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So, I have a couple moments in a fantasy story where I want the heroes' actions to actually have consequences (Well, that are really impactful to the story.) One is where the MCs kill a minor lord, causing a major disruption as the daughter takes over as a child ruler. Luckily, she's mature for her age, and will try to rule fairly and kindly, unlike her father, but that's another tale.

The other moment is when an MC, a prince thought to be dead, shows up in his home country, and finds it in ruins. Well, a magician has gone on a year or two long power trip, and hadn't thought to actually rule the country, and therefore, all the petty nobles are controlling their own territories. I want there still to be hope in the story after these two events happen, but I also want there to be realistic consequences for their actions.

My question is: how do I portray realism without making the whole situation a s***show?

  • Do you have a secondary character who can be the voice of reason? The wise advisor? A character who can provide key insight--that there have always been ups and downs, that every challenge brings new opportunity, and so on? I think you are looking for a ray of hope--the return of the prince seems to be a hopeful event, so I'd play with these ideas--you might need a wise advisor character (think Gandalf, Obi Wan, and the like, but for their wisdom, not their magic.) – DPT May 30 at 13:50
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    At risk of saying what might be misconstrued as criticism, these aren't "realistic" scenarios to begin with. You're framing a false dichotomy then declaring you want middle ground. Instead of "realism", maybe the actual thing you want is "depth and meaning", "emotional impact", "characters that have dimension and agency" "strong stories that hold up to scrutiny"…? GrimDark isn't realistic. Magic isn't realistic. Child rulers are not realistic…. Tell the story you want to tell, in the best way you can. Good plots and interesting characters exist in Fantasy – realism not so much. – wetcircuit May 30 at 14:13
  • To answer @DPT 's question, there is a wise character, well two. One is the prince himself, who's been known to be wise beyond his years, and the other is the cleric/healer character, who consults the spirits of her ancestors, and thus gains their knowledge and wisdom. She's the voice of reason character whenever our prince gets too upset. – Kale Slade May 30 at 14:20
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    @KaleSlade, paranoia is a good motivation. I swing between "this is a plot goldmine!" and "omigosh this is so dumb why am I writing a bad action movie???" haha – wetcircuit May 30 at 14:23
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    @wetcircuit "Child rulers are not realistic" Excepting Tutankhamun, Qin Shi Huang, Henry VI, Ivan the Terrible, and a few others? They often had regents when they were really young (Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned at 6 days old, for instance), but quite a few were actively ruling their countries by their mid teens. – Ray May 30 at 22:34
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Realism means variety, because real life isn't all one thing

To some degree, you've answered your own question:

I want there still to be hope in the story after these two events happen

If a little kid's parents die, show him sometimes forgetting to mourn and having fun instead. If petty nobles end up ruling their fiefs unsupervised, show some of them actually caring for the commoners under them, and getting along okay. (Even if they're reasonably worried that they'll be helpless if the big bad neighboring noble notices they're not united, and might come snapping up their bit territories one at a time.)

If you want to avoid grimdark, just remember that realistic life, even in terrible circumstances, has variety, and some of that variety is pleasant. And show that things are not entirely hopeless. In particular, even when the larger arc is looking quite negative, small joys and small triumphs in the present go a long way to lightening the tone. ("My prince - you're really alive? Can it be true?")

That's more or less all there is to it.

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    I do agree with showing the kid have fun and the fiefs being kind, but make sure not to skip the kid mourning and some fiefs being mean too! You should have both. – DJ Spicy Deluxe May 30 at 14:07
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    @DJSpicyDeluxe Yes. That is exactly what I'm saying. – Jedediah May 30 at 16:06
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    Sounds like a terrible thing to say, but children in general are a good tool for creating a hopeful tinge to an otherwise bleak situation. No matter how run down the environment, you can see kids making their own fun out of pretty much anything. That's not to say children don't become sad, of course, just that in some ways they seem to be able to adapt to a changing environment better than adults can (or they just don't know any different if it happened a decade ago). – DoctorPenguin May 31 at 7:18
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They say you shouldn't show gore, if you want it to have an emotional impact. Instead, show a teddy bear, or some other child's toy, sitting abandoned, or placed by a grave.

The same can hold true for the opposite. You want to show it isn't grimdark, then show hope, show life. Kids playing in the streets as their mothers call them in for supper. Show women hanging their laundry in their back yards. Show a festival, with happy faces and music and dancing.

If the fiefs are now 'independent', show one of them thriving. Show a market place with fresh foods and goods. Show adventurers' guilds thriving (if that's part of the world). Show trade continuing.

But also show that some of the fiefs don't get along--disparaging comments about 'those' people kicking up trouble. Show petty squabbles between neighbouring towns, even.

It has to make sense in the bigger picture. So, don't show that life is just dandy, but don't let it be misery porn either. There needs to be something worth protecting, but there needs to be something that needs to change as well--that's where the story comes from, after all.

  • +1 If I understand correctly, what you are saying is, "bad things happen, but just because they happen, doesn't mean we it has to become an in depth piece of the narrative". Give snapshots of bleakness, but the less you focus on it, the less impact it will have on the emotion of the reader. Don't be afraid to show darkness, just don't wallow in it. – Jammin4CO May 31 at 15:12
  • @Jammin4CO precisely – Fayth85 May 31 at 21:51
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Heroes Have Consequences.

Heroes cause major changes, and every major change is likely to be negative for somebody, and often that person is an innocent. No matter what the setting, defeating evil is meaningless if the evil is not ruining lives (or about to ruin them). It may take a war to defeat the evil, but in the process soldiers die on both sides, and the soldiers are the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters of innocents that were not evil, but caught up in forces far greater than themselves. When the righteous prevail in a war, they make the world a better place, but there is always a cost.

Being heroes, I presume they had no real choice but to kill the minor lord. He was ruining lives somehow, sacrificing the lives of his soldiers over petty personal disputes, taxing his people into poverty, or hanging them or crucifying them for dissent, or raping their daughters, whatever.

But in the process of making the world a better place for his subjects, they harmed an innocent -- They orphaned an innocent girl.

What you can do about it, as an author, is find a way to let them be heroes again. They don't have to kill the lord and walk away. Let's say, upon the lord's death, some member of his evil entourage has designs on taking his place -- He wants to murder the daughter to clear his path. And even though she blames them for his death, in front of her they save her life. She knows it. This proves to her which members of the court are loyal to the crown. Now the dilemma is on her, does she order the traitors killed? Orphan their wives and children? She does, because their crime must have public consequences, but at their execution she announces that their wives and children are henceforth wards of the crown and under her protection.

Your returning prince feels like he abandoned his people. Maybe he did, maybe he was thoughtless. He was off making the world a better place, but there are always consequences to innocents, including his people. He can't undo those consequences, but he is a hero, his friends are heroes. How can he, or the group, be heroes again in these circumstances? Can they kill the worst of the overlords? Is there some way to put this country back on the right track? Can they kill the idiot magician and install a diplomat that can reunite the country? Say, the one noble that has done the best job of running his territory for the good of his people, instead of himself. Even if the prince will leave again, perhaps his little band of heroes can forge an alliance of nobles by eliminating an obstacle in their way; a tyrant or two that separate them.

The heroes are your engine of hope, their job is to make the world better, even if they are the ones that screwed it up.

It doesn't mean they erase the consequences. The little girl is an orphan. Lives were ruined and lost in the country. But they step up and create a hopeful path for going forward.

  • First part resonates with me. They're heroes for their intent, but consequences is what you're ultimately judged by. Fiction rarely stays for the consequences. To the people, heroics is likely just another trail of death and destruction. A good example of that is The Sith Lords exploring the consequences of the Jedi-Sith war of the first game. NPCs will call that the "Jedi Civil War" and say Jedi or Sith are all the same, fighting for high concepts while the people gets killed in the middle. Game loves calling you out for doing good things that'll have bad consequences. – AmiralPatate May 31 at 8:44
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Realistically, life sucks, but most of us manage to find hope somewhere. Sometimes little girls have to grow up too fast and sometimes we have to deal with messes other people make.

It sounds like your young lady is going to have a lot of tears and fight some battles she's not ready for. Let her fight. Let her cry. But, make it worth it in the end. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Don't forget to let her laugh sometimes too. Give her some battles she can win, so she gains the confidence to keep trying after the ones she loses.

Your long-lost prince is going to have to pull up his big boy pants and learn some diplomacy and negotiation skills. The entire structure of his kingdom has been altered and he's going to have to work with that. He may never have the same amount of control as the previous king, but that’s life.

Give both of your characters failures and successes. Heavy consequences for bad decisions aren't necessarily grimdark. They are learning experiences. They develop character and make the few victories that much sweeter.

As you plan out these successes and failures, some avenues of hope will emerge and, hopefully, you will begin to see the pathways towards a happy ending. Or, at least, an ending everyone can deal with.

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