Sunday, November 11, 2012

Ruminations on reconciliation and the demise of the absolute...

I had a number of ideas percolating all week for this post: the trouble/joys of the do it yourself cosmology, the use of cataclysm as a plot device, the similarities and differences between political systems in genre fiction and the ‘real’ thing (hoo boy, now there’s a fantasy for you) and the evolution of a time honored staple in fantasy, good versus evil.
As much as I would like to ramble on about all of them, for I suspect they are all connected in some way, I think I’ll save that mess for another day and stick to asking a few pertinent questions about good vs evil in the world of fantasy.

I have questions because, increasingly, I think we live and write in a world where absolutes have less and less ground on which to stand. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but there are times when I grow nostalgic for a cleaner equation. It seems these days that everything is a qualified success or failure. One man’s good guy is another man’s terrorist; one man’s god is another’s devil. Honestly, I sometimes wonder if globalization hasn’t brought out more polarization rather than unification even as it knits together the various world markets and political systems.

And yet I also think the effect of the above on the realm of fantasy has been positive. In a way, I think our current evolving socio-political environment has sparked some interesting hybridizations of some of the old time genre absolutes. Giving the good guys some flaws is in and rightly so, flaws are interesting, humanizing and approachable. Who wants a genre filled with Percivals and Aragorns only? Why do you think Arthur has never gone out of vogue?

I’ll take the flies in the ointment for two hundred, Alex.
But even more intriguing to me is the notion of giving flaws to our anti-heroes, with flaws meaning human qualities. It used to be that bad guys were bad. Castle uglies were truly ugly, evil, twisted creatures with no redeeming qualities. True, we are told Morgoth and Sauron were fallen deities, but all we get in their stories are the unmitigated evil intentions. How much better would Morgoth’s character have been if Tolkien could have injected some of the stuff Milton gave Lucifer in Paradise Lost? (And if a gifted director and actor could pull that off, think how cool a film that might make! Del Toro, are you paying attention?) Yes, I think the intriguing bad guy has been around a long, long time. I think old uncle Milty was on to something the guys who put the Bible together missed out on, and up until the current era, most genre writers missed out on as well. I am thinking of the host of Tolkienesque clones that flooded bookshelves in the late 60’s and 70’s. Some of Brooks’ early Shanarra stuff comes to mind (and more recently, sadly, Paolini’s tripe).  Incarnations of Sauron abounded, and I have always considered them cardboard targets against which writers threw their heroes, pinning the absolute bad with victorious, absolute good.
And this brings me to my point, such as it is. We have begun to see some great stories introducing us to the conflicted hero, the edgy good guy with flaws, some dark smolder and skeletons in the cliché closet.  Batman, anyone? That’s all good stuff but…

How about Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker? I refuse to give Hollywood all the credit for giving us shades of interpretation.  Is there room in genre fiction for the conflicted bad guy? The evil that is not quite as absolute as tradition might have expected but that presents more intriguing possibilities? Mordred, Gollum, half of Peakes’ cast in the Gormenghast books…come on folks add to the list.  

Frankly, I think the rise of the flawed anti-hero reflects more precisely the world in which we live and write. And as troubling as that is for some (cue responses to our most recent election season), I believe the end result will be the continued evolution of the craft into something better and approachable to folks in the market place. But even more importantly, I think it will result in a great new list of wonderful, redefining characters.

I’ll take absolutes with a dash of irreverence for a thousand, Alex.

~Mark Nelson



Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow, Mark! You're never at a loss for deep thoughts, are you? Have you been smokin' some of that recently-made-legal weed? ;)

Defining morality is an essential part of the human journey, and I think that's one of the reasons why we are so caught up with the question of how 'best' to do it in fantasy. (And isn't identifying a 'best' practice in itself setting up an absolute?)

Me, I like the villains who are evil for the sake of evil. In a world where racial cleansing is still alive and well, human trafficking a profitable business, and 14-year-old girls can get shot for going to school, I'd say we still have a few things to learn about the concept of evil.

But I also very much like to see villains who are complex humans driven to do bad things. I like the anti-heroes who are occasionally uncertain of themselves. I like the good guys who have a bad streak, who make stupid mistakes, who don't always live up to expectations. Every combination we can think of enriches our characters and our stories.

Thanks for another great post, Mark! Looking forward to seeing what other people have to say about this one...

Terri-Lynne said...

I've always found darker heroes to be more interesting, as well as villains owning several shades of gray. Although I can read books without even subtle shifts over the good v bad line, I can't write them.

Karin--I think you will find Wait (in Beyond the Gate) interesting. :)

As we've been told in many-an-article and panel session: Everyone is the hero of their own story. I can't think of any character aside from Dr. Evil who is evil for evil's sake, and even he has a back story!

We might have had this conversation in here before, but I find that the only pure evil characters tend to be those of some sort of faerie--beings made of evil. And while Sauron seems to apply, it's the Sauron we get to in the LOTR books that has evolved into that, but if you read any of the evolution stuff Peter Tolkein and Guy Gavriel Kay put together after JRRT's death, you see another such backstory in which Sauron, like any other villain, is the hero of his own story.

Interesting...I wonder if anyone can come up with truly evil characters.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here.

I think CS Friedman has done a nice job with darker main characters. My contention is all too often the evil for the sake of evil comes off as carboard thin in the exchange. We just finished reading The Crucible in class. Outside of the political applications of Miller's play, I have always been intrigued by the monodimensional portrayal of the Devil in the Puritan story. Even my most conservative students found the narrow-minded, limited, fear-mongored interpretation flat and ultimately uninteresting. When that happens in fiction, I think we get second rate stories.