Story alignment

Story alignments, a provisional diagram,.
Story alignments, a provisional diagram,. I started by adapting a diagram I found on Reddit in a discussion on Worldbuilding, moving some of the attributions and adding others. “Noble” in this context refers not to morality but to how much power and ability to change the world the protagonists have; “grim” is the opposite, powerlessness. “Bright” refers to an optimistic or utopian world, “dark” to a bleak and pessimistic world. Almost all fantastic fiction seems to belong under the “Noble Neutral” heading (Babylon 5, Twilight, and the Hunger Games, could all be added here)

The idea of Story Alignment came about as a reaction to the unremitting bleakness of the Warhammer 40k grimdark universe. Someone in the WH40K fanverse came up with the idea of “Noblebright” as the diametric opposite. To quote the relevant 4Chan page:

Just as every hero has a “mirror opposite” version that is evil, it’s supposed that there must be a mirror opposite version of the heroes of WH40k where everything goes RIGHT. It can also be used to describe artwork that has a noble/bright feel, even if the setting itself would not normally be considered noble or bright.
Where the GrimDark tag usually describes a setting in a slow, painful decline, the NobleBright tag usually describes a setting emerging from a dark age and either returning to or in the midst of a golden age.

This includes an alternate universe’s game, BrightHammer40k, with the tagline “In the Noble Brightness of the far future, there is only HIGH ADVENTURE!” This is a space fantasy universe similar to other classic space opera universes like Star Wars and Traveller, but with inverted WH40k worldbuilding.

It didn’t take long to postulate two more categories grimbright and nobledark, making four in all, or nine if the DS&D neutral character alignment is included (figure), based on two complementary parameters

To paraphrase from Reddit and 4Chan discussions (my comments in brackets)

  • Bright/Dark describes how the setting is on >a scale of cool place to live versus shit place to live.
    • A bright world is one full of opportunity, of wondrous sights to behold. (This is like the devaloka or world of the gods of Buddhist mythology)
    • A dark world is one where life sucks, and usually not long: whether it be because of demon overlords or even the lack of water, everyone in this story may die, and they die for good. (In TV tropes this called a crapsack world)
  • Noble/Grim refers to how much the struggles and sacrifices of good characters are worth.  The grimmer the setting, the less seems to get done with a given cost.
    • A Noble world is one where protagonists are powerful and useful and able to affect society at large. Another word for it might be ‘heroic.’ A noble world isn’t one where everyone is good or noble, but where people, or at lest the protagonists, are able to change things. (Hence the word noble is misleading in this context. Alternatives term might be powerful, or heroic, or plot-armoured.)
    • A Grim world is one where individuals are powerless and unable to affect society at large, and possibly not even affect their own condition. In a grim world, no matter what the protragonist does, he or she cannot secure more than an individual victory, if that. (As this applies to both bright and dark scenarios, an alternative term might be deterministic or fated, except that the determinism is always to the negative.)

The diagrams show neutral categories, making nine in all, each with a particular example. I would replace these with intermediate or, as I would call them “middling”. So Bright-Dark and Noble (or Heroic)-Grim each refer to a gradation rather than a simple dichotomy.

NobleBright now becomes the most positive or optimistic space opera and fantasy setting, grimdark the most negative, and grimbright and nobledark two transitional categories.

Noblebright includes all the optimistic stories and universes where evil can be conquered, the good guys prosper, and world is a great place.  The original Star Trek is the classic example.

The opposite, Grimdark includes H.P. Lovecraft, Game of Thrones, Warhammer 40k, and some dystopian fiction such as 1984 and Lord of the Flies.

Whereas NobleBright and GrimDark are easy to tell apart, there’s some confusion with the other two.

The difference between grimbright and nobledark is based on the power or lack thereof of the protagonists.

Grimbright prortagonists have very little power to change things, their accomplishments are fleeting (“grim”), but their universe is otherwise pretty awesome, flourishing and full of opportunities (“bright”). There’s little or no genre fiction here, because all genre fiction involves a heroic (or antiheroic) protagonist able to overcome obstacles and accomplish great (or even just small) deeds. A grimbright setting might be grunge or punk fiction, for example Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, about a bunch of junkies who can’t really do much about their life, even if they live in a safe and prosperous society.

Nobledark is the opposite, a pretty horrible, crapsack world, but with powerful protagonists who have the power to make a real change, even if it is only with great struggle and sacrifice. A classic example here would be Lord of the Rings, although a lot of epic fantasy belongs here.

Other universes, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Twilight, represent various other combinations.

The diagram at the top of this page is based on several posted online, but with many of the attributions modified, and a number of additional ones added, as well as additional subdivisions.

For example. characters in a grim universe still have some limited power over circumstances, whereas those in a grimmest universe have none. the classical example here is the powerless redshirt and stormtrooper. Despite living in an otherwise neutral, or even bright, universe, there is nothing they can do to change their own expendable nature. Endless jokes have been made on the fates of these hapless incompetents, whop are not even worthy of a story arc, or even a personal identify. But ultimately, for a story to work, it needs something more than the existential zero of a hapless a href=””>mook. Hence stories tend to cluster to the “noble” side of the chart, specifically the “nobledark” is a common theme, perhaps because it so well represents the ideal of heroism in the face of the bleakness of the flawed real world.