In my quest to better understand dark stories, I picked up Glen Cook’s The Black Company, the first book in a series of the same name.* While this was hardly the first dark fantasy novel, it did a lot to popularize the subgenre. Like usual, I was not impressed. The book suffers from a number of technical mistakes such as forgetting to foreshadow big twists and summarizing major plot points. Nevertheless, The Black Company still has a few lessons to teach us about dark stories, both in its successes and in its failures.
Relatable Protagonists Are Essential
A major hallmark of dark stories is the lack of a noble goal that the hero can fight for. This isn’t universal by any means, but it’s common enough to be easily recognizable. Sometimes none of the various factions involved in a conflict are better than the others, and the world will be a dismal place no matter no matter who wins.
The most apparent downside of this trope is that when everyone’s a minusculely different shade of gray, the audience doesn’t have a big conflict they can get invested in. To compensate for this, dark stories need to keep their characters as grounded as possible. That way, readers will sympathize with the regular people caught up in a miserable world, something we can all understand.
Black Company does a decent job of this, especially at the beginning. Our heroes – and I use the term loosely – are a bunch of mercenaries that mostly lack any special abilities besides professionalism and determination. Even the company’s wizards are considered middling at best. They’re all stuck in a contract to an erratic employer who drags them into political squabbles that the company wants nothing to do with. The characters also have less than heroic names like One-Eye, Goblin, Elmo, and our protagonist, Croaker.
Once Cook establishes the characters, he also shows how the company struggles to deal with a demon that’s plaguing the city. They are but mortal men, not great heroes of destiny! This serves the book well by giving readers sympathetic characters to latch onto. Cook does sabotage it a little by adding the uncharacteristically cool and badass Raven to the company,* but the effect still holds for a while.
It’s not until Cook introduces his Nazgul parallel, the Ten Who Were Taken, that things really go wrong. The Taken are all epic dark wizards, and the further into the book you get, the more it focuses on them, even though Croaker is still technically our POV character. The Black Company itself also goes through a strange transformation from competent mercenaries to gods of the battlefield, winning a number of improbable victories with total ease. This mostly happens offscreen, but it still makes the company less relatable.
Likability Must Be Carefully Maintained
Content Notice: Sexual violence in fiction
Some authors have an idea that likability doesn’t matter for dark stories, that their protagonist can eat babies and kick puppies without any repercussions. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. No matter how gritty and realistic your story is, people still have to like the main characters enough to spend the time watching or reading about them.
Fortunately, Cook understands this at least on some level. Soldiers of the Black Company only kill when they have to, and they take no pleasure in it. Cook also plays up the fraternal bonds between the characters, showing that despite their gruff demeanor and petty feuds, any of them would risk life and limb to protect their brothers.
There’s even a sequence where several characters venture into a recently conquered town to protect civilians from their own allies. They explain that the civilians at risk include children, and that some things simply cannot be tolerated, even in war. This causes a lot of trouble for the company, and our heroes are stuck dealing with the fallout for several chapters.
Establishing the Black Company as reasonably moral people fighting for an immoral employer is critical for holding the reader’s engagement, and it makes the characters more interesting. An evil character who does evil things evilly doesn’t have any depth, whereas a conflicted character who tries to navigate morally fraught situations is an efficient drama generator.
Too bad Cook later throws all his hard work away when the main characters shrug at rapes committed by their fellow mercenaries. That’s just something that happens in war, you know, nothing to be done about it. Not like the Black Company is famous for its discipline or anything. Oh wait, yes it is! There’s even an implication that maybe these women deserve to be raped because they were fighting in the war, which is all kinds of gross. It’s a serious low point for the book, and it flies in the face of how the characters were previously established.
Protagonist Goals Need to Be Sympathetic
Another downside of not having a clear good vs evil battle in your story is creating conflicts that audiences will care about. It’s difficult to make gray vs gray conflicts compelling, and even harder with evil vs evil.
The Black Company’s main conflict is a Sauron analogue called the Lady fighting against a group of rebels who are supposedly just as bad as she is.* The Black Company is fighting on the Lady’s side, but even if we accept the moral equivalency, the main conflict is really boring. Who cares which side wins, since they’re apparently the same?
Early in the book, Cook gets around this issue by focusing on smaller-scale conflicts. This is easy, since the Black Company is only fighting one small part of a much larger war. First the Black Company has to get free of their previous employer, then they have to deal with infighting between the Taken, then they have to withstand a grueling retreat in the face of a victorious rebel army. The actual war doesn’t matter; it’s all about what happens to the company and its individual characters.
The most engaging sections come when the Black Company has to balance between dealing with hostile rebels and avoiding other enemies who are also in the Lady’s service. In one instance, they play both sides off each other, and it makes for excellent reading. But then Cook falls into the trap of focusing too much on the war itself, and nothing matters anymore.
Not only is the war morally uninteresting, but the larger battles are so far above the company’s pay grade that they don’t even seem real. Technically the company’s survival is on the line, but that threat is never urgent. Worse, Cook focuses more and more on the Taken’s internal politics, which don’t involve the company at all. More than once, Croaker is dragged along for no reason other than Cook wanting the POV character there to witness the machinations of his epic dark wizards.
Near the end, we do find out that the Lady might be fighting to prevent the rise of something even more evil than she is. That could have given the war actual stakes, but it’s too little, too late. It’s also not clear if this is even true, since the Lady herself is the main source of information on it, and she’s a liar.
Gray Conflicts Require Robust Moral Context
If it were up to me, all storytellers would pay more attention to their moral context. Even in light stories, it’s irritating when characters do something that should have serious ramifications, but the author isn’t interested in exploring them. It’s a lot worse in dark stories, where the storyteller makes an implicit contract with the audience: if you agree to experience some distressing content, I’ll do the work to make it fulfilling.
Until now, the pattern has been that Black Company starts off well and then stumbles later, but this time Cook is in trouble from day one. Remember how I said that the rebels were “supposedly” as bad as the Lady? I had to qualify that because I have no idea how bad either side actually is.
When it comes to moral context, Cook is all tell and no show. We’re told that the Lady is evil, and we’re told the rebels are evil, but we almost never see them do anything that I would qualify as good or evil. In Lord of the Rings, we know what will happen if Sauron wins: everyone will be enslaved, and probably eaten. In the Black Company, we know there’s a war happening, but the consequences are exceptionally vague.
We do see the Lady’s troops retaliating against civilians once, and we see the rebels torture a prisoner once, but that’s about it, and it’s difficult to tell if these are isolated incidents. The Taken are certainly jerks on a personal level, but we have no idea how that translates to governance. When the characters discuss morality, it’s in very abstract terms, like they’re talking about D&D alignments.
Not only does this give the world a flimsy quality, but it makes the ending much harder to take seriously. During the final battle, Croaker decides the Lady is truly evil, and he wants the company to leave her service. But without context, it’s hard to understand how he reached that conclusion. She hasn’t done anything differently. It feels like he took a level of paladin and now has Detect Evil on his spell list.
Silly Plot Points Do More Damage
All stories benefit from good plotting, and all stories suffer from bad plotting, but dark stories suffer more. It’s annoying when a Marvel hero ignores an option for defeating their nemesis, but it’s reasonably easy to roll with since the MCU is a tropey playground that rarely asks you to get too real with your feelings. Dark stories, on the other hand, usually draw much of their appeal from the idea that they are more realistic, and so their plots are under more scrutiny.
For all of its apparent darkness, The Black Company is remarkably bad in the plotting department. Not only do many critical events take place offscreen or entirely in summary, but the company itself often seems to teleport around so it can be wherever Cook wants it. In one section, the company is surrounded and besieged by overwhelming enemy forces, and then without explanation, the company has escaped and is somewhere else.
In other sections, the company can supposedly spy on their enemies using magic, which gives them a major advantage. Then we find out that wizards are a dime a dozen in this setting, but somehow none of the rebels have considered that the company might have supernatural aid. It just keeps going like this for page after page.
By far the silliest moment is when the company gets ahold of some hairs from an illusive rebel wizard named Raker. The characters make a big deal about how they’ve finally got Raker now; he might be really good at hiding, but his hairs will be his undoing. From that setup, you might be expecting some kind of tracking spell, sympathetic curse, or even cloning a magical duplicate, but that’s only because you’re a total infant that doesn’t think on The Black Company’s level.
Instead, the company dumps a bunch of gold on the ground, creates a magical field around it, and then uses the hairs to alter the field so only someone with Raker’s corpse can claim the gold. You might recognize this as offering a bounty, something they could have done at any time. They even know what Raker looks like, so identification wouldn’t be an issue. But now they act like Raker is finished for sure; even his closest allies will turn on him to get that gold. This never happens, and instead the characters kill Raker in a mostly unrelated street fight, but everyone still acts as though the plan has been a great success.
I read that section a few extra times just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. It is some spectacularly bad writing. While the plotting never sinks that low again, I had a hard time taking all the dark and gritty content seriously because I kept remembering the time they dumped a bunch of gold on the ground and thought it was clever.
Darkness Does Not Equal Meaning
Storytellers and audiences both have an unfortunate tendency to assume that if something is dark, it must be more mature and meaningful. I first noticed this back in 2005, when advertisements for Revenge of the Sith couldn’t stop talking about how dark it was, as if that somehow made it better than previous Star Wars films. You can see it in the current run of Star Trek as well, where the writers pat themselves on the back for having such deep commentary as they torture characters to death.
It’s true that darker content can be useful in certain discussions, but making things darker doesn’t automatically make the story meaningful. In The Black Company, we see this play out in Croaker’s obsession with the Lady. Croaker writes some weird fan fiction about the Lady’s backstory and how in love with her he is, and then Cook tries to dress it up with some pseudo philosophy about what a horrible world it is that can transform innocent little girls into evil warlords. What kind of tragic past must the Lady have?
We’re then supposed to be surprised when it turns out that the Lady is just a bad person who wants power. How insightful? The book certainly acts like this is a major point, but all that’s really happened is Croaker’s creepy, sexist preconception is wrong. Even if that’s supposed to be the point, it’s not of any value. At best, the book entertained the misogynistic idea that women are somehow inherently less evil, only to then show the idea as false. You might as well have a story start out with the premise that eating flies is an effective beauty routine. Even if you prove the idea is wrong, there was nothing gained from entertaining it in the first place.
This is emblematic of The Black Company’s problems: the book aspires to being deep and meaningful, but it can’t follow through on anything. Instead of creating a morally complex world, we get a morally vague one. This way the main characters can serve a dark lord (lady) without doing anything too bad. At the same time, we have a book that purports to show us the difficulty of life for rank-and-file soldiers, but is callous to the suffering of anyone outside the company. Cook tries for a more realistic take on dark fantasy, but ends up with a storyline where the main characters win by dumping a bunch of gold on the ground.
Few of the story’s dark elements serve a purpose beyond causing the reader some emotional distress. They are window dressing, or as Chris put it in another post, grimdark sauce. Even in the best of times, such unnecessary darkness only limits your story’s audience for no gain. These days, when many of your potential readers have been stuck at home for months thanks to a maliciously mismanaged pandemic, it’s likely to get the story thrown against a wall and then set on fire.
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