The Tolkien era of Fantasy had brought us villains who were evil for the sake of evil. Their motives were pretty much they wanted to destroy the world because they were evil and nothing more was really known about these antagonists. That was the point, they represented the force of evil more than being individual characters with motives. In a few stories this works, but now there is a call for more depth to the villains of the stories. Generally, now there are antagonists with motives and backstories, and just like reality these people tend to not see themselves as evil but as saviors.
History is rife with horrible rulers of both nations and organizations. Some of these people were like Sauron who simply wanted to dominate others without sympathy or empathy for anyone else. Others though were more like Darth Vader, horrible people who saw themselves as protectors or necessary such as Valad The Impaler.
How often do we do things that are wrong and justify it in our minds? Taking that line of thought further, how often do we glorify our ideological positions while demonizing the “other” side? Sure we may not be killing anyone or desiring to, but isn’t that a similar train of thought that these evil people in history and fiction acted on? I’m not saying everyone who dug in their heels and stood up for their convictions is akin to a villain, but just that it is easy to continue down the rabbit trail and become so blinded by ideology empathy no longer remains. This is especially common in political spheres from 2015 to present in America.
Certainly, there are things we all disagree with. That is okay, in fact it is necessary for anyone who has a spec of critical thinking and morality. With the advent of the internet it is becoming easier to live in an echo chamber and grow angrier at those who are outside of your thought circle. Hope is only found in those who agree with you and me, while despair and the end of the world comes in the form of those that dare think differently. To me, it looks like there is less nuance in our culture than there was even ten years ago. People are ready to sever ties with friends and even family because of differing viewpoints because their beliefs are “dangerous.” With this mentality, called Tribalism, which I addressed in previous blogs, it is only opening the door for a real evil to rise to power. As freedoms erode the people will cheer that person on because “their” person was in power, not the “other” side. Of course, the opposite group will do everything they can to oppose the person in power, but perhaps it won’t be enough. This is hypothetical, and not a subtle dig at the current president or any before him. I know that some already view him in this light, but that isn’t what I am referencing. In an environment where people are looking to be offended or read into their own bias, I feel that is necessary to state.
Fiction is meant to teach us. To help us ponder our own actions as well as the happenings within our own culture. Let us actually implement the lessons from history and fiction, lest we create a monstrous world we cannot undo.
I have written before that dark and gritty is the way of things in the modern world of fiction. Whether there is a heavy call for more grit or it is simply author’s and film makers trying to push their vision onto audiences I’m not certain. I think it is possible creators of fiction are trying to capitalize on the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, both of which are prime examples of dark and gritty fiction.
Grit however, doesn’t belong in everything. The purpose of fiction is to address at larger, important issues, some of which are not addressed often by reality. Time and again I read about stories which will take a “darker tone” along the lines of GOT. I am much more familiar with The Walking Dead than I am Game of Thrones, so I cannot speak much for the latter or its source material, but at the heart of the show isn’t just trying to be realistic, it’s cynicism. So many movies and books lately have taken stories and turned them incredibly dark for the sake of realism. Realism is the ultimate justification for characters dropping like flies and good being forced out to the brink of utter destruction until a small miracle happens at the end. When good finally gets Its day, the main characters typically have become jaded and become stripped of what made them heroes.
In fiction and reality, heroes are not perfect, nor should they be. However, there is a difference between being flawed and being hardly recognizable as a hero, or worse not distinguishable from the villain. This appears to be a growing trend, especially in film and television. Is that really realistic though? Yes, for some people, but not everyone. There are many heroes who endured unimaginable tragedy and still maintain their integrity. It is growing less common to show heroes like this. Dark, anti-hero types are fine and work well in certain stories, but the storyteller must beware of cynicism. The truth is that fiction is escapism for many, if they want a healthy dose of reality and realism, they don’t need fiction. That isn’t to say I don’t expect realism in fiction or to have all characters have happy endings, but their lives should have meaning if they are main characters because fictional characters represent something.
Characters, if done correctly are people that readers relate to and root for. Even if their story ends in tragedy, or become evil, their stories should serve a purpose other than shock value for the audience. This sort of flippant disregard for characters has begun to happen to those with decades of lore and generations of fans. Why is this? Do people really crave so much dark cynicism? Cynicism that is growing in entertainment is teetering on the verge of nihilism. Do we as a species really crave dark, depressing stories for the sake of realism? Some do obviously, but I have a hunch the number of people who do want that are fewer than expected.
“If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.” Hopefully most people would find that to be an absurd line of reasoning. Yet, we see it put into practice by so many people. Particularly lately when tensions are high between political ideologies. At this moment everything is affected, and it quite possibly will only get worse.
I’ve said many times before on this blog that it isn’t the writer’s job to pander. An author is a conduit which the characters use to tell their story. In my previous blog, I focused on how media is often seen through the lens of politics. I did address that sometimes authors use their medium in order to push an ideological agenda, but for the most part I feel a lot of times people are simply reading into stories and getting offended over nothing.
It is time to address the fact that there is legitimate political pandering in not just books but television, music, and movies. This contributes to the paranoia that everything is pushing an agenda, whether that is the intent or not. When this happens, there isn’t just a bias, but too often the message is, “If you don’t believe or think like me you are evil.”
To avoid the misconception that I am adhering to political conspiracy theories, I will simply say that often only one side of the spectrum is what’s represented most. When this viewpoint is represented, it also more likely takes the more extreme point of view of this ideology which is “if you don’t believe like me you are a terrible person.” Yes, I know there are people who think like that in EVERY belief system. This is merely a general observation I’ve witnessed. This isn’t productive, nor what fiction is about. Obviously, the beliefs of the creator come through into the product, but it shouldn’t be overbearing or pandering. Subtlety is almost always the best approach in fiction when trying to get a point across, that is what all of us writers must remember.
It’s no secret there are deep divisions in American culture, especially politically. Maybe it’s just my perception but it appears that everything is suddenly seen through the lens of politics. While that isn’t to be completely unexpected, after all people read things through a worldview. However, right now there appears to be less nuance and more, “believe like me or you’re evil.” This is seeping into fiction. Television, movies, and books are labeled with assumptions based on who ever is consuming the media and many times they are wrong.
I’m going to say up front that I do not adhere to the philosophies of either Republicans or Democrats. I find them both deeply flawed for different reasons. I feel this needs to be stated just in case someone attempts to accuse me of taking sides, since reading into things is a common practice on the internet. Now that that’s out of the way, both parties have built of tribalism around them, while painting the other side as evil. Yes, evil. Not misinformed, not simply disagreeing on important issues, no evil. The chasm between Liberalism and Conservatism has grown so much that neither side can even agree on the basics. Around politicians that craft these ideas there is the rest of the country who mostly either adheres to one side or the other.
This tribalism doesn’t end at the polls or while determining which candidate to vote for. It often overflows into media. Readers start to have a visceral reaction to books because there are perceived ideas from “the other side” while authors cave to pressure to pander to their audience and fall into the trap of becoming too political with their works. Tensions have been rising, especially after the 2016 election, and continue to escalate, almost as if people are looking to fight with those who believe differently.
In my next post I will continue this topic. For now, I think all of us need to consider the implications of tribalism and vilifying those who believe differently.