Yesterday, I began a discussion here that was part of an ongoing dialog between myself and many other bloggers – including, but not limited to Lua Fowles, J.P. Cabit, Janna T. and any others who may have commented on yesterday’s post (obviously, I’m writing this before yesterday’s post went live, i.e. from the Past! Via the magic of Science!) – about honesty in fiction. Yesterday’s post focused specifically on language and how we use it and, more specifically than that, on profanity.
The question at hand is author-extraordinaire Stephen King’s assertion that we have what amounts to a sacred trust with the Reader to represent the world of our story, and its characters, honestly and truly. But, even in accepting that sacred trust, the question remains as to what represents honesty and truth in the context of what is essentially a fabrication, and figment, a lie.
The question I’m trying to explore in this blog post is the dark matter of fiction. Story requires plot, and plot requires characters and conflict. These are the most basic of building blocks in what writers do. And the heart of conflict is… well… conflict. That’s a huge can of worms to open. There are many layers and many depths that we can explore regarding the issue of conflict. We can skim it lightly, reflecting the little surface conflicts of every-day life: whether to drive too fast or aggressively to get to work on time after sleeping in too late, whether to ask the pretty girl/handsome guy out, whether to ask the boss for a raise, whether to stay home and study for the test tomorrow or go out to hang with friends, whether to lace a little profanity into your speech to seem hip and cool… and so on. Some readers eat this stuff up, and some writers love to write it.
Me, I’m a speculative fiction lover, writer and reader. I deal with everyday life conflicts every day. When I turn to story and fiction, I’m looking for something that plays out on a larger stage. I’m looking for something that makes it a relief to return to my little, everyday troubles. I’m looking for something that gives me perspective, and context, and meaning. I’m looking for something with mythic scope. I’m not that unusual, in that regard. Even if that doesn’t float your boat, though, what I’m discussing here will still be relevant.
Because, yes, you can base the conflict of your story on those easily accessible, easily identifiable conflicts – things that your readers will identify with – or you can dig further to the types of conflict that are deeper and more frightening. We’re talking “Good vs. Evil” stuff here. (Ultimately, all conflicts are about good versus evil, for sufficiently malleable definitions of “good” and “evil”.) Sure, that guy you thought was your best man who went and seduced your girlfriend and now she dumped you – he’s a jerk. And that’s a good starting point for a conflict. We can even call that “evil” (remember, malleable definitions). Anyway, he’s the bad guy of your story.
But what if he rapes her? Now we’ve just gone from romantic comedy to a dark thriller of some kind. We’ve inserted something terrible, and terrifying, in the story – the dark matter. And rape is real. It happens, and when it does it’s truly terrifying. In fact, I don’t think I’m off-base in saying it’s an everyday terror, because it’s something that’s happening pretty much every day. And rape is just one facet of the depths of human depravity. A hundred, maybe a thousand, other terrors are happening every day. Pushers on the street corner making a fast buck on a strung-out junkie. Pimps backhanding the ladies they “manage”. Corporate scheming to defraud investors and the public, or crass, gross negligence when dealing with hazardous and deadly chemicals. Entire nations that deprive their citizens of basic human dignity and human rights. Wars, genocides, racial, ethnic, or religious violence, extremism, torture. The list goes on, and that’s just sticking to stuff we see in the real world. When you move over into speculative fiction, there’s a whole new galaxy of depravities that open up that aren’t even possible in mainstream fiction.
But, however terrible these things are: these things are real. They’re the dark matter of the human heart. Some of us have never seen these things, but we cannot lie and say they do not exist. Is it dishonest to gloss over these things? Should your romantic comedy be obliged to mention the genocide in Darfur? It’s a facetious question – perhaps – but in telling a story where these things aren’t mentioned, we’ve created a world where these terrors aren’t happening. In many genres, that’s perfectly appropriate. (Just as in many genres, it’s perfectly appropriate to eschew profanity. In fact, I daresay that profanity itself is merely an interesting subset of the depravities and evils mentioned here, insofar as it’s one of the few depravities in which a writer can actively engage in the act of writing itself: by writing profanities we are in fact using profanities and in that way we have done the act the same as if we’d said the words out loud.)
But, let’s say you want to tackle these heady, dark issues in your fiction. How do you go about doing so? Do you draw a clear and evident line between good and evil? Rape/genocide/what-have-you is evil and those who engage in such acts are therefore, by definition, likewise evil. No questions, full stop. Or do you try to suggest nuance, and shades of gray? (On the topic, there’s an interesting post on the supposed subject of “gray rape” on the site of Jim Hines that’s well worth the read. Apparently besides being a fantasy fiction writer, Jim also has a background as a crisis counselor.) Do you show these sorts of acts purely from the protagonist’s perspective – the perspective that agrees with the sensibilities of (we hope) the writer and reader that these acts are depraved? Is that honest? Or do you show these things from the point-of-view of the perpetrator?
The point is that the human creature is capable of some very horrific acts. How we portray these acts matters – to the writer, to the reader, to society at large, and to the integrity of our very own souls¹. Some of us, though certainly not all of us, will have to engage these issues in our fiction. But how do you do that in a way that stays “true” to the subject, “true” to yourself, and which fulfills your “sacred trust” to the reader? Easier said than done, I say. But we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t consider these questions carefully before diving in to these big, dark conflicts.
It’s a question I’ve really pondered, and grappled with. That fantasy-novel-I’ve-been-working-on-since-forever… there are some really bad bad guys in it. And some really good good guys. And lots of gray area between the two. Yeah, it’s a world of black-and-white, of good-and-evil, as is requisite in a big epic fantasy novel. It’s also a world of shades-of-gray. And I’ve struggled with how to portray that darkness, and that light, and everything in between. Is it enough to say “Dark Lord X” is evil, and be done with it? I’ve washed my hands, and there’s nothing more to say. If the story takes place in a world where there will be shades of gray, the answer is “no”, it’s not enough. That’s not honest, because it lacks context. What is “evil”? How do you define it? (Remember those malleable definitions above? Now it’s time to get specific.) So… is Dark Lord X² evil because he wants to destroy the world? Yawn. Been there, done that, dropped the ring in the volcano, and got the tee-shirt, right? (Hey, I loves me some epic good-vs-evil Tolkienian struggles as much as the next guy.) So, I repeat: what makes Dark Lord X evil? What foul depravities will he get up to when left to his own devices? From what dark place in your own heart does he spring? Is that a place you’re willing to explore? What are the boundaries, the limits?
There are places I will not go, not even for a good story. There are dark matters that I cannot employ, depravities I cannot explore, villainies I cannot contemplate. I can only go so far into the mind and heart of darkness before I must turn back. When the bad guy gets up to something truly nefarious, truly sick, I have to cut scene, fade-to-black. The evil exists, and it’s important that I acknowledge that. But there’s no need for me to indulge it, to revel in it. Even in fiction. And, just as overuse of profanity in a story thrusts me out of the story, too much exposure to real dark deeds in a story will also thrust me out through the mechanism of moral and visceral repugnance. I can’t relate to characters who are that far down the “shades-of-gray” scale that they’re nearly indistinguishable from purest evil – and I don’t want to relate to them. I don’t want to understand them, not in that moment. If there are shades of gray, nuances, and subtleties, I want to understand that and to explore that. But when we get down to the business of what’s really horrific – I have to draw the line somewhere.
Where do you draw the line?³
¹For those who believe in “souls” of course. YMMV. Alternatively, insert “psyche” or “id” or a suitable psychological term.
²”Dark Lord X” is not really the bad guy’s name in that fantasy-novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever.
³There are other angles from which to explore this “truth and honesty in fiction” question than the issue of the dark matter. For now, though, I’m going to stop here, on this topic. I feel I’ve gone far enough. There’s a fair chance I’ll re-examine “Truth in Fiction” from an entirely different, and less dark, perspective in the future.