I have always enjoyed a good story. In my youth the adventures of Star Wars, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings whisked me away to other worlds. The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and Sherlock Holmes taught me to think my way through a mystery. Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, and Robin Hood took me on adventures in different times and places.
As I grew older and more cynical my preferences became more specific. Adventure and wonder were still crucial ingredients, but I could not believe that the good guys would always win. More to the point, I couldn’t believe that the good guys were always that good–or always guys. And what of the bad guys? They couldn’t just be the personification of evil. After all, there were plenty of villains in real life that were once innocent young babies. What was motivating the villains of the story?
Eventually, Star Wars gave way to Dune, The Lord of the Rings gave way to A Song of Ice and Fire, and Robin Hood gave way to Uhtred of Bebbenburg. I read more non-fiction, particularly history and biography with a strong narrative. I loved works that explored people and showed how they acted in tough situations–good, bad, and ugly. I wanted books that gave a voice to the common people, the invisible, and the oppressed. More than anything, I didn’t want books that would insult me with two-dimensional characters, binary “good versus evil” conflicts, Disneyfied wholesomeness, and deus ex machina resolutions.
As I sought more of the types of stories that I wanted, I realized that there was no one genre name or tag that described them. Whether it was grimdark fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, mystery, crime noir, historical fiction, narrative history, biography, etc., some works fit the bill and some didn’t. To the works that fit the bill I assigned the tag “epic grit.”
But just what is that bill that we’re trying to fit? How do we define epic grit?
- Adventure and Wonder. What can I say? I’m still a sucker for stories that whisk me away.
- Believable Characters. People are not perfect. Even the best people make mistakes and act from less-than-noble motivations. Even the worst may feel some affection for others. No one is an idealized archetype.
- Real Consequences. It’s a tough world, and bad things happen to good people all the time. If someone is repeatedly in dangerous situations and they don’t suffer dire consequences even once, then I can’t buy in to the story. I can buy in to magic, dragons, worm holes, and teleportation; but if everyone continually escapes unscathed, the story loses credibility.
- Epic in Scope. It doesn’t have to be “fate of the world” type stuff, but the stakes have to be big enough for me to care. Even if it is a single individual exerting a great effort to overcome a great obstacle or achieve–um–greatness. Romance and youthful angst can greatly flavor a story, but by themselves they are not big enough stakes to keep my interest.
- Subverts “Good versus Evil” Tropes. I can buy in to all sorts of fanciful ideas in stories, but not this one. Some degree of cynicism is crucial.
- Different Perspectives. I want to delve into the minds of people on different sides of a conflict. I want works that shed new light on established subjects. Works should challenge their audience to question their preconceived notions.
- Fiction or Non-Fiction, It’s All Good. Some of the best epic grit is narrative non-fiction, especially history and biography. Think of Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Dan Carlin, and Laura Hillenbrand.
This definition of Epic Grit does not require strict adherence. Some other characteristics may be omitted. Some works may not meet every qualification. It’s okay–we can let them slide if it feels right.