Let’s have a talk about the tried and tested tenet of grimdark.
I’ve done it, you’ve done it, and nearly anyone who has entertained fandom and original character writing has done it. Grimdark writing within a fandom context envisions a scenario (or several) in which everything is terrible and the light at the end of the tunnel is nothing more than a pair of gleaming, insidious eyes. The world is against your character, and even when they triumph, that victory tends to come with a price. Within my various writing circles and in my gaming groups, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t indulge their dark side by dragging their character through the metaphorical thorn bush. There’s something very intriguing — and nearly satisfying — about throwing your new brain child into the grinder.
It typically starts innocently, laced within the litany of ‘what-if’ questioning a writer goes through when initially building a character concept. It’s fun to think about the possibilities, of what happened in your character’s past to bring their true self to fruition. After all, very rarely is an interesting character built off accomplishments alone. There has to be a drive, a problem that they’ve overcome, something which has left them irreparably changed. The frequency of this problem/solution varies, but in my case, I tend to err on the side of “realistically horrible”. I personally find more interest in a hero who has dealt with terrible situations and chosen to put that horror behind them in order to champion goodness.
I like to call this creation of character angst the Crucible. The Crucible, no relation to the Arthur Miller play intended, is essentially me throwing the character into the jaws of hell and watching how it warps them — for even if they succeed, it will. And for good or ill, the character idea I get out of the Crucible is what I run with in the fields of original writing, fanfiction, and roleplaying. The level of ‘crucibility’ varies, but 9 times out of 10 I go with a ‘Man VS Society’ idea. Not only does it provide character depth (and probably character death for my poor subject’s extended family), it allows me to understand where my character lies within the different social boundaries a given universe offers.
Say my character is born a street urchin, but they fight their way up to the upper-middle class. What happened in that journey, and what noses or knives were bloodied along the way? What about an upper class fall from grace? Or a soldier who returns from a war, knowing the next one is only slightly down the path? Paladins who question their faith, warlocks who summon evil because they know real monsters hide behind human faces, mages who control time itself because they’ve been a victim of it for decades. Adding grimdark to a character recipe is important! It’s but another tool in the box for creatives to expand on their mind children.
But here’s where I get a little critical, and I say that there is such a thing as too much grimdark. While it’s a magnificent tool for backstory and static writing — that is, writing where you aren’t directly interacting with a partner — grimdark can be a detriment towards enjoyment of roleplay as a whole. When you douse yourself in everything psychologically dissonant and horrid to think about, things overall tend to turn out, well… grim.
Here’s what I mean.
You and your roleplaying friends, after playing the characters for a couple of sessions, decide to build up backstory to better understand mannerisms, day-to-day interactions with others, and to gain a general feel for things. You mention something about abandonment in your character’s backstory, as a hypothetical, and someone else speaks up. Her character has abandonment issues, too, and it would be super interesting to throw her character’s lot in with yours to see how it plays out! Maybe they’ll get romantically attached, or they’ll be stuck together and have to trust the other to help them out instead of leaving them to die. Situations for future roleplay come up, and they’re deliciously dire. It provides a lot of potential for character development and interpersonal attachment, which are always fun scenarios to dabble in.
And then — either in the middle of all of this playing out or near the end — someone suggests another what-if. Riding the high of the situation, this seems like a great plan, more chances to write angst blurbs for the community website or dramatic roleplay logs to show friends. You can definitely do a lot with dark situations in terms of writing, so there’s much more potential for creativity there. The rush of emotion when writing is addictive, too, so why wouldn’t you want to continue to throw your character into the grinder? But there’s another scenario, and another, and while you talk with your partners about happy sunshine moments… they’re pushed to the back of the plate in order to make room for more devil’s food cake. As much as you want to, and even if you’re able to, eating nothing but cake for weeks on end isn’t a smart idea.
I firmly believe that, like meals, roleplay and character interaction are nothing if they aren’t balanced. Though indulging the grimdark side of things does provide a temporary rush, it’s important to take a step back and include what most shows call ‘filler episodes’. Go on random adventures, throw a dumb party, go on whatever adventure the video game or setting you’re in facilitates. You have to do something, anything, that doesn’t have to do with your characters physically or mentally eviscerating one another, or the grimdark mentality will start to wear. No one wants to be in a terrible situation all the time. Even when you step back from the scenario, those feelings linger, because you’re seeing too much punishment with little reward.
With friends and with others that you’ve entered into a creative partnership with, it’s important to establish a continuous open line of communication. This is especially important when you’re fiddling around with the darker parts of humanity — mistrust, abuse, and murder. They’re all things people enjoy writing about, but they have to be wholly distinct, discussed only when you know there are other options. The darkness is a bit less dark when you have someone you’re laughing or crying with in the endeavor… and when you know you aren’t going to stay very long.