Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.
From the Wikipedia article on Grimdark
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: even though Grimdark and Gothic share some common genre markers, they are not the same genre. The best way to define Grimdark might be to first look at the Gothic Literary Genre, and highlight the contrasts.
Gothic Genre Markers:
Symbolism – The Gothic style depends heavily on symbolism to create resonance within its setting, characters, and plots. A good example of this is the use of weather in Gothic novels; it is always thunderous and gloomy when the author is trying to create suspense. Indeed, flashes of lightening accompany a revelation or epiphany; thunder and downpours will foreshadow the appearance of a villainous character or the beginning of a significant – and usually tragic – event. Nature is seen as great and mysterious force.
Romance – I don’t mean kissy, kissy romance (though there may be some of that too), but Epic Romance, with weird fates, inescapable destinies, strange journeys and the unending battle between good and evil, the stuff of ballads and poetry. Stylistically, a Gothic novel had its roots in epic poetry. In fact, the Romantic literary movement had a strong influence on the development of the Gothic novel; the Romantics favoured natural, emotional and personal artistic themes.
Ambiguity – Ambiguity dominates the characters, their motivations and lives. Anti-heroes abound. This was the genre that provided literature with the Byronic hero; brooding, damaged, and damn sexy.
The Macabre and the Supernatural – The Supernatural is the obvious flipside to the normal and natural. Vampires, ghosts, monsters, they have all had starring roles in Gothic novels. Often, science is seen as both a force for good and for evil (more ambiguity), creating both problem and cure. The darkness of humanity often meddles with the unknown, with dire consequences.
Morality and Consequences – Because of this darkness, there has to be consequences. Someone commits a crime, whether purposefully or accidentally, and there are repercussions: revenge, hauntings, and such like. The villains are punished, the protagonist receives some sort of reward if not an anti-hero. Not every Gothic story ends happily. Justice will be done, as the power of social stability is stronger than any transgression; this was particularly important in Victorian Gothic literature.
The Outsider as a character – This could be the protagonist. This could the the antagonist. This could be the monster, as in Frankenstein,or, The Modern Prometheus, the most famous literary outsider of all time.By being ‘outside’ society, whether physically, intellectually, emotionally, or culturally, the Outsider works against society’s constraints. The Gothic novel can’t function without this vital character.
Secrets – Gothic novels abound in secrets: secret marriages, secret children, secret tragedies. It is often the hiding and final revelation of these secrets that underpin the entire plot. (Who is that woman you’ve got hidden in your attic, Mister Rochester?)
Some well known Gothic novels are Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Woman in White, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Turn of the Screw. You can see how these genre markers are common to all these narratives. Even modern Gothic novels, like An Interview with a Vampire, confirm to these genre markers.
George R R Martin
The most perfect modern example of the Grimdark genre would be George R R Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Grimdark novel might have secrets, symbology (Ice and Fire, for starters) and a horde of Outsider characters, like a Gothic novel, but there is a strong streak of cynicism and violence in this series that is completely opposed to the Romantic themes in Gothic literature. It is a dark and dystopic vision of human nature, in a fantasy setting with dragons and white walkers, and it is absolutely brilliant. Justice or morality have been thrown out the window.
Grimdark Steampunk isn’t my writing style, but I enjoy reading it. Many of the recent Steampunk novels I’ve read lean towards being Grimdark rather than Gothic, such as Jay Kristoff’s The Lotus War series and Stephen Hunt in his Jackelian series.
I like the definition by writer Jared Shurin, that Grimdark genre has three key markers:
- a grim and dark tone;
- a sense of realism (his example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and;
- the agency of the protagonists. Whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, Grimdark is “fantasy protestantism”; characters have to choose between good and evil, and are “just as lost as we are.”
You can immediately see that relates back to the genre markers for the Gothic Literary Genre. I have heard of the term ‘Steampunk Gothica’ used for Steampunk novels that borrow heavily from the Gothic Literary Genre, but the modern Steampunk genre has evolved from the Gothic genre so I consider it a redundant term. Grimdark is something else again. Something gritty. And when grit gets into the mantle of an oyster, it turns into a pearl.