Ben Cheah has an insightful writeup on why ‘Gritty’ and ‘Realistic’ SFF Isn’t. The whole piece is worth a read, but the following puts very poetically something I’ve told a lot of people in response to “but it’s realistic!”:
Everybody knows the darkness of the human heart. Open a newspaper and you will see terrorist atrocities, gangland wars, murderers, child abuse and lying politicians in abundance. Evil lurks everywhere in the world. Humans can be beastly, cowardly, bloodthirsty, vicious and covetous creatures. This is reality.
Yet humans can also be noble. Churches have sponsored universities and hospitals, opposed tyrants and freed slaves, and propagated virtues and values. Ultra-rich people give away millions or billions of dollars every year to charitable causes. Strangers have banded together to help people in need. Troops and civilians demonstrate valour on and off the battlefields of the world. This, too, is reality.
Every man has two aspects. One is craven, power-seeking, vengeful, petty, and self-centred. The other is selfless, kind, virtuous, determined and undefeatable. A truly realistic work would reflect both sides of human nature. ‘Realistic’ SFF works shun this holistic approach, seeking only to amplify the former.
As GoT, the Walking Dead, and many other SF&F stories of recent decades strive to remind us, we are horrible, broken creatures, fallen, with redemption but a cruel illusion, slaves to our lusts and desires.
This isn’t “realism” or “grittiness”. Redeeming the bad guy per Malificent or Wicked isn’t giving him an understandable motive, it’s sticking your head in the sand to pretend evil doesn’t exist. Wallowing in incest and murder and cruelty as GoT does, making out Ned Stark or others with pretentions to nobility as chumps isn’t gritty either. It’s pushing the pendulum too far in the other direction. It’s not an uncompromising portrayal of something unpleasant, it’s obsessing over the unpleasant to the exclusion of all else.
There is more to life than that. We are both angels and demons. Life has glory and virtue as well as pain and suffering. Painting the world as only a dark place where light and virtue are illusory removes the contrasts. It turns the production from something that could be vivid to a morally monochromatic mud.
One song that always comes to mind for me when thinking of struggling against the darkness of the world, the contrasts required to see all of reality and humanity, and the nobility we can achieve, is “Eye of the Storm” by the Cruxshadows.
*There is no love untouched by hate no unity without discord there is no courage without fear there is no peace without a war there is no wisdom without regret no admiration without scorn *there is strife within the tempest- but calm in the eye of the storm... The pages of our history are written by the hand with eyes and ears and prejudice too far removed- to understand and so the heroes of the ages past are stripped of honesty- and love to make them seem less noble and hide what we can become
On a completely different note, he’s also got an excellent writeup on why women aren’t just men with breasts eviscerating the Rat Queens. I read that comic – or what was included in the Hugo packet, a couple years ago, and this is entirely spot on.