Expediency: the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience. (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Brutal: 1. cruel; vicious; savage 2. extremely honest or coarse in speech or manner 3. harsh; severe; extreme. (Reference.com)
Torture and murder. If we were to travel back a few decades and propose to a hypothetical reader that modern Fantasy would produce protagonists that are a) well loved and b) engage in some fairly heinous acts I suspect that they might be somewhat incredulous (as well as curious, to a good reader incredulity is often a challenge). Expediency is at the fore of many a fantasy these days and when it intersects with violence it creates an especially volatile narrative.
This volatility at the intersection of expediency and brutality is not a bad thing. Ruthless decisions in the name of practicality, security, and realism are a fact of modern life for many readers. A depressed job market leads companies to pay employees as little as possible
because they can to maintain competitive advantage. Fear of terrorism allows politicians to openly engage in torture and surveillance, using the excuse of a dangerous, but ill-defined enemy to gather extraordinary powers to themselves. A reader who pays attention to the nightly news, and is not seeking escapism in their fiction, is very much at home with this kind of rationalized ruthlessness and might find fiction that lacks it unrealistic.
This violence in the name of pragmatism is also fascinating and topical subject for a protagonist to have to deal with. Flawed characters are almost always more interesting, and few situations introduce flaws more quickly than having to rationalize and deal with the outcomes of violence. Perhaps your protagonist is a Gladiator who kills crazed Beastmen for the entertainment of screaming fight fans. How would a protagonist who cherishes life rationalize that and what would it do to them? Answering these questions in a satisfying manner is one of the few devices that can make a well written action scene even more engaging.
Since the modern protagonist is above all, rational (not necessarily reasonable or sensible) they tend to put practicality above morality. The assassin is the quintessential hero of modern fantasy. Certainly this is because modern readers wanted something a little different from the tales of knights and nobles (At least until George RR Martin started telling ’em) in pastoral settings. It also has to do with urban themes — shadowy roguish types are much better suited to city environments after all. However I would argue that much of this popularity is because the assassin is the character that lives at the intersection of expediency and brutality. The assassin kills for money. The expediency engaged is the client’s in this case, who hires the assassin to do the dirty work in order to gain some kind of advantage or satisfaction. This allows the writer to comment on the motivations and practices of the assassin as well as the client, and frequently the target (a good assassin observes first). Neither the assassin nor the client are forced to take responsibility for their actions, unless something goes wrong. This something that goes wrong and the chaos it brings to the rationalized ruthlessness of the assassin’s world could be the start of many a great story.
Violence in the name of direct, visceral survival, another modern favourite does not touch the reader in the same way. There is a huge difference between a man forced to commit ugly acts or die immediately and someone who chooses to kill or torture in the name of expediency, no matter how it the act is justified. As I discussed in a recent blog post about the survival dynamic, having to make ugly choices when faced with immediate and certain death, such as a rampaging horde of zombies, escapes morality. While those who cynically engage in murder and torture often invoke the survival dynamic as a justification, they are rarely under immediate and overwhelming threat. With zombies this is often demonstrated by the execution of an innocent because they ‘might turn’. This is also born out by examining the broader context in history. The Nazis were probably the greatest threat western democracies have ever faced in open warfare, but they did not merit an open embrace of torture for interrogation purposes.
Much of what we term Grimdark fantasy embraces this ruthless pragmatism, but the best of this literature grapples with the brutality in the tradition of older writers like Dickens and Victor Hugo. These writers were all very gritty and willing to show ugly the ugly consequences of expediency (Think of Fantine selling her teeth). Modern audiences are drawn in by the action and snappy pacing of a fantasy novel where the protagonist makes these kinds of ruthless decisions and in the best of them can see the consequences of a world where that is the prevailing philosophy.
There are some downsides. Interestingly, expediency falls short in most descriptions of warfare. Expediency and brutality in as a strategy in warfare reached its zenith in World War One, where attrition was the dominant strategy in the trenches. Manoeuvre and innovation were mostly discarded by high commands that viewed battles like a modern accountant views a balance sheet. While this view of warfare still prevails in the media and political circles, military theory has moved beyond it. The second World War demonstrated that tactics and strategy mattered far more than grinding out attrition, which can be seen all the more clearly in battles like Stalingrad where ham-handed politicians took the strategic initiative away from commanders and returned to that style of fighting. Clean victories were won through brilliance, while a lack of a plan led to attrition style warfare. This is echoed in writing where attrition style warfare serves best as a serious commentary on the horrors of war and the massive grinding interests that push it, but does not really make for any other compelling, well paced war story. It is tough to write about war as an interesting subject full of brilliant ideas and stratagems without seeming overly jingoistic and embracing warfare. And it is equally tough to write about the horrors of war with exciting action scenes that draw the reader in. Much more expedient to examine the consequences of brutality with assassins, really.