Ah, here we are.
Just as with the rant on transformative fantasy, I’m essentially defining a subgenre here. As with transformative fantasy, it’s a subgenre I like, and one that a lot of the fantasy books I love fall into. This means that I burble.
Like, a lot. As in, this isn’t as much of a rant as a long, long stream of burbling.
What does brutal mean in this context? Any and all meanings of the word that you can think of, of course.
1) All the buried aspects of setting, plot, characterization, and theme act on the storyline.
Fantasy authors sometimes fumble a plot, or fudge it. The first occurs when the storyline gets bogged down in its own lack of action. The author might have a grand scene to aim for, but it lies on the other side of two hundred necessary-yet-boring pages. The second occurs when the author knows that, really, she should take the time to deal with one aspect of the plot, but she gives in to temptation to skip it, because of wanting to get to that grand scene.
A fully committed brutal fantasy is never going to have a problem with the first one. The moment the storyline gets boring, the author need only reach out and touch the razor-lined traps lying in the ground, the air, the minor characters, the secondary characters, the noble lords, the old grudges that people bear, the technology, the seasons, the protagonists’ wounds, the magic, the ancient history, the near history, the death of someone at the beginning of the story, the countries across the sea, the class system, the currency, the houses…you get the idea. A large part of writing brutal fantasy is seeing the deadly potential that lies in every single tiny part of the fantasy world. Once you get used to that, you will have no shortage of nastiness that, gasp shock and awe, makes sense, because you put it there. (And then you get to have the fun of watching them build on each other. See point 3).
It also means no fudging, or as little as possible. Your characters are on the move in early spring, trying to cross a river. You’ve earlier mentioned that the river flows from mountains, and that the winter was unusually heavy. You needed those for a subplot about trade on the river, and because you used the winter to give your characters a hard time already. You do not get to pretend that the river is a little wussy river now. It’ll be high and surging with snowmelt. Once you’ve introduced problems into a brutal fantasy, abide by them, and by all their consequences.
Yes, even in those moments that hurt most. Perhaps most especially in the moments that hurt most.
2) There is no flinching at the last moment.
I dislike “Gotcha!” moments, those where the author has gone to a great deal of trouble to build up worry or tension or suspense in the reader….
And then dissipates it in a puff of smoke. It isn’t a grand and daring rescue or escape; it isn’t the hero using cleverness to defeat the villain; it isn’t the protagonist having a different plan than everyone thought he did. It’s a silly rescue or escape; it’s the villain crumpling before the hero without a fight; it’s the plan turning out to hang on a coincidence or deus ex machina.
With brutal fantasy, the permission to flinch goes away. That means that you’re “condemned” (I find my greatest freedom in writing this way) to either thinking up a strong way to end the tension, or letting it play out. If you can’t think of a sensible way that your hero could escape being maimed—if the only escape you can think of would depend, say, on the villain suddenly acting massively stupid and out of character—then the hero gets maimed.
All the consequences must play out. Any authorial intervention that occurs must be so subtle and careful and cleverly played that no one will take it for authorial intervention. No depending on genre conventions; in fact, the best brutal fantasies are the ones that turn viciously on genre conventions, such as slaughtering the protagonists just when you think they’re safe, they must be safe, because they’re the protagonists. (George R. R. Martin plays with this one a lot).
This is, obviously, the playground of a lot of tragedy, pain (see point 5), and authorial commitment to following through on what’s promised. So be it. You promised high tension, you deliver a fitting conclusion to the tension.
3) Consequences expand as a storm.
Brutal fantasies often don’t have a major plot with little subplots rotating them. There’s not one person that’s clearly more important than everyone else and untouchable. There’s not one area from which all the action spreads out in concentric rings, with no rings coming back to touch that area. There’s not a neat line of consequences: “If A, then B, then C, then D…” It’s more like, “If pre-existing A, then B as a result of A and pre-existing C, and D and E and F and G as a result of B, and H and I as a result of D and E and F, and A altering as a result of all of them…” Their plots move in multiple directions and get more complex and painful as they run. There is no top-down solution, no rescue from an ancient king coming back to life or aliens from space or armies from across the sea. The solutions have to come from the characters within the situation, and are just as likely to make things worse. In fact, they should.
A real-world analogue might be the French Revolution. It didn’t just result from the weakness of the monarchy. It also resulted from the class system, intense poverty, starvation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, France’s relations with the countries around her, and so on and so on and so on. And it didn’t bloom into a quiet and peaceful paradise. Blood ran, and in more places than France; the Haitian Revolution played off it, and the Napoleonic Wars, and more wars and revolutions after that.
There are certainly other examples. I’m using this one because it happens to be pretty well-known, and I’m sure there are factors that I’ve missed that people reading this will think of.
A fantasy world, the creation of one author, is by necessity less complex than the real world. But a brutal fantasy author should make it as complex as possible, take care of as many factors as possible, know how the various institutions and groups will react on and with each other and when, according to their own internal clocks and logic, (not just when it’s most convenient for the plot), and know in what directions the storm will start expanding when it rises. And then the author goes through with it, all of it.
4) There is no shortage of passion—not from the author, not from the characters on any side.
I’ve sleepwalked through some fantasies because the author didn’t seem to care, and neither did the characters on one or more sides. The villains acted stupidly, the plot holes gaped, the author was open about interfering to preserve a character’s life or reverse a rule that she had earlier stated was absolute, the heroes achieved reconciliations and love affairs and the throne and psychological healing with no effort at all, and every single moment that should have been grand and dramatic came off as clichéd.
Brutal fantasies must be alive, every inch and every part of them. The minor characters have to have lives and desires and goals and hatred and loves. (See point 6). The heroes and villains—and I think most brutal fantasies are not actually going to have those, so much as people who happen to possess differing goals—have to move and act with verve and energy and according to their own internal clocks and logic. Groups are not going to obey convenient stereotypes. People who have a reason to go after a goal with their full hearts are not going to falter because the author needs them to. Since brutal fantasies are going to be complex and full of consequences anyway, you’re not going to have a shortage of occurrences for people to get worked up about.
This is perhaps the place where brutal fantasy differs the most from other subgenres. The reluctant heroes or rulers (I am so tired of reluctant heroes and rulers), the characters who exist only as shadows to the protagonist, the stock types, have no place here. They’re fodder, and no more. Brutal fantasies will tear them apart or hammer them into people who develop the cleverness and the will and the goals and the color to survive. That’s because of the consequences, again. If somebody does something that would cause him to get hurt or die because of what’s happening around him and what’s happened previously, then he gets hurt or dies; there’s no special dispensation.
5) One of the many themes is pain.
Or, in other words, “Goddamn, is this world fucked-up.”
This doesn’t mean that other fantasies don’t handle pain or suffering. Sometimes that’s a major theme of the book, in fact. But they don’t often handle fucked-upness. There’s often an underlying moral clarity to the fantasy world (especially in high fantasy, which I think is one of the reasons I’ve become allergic to that subgenre). There’s also the comforting sense that, yes, at the end of the day, the villains will be punished and the heroes will triumph and heal, because that is the way things are, because they deserve to. The author may make the heroes really struggle before they get to the triumph, but there’s not often real doubt that the triumph is coming.
Brutal fantasy doesn’t make that promise. Maybe they will survive. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the villains will die, maybe they’ll even die the way you want them to, and maybe they won’t even die.
Brutal fantasy’s universe isn’t really immoral. It’s amoral. And it deals with the many, many ways that humans, or human-like creatures, have managed to fuck things up.
That’s right. People fuck it up, not ancient evils or gods who are raining down destruction on blameless kingdoms or some natural disaster. They can add to the damage, but they can’t be the sole cause of it. If we’re playing the blame game, which is, unfortunately, the set of terms that a lot of fantasy gets cast in—authors become obsessed with whose fault something is—then everybody’s to blame.
And now show how they go about fixing it. I don’t think brutal fantasies are hostile to hope. I think that the hope, like the fucked-upness, has to come from inside the universe, not outside. So I do think that brutal fantasies are hostile to universal panaceas, such as the fulfillment of a prophecy is often presented as.
6) Black, white, and gray are too limited a palette.
Sure, there will be characters who are shining and characters who are dark and characters who are ethically mixed in every author’s eyes, and even more in the readers’. But where are blue and purple and orange and yellow and red and green? Where’re indigo and bronze and auburn?
Here the author holds herself back from intervening or making judgments again, and makes people the product of their environments and their prior characterization. The protagonist might do something that the reader will perceive as wrong. But no angelic chorus comes intruding to confirm her impression, and another reader can argue with her, and the character’s actions will play out as they should play out, as what is in the story makes them play out, rather than the author steering them in a direction that confirms some outside moral judgment. Brutal fantasy characters will be citizens of their own world, not transplanted citizens of the twenty-first century. They will have whole lives, not simply punishments and rewards.
Brutal fantasy depends heavily on fully-realized characters, you’ll notice. Without them, it’s not going to belong to this subgenre.
7) The author is as skilled at describing ugliness and chaos as at describing beauty and grandeur.
This is a neglected skill, I find. Many fantasy authors break their teeth first on descriptions of palaces and shining white horses and sweeping green meadows, and perhaps that accounts for some of it. While they know five synonyms for “blue” and how to describe the hero’s coronation from every angle, descriptions of war devolve into the usual “staring eyes” and “blood.”
This isn’t good, especially if part of your point is to depict the harshness of war and how bad it is. Not a lot of fantasies actually succeed at this, partially because the authors show their characters charging headlong into war anyway, but also because the author is missing half her descriptive chops.
This is one area where I think Tolkien does shine. Mordor is a nasty, nasty place. You would not want to live there. You don’t even want to visit it. Fluffy purple description would be inappropriate here, and so the passages have teeth instead.
Practice with ugliness, with grief, with pain in prose. It’ll help with the characters’ emotions as well as landscape descriptions.
Several of the brutal fantasies I like—especially Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series—get slapped with the labels “depressive” and “horrible.” But that’s the point of not flinching, of stirring up the shitstorm and then facing it, of using dilemmas instead of imagining a way out of them. There’s plenty of comfort-oriented and happiness-oriented fantasy out there. I think this subgenre deserves a place, too.
Other brutal fantasies:
- Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series
- Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah books, especially the second one (Revelation)
- Sarah Micklem, Firethorn
- Glen Cook’s Black Company series, especially She Is The Darkness