Is Fantasy Becoming Too Dark?

There is a great disturbance in the Force.  Its name is Game of Thrones.

No, this is not another anti-Thrones rant, and no I haven’t watched or read beyond the first season and book of the series.  Really, this isn’t about Game of Thrones.  It’s about a trend in fantasy that I believe has come to a head.

For the first time, adult fantasy has really reached mainstream culture.  Harry Potter paved the way, but that was initially a book series for kids.  The fact that adults liked it too was a phenomenon all its own.  But Game of Thrones never was intended for children, and HBO is definitely geared for a mature adult audience.

There are many things that disturb me about Game of Thrones, but it was really a discussion with a friend that got me thinking about why my reaction to it has ranged from apathetic to negative.  One of the main selling points of Game of Thrones is its uncertainty.  There is a lack of the clear-cut lines between friend and foe, antagonist and protagonist, to the point where you can’t really know who or what you’re rooting for, let alone what will happen next.  Anyone could die at any time.  To the show’s credit, I’ve heard that none of the deaths have been just for their shock value; there are repercussions and the characters have to deal with that.  It’s a tight-woven web of realism and intrigue, something that really should appeal to me.

But it doesn’t.


Uncertainty.  The very thing that causes people to flock to Game of Thrones is the very thing that drives me away.

Why?  I like fantasy politics; I write some of it myself.  I like being kept guessing and weaving through shifting loyalties and backstabbing.  I understand the necessity of character deaths and applaud if it has been done well.  And Game of Thrones is very good at what it does.   It’s very realistic….too realistic. I could go through the show or read the books and Lannister could still win.  That is deeply disturbing to me.  I could go through a story, all seven books (and presumably all seven seasons) and despite all the death, all the sacrifices, the good guys (or the ones I end up perceiving to be good) could still lose.  I see that happen all the time every day and I don’t want to see that in my fiction.  I don’t like being reminded that being a good person usually isn’t rewarded in our world.  You’re far more likely to get ahead if you’re a ruthless bastard than if you act with responsibility and honor.

Game of Thrones reveals a dark trend in fantasy towards hyper-realism…which to me undermines the very purpose of fantasy.  Or at least, what I consider the purpose of fantasy, which is to escape.  I read because I need an outlet to escape from the pressures of the real world.  Fantasy does offer a unique area to explore and work through problems, even dark modern ones.  But that’s usually held underneath a veneer of adventure, enjoyment, and escapism.  You are leaving this world to go romp in another.  If you learn something important along the way, great!  If not, hope you had a good time!  But I’m seeing modern fantasy get darker and darker and darker, to the point where I wonder, if I step through that portal to escape, will I just find myself in the same dark, gritty, unfair world I left behind?

I try not to be preachy in my stories.  I try not to be obvious.  But I like rewarding virtue and honor and heroism because God knows it doesn’t happen in our reality.  I try to create characters that are relatable, but also hold characteristics or standards that are a little bit higher.  I like reading about characters who I can aspire to be like, someone who offers a higher level of standards and inspiration.  This article about Superman articulates my feelings on the matter far better than I can here.  I believe that offering those kinds of characters is crucial to urge people to become better than what they are.  To become more compassionate, more honest, more respectful, more responsible, more noble.

But is there a place for those stories in this cynical modern world?  Or will they be left on the shelf, unread because they are too predictable or “lack realism”?  Will the stories that focus on honorable or more traditionally “good” characters all be washed away in a wave of Game of Thrones knock-offs the way so much original fantasy books were knock-offs of Tolkien?

I’ve been told that there may be an influx like that for a while, but it won’t be a complete or permanent shift.  However, there is no way of knowing how long such a trend will last.  I hope that there are other readers out there who might dip into the dark, realistic worlds of these new fantasies, but will still hold out for and enjoy the more “traditional” and less complex tales of good versus evil.  A light to counterbalance the darkness.

5 thoughts on “Is Fantasy Becoming Too Dark?

  1. I’ve only, as in the last couple of weeks, watched the first two seasons of the series (not read the book yet) and I have to say I’ve quite enjoyed it. I am a product of Hollywood, and could be a test subject, thus when I am viewing, it’s for pure pleasure. However, the writer in me is always aware of dialogue, scene, the characters, etc., and will make notes, but everything else, I take at face value. I don’t get lost in everything else because I want to enjoy it for what it’s worth. I am partial to a writer with good characters, in fact, it’s the characters that make a story a favorite, rather than the author. Nicely state, Kat, btw. You’re passion for dark art of writing 🙂 is strong.

    1. Thanks, Brenda! Glad you enjoyed the post!

      I am glad that people can enjoy Game of Thrones and the wonderful complexities of the plot. The politics in it is unrivaled from what I’ve seen in fantasy. I usually only end up nit-picking at something if it didn’t hold my attention/I didn’t like it or if it was bad. And the nuts and bolts of GoT are very good. But it really is the characters, like you said, that make me love or hate a book.

  2. I really enjoy Game of Thrones, but I have some critiques of it. One, it isn’t a good “book” or even movie story. It’s very episodic and there aren’t clear arcs of story in each book. It’s like an epic scale fantasy soap opera. I think this makes it very good for TV. But books and movies need that ending payoff, the catharsis, to feel feel right. Game of Thrones isn’t even really x books long, it’s like one long ENORMOUS book because each one leaves threads left dangling everywhere. Harry Potter wrapped a plot with each book. There was a greater series arc, but the books could stand alone.

    In the end, I think Targaryens will retake the throne. But in the meantime, I agree that it’s too much realism to be good book material. HBO suites it better.

    1. I’ve heard it compared to a soap opera before, which is probably part of the reason I dislike it. I hadn’t realized that GoT really is just one huge book. Like you, I enjoyed how each Harry Potter book wrapped up its own arc, but left enough dangling to tie everything together. Game of Thrones is just too huge to swallow easily.

      I honestly have no idea how the series will end, but I don’t plan on continuing until the HBO series is complete. THEN I might marathon it, otherwise I doubt it will hold my interest long enough.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I hope you liked the post!

  3. Wonderfully well written post! As a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and other fantasy series, I felt the need to respond to this.
    I agree with most of what you’re saying. I love gritty realism as much as I love traditional fantasy. Dark fantasy will never go away. And I’m a writer within this genre, so I admit there is a bias. But I think it’s important to have traditional heroes who do win in the end against the evil and the corrupt. We have to have some hope for the good people of this world, but I should emphasize that it all depends on how the protagonist is written.
    For example, I’m more of a Batman fan, and I love his ideology, that he refuses to become a murderer even if said villain deserve it. In the end he wins the day, but the audience and Batman knows that the villain will come back for vengeance. But he serves as a symbol to the people of Gotham that they do not have to accept corruption and live in fear. Batman is a champion for battles, not wars. He can only do so much and inspire others to change the justice system. It’s a complete contrast to the League of Shadows. They believe that in order for a society to change, it must be destroyed and built upon. In my opinion, it’s a fair mix of both traditional heroic characters with dark and gritty. As long as he remains incorruptible, the bad guys cannot win.
    I don’t think darker fantasy should be wiped away for traditional heroes, but perhaps this speaks more to the generation of today. When the last Harry Potter book/movie came out, I remember hearing a consistent complaint that the ending was too simplistic. I agree to some extent, but it wasn’t meant to be that type of story.
    I apologize for the long winded ramble, but I think there’s a need for both within our reality. Sometimes the hero needs to win to show there is hope, and sometimes the bad guys do win because that adds to tragedy and makes the story much more complex.
    But this post did make me consider for the stories I write in the future to be a bit more optimistic. Because we all need some compassionate heroes rather than the chain smoking, cynical, bitter protagonists every once in awhile. 🙂

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