The Grittiness Factor

gritty [ˈgrɪtɪ] adj -tier, -tiest

1. courageous; hardy; resolute

2. of, like, or containing grit

The definition of the word gritty is pretty straightforward. But for the sake of this post, let me also share one of The Urban Dictionary’s definitions. It’s perhaps more fitting for this post, sarcasm and all:

Gritty—a type of realism, usually invoked by films and documentary (author’s note:and books!). Strangely enough, “gritty realism” is only perceptible to media critics and the term is hardly ever used by anyone else. In fact, no one but a media critic would ever use the term. Example: “The gritty realism of this documentary is in stark contrast to his other work.”

For today’s purposes, I’d prefer to think of myself more as a fantasy fan and an interested observer than an actual critic. I was prompted to the topic by reading, and loving, Scourge of the Betrayer, by Jeff Salyards. I’ve gotten to know Jeff a little through facebook and his blog posts, and found him to be clever, funny, and supportive. He seems like a guy I’d enjoy throwing back a few beers with, maybe whilst taking in a Chicago sporting event. You know, a real guy’s guy. I’m sure I’d get over my writerly envy of his masterful action sequences and  authentic-and-yet-archaic dialog by the bottom of the first round or the end of the first sporting quarter, whichever came first.

Gritty Aspirations: There has been a move in historical fantasy toward (for lack of a better word) grittiness. Before I started writing, I enjoyed gritty historical fiction from authors like Steven Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell, and I also read quite a bit of war-related nonfiction. I aspired to bringing a realistic, non-glorified warrior ethos to my favorite genre of epic fantasy.

It may seem strange, but it wasn’t until after I started writing that I became aware of writers like George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Glen Cook. And reading these guys made me realized I was hopelessly outmatched.

True Grit: I’m not just talking about a realistic portrayal of battle or violence, though that’s a part of it. Much of the Gritty Movement in historical fantasy has to do with the deconstruction of the genre’s moralistic trope, the simplistic delineation of good versus evil. Characters often have less than pure intentions and motivations. There are often serious and unexpected consequences for actions taken, even if they are taken with the best of intentions. In some cases, with some characters, the worldview digresses darn near to nihilism.

Shades of Gray: I was shooting for this kind of complexity in my own work. And to some degree, I think I’ve achieved it. The world I created is not morally or ethically black and white. Each of my characters believes he is acting for the greater good, even when they are aware their actions may not be considered virtuous. Often there is self-deluding justification involved, but I’m hoping the characters and actions readers might find despicable will also be plausible and maybe even relatable, rather than just evil. And I believe I’ve created real consequences as well. When swords swing and arrows fly, people bleed and, in some cases, die. There is pain and grief and vengefulness and jealousy.

And yet, when my work hits the market, I’m pretty sure few will use the g-word to describe it.

I’m a fan! As I said, the reader in me loves the Gritty Movement. As is the case in Scourge of the Betrayer, Gritty Movement characters are not always self-serving nihilists. They are sometimes motivated by tarnished versions of honor and friendship, often viewed from a jaded perspective. I enjoy seeing these noble glimmers emerging from the gritty characters in my fantasy reading.

Romantic Sentimentalist: My enjoyment of Jeff’s book led to my examination of what keeps my work from achieving true grit. I decided it comes down to a certain kind of sentimentalism. I guess my own romantic notions have made their way onto the page. In spite of the occasional moral ambiguity of their means, my characters are often motivated by idealistic goals. I left much of the tarnish off of their sense of honor. Worse yet, my characters are often motivated by romantic love (something I’ve very rarely seen in the Gritty Movement).

And I’ve decided I’m okay with it. I can incorporate the elements of gritty that enhance my style, and just be a fan of those who’ve mastered true grit, like Mr. Salyards and company.

What about you? Have you actually used the word gritty to describe a book or a movie? Do you like or dislike grittiness, or just accept it as it comes if it works? Can grittiness and romantic sentiment work side by side?