There has been a true backlash of sorts in the past few decades against what are considered fantasy tropes. This counter-archetype revolution seems to have spawned the popularity of the “grim-dark” subgenre in fantasy fiction. It became quite vogue to write against what was viewed as cliches like “the impossible quest”, the omnipotent (but always defeated) “Dark Lord” nemesis baddie, the “hidden heir” who comes from lowly origins, and does not realize his true lineage, etc. that permeated so many previous fantasy works.
Yet, it seemed that was not enough to merely compose something “anti-trope” or turning said tropes on their head when it came to literature in the fantasy sphere. It appeared that for some time one had to openly state that they were part of the rebellion seeking to overthrow any use of some of the tropes originating particularly with the esteemed J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien, for years, was universally held to be the patriarch of modern fantasy. But perhaps too many perceived imitators of his work followed him, or people simply grew bored of the somewhat predictable plot-line of the triumph of conspicuously upright heroes over evil incarnate. There was a clamoring for heroes with less savory attributes, and villains with redeeming qualities.
What people sought was enhanced “realism” in the recognition that, in reality, most heroes are flawed, and very few are completely “bad” or wholly “good”, it’s more about their behaviour at a particular moment, or in a particular set of circumstances. The lauded George R.R. Martin, who noted Tolkien was one of the greatest inspirations for Martin’s own writing, contrarily was very vocal about inverting Tolkien’s tropes, and was adamant about the fact that “a villain is a hero of the other side”. Martin sought to present a more balanced perspective on the failings and foibles of so-called heroes and force the reader to see opposing points of view.
Fans, agents, publishers wanted to know if one’s upcoming work was “grim-dark enough”, because grim-dark was all the rage. Fantastic wordsmiths, who wove more twisted tales than Tolkien, such as masters Glen Cook, G.R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence, etc., became all the rage. Big traditional publishing companies clamoured for more like them under their umbrellas. Other authors in the genre wanted to emulate their work. Fans could not get enough, as they sought more graphic action, more morally ambiguous protagonists, and grittier novels that many felt were more realistic and representative of “real-life”. The whole notion of “noble” heroes striving to overcome “completely bad villains who personified evil” was rejected.
Tolkien’s plot devices became, for many current writers, tiresome and played-out. I have read many an article that states, ironically, that Tolkien might have trouble finding a publisher in 2020. If he were alive today and submitting his works to be published in the twenty-first century, because of the disdain in the fantasy writing community for the very tropes that Tolkien himself essentially invented, made renown, and helped establish him as one of the greatest writers of the past one hundred years – not just in fantasy – in any genre.
Why does this insurgence against so-called fantasy tropes matter to writers seeking to pen fantasy fiction today? Because it’s important to know what is topical, and what may or may not sell. In my estimation, just because savvy readers are aware of and looking for these tropes, doesn’t mean that one can’t still deploy them effectively. It’s all about presentation. Exceptional authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, Tad Williams, John Gwynne, and many more have such tropes in their work, but it certainly has not detracted from their accolades, and their popularity among fans who love what they write.
Still, the books by aforementioned authors are very nuanced in terms of how they handle said tropes. The have managed to walk the fine line between paying homage to Tolkien’s plot devices, while presenting fresh, and more balanced main characters who often are more morally grey or introduce alternate and multiple points-of-view from the enemies of the protagonists. This allows the reader to feel sympathetic and appreciate the “enemies” as having worth too, even allowing us to root for those enemies, thus setting up even more tension as we are conflicted, wanting more than just the “good” side to somehow survive the inevitable final conflict.
So in the end, you don’t have to write grimdark, although grimdark fantasy is compelling and amazing, but as an aspiring fantasy author you need to be aware of why grimdark exists, and potential pitfalls to avoid your high fantasy work-in-progress as being considered too “tropey”.
Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful day!
P.L. Stuart is a Canadian high fantasy author, born of parents from Barbados and Ghana. He currently resides in lovely Chatham, Ontario, with his beautiful wife, Debbie. P.L.’s debut novel, A Drowned Kingdom is the first novel in The Drowned Kingdom Saga, an epic fantasy series. You are invited to engage with P.L. on Twitter or Facebook at @plstuartwrites, and visit his website: plstuart.com.