Noblebright Fantasy–Stepping into the Light

knight and ladyBack in the late seventies and throughout the eighties, fantasy was dominated by stories written in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some darker stories were certainly published, but what I loved most about the genre were the endless permutations of the struggle between good and evil. Personally, I find that fertile ground for an infinite variety of tales, and I never had any desire to read or watch anything that wallowed in or glorified the darker urges of humanity.

But other writers disagreed. They found their audience, and the subgenre of grimdark came to be. It rose to such dominance that when I began writing it was with a sort of desperate hope, that the genre of Tolkien and Lewis might still support new stories about characters who struggle to uphold some form of goodness.

Fantasy is awash with classifications and subgenres, possibly because readers who like one form might be appalled by another. I’ve struggled to find one that would describe my work. I dislike the term light fantasy, even though I think it’s a fair designation for my some of my shorter works, much of which could be described, in the words of Tolkien’s character Treebeard, as “…lighthearted, quick-worded, and soon over.”

But I write more than flash fiction, even in my short story collections. And while light is the opposite of dark, it also has connotations of shallowness, which does bother me. I strive to make my stories meaningful–even the short, funny ones have an underlying deeper theme.

The best description I could come up with was “fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien and Lewis,” but I had a couple problems with that. It’s clunky and wordy for one, and it also seemed like I was comparing my own work to those two great masters, which is not for me to do. The last thing I want is to project as a writer is arrogance.

Fortunately, it turns out there is a term for the stories I love–noblebright fantasy. And while the word itself is new, an antonym of grimdark, the type of stories have been around for centuries.

Noblebright stories don’t have to feature perfect Mary Sues as characters, nor do they presume a Pollyanna approach where everything is sweetness and light. It doesn’t mean the story can’t get dark or scary, or that violence isn’t part of the narrative. But they do have characters who believe in a moral imperative, and who will do anything to uphold it, whatever the cost.

I love the premise that evil can be conquered, however temporarily, even if it’s only the evil within. I want to see characters who triumph over ignorance, poverty, disease, neglect, and the sheer malignant spirit that can grow unchecked if not reined in. Real life gave me real heroes–some of mine as a child were Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Corrie ten Boom, and Helen Keller. I want fictional characters to inspire me in the same way, or there doesn’t seem to be much point in spending time with them. If I can’t find my heroes in fiction, I’ll find them in history. Life is too short to read stuff that drags me down and makes my world a more sorrowful place. I’ve spoken more extensively on this subject in my post Why I Write.

How about you? Do you have stories (of any kind, they don’t have to be fantasy) that you love and could be considered noblebright?


Do you enjoy fantasy short stories?

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38 comments on “Noblebright Fantasy–Stepping into the Light
  1. Two genres new to me: grimdark and noblebright – thanks for expanding my horizon, Cathleen. I really enjoyed this post, and especially learning why you’ve chosen to write tales with upbeat endings. Your list of heroes is impressive. I’m moved by Anne Frank and Emma Lazarus, women who made something wonderful of their lives and left work that is still uplifting.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bernadette says:

    I don’t even begin to understand why anyone would choose to read about evil triumphing over good. Keep writing about the hero and heroine who through choosing to act unselfishly always help good trump.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. willowdot21 says:

    I love this Idea of noblebright it fits some of my stories too, I have sneaky feeling that I might do grimdark too. I don’t feel a need to label my writing but if I want to publish I shall be forced to pick a genre. Please just keep writing πŸ’œπŸ’œ

    Liked by 1 person

    • Plenty of people write in multiple genres or subgenres. I’ll see writers who penned an epic fantasy take a detour into paranormal romance, for instance. Some folks need to switch it up to keep the creative juices flowing. If that’s you, don’t worry. You have lots of authors in the same boat. πŸ™‚


  4. Ellen says:

    Having first read of Noblebright fantasy, written about by C.J. Brightley in 2016, I was smitten with the term. While not claiming the coinage of the term, Brightley has promoted it. We could hardly do better than strive for a Noblebright character’s admirable traits of kindness, honesty and integrity. Thank-you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A lot of the point of posting this was to spread awareness that there’s an actual pithy description for these types of stories. If nothing else, it makes finding them much easier. If you Google fantasy, for instance, you get a lot of stuff about fantasy football, not so much about say, dwarves, wizards, and fairy tales.


  6. VPGrey says:

    I’d not heard the term noblebright before. I think I’ll have to Google it to understand it better. I think it’s interesting to learn about the different subgenres, but I’m not good at putting labels on my writing. I think I’m too much of an awkward rebel. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Googling noblebright fantasy is a good idea. And the label thing–maybe it would help to think of it as finding the descriptions that will help the people who get into what you do actually find your work. I’m already building a reading list from looking up authors who write noblebright.

      I think all of us have some cross-genre stuff in our work. My fantasies quite often have a romantic subplot, as well as some intense thriller-like action scenes. The real trick, I think, is learning how to use the labels effectively, which includes not letting them fence us in. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never heard of Noblebright. I like its description. Like you, I prefer hopeful stories where characters are challenged, fail, but ultimately prevail. This sounds good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And your work is basically positive, so that makes sense. Give the internet this–artists who labor a lot in seclusion can more easily find like-minded folks. It keeps us from feeling too much like odd ducks. πŸ™‚


  8. Great post, Cathleen, and I love the “noblebright” characterization of your work. It fits! Fantasy is gigantic with so many subgenres. Take any genre, add magic of some flavor, and it’s fantasy. So I agree that finding a category is hard! This has made me wonder about my own work. Did you know there is also a grimbright and nobledark? My head is spinning. Ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I saw the grimbright and nobledark stuff, but I figured that was probably putting more effort into it than it was worth, at least for me. I’m fine with a simple dichotomy, with a sliding scale perhaps of degrees. The minute you start adding too many dimensions, I think many people will just raise their eyebrows and pass on the whole thing.

      And if the term noblebright gets people to think about their own work, that could be a very good thing. Perhaps we can all benefit from taking a step back and figuring out what we’re trying to achieve with our writing. Sometimes I get so desperately here-and-now. I’m so focused on line edits and such that I forget there was a larger reason I was doing this in the first place. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think of my work as fairly dark, but the protagonist is always good-hearted and I end with some hope. Not perfection, but hope. I don’t usually like “epic” because that makes me think of quests. Maybe grimbright? Ha ha. Fun to think about. I enjoyed the post!

        Liked by 1 person

        • For me at least, a good-hearted protag and an ending with hope would qualify as noblebright. I don’t think there’s anyone making hard and fast judgments about what fits and what doesn’t right now, which is pleasant. In the end the readers always decide anyway.

          And anyone scanning your reviews can see that readers have decided your work is worth reading, so go, you! πŸ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

      • Trebar says:

        So I realize this is several years too late, but I came across your post while actually searching specifically for noblebright short stories to read aloud to a mixed audience. I saw your comment here, and figured that I would comment. You have probably already discovered all of this since your original post, but hey… I think it’s cool information.

        The term grimdark was originally a term used to describe the setting of a game called Warhammer 40k. It kind of took off as a joke, and then noblebright was generated as a description to contrast with it. Ultimately, though, they can actually become useful descriptors if you abstract the concepts out rather than focusing on the specific terms.

        The easiest way to think about these terms is as a set of axes. One axis is a scale of grim->noble, and it measures how much influence a person can have on their world around them. In a purely grim story, your characters (either protagonists or just the people who inhabit your world) are at the mercy of what happens to them. They can attempt to deal with it, but they can’t actually change things. In a purely noble story, your inhabitants can eventually make any change that they set their heart, minds, and talents because the outcome of the world is up to them. Think… “America as a racial hell” vs “America as a golden dream” as a potential example. And of course, this is an axis so most stories are going to have examples of each and will end up somewhere not at the extremes.

        The other axis is dark->bright, and it measures how… optimistic, I guess? That’s not quite right though… the world is. The extreme end of dark is going to be gritty. Bad things are going to happen because that’s just how the world is. People suck as the default. If you walk alone down a forest path, you’re going to get lost and something is going to eat you. The extreme end of bright is going to be optimistic. People are generally good, and only a handful of people are going to be evil or bad at their core. If you walk alone down a forest path, you’re going to get lost and an animal is going to guide you home.

        So if you plot a story along those two axes, where it ends up tells you something about the setting. And the quadrants are broadly labelled “grimdark”, “grimbright”, “noblebright”, and “nobledark”

        Liked by 1 person

        • So, it’s never too late to comment. Your comment is spot on, although not everyone is going to get that into the whole classification to manage multiple axes. Personally, I think it’s a victory if people actually have a vague clue as to what noblebright fantasy actually is. In a lot of ways, it’s simply classic fantasy, since the editing houses in the 80s had a default standard of noblebright fantasy, even if they didn’t call it that. : )


  9. Informative post, Cathleen. I’ll definitely stick with the “noblebright” when it comes to fantasy reads. πŸ™‚ Have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And that makes sense, since your own historical work focuses on a character making the best of a tough situation.

      I think writing to market isn’t a great idea if that’s not where your interests truly lie, but in this case, I’m grateful that the demand for more positive stories, at least in the audience of general readers, seems to be more lasting.

      And may you manage to stay warm over the coming week, tucked away in your corner of the Maine landscape. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  10. JM Williams says:

    I first learned the term “noblebright” on a religious-centered fantasy blog somewhere. It does fit well with the rigid morality of common religion. But I appreciate the idea because I grew up on archetypal hero stories. There was no moral ambiguity to the original Star Wars. Tolkien never felt the need to explain or justify Sauron’s actions. Sometimes villains are just evil, and that’s all that is required. When I write fantasy, I usually am more inclined to write something like noblebright over grimdark. If I want to dig into complex moral or social issues, I usually do it through SF. I wonder if that says something about me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I saw that many of the writers wrote Christian fantasy, and they had a whole series of classification markers to differentiate between overlaps of clean fantasy, Christian fantasy, and noblebright.

      And that’s fine–it’s just not what I do. I’ve written protags who were religiously devout–usually Catholic, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. But that’s merely part of their character. And faith may or may not drive my characters, but it almost never drives the plot.

      Interestingly (at least to me), the novel in which I wrote the most religion, and the only one where it did actually drive the plot, was not Christian at all–that was Bellerophon, which is my retelling of a Greek hero tale, something like a lesser-known Hercules. But all those Greek myths used the gods as actual characters, and it didn’t feel true to the spirit of the original to leave it out.

      And it may not be at all Christian, but it’s definitely noblebright–Bellerophon stood for certain virtues, and his integrity made a real difference in his world.

      Can’t comment on your SF/F divide, really–except to say that all our minds are highly individual places. Something about your own experiences leads you to convey certain concepts in certain genres. I’d just run with it. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • JM Williams says:

        I intend to run with it! πŸ˜€ As for religion in my fantasy works, oh the paganism! It’s almost cliche at this point to have a polytheist religion, but it is a useful way to build up different cultures and opposing views.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think the allure of pagan retellings is partly because in many of the pantheons, the gods are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. Limitations on extraordinary characters are an interesting weapon in a writer’s arsenal.

          Whereas with the Judeo-Christian God, since he is always seen as all-powerful and all-knowing–let’s face it, if you’re going to be true to the original beliefs at all, when God gets involved, he wins. And that’s a real suspense-killer. Useful in real life, perhaps, but death in a story. πŸ™‚

          Liked by 2 people

        • JM Williams says:

          Yes, brilliant point. Even more relevant if you plan to have the gods actually manifest rather than just being ideas.

          Liked by 2 people

  11. I don’t read much fantasy, Cathleen, or maybe I just think I don’t. I do love mythology and fairy tales but I don’t often read adult fantasy books about trolls and dwarves and that sort of thing. I preferred the Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings. I enjoyed your Christmas short story collection and some of those were light fantasy but they were not “heavy” if you can understand what I mean.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I completely get where you’re coming from, and there are times when a simpler story is exactly what I want. Sometimes I’ll go to bed with Grimm’s fairy tales or an old childhood favorite like Wind in the Willows (it helps that my copies have magnificent illustrations).

      In my case it’s that I want an easy read to relax to.

      And I read other genres, too. Chick lit (I love Janet Evanovich), cozy mysteries, or anything funny, like Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Nothing wrong with not being in the mood to read, say, Tolstoy. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  12. These are interesting distinctions, Cathleen, and the terms Noblebright and Grimdark make sense on a continuum of fantasy. In the early 80s I was drawn to sci-fi/fantasy and preferred the uplifting fantasy and hope of sci-fi. Not sure when the zombie stories got popular but I seriously despise them. I read a free fantasy ebook a while back and it sadly turned into a zombie-horror book. I read the reviews and many negative reviews came back with this surprise. I would never have bothered if I had known. I think that book wrecked the author, too. Dumb move. I follow a blogger, Allison D. Reid who writes Christian fantasy, the ultimate in uplifting fantasy. I reviewed her book Journey to Aviad on my blog last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Terri, and that’s exactly why I think we have to learn deal with labeling our books. Our covers, our blurbs, our choice of genre–they all work together to build a set of reader expectations. We can violate them, but if we do readers will often react as if we’ve betrayed a trust. They read a book that promised something it didn’t deliver. And that can be the source of some scathing reviews.

      It’s one reason why I don’t do mash-ups. I think I write stuff that readers of McKinley, DW Jones, or Connie Willis would like, but what if I’m wrong? I’d rather not raise expectations in an area that I’m not sure I can meet. And I’d especially avoid comparisons to huge hits like LOTR or Game of Thrones. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill.

      And that’s why I’m so tickled that there’s a word for what I do. No book is for everyone. Using noblebright fantasy in my description is one more way to help only those readers who enjoy my kind of writing find my book. If someone is looking for a dark fantasy with characters all in shades of gray, I’d rather they didn’t read one of my books by mistake.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. JA Andrews says:

    I remember when I first heard the term Noblebright. I think it was from CJ Brightley. And it’s so perfectly fit what I wrote I may have squealed. Because describing my work as “Pretty much the opposite of grimdark” was getting unwieldy. πŸ™‚ Things should have names.

    Great article about it! “I love the premise that evil can be conquered, however temporarily, even if it’s only the evil within.” YES!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I might have squealed, too. πŸ™‚

      All of us who write noblebright fantasy owe a debt to CJ Brightley for first applying this term to the kind of stories we love. Anyone who’s ever started a blog or a Twitter account knows how tough it is to build something from nothing. I’m just walking down a path that’s already been blazed.

      And thanks for the attagirl. You know how it is when you’re writing something–you never know if it’s any good, not right away. There’s a meme floating around on Twitter that says, “Being a writer is like telling a joke and not knowing if its funny until two years later.” So I don’t know if my blog posts are effective until someone responds. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  14. balroop2013 says:

    Noblebright sounds good to me too. Dark fantasy scares me away and I feel there is no pleasure in this kind of reading. I wonder why they have become so popular and are becoming darker! Nobility and goodness can never be vanquished.
    Thanks for sharing an enlightening post Cathleen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, thanks for popping in, Balroop, since I know your favorite is poetry, not fantasy. I’ve never understood the fascination with dark themes, or at least not making it them “realistic” to the point that there’s no hope left in the world.

      I think there is hope in the world. I see it every day. I don’t think I could bear it if I lived thinking that there’s no way to make things at least a little better.

      So we’ll both light a candle in the dark–you with your poetry, and me with my fantasy. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • balroop2013 says:

        Poetry many times rides on fantasy but I keep it soft and hopeful…I absolutely agree with you Cathleen, hope is all around us, every sunrise and sunset depict it clearly. Seasons give out shout of hope! πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I just, just found this, and I love it. What you do with fantasy is what I do with historical fiction, and what I plan on when I (eventually) get around to some magical realism. It’s not that my heroes don’t go through dark times, or suffer, but they conquer, and they do it with their decency and humanity intact. And I like to think if any one of them sat down at the Round Table, Arthur would quietly nod and make a little more room.

    So here’s to Noblebright, and more of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My favorite childhood books were all what I’d consider “noblebright” historical fiction, or even straightforward history. I could never get enough of Clara Barton, Helen Keller, and Harriet Tubman. Personally, I read history mostly to learn about heroes, so I’m totally with you there. πŸ™‚


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