Noblebright, heroes, and villains



There have been several definitions of Noblebright going around, no surprise there. Whenever anyone comes up with a new term for what they see as a certain kind of story, others find that they disagree with the definition, the examples, and then they must redefine it and offer their own list.

Grimdark is all death and drear all the time, as in A, B, and C. No it’s not! It can be very funny, it’s just morally ambiguous. And violent! Yes, with plenty of rape. But mainstream fiction is full of rape, and so are YA Problem Novels—are they grimdark?

You get the idea.

So, for $2.99, here are a dozen novels offered as Noblebright. I haven’t read them all*, but I have at least glanced at a few pages of each, and I can guarantee that they are not all fluffy stories (I suspect mine is the fluffiest, in that it is sheer escapist fantasy), nor are they touting any specific philosophical or religious viewpoint.

C.J. Brightley, who curated the bundle, offered this definition:

Noblebright fantasy has at least one important character with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of principle. The character is flawed, but his or her actions are generally defined by honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love, and kindness. The story upholds the goodness of the character; the character’s good qualities are not held up as naiveté, cluelessness, or stupidity, but rather shown to be worthwhile. Good characters can make a difference. Noblebright characters can learn and grow.


They can deliberately choose to be kind when tempted to be unkind, they can choose generosity when it hurts, and they can influence their world and other characters for the better. In a noblebright story, even villains are not without hope; their stories may have a redemptive ending, or they may have some kind of conversion experience (religious or not). It’s not guaranteed, of course, but in a noblebright story, it’s a possibility.

Noblebright fantasy is not utopian fiction. The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.

I’m good with that. It’s the type of reading I tend to reach for. I like reading about non-jerky heroes, and as for villains . . . well, I ended up having a conversation about villains with Francesca Forrest, a year ago, that I think applies here.


This relates to an earlier conversation about villains, villainy, and where you draw the line as a reader. For example, I said that I was never much of a fan of the type of spy fiction in which everyone is amoral, in which you can’t tell the villains from the heroes because they’re all nasty, and they cynically work for equally corrupt governments.

They seem to be in it just for the thrill of kill or be killed, and there is plenty of sexual violence, especially against women, and not a shred of humor anywhere. There’s a big audience for that kind of story, but I’m not in it.

Well, the person I was talking to looked at me as if my nose had grown into a twig. “Says the biggest pirate movie lover of all time? I mean, pirates! What could be more amoral or kill-or-be-killed than pirates?”

I began to explain that I don’t like films or books about the automatic weapons-firing pirates in ugly clothes who whiz around the seas in stripped-down rust buckets overloaded with water-cooled artillery, who slaughter without breaking a sweat and kick aside the corpses of helpless civilians for the sake of a few tons of heroin, I mean colorful pirates fabulously dressed in eighteenth century brocade and lace, treading the decks of their gorgeous square-rigged frigates, who have their own Code and heed it, who don’t attack the innocent, only the corrupt . . .

At which the other person in the conversation is rolling their eyes out of their head and giving me that Oh, please. Forget I said anything look.

For some, pirates and spies and thieves are scum by definition. For others, like me? Only sometimes. They can also be underdogs, outsiders–heroes.

There are a couple of things going on here.

First, the difference between what I think of as swashbuckling or adventure fiction, and violence for the sake of violence. In adventure fiction, the focus is on agency, that is, stories featuring protagonists with some heroic traits, usually fighting against a more powerful figure, or force, that we the reader find so repellent we want to see them defeated. These protagonists might even be heroes, using their competence and skill on the part of those who cannot act.


Violence for the sake of violence pretty much strings pain, death, torture, and rape plot points like beads on a string, and often there is no real difference between one side or the other as they both leave corpses on the bleak and rainy ever-dark streets. 24 usually serves as my example of this on TV: I never made it to the end of that series, but as far as I got, the body count was very high, including a lot of collateral damage of the innocent and helpless.

In the old swashbuckling pirate stories, the protagonists adhered to a code, a concept played with in Pirates of the Caribbean.


If you look at all the various forms of Robin Hood in book or on small and large screen, which ones are the most successful? The ones that shove Robin, the Sheriff, and the rest of the well-known characters into the story form of useless and amoral violence and pain seem to vanish fairly rapidly. The ones that endure depict Robin as a good guy wronged, who chooses to use his skills to whittle away at those in power, while protecting those who should have been protected.

I find how ‘outsider’ protagonists build and sustain a moral code interesting both in fiction and real life.

The appeal of an adventure or swashbuckler to me is that I can enjoy the dashing display of competence while not being morally squicked. If the heroes start using rape and torture, I lose interest in them. I come to fiction to relax, which means not having to be constantly anxious on behalf of the innocent, or bracing for graphic savagery. If the heroes are in extreme danger, I want them to develop competence to deal with it.


My mom, about to turn 87, and a mystery addict, said to me last summer, “Well, if we can’t get justice in real life, at least we can pretend to in fiction.”

Anyway, here’s the Noblebright bundle for sale—and a possible topic of discussion. How do you define all these terms, and what examples do you offer?

*I’ve read the ones by C.J. Brightley, Francesca Forrest, and Lindsay Buroker, and loved all three. Reviews over at Goodreads.



Noblebright, heroes, and villains — 20 Comments

  1. I think I get where you are going with the ‘noblebright’ theme. I checked out that series you talked about two weeks ago, Nirvana in Fire, which is the most amazing example of “noble bright” I’ve ever seen. If these books are even half that good, I have to check them out. Thank you so much for bringing Nirvana in Fire to my attention. I am still stunned.

  2. I have some pretty nasty pirate villains in The Witch-Child and the Scarlet Fleet, but I still think it qualifies as noblebright.

    Part of it is what attitude the story takes toward the villains. And also whether the reader has to watch the nastiest parts or deduces what occurred off-stage.

  3. I hadn’t heard the term before, but the description certainly fits one of my favorite types of fiction. I’ll go check out the books….

    For the record, my favorite pirate story of all time is Jade, by Sally Watson, a young adult novel first printed in 1969 — possibly because characters do weigh the ethics of piracy and other issues, and possibly with a bit of nostalgia, as Watson provided almost the only novels with heroic female protagonists in the library of my youth. (The book is in press again, after an interval when used copies had reached stratospheric prices, via, and Watson is still writing at 92.)

  4. One of my all time favorite noblebright scoundrel-turned-hero is God Stalk (and the following books) by P.C. Hodgell (and in searching that out, I see there are a couple in the series that I don’t have yet. Bonus!). Also a fan of the FarSeer chronicles by Robin Hobb. There are a bunch more “noblebright” authors/books I like, but I’m not sure they count as “swashbucklers” or noble-scoundrel types.

  5. Thanks, Sherwood. I, too, was unfamiliar with this term, but I think it’s what I write! I definitely avoid those totally amoral stories, and agree with your mother. I think Dorothy Sayers had Harriet say something similar in “Gaudy Night” (or a different novel). Now if only we can see some heroic justice in this election cycle….

  6. Jingrui!
    Also I agree with your mom re mysteries. Didn’t Lois McMaster Bujold say that mysteries were a fantasy of justice?

  7. To return to the topic you originally posed. What can’t I take in Big Bads? Mindless unrelenting violence and cruelty. A story can have chilling evil without it.