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Many grimdark settings focus on the darker aspects of human nature (war, murder, rape, etc). Some portray this to be edgy in order to paint the world as dark or mature without reason. An example would be warhammer 40k, which exists in a universe in which there is constant war. The good guys are a fanatical authoritarian empire that destroys planets for heresy and turns children into super soldiers, with the bad guys being even worse. Much of what happens is terrible, but treated as a normal part of life in the setting. There is a lack of emotional focus on the victims, or how people would realistically react in these circumstances. Much of it, such as the murder of billions of people in an instant, are treated as shock value and makes it hard to emphasize with the characters. While you recognize the constant horror, the reader becomes apathetic to it.

How can you accurately and maturely portray these themes whIle still focusing on the emotional weight they carry? And how do you do it without over-doing or reveling in it? How much is too much?

  • The answer to many questions here is to have your readers look at your work with a critical eye. Do you have readers? – Ken Mohnkern Aug 1 '17 at 12:44
  • 40K is kinda interesting in that it is dark like that without coming across as obnoxiously "edgy" to me. I think it's due to the over-the-top and often tongue-in-cheek stance. Though calling anyone 'good guys' is probably a mistake. – Michael Aug 2 '17 at 17:47
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Too much is when you start adding in elements that have nothing to do with the story except for just adding gore/murder/death/fighting/ etc. You didn't need to kill off that person to further the story. Their death was an empty death for the sake of killing someone off. You add in a scene where maybe some people end up raped but it otherwise plays no factor in the story and added just for the sake of throwing in something dark.

Dark topics hold meaning because they hold emotional value. They further drive the plot and draws the reader in because they hopefully are emotionally invested in the characters. If you start applying dark themes willy nilly, people will become detached from your characters because there's no point to being emotionally invested if they are just going to have xxxx done to them for no reason.

I wouldn't be afraid of having it be "too much". Just make sure that when you do apply the dark theme(s) it has meaning!

For those of us who watch anime, it would be like when you are sitting there watching a show and they have built a great core plot that you are really into and then all of a sudden BEACH TIME!... All that emotional value you just had built up into the story was not only taken away, but they have a full episode of gratuity that has no meaning to the plot outside of drawing girls in swimming suits and kills the flow of the story. You want to avoid doing something like this but in the dark aspects. Don't have a great story going and then randomly insert a dark scene just for the sake of having it because you want it in there.

EDIT: Usually when a senseless death happens, people will be like "did that person really need to die?" So I will throw people who read this the same question... in your writing does XXXXX really need to happen? If you can't find a reason why they have to xxxx then it probably would fall into the pointless xxxx category.

We can look at Star Wars. Obi died so that he can succeed his physically body to become one with the force and better assist Luke. We can argue that Yoda's death may have been unneeded as he only died of old age without any apparent plot pushes with his death. At least that is how it appears on the surface. If you actually analyze the symbolism of that scene, Yoda tells Luke that he has taught him everything and the only thing left for him to become a full Jedi is to defeat Vader. That means that Yoda's character has served it's full purpose and is no longer needed to advance the story plot. It also is a symbolism of passing on the Jedi ways from one generation to the next.

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@ggiaquin has covered the plot scale aspects of this issue wonderfully. So I will address the character level aspects of writing in dark ink.

Your setting may be grimdark, but your pov character doesn't have to be. Innocent eyes viewing a dark world can deliver emotion by the bucket load to your readers. What is actually happening (war, murder, rape, etc) is trivial compared to how you communicate what is happening.

In your WarHammer 40k example, your pov character doesn't have to become a gritty and edgy tough guy just because the world around him sucks. He can keep his values intact, wear his heart on his sleeve and honestly share in the victims' pain. He will have to conceal his compassion quite often because even your "Good Guys" would see such sympathy as weakness; but in the honest relationship between the pov character and his readers, he can consistently express how he really feels.

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Both previous answers are good, and much more eloquently expressed than what I can write. Still, I'm going to try my best to address, particularly in relation to your example setting (which I've enjoyed playing in for the last 20 years. Damn).

The first thing to remember about Grim Dark, is there are no "Good Guys". It's all varying shades of grey. The closest that 40k comes to Good Guys is the Tau. Or arguably the Orks. The Imperium of Man is a further down that list.

First and foremost, however, 40k is based on a game. The setting revolves around soldiers and war, and the fluff reflects this. Daily life is a struggle for most humans - the entire Imperium revolves around their war. Those not on the front line work to supply the materiel. Those on the front line often don't last as long as their weapons. It's beyond harsh. And they've had 10,000 years to become accustomed to it. It's accepted as daily life because for so many of them, it is daily life.

A lot of what you've identified depends almost entirely on the story being told, and from what perspective (and where it's being presented - is it a background novel ala Black Library, or the codex/rulebook fluff - which has always been over the top). We'll explore three different examples below, based on the main character type, and the background bit.

1 - The Super Soldier

This is the most commonly written about, purely because it normally revolves around Space Marines because, 1) they're awesome 2) they're the most iconic figure in the game.

The first thing to remember about the Astartes is that, while they are humanities greatest soldiers, they are no longer human. It's been bred out of them, surgically and psychologically. They exist solely for one thing - to kill the enemies of the Imperium. They are taken as young boys, often from "savage" tribes and death worlds, and over the course of years are slowly transformed from man into Space Marine. Their humanity is all but stripped away. They know only war, trained to fight and kill with anything and everything. Some chapters are more sympathetic to their erstwhile allies, but besides knowing no fear, they also know no compassion or sympathy. The suffering of the common man does not register to them, other than as a potential threat assessment. They are the focal point of the story, and their focal point is battle. And they usually only get called in when things have already gone to hell in a hand basket. They aren't Knights in Shining Armour, they are Avenging Angels of Death.

The Chaos ones are even worse. Everything is a means to an end, and most of them redefine Crazy.

These stories, told from their perspectives, lack any kind of emotional investment in the victims, because the protagonist have no emotional investment in the victim beyond the immediate mission parameters. It's hard for them to connect with humanity - so how do you draw that emotional response from the reader? You focus the story on them and their reactions, and what dredges of humanity they still have left. Glorious last stands, steadfast commitment. Honour and Loyalty and overwhelming defiance in the face of betrayal. You instill the humanity into the inhumane.

Rynn's World does this well. The story of how the Crimson Fists, proud descendants of Rogal Dorn and one of the second founding chapters, were all but shattered by a monstrous Ork invasion of their homeworld. How the Chapter Master and a handful of his brothers won back against overwhelming odds despite the decimation of his home and his brothers. The grief, despair and disbelief at the tragic loss of their fortress monastery and most of the Chapter, the long march through hostile territory with a band of weary battle brothers, rescuing scattered humans held captive before launching a desperate and all-out attack to regain control of the spaceport and avoid utter annihilation. Heroic and glorious.

Hellsreach is another good example. How Grimaldus, Reclusiarch of the Black Templars, struggles internally with his own feelings of unworthiness while rallying and obstinately holding together the disparate factions and shattered remains of human forces during the largest Ork invasion the world had seen in thousands of years. His burgeoning respect for not just himself, but those humans he fought beside. The sacrifice of his brothers. Their unyielding spirit, and the recognizing the same unyielding spirit in those humans around him. The destruction is, of course, in extremis. The story being based off the campaign and it being, afterall, 40k.

But both of this examples provide the link needed by the reader to engage. They cannot engage on a personal level, with shared experience, so instead you provide the ideal for them to engage with. The ideals of honour, loyalty, courage are what resonate with the reader and allow the points of light in the otherwise grim dark setting.

2 - The Common Soldier These are the stories that focus on the great bulk of the Imperial forces - the men and women of the Imperial Guard (and sometimes Navy). The bravest men and women in the whole damned Galaxy - facing all sorts of horrors with nothing but guts and a flashlight. And dying in droves.

Gaunts Ghosts and the Imperial Guard series are, obviously, the best examples of this. They are relatable characters because they are unaltered humans. The react the way you would expect someone to act. Similar to the Space Marine novels, the focus isn't so much on the victims because, again, they're soldiers and they are usually there because things have gone horribly wrong. And on a scale that's difficult for us to relate to in our modern, comfy, non-invaded by daemons, world. But they are relatable. They feel fear and terror and love, they swear, they bleed, they fight and die. And they do it for love, for fear, for penance, for duty and for honour. They do it to protect their world, and the Imperium of Man.

But these stories, as grim dark and horrific as they are, are relatable in much a similar way as stories about WWI are relatable. Because it's that human response, particularly to a galaxy of horrors.

3 - The Semi-Non Combatant

These are an interesting subset, that usually encapsulate those that aren't on the front line all the time. Most famously Dab Abnett's Inquisitor series. This is where you get to see the dark underbelly of the Imperium, and just how grim every day life is. The flip side of it is, however, that because it's an Inquisition story, what they are dealing with is the worst of the worst. Xenos atrocities, Daemonic incursions etc.

Ciaphas Cain, the dashing Hero of the Imperium, straddles this and the above type. He's a Commissar, a political officer, but still a soldier. However, his stories are told from his perspective, and offer a great insight into what life's like (albeit a narrow, conceited but often humorous one). They deal with the peripheries of the great conflicts, and are the closest you'll come to showing the impact on victims.

Sorry about the wall of text, but I'm nearly done.

How do you avoid over-doing it? You shy away from what the codex writers (and those like Gav Thorpe who started there) do and embrace what the Black Library authors do (the likes of Abnet, McNeil, ADB etc). You tell the story from a certain perspective, and you instill the humanity into it. You make the struggle personal for the protagonist. You make them fight for something they can't bear to lose. You snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You make it matter. And never, ever, be afraid to cut that thread short - because the reality of a grim dark galaxy is that you never know when they'll die - only that they will.

If you haven't already, I'd recommend reading the following:

Ciaphas Cain (series) Horus Heresy (series) Rynn's World Helsreach Battles of the Imperial Guard (series)

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I'd like to add that how your story handles humour is an important part of this. 40k is a world that's clearly not to be taken seriously for us. It's not only dark to the point of parody, but it also has orcs who're sentient fungi and speak with working class English accents. However, almost all 40k characters take everything very seriously and play everything completely straight. They cannot acknowledge that their world is silly, only the readers do, which leads to a certain disconnect.

Take as a counterexample the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski and the games based on it by CD Project RED. The Witcher world is pretty dark as well. The usual reaction to conflict is murder, the usual reaction to beauty is rape, the usual reaction to children is whippings. However, the characters in the series acknowledge that their world is shitty and they'll even joke about it - in completely in-universe dark and dry humour. They're not stoically heroic space marines but people who have to deal with a shitty environment, trying to make the best of it and one of their coping mechanisms is gallow's humour - just like it would be for many real people.

One verse has a silly world with people inside being very serious about it while nobody outside takes it seriously and one has a serious world with people being silly about it inside and people outside having a lot more respect for it. This is partly because we can empathise with the characters in the Witcher, including their jokes. The humour makes the world more real and serious. If you've ever seen some political cabaret, it basically consists of telling people the truth in witty ways and people laugh in order not to cry, because the truth is actually really depressing. A world that contains humans, but not humour, is inherently silly. Silliness is not dark. But silly people can be.

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I think the ability to relay emotional weight is proportional to your ability to make your reader forget themselves. I played Dawn of War (a Warhammer game) and had a blast but I never shed any tears for any of those characters despite the horrible situation they were all in. On the other hand, "The Cold Equations" (a short story) wasn't particularly gruesome or violent and I would even say it was a compassionate story. However, while reading it, I forgot myself, focused on the characters, developed a little relationship to them, and then was naturally sad when something much less horrible than planetary destruction happened. Warhammer, on the other hand, spends no time developing character relationships and not much on making the player lose themselves.

A side note that applies to many genres: I think a lot of the grimdark stuff is difficult to become invested in because, for most of us, the setting of that type of art is very different from everyday life. This discrepancy between reality and the setting is a wedge between the reader and the characters and it takes authorial skill to gloss over this. I've never met any orks, eldar, or tau, nor have I been in space, shot lasers, etc, so there's not much for me to relate to in Warhammer. On the other hand, "The Cold Equations" takes place in a similarly distant future but the aforementioned discrepancy is minimized and the focus is upon the interactions of a man and a woman, both fairly ordinary, whom we can all relate to. Therefore, I'm able to look past the futuristic setting, forget myself, and start to care about the characters.

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