When fantasy is just too dark

Discussion in 'General Book Discussion' started by elvet, Mar 22, 2008.

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    elvet

    elvet Easily amused

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    Here's what made me think about this thread. This is what I'm reading at the moment and what I wrote in the reading thread:
    Most fantasy is about good guys and bad guys. You need to feel that the world is truly threatened, but there must be a glimmer of hope, something that will keep you reading through the depressing parts. This balance is not easy to achieve and have be believable. The heroes usually have faults, but there should be something engaging in their characters such that you want them to succeed.
    There can be too much of a good thing as well. There's no tension or excitement in a story where there is not much of a threat looming.
    This reminds me of my first read of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. There was barely enough positive to balance the overwhelming feeling of despair, especially in the last 3 books. Other parts of the story - the characterization, the world and mythos - kept me interested so not only did I read them, but have since visited them again and consider them one of my favorite series.
    Have you ever been put off on a book because it was just too depressing? Or because it was just so perfect that no one got killed and everyone lived happily ever after?
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    The Ace

    The Ace Aye fur Alba

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    That's why I stopped reading GRRM, apart from one character who was annoying, just about every 'Good,' character is killed off.

    Some may say that this is realistic in a harsh and brutal world, but when characters hated as much by their peers as the reader walk away scot-free, you just want to take seven baths and try to forget you were ever involved.
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    the_faery_queen

    the_faery_queen New Member

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    aw no! that's the reason i likle martin, it was gritty, it wasn't all, good guys win. it was, people are jerks and they all have motives and who knows who will come out on top. i wouldn't say anyone was really evil in that series, they were all driven by different things. and a few good people survived, but they have to change to stay alive.

    and i liked the character most people hated (cersi) *shrug*
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    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

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    The environment of China MiƩville's Bas Lag novels is pretty grim (I, for one, wouldn't want to live there), but the books themselves are not, even when the characters with whom the author obviously sympathises find themselves on the wrong side of a defeat. If, however, the characters had been equally grim, I'm not sure I'd have enjoyed the books at all.

    Unrelenting misery, with the characters ground down so much that they accept it and adopt its values, doesn't sound like a good read at all. (Nor would a book where the best always happens.)
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    Lith

    Lith Oops

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    Now see, I always thought Martin wasn't nearly as dark as everyone always said. I guess I can handle quite a bit of depressing stuff. It depends partly on your temperament; dark, depressing stuff can be a comfort at times. At others, it's just willful self-indulgent whining (which puts me off pretty quick). And if it really does start to get too depressing (as Dostoevsky's Demons did), then I will put the book down and do something else for a few months. (Though I had to finish Demons for school.)

    I'm not sure I've run across stories completely without hope. The Metamorphosis, maybe. Hopeless tales are often warnings against bad behavior, so they're not entirely hopeless. If I've run across stuff that's too depressing, I've forgotten it by now.

    For the opposite problem... Stranger in a Strange Land. The back third of the novel absolutely lacks tension, because everything is just one happy thing after another. But that's not really "too dark", is it?;)
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    *spoilers*
    Hmmm... Think I'd have to disagree about Stranger. As I recall, it's in the final portions of the book that the genuine alienation from the surrounding society happens, as well as Mike's realization that he has probably been used as an information-gathering tool by the Martians for purposes of deciding how to "handle" humanity.... It's also the portion of the book most heavily told from Jubal's point of view, and he is the skeptic of the batch, so what he sees happening troubles him deeply, especially Mike's death and the way the others take it...

    As for what is "too dark"... I can't say I've ever run up against such. Even the darkest of the books I've read aren't attempting to be depressing, but are reflecting this or that aspect of life, including the way that people are sometimes ground down and "join the other side", if you will; but even these are generally in the nature of "cautionary tales", pleas to be aware and to always value our noblest aspects rather than give in to the easier path of cynicism, cruelty, and inhumanity. So, even with something such as "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", I have to agree that these are very humanitarian tales, in the final analysis.

    On the other hand, those which promote entirely selfish values, or do spend all their time whining about how bad things are without any sense of proportion... those would have to be written extremely well for me to find them of interest. Fortunately, I've not actually read such; in part, I think because a truly good writer/artist is by nature going to be aware of misproportion if it becomes too great, and will compensate for the sake of their work....

    Oh, and as on the "Metamorphosis"... that's actually a deliberately comic piece in many ways; darkly ironic, yes, but by no means without a sense of humour or proportion....
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    kauldron26

    kauldron26 New Member

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    Royal assassin and assassins quest was way too dark and depressing. i felt shitty for 2 weeks. i love the novels to death, but Robin Hobb can be evil. seriously, im 22, i was a line backer in high school, im a pretty big guy, my friends and family just couldnt fathom how a novel could completely shatter me like that.
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    Hilarious Joke

    Hilarious Joke Fool

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    You have to keep reading though kauldron! It would be depressing if you left it without finishing, given all the suffering Fitz had to go through.

    I'm a massive Hobb fan, by the way :p.

    And as for George Martin's books, I love them and with such a massive cast of major and minor characters, and such conflict in the books I think if it was realistic it was inevitable that some would die. The books are so well written and the plot so complex and well thought out and the world so realistic, that I trust Martin's judgment in this area.

    Funny thing, I recently tried to reread the Lord of the Rings again and found it, after the hobbits reach Rivendell, really depressing. The reason was that the quest seemed so close to being hopeless, and there was so much that I knew the poor characters had to go through, and I couldn't go through that again. Which I guess is silly in a way, seeing as I know there's going to be a happy ending. But its still a great story.

    I personally haven't found a book to be too happy. Indeed, in one of my favourites, The Iron Tree by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, there is a long period in the marshes of Sievmordhu where nothing bad happens, but it is written so beautifully and there is such joy in it that I love it.
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    kauldron26

    kauldron26 New Member

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    Tawny Man was awesome, i loved it especially the ending! if u check out the hobb forums, u'll see my lavish praises and reviews there hehe.

    Swan Song by McCammon was dark as effing hell... damn that was an absolutely phenomenal novel.
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    Thalador

    Thalador Scribe of Wayrest

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    That's why I respect the man so much. I like to believe in fantasy worlds, and the "good guys win" mentality annoys me immensely. What I also like about Martin is that his characters don't fall under generic good and bad categories. Like people, they're self-serving. How can we denote one interest as better than another?

    Personally, I like dark fantasy. Even when it gets really heavy, like the Chain of Dogs in Deadhouse Gates. Incredibly depressing to read, but it stirred vivid, memorable emotions in me. I like reading books where characters endure great misery, because it fosters a greater sense of connection.
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    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    I hate it when fantasy is too dark, down, and depressing. Bad guys slipping through while the heroic people die-there's too much of that going on in the world already. Fantasy is supposed to be just that-fantasy, made up, not real. I think that's one reason I like David Eddings so much-in my remembrance, only one good character died each in the Elenium and the Mallorean-but the bad guys got their comeuppance. I think that's how stories should be.
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    elvet

    elvet Easily amused

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    There is a difference between negative characters and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness due to a malevolent super lord/bad guy etc. that is omnipotent.
    It's interesting that some people have brought up Martin. ASoIaF didn't strike me as too dark, maybe because we alternate between POVs and what may be bad for one character is positive for another. Lies of Locke Lamora is another one where (SPOILERS)
    many characters die
    and yet, the story balances well.
    I think that's why I like GGK's books. With the exception of the first one, most are about flawed characters. Yes, they are power hungry and do whatever to achieve their goals, but they have a vulnerability.
    In so far as a book that's too positive, I recently read The Redemption of Athalus and found it bland to the point of almost not finishing it. There was no tension whatsoever.
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    Lucien21

    Lucien21 New Member

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    I certainly has been the reason I never got very far in the Thomas Covenant novels. I hated the character from the get go and never got further than a few chapters.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    My real problem this as a general statement is that this belittles what fantasy is capable of as literature. Fantasy, no less than any other branch of the art, is capable of exploring the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, of touching deep emotional chords and evoking -- and improving -- an appreciation for life in all its richness, complexity, beauty, and awfulness (in both senses of the word). To reduce it to something so simplistic robs it of that high heritage and makes it into a soporific or opiate. Not that such stories are completely outside the Pale, or that such a view doesn't deserve to see occasional exploration (it does), but that idea that "fantasy is supposed to be just fantasy" would reduce the entire field to a childish pastime with no more substance, meaning. Not to mention that it would mean we wouldn't have some of the greatest classics of the genre....
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    The Ace

    The Ace Aye fur Alba

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    Broadly speaking, I have no quarrel with heroic quests, battles, hardship and the death of friends, or indeed popular characters. I just feel that turning a novel of any genre into a body count is bad, and when the writer specifically targets characters with whom the reader has sympathy, the whole thing just seems a waste of paper.
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    the_faery_queen

    the_faery_queen New Member

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    as i've said before, i loved farseer triliogy because of it's darkness and realism and HATED the tawny man ending because it wasn't real. because everyone got who they wanted and were all happy.
    i guess i want some level of realism in my fantasy. i don't see it as dark when good people die, or you don't get the man/woman you want, or your life is a sacrifice for someone else, the greater good, because life IS like that for a lot of people. many mothers give up their dreams to have kids (more older generations than now i guess) many fathers do too. many poeple never get married, or have kids, or have the person they want. and i like to read about charzacters who suffer and lose things because then i don't feel so alone (pity me :p) i don't want fairy tale endings where everyone gets married and lives happily ever after cos that just depresses me about my own life. i want realism where people die, or are miserable, because that's what i see.
    i loved farseer for that, for ending with fitz alone, with him igving up everything for nothing. and hated tawny man for being all sugar and happiness in an over the top unnatural way.

    fantasy is fantasy. it's not fairy tale. i don't like it when it is that way. i want the realism, just in a fantasy world.
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    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    And yet many people do get the person they want and have kids and live rich, full, satisfying lives. Those things aren't less realistic, they're just less exciting to read about.

    But that's just saying that you want literature that confirms your personal world view. That's fine for entertainment purposes, but don't the really good books force us -- or at least invite us -- to examine our world views? Shouldn't fantasy, above all other genres, open the door to new thoughts, new perceptions?

    I've often heard it said that people who see the world through rose-colored glasses need to be shocked and their ideas shaken up. But isn't the same thing true for the cynics? They can get just as smug and narrow in their thinking.

    Besides, if someone really is looking for realism, why are they reading fantasy? Fantasy explores the truths you can't quite reach in everyday life. Some of those truths are ugly and some of them are beautiful, but you can't reduce them, as so many readers seem to do, to "lots of bad things happen and good people suffer and die." That's a gross over-simplification of real life, and it's the narrowest possible vision of fantasy.

    Real reality contains a great deal of boredom, triviality, and grunt labor. If people really wanted realism in their fantasy novels, there would be long scenes of people planting seeds in the field or building fences and a lot less politics and battle. There would be more pages given over to hangnails and blisters than head-chopping and assassination. But there would also be more babies taking their first steps, and moments of quiet happiness, and deeds of simple kindness -- because these are part of reality, too.

    Not that I'm trying to pick on you individually. You're just saying what a lot of other people say. And the "I'm looking for grit and realism" argument always comes out so glib and predictable, I can't help wondering how much real thought goes into it.
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    the_faery_queen

    the_faery_queen New Member

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    well that's the point, they're less interesting to read about, when people get everything that they want. so why do so many books end up that way? i guess cos people want the heros to be happy. but it's boring!

    and i've yet to read a fantasy with a happy ending that has been any good. not just cos i like misery and woe, but because so often the happy endings seem forced. tawny man, it was a forced ending, bunking of burrich. while the end of farseer felt more natural. the only happy ending i've found that felt natural, that i didn't dislike, was the end of the tamir triliogy. the girl got the boy, she got her throne, but it wasn't stuffed down our necks. perhaps that's the problem, endings that are happy and go on to long, forcing it on us?

    but i do find that the books with the darker ending, the sadder endings, are the better books. maybe cos they stay with us longer? fantasy doesn't have to be realistic in its setting, that's the point of fantasy, but if it isn't realistic with its characters, if things happen that are so ridiculous or convienant, we can't relate to them, it makes it fairy tale, not fantasy. not literature. in my mind at least.
    give me gemmel's legend, with druss dying, but rek having his wife back
    over tawny man or liveships where people died just so the hero could get his girl and everyone got married and had kdis and was happy.

    maybe ity is just a point of ending the book before going on too long, but i find a book with a short, sharp, sad ending, more relatable, more consistant, and more interesting to read. i remember those endings. i don't remember anything about the en masse happy stuff that some writers have done.

    so for me fantasy is about reading about things that can't happen, but to people that i can relate to. magic and weird stuff to people that are normal. i don't want to read about fairy tale worlds where the prince and princess live happily ever after. i just find it trite and it has no relation to my world and the things i look for. i don't find comfort in fairy tales, i find comfort in knowing that other people struggle, and fight, and try for waht they want, that im not alone in all of that. *shrug*
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I've no argument with that one as it stands, Ace. My own point was addressing the idea of the lack of realism where it concerns the human emotional experience that had been posited; something which would reduce fantasy into much less than a fairy-tale. Speaking of which, while fairy tales do often end up with "and they lived happily ever after", they are by no means devoid of dark or grim elements, but they also often pointed up a moral about what was socially acceptable, hence tended to strike a new equilibrium rather than concentrating on the negative side of the ledger by the end.

    And on this, I'm in agreement with Teresa, as I've said before -- and, for that matter, as my earlier post here would indicate. There needs to be a balance to make the whole proportional artistically; it's neither too light nor "too dark" -- that last meaning, to me, taking the view that everything is doomed to failure, there is no good out there that lasts, etc. That's no more accurate than the idea that good will always win out.

    As for the use of the term "realism"... I'd suggest going to the more accurate "verisimilitude", or "something that has the appearance of truth or reality", when it comes to fantasy; that is, something that accurately reflects the human reactions to the posited situation. Of course, with many fantasy tales, the supernatural or numinous are very much a part of the structure of the world of that story, so the characters are more likely to be used to the presence of one or the other (or both)... yet one still has to compromise between that and the reader, who lives in our universe, where these things constitute a violation of (what we understand as) natural law; there should be some hint of awe, wonder, and perhaps terror, at such, even if they do take it a good deal more easily than one might in our world. But the emotional reaction to their experiences must reflect genuine human emotion, not (as Lovecraft was wont to phrase it) "catchpenny romanticism" that falsifies yet affects to represent such.

    Which brings me to the one point of contention I have with your post, Teresa -- and this is probably more a difference in phrasing between us than substantive, but I'm including it here to clarify my own position on such a point:

    On a literal level, I'd say that's quite accurate, as fantasy often deals with things which cannot literally happen in the universe we inhabit, for the reason stated above. On the other hand, I'd say that fantasy also explores very basic human truths, but through a glass which reflects them in fantastic garb, helping us to see them anew, much in the sense that Prof. Tolkien addresses in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". These are truths we can reach, but we're so dulled to them that we seldom see them in all their richness and complexity; we seldom appreciate them for what they are until we are pulled up short by seeing them in new dress.

    And, to tie this back into the theme of the thread, often it takes extremes of tragedy to startle us into seeing them in this light, and reassessing the familiar, finally coming to realize that it is often the most unknown aspect of our lives....
  20.  
    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    You're right, JD, it is, basically, a difference in phrasing. When I said reach I meant "grasp" in the sense of fully comprehend or appreciate, because we're too blinded by the familiar. Or, like poetry, fantasy provides us with a form of language that helps us to express what may be otherwise inexpressible.

    faery_queen, in the darker books events can come about just as conveniently as in the lighter ones. It's just that they're convenient to the author, or the plot, or to the overall sense of drama, rather than for the sympathetic characters. When the outcome is bad, it seems to be easier to accept the most implausible acts, accidents, or coincidences. The same degree of implausibility leading to a happy ending is characterized as sugary or improbable or forced.

    As for the books with the sadder endings staying with us longer -- that's not true for all of us. Triumph over adversity, or acts of grace in time of great trouble stay with me the longest. History is full of people who have done the first, and I have personally observed the second. I can't believe that these are any less true-to-life than struggle, failure, and misery. And while the triumphs may, most of the time, belong to extraordinary people, acts of goodness and compassion are well within the reach of ordinary, "normal" people.

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