Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Laws of Fiction

The great nineteenth-century Christian fantasy writer George MacDonald (author of THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN and AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND), also wrote a lot of nonfiction, including a collection of essays called A DISH OF ORTS, which contains some extended ruminations on literature. This book is available online as a free PDF. The final section, on the Fantastic Imagination, is well worth reading for its thoughts on the process of what Tolkien later called “subcreation.” MacDonald discusses how the writer of fantasy (or, as MacDonald refers to the genre, fairy tales) must faithfully ensure “harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws.” In other words, as all writers of speculative fiction know, consistency within an imaginary world is necessary for suspension of disbelief. “Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow.” Then comes the passage that struck me most powerfully:

“In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey—and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.”

What a lucid, penetrating reminder of the principle that believable characterization, even of monsters or aliens, must ultimately be grounded in human nature as we know it. MacDonald’s view on “the laws of the spirit” seems especially relevant today with the popularity of flawed heroes and antiheroes in contemporary fiction. Of course protagonists have to demonstrate some flaws in order to seem credibly human. And the antihero protagonist certainly has his place, as long as he possesses enough redeeming traits to make him a bearable companion for the length of an entire novel. I’ll give up on a book, though, if the author clearly expects us to like, maybe even approve of, a character who seems to me to have no redeeming traits.

What about the Hannibal Lecter series? When Thomas Harris first introduces Dr. Lecter, in RED DRAGON, the cannibal psychiatrist is clearly evil, although already an extraordinary character. In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS he becomes charismatic and seductive, but there’s still no question of his evil. A strong protagonist, Clarice, opposes him while acknowledging his fascination. HANNIBAL becomes more ambiguous, because Lecter functions as the viewpoint character for much of the novel. However, he still has Clarice as a counterweight on the “good” side, at least until the dark fairy tale ending. In the prequel, HANNIBAL RISING, though, Lecter becomes the protagonist, and the reader is drawn to sympathize with him. In both HANNIBAL and HANNIBAL RISING, Harris subverts the established status of Lecter as the bad guy by opposing him with other villains who come across as even worse. In the prequel, especially, we first meet Lecter as a helpless child trapped in a horrible situation, very different from the suave manipulator in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Disturbingly, even before HANNIBAL RISING came out, some readers posted fanfic and Internet discussions insisting Lecter wasn’t totally evil. They were seduced by the character’s intelligence, seductiveness, and cultural polish into overlooking his essential sociopathy.

Which brings to mind the shooter in the recent Colorado attack. (Not that I believe for a second that the Batman franchise has any responsibility for his violence, any more than the Beatles were responsible for Charles Manson. No artist can predict how a mentally unstable individual will respond to a work.) Batman has been presented in some incarnations as not only a character with a dark side but sometimes verging on an antihero. Still, he’s always shown as fighting for the side of good (as far as I can tell from reading the reviews, not having seen many of the movies). The Joker, on the other hand, is clearly the bad guy, labeled as such by the narrative and unambiguously acting as such. For whatever personally warped reasons, the Colorado shooter identified with the wrong character.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. This is a very helpful list. Well done for assembling all these together