson of compassion from these mediums rather than facing violent experiences in order to do so. It is true that such fiction cannot be digested easily, but when refer to the historical days of the Medieval times it is quite close to the truth. After all, the Medieval Era was not a very pleasant time to live in. But dark fiction brings more light on characters and that is something that I love in the books I read. I like to see strong and believable characters, clearly drawn. And the gritty, grim fantasy of modern days does exactly that, brings strong characters on central stage more often than not.
    Anyway, I do hope you’ll have a marvelous spring and an awesome year, sir! And please keep your fiction dark, even though you are not an inexperienced writer anymore. 😉

  2. Brian’s avatar

    Thanks, Mihai. I think the idea of trying to present believeable characters in a believeable world pretty much sums it up. I don’t think it’s the only sensible approach to writing fantasy, obviously – it’s just one particular approach that some authors and some readers seem to like experimenting with nowadays.

    And my next book – The Free (look out for it in 2014, people!) – will indeed still have a bit of the dark about it, a bit of the grit. Certainly quite a lot of violence. But I think it’s probably fair to say it won’t be quite so bleak in overall tone.

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