Thursday, December 17, 2020

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Kameron Hurley's latest LOCUS essay discusses empathy versus selfishness and why being the "bad guy" is actually taking the easy way out:

It's Easy Being the Bad Guy

It's not uncommon to think villains are more fun to read and write, while heroes are boring. Hurley recalls her childhood reading diet of "feel-good fantasy novels," the kind of "noble tales" in which the good and people can be counted on to fulfill our expectations of their good or evil choices, and we know in advance "who would prevail and who would fail." In childhood, she "found this predictability boring and formulaic after the first three or four novels." Later she realized fiction of straightforward good and evil offers a welcome, valid respite from the "messy and complicated" real world where "good people coming out on top is far less common than we’d like." By adulthood, most of us have learned that's how the world works. It's understandable to want a fictional world that operates differently. In addition to fantasy, Hurley mentions detective stories, pervaded by the theme that truth will come to light and justice will prevail. As she puts it, "This is why we tell so many stories about the good folks winning, to balance out some of the everyday horror we encounter in a world that is fundamentally unfair."

In her early years, Hurley "believed goodness was the default state." Later in life, after decades lived according to an allegedly realistic philosophy of self-interest, she discovered that doing the right thing, rather than the easy "default" path, is a difficult choice that must be consciously taken. She notes that "we must actively choose goodness every day" and affirms, "Goodness. . . is not a state, but an act, one we must perform again and again." A provocative article well worth reading in its entirety.

In real-life terms, C. S. Lewis maintains that the notorious criminals, tyrants, and other villains of history have a monotonous sameness, while the saints are gloriously unique. Nevertheless, I feel there's some truth in the idea that it's often easier to write a convincing, interesting villain than a believable hero. Lewis himself creates interesting good characters, such as Lucy in the Narnia series and Dr. Ransom in the space trilogy (OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, etc.). Madeleine L'Engle does an especially fine job with her engaging young heroes, e.g., Meg and her brother Charles Wallace in A WRINKLE AND TIME and its sequels. The dual protagonists of Diane Duane's Young Wizards series also rank high in that category. Two of my other favorite good characters are Dorothy Sayers's mystery-solving duo of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Terry Pratchett also does this sort of thing brilliantly, as with formidable witch Granny Weatherwax and police chief Vimes.

The assumption that heroes can't interest audiences without fundamental flaws and deep-seated self-doubt has led to distortions such as the portrayal of Aragorn in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and the jarringly out-of-character behavior of Peter in the large-screen adaptation of PRINCE CASPIAN. This assumption is a fairly modern development, though, not an eternal verity in the creation of mythic, legendary, and fictional good guys.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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