Tag Archives: villains

Your Fav is Problematic—That's Okay

Your Fave is Problematic—That’s Okay

My favorite character from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, is Jaime Lannister, the heir to the Lannister family, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and an all-around terrible person. No, really. There are forum threads dedicated to his awfulness, and I don’t disagree with anything they say. He is awful; that’s not up for debate. But I don’t care; I still like him. There is something about his wit, his tenacity, his strange sense of honor, and his odd drive to do right by his family that draws me in as a reader. He’s my favorite.

In his Banquet Speech, William Faulkner observes good writing as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I adore that line. As a character, Jamie embodies that for me. There is so much to loathe but a lot to like. It makes him complicated, and it makes him human. However, in some circles, my statement draws ire. How can I enjoy reading about someone so terrible? After all, he is someone who symbolizes the opposite of many values I hold dear. To those people, it doesn’t make sense; it feels two-faced and hypocritical.


“...the human heart in conflict with itself...”


These voices are nothing new. I remember hearing them as a kid from conservatives, and I’ve heard them as an adult from progressives. Recently they’ve become particularly pronounced on social media, shouting down and hunting those who dare explore life through the lens of problematic fiction. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several authors attacked—on social media, within articles, in reviews, and on blogs. Fans have gone after them for the problematic circumstances, events, and behavior of characters within their novels. It’s not surprising; it’s an extension of the same attitude we have seen play out in the social sphere. In addition to holding real-life humans accountable, fandom is now trying to hold fiction accountable.

In 2016, the internet was in a frenzy over one of the questioners from the second presidential debate, Ken Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois. Overnight, he became an internet sensation. He saw endorsement deals, a “Bone Zone” T-shirt line, appearances on ESPN, and was satirized during a Saturday Night Live cold open. But like all people, Ken Bone was human, and soon his heroism was tarnished. Afterwards, Katie Rogers of The New York Times wrote an excellent article exploring his rise and fall from fame titled “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” The article discussed the depth in which people investigated, and eventually exposed all of Ken Bone’s history-both positive and negative. Within the article, there was a line that struck me regarding the fragility of the internet. One I found myself mulling over and over. That line? “The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


“The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


Within some fandoms and genres[1], there is this strange narrative forming that our heroes, and largely our fiction, need to be morally and ethically pure. It leads to the belief that fiction shouldn’t have flawed characters, or focus on stories with plotlines that wrestle with difficult themes. And heaven forbid those characters don’t get their comeuppance, and those themes don’t get resolved satisfactorily. That sort of nuance doesn’t play in the fandom echo chamber.

This leads back to Rogers’ statement: She’s not wrong. The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance. The internet, in particular, abhors it. Nuance is challenging. Nuance requires you to read the whole article, not just the headline. Nuance wants you to put aside your initial emotions and reflect. It forces you to observe the entire character, rather than their action at a particular moment. It loves to do nothing more than draw lines in the sand and force others to step over and pick a side. You are this, and I am that. You’re bad; I’m good.

In early January, Fonda Lee, the author of Jade City (Go read it; it’s good.), had a great little thread on Twitter separating fiction into “the world as it is” or “the world as you wish it to be.” We can call these the mirror and the beacon. The beacon, as Lee says, shows us the world as it could be. It’s aspirational, the shining city on a hill[2]. While the mirror forces us to wrestle with the ugliness of reality and its contradictions, it also takes Faulkner’s approach to fiction—it forces the heart to go to war.

If you’ve sat in on any of my panels, you might have heard me mention that one of the reasons I love genre fiction is that it allows us a place to explore difficult—and often challenging—ideas. Books can be closed and put away. However, that doesn’t mean the themes and ideas held within the pages won’t be disturbing. It also doesn’t mean characters won’t say vile things or perform despicable acts. Often both will happen, and sometimes the results might not align with the reader’s worldview. Here be dragons, after all.

I think grappling, as both a reader and a writer, with challenging ideas, plots, and characters are necessary for a vibrant fictive landscape[3]. It’s also faithful to humanity; human history is rich in dichotomy. Nothing with people is ever black and white. People let you down as often as they impress you. That’s what makes them people. That’s what makes love, love. Love goes beyond the faults. It forgives in spite of transgressions.


“It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.”


Lately, when someone asks me what my manuscript Coal Belly is about, I often have a simple answer: “It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.” I want that complexity in my work. I want people to like a character, yet struggle with their decisions. I want to explore the gray. It’s why fiction like The Lord of the Rings[4] or The Chronicles of Narnia never drew me in the same way as other fantasy novels. The villains were too villainous, the heroes too heroic. The points made were too explicit and too heavy-handed.

That works for some readers. They’re both fine examples of the beacon, and some people want that in their escapism. However, to me, it comes across as patronizing and quixotic.

Mikey Numan, in his review of the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, described its cast of characters thusly: “No villains; only viewpoints.” This means that within the movie, “evil” or the concept of “bad” becomes a byproduct of the characters’ behavior; even the good, well-intentioned characters say and do problematic things[5]. In reality, villains don’t see themselves as villains, and heroes aren’t always heroic. I am more intrigued by stories willing to take this stance, stories that ask difficult questions and force me—the reader—to decide rather than go out of its way to hammer home a particular point.


“No villains; only viewpoints.”


Some people aren’t keen on being uncomfortable. What is an engaging plot point for one person might be disturbing for another. That’s okay. Fiction is like food; not everyone’s tastes are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that we should restrict one set of narratives in favor of the other. Nor does it mean that challenging fiction is inherently bad. The existence of characters and circumstances that are problematic aren’t excusing harmful behavior. Neither are they praising or glorifying the legitimate evils of the past. They’re merely an observation. Good fiction interweaves those challenges into its prose. Sharing points of view, circumstances, and experiences[6] through fiction gives us a place to build both empathy and sympathy. It can help to expose us to other walks of life, and it lets us explore the viewpoints of others—viewpoints that we might not have access to in our everyday lives.

For many readers and some fandoms, it seems that, unless the writer features a Jim Halpert, who slowly turns and stares at the camera as punctuation for what is absurd or offensive, we’re unable to parse it for ourselves. It was funny in The Office, but I loathe it in my fiction. I’m not into passive consumption. I don’t want or need my hand to be held as I read a book. I want the challenge. I want nuance. I want to struggle with my emotions about characters. I want to be offended and shocked. I want to be pushed and made uncomfortable. I want a place where the world’s imperfections are mirrored and explored. I want problematic fiction, with problematic circumstances, filled with problematic characters, experiencing problematic viewpoints. I want to get out of my small echo chamber and explore the vastness of humanity—warts and all. Within the mirror, reconciling those things isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. This is why we have fiction. This is why we tell stories. This is what fandoms and the echo chambers need. This is why Jamie Lannisters exist. So, let our hearts be in conflict.


Let our hearts be in conflict.


1 Most notably, Young adult and New adult but it’s bled into Sci-fi and Fantasy. Also, soapbox moment here… New adult features protagonists ‘between the ages of 18-30.’ Look, I’m 36 right now, so this is an old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-clouds thing, but at 30 you ain’t a new adult.

2 Thanks, Gipper.

3 Also for emotional maturity, but more on that later.

4 There are a few exceptions here, most notably: Boromir, he is an incredibly complex personality, and arguably the best character in the series. Yeah, I went there.

5 It’s a great review and a pretty solid film. I say this as a guy who is not a fan of Miyazaki movies.

6 And discussing them. Please, discuss away! Dialog is vital and important. You could argue that discussion is why complex fiction exists. It wants to be talked about.


[Note:] I originally published this article with the title “Your Fav is Problematic—That’s Okay.” While either is technically correct, I have since changed the “Fav” to “Fave” to closer align with the Problematic Fave meme.


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Friday Link Pack 10-30-2015

Friday Link Pack – Halloween

It’s the day before Halloween! That means it’s time for the Friday Link Pack, Halloween Edition! My weekly spooooky post covering topics such as scary writing, terrifying art, current bone-chilling events, and random weirdness. Some of these links I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Do you have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…

WRITING:

H.P. Lovecraft Gives Five Tips For Writing A Horror Story
It’s always fun to look at “rules” writers share as advice for others. Grandpa Weird’s advice is pretty straightforward, and can be applied to any story, not just horror.

5 Simple Steps On Creating Suspense in Fiction
What is a good horror story without a bit of suspense? In this piece for Writers Digest, novelist Leigh Michaels goes into details about how you can up the intensity of your writing.

The 10 Best Horror Books You’ve Never Read
Another list of great horror reads that somehow forgot to include one of mine. That said, this list is pretty solid, and it features a lot of spooky reads assembled by horror author Nick Cutter.

6 Ways To Write Better Bad Guys
In this article for Writers Digest, author Laura DiSilverio offers up some advice on how to write interesting villains that leave your readers both engaged and stunned.

ART:

The Art Of Laurie Lee Brom
Laden with an old southern gothic feel that is thick with ghostly imagery, Laurie Lee Brom’s work is beautiful, but it also goes further, hinting at the darker side of new contemporary. Absolutely fantastic stuff.

The Art Of Jeffery Alan Love
Eschewing typical styles common in fantasy art, and instead pursuing a bold and graphical focused work laden with thick texture. Love his simple use of color and form. Jeffery Alan Love’s creations are both engaging and stunning. (His image Totentanz – The Dance of Death is the featured image this week.)

The Art Of Heather McLean
Running drips of color, dark figures in heavy shadows, and liquid bursts of black play throughout Heather Mclean’s work. There’s something dark here, something mysterious, and something engaging.

RANDOM:

Local 58
If there’s one link you check out this week, make it this. A creepy mood video from Chainsaw Suit Studios that tells a succinct story and very much needs to be watched. (Preferably in the dark.) Whatever you do, don’t look outside. [Thanks to Miguel for sharing this with me.]

Before Trees Overtook, Earth Was Covered By Giant Mushrooms
Recent fossil discoveries hint that giant mushrooms once rose from the land. So, maybe Super Mario Brothers was right, or The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind was, or whatever other giant-mushroom-fantasy-world of you choice.

Google’s Frightgeist
Do you want to be sure you have the most unique costume out there tomorrow night? Well, according to the Google Frightgeist you might want to skip dressing up as Harley Quinn (#1) and instead consider something like a banana (#148) or a loofah (#361).

The Mysterious Shamblers Of The Scablands
In my second entry for my Wild Territories series, I look at the shamblers. The strange yet frightening-looking creatures that roam the scablands of the Territories. What are they? What was their inspiration? Are they as docile as they seem?

WEIRD WIKIPEDIA:

Kuchisake-onna (Slit-Mouthed Woman)
Kuchisake-onna  is a figure appearing in Japanese urban legends. She is a woman who was mutilated by her husband, and returns as a malicious spirit. When rumors of alleged sightings began spreading in 1979 around the Nagasaki Prefecture, it spread throughout Japan and caused panic in many towns. There are even reports of schools allowing children to go home only in groups escorted by teachers for safety, and of police increasing their patrols. Recent sightings include many reports in South Korea in the year 2004 about a woman wearing a red mask who was frequently seen chasing children, and, in October 2007, a coroner found some old records from the late 1970s about a woman who was chasing little children. She was then hit by a car, and died shortly after. Her mouth was ripped from ear to ear.

H.P. LOVECRAFT STORY OF THE WEEK:

The Horror in the Burying-Ground
Co-written with Hazel Heald, and told from the perspective of the various townsfolk of the abandoned and moldering town of Stillwater, the story revolves around a strange old man who haunts a graveyard.

GIF OF THE WEEK:

spooky scary skeletons!

Happy Halloween!

Friday Link Pack 07/17/2015

Friday Link Pack 07/17/2015

Here is today’s Friday Link Pack! Some of these links I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Do you have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Click here to email me and let me know! (Include a website so I can link to you as well.) Let’s get to it…

WRITING:

Shorter
Fantastic article from Cory Doctorow on learning that brevity is often the right solution for any project. He’s right, and it’s good advice to take to heart. It’s something I am still learning myself. Thank God for good editors. [Thanks to Steve for sending this my way.]

Time Management Is Only Making Our Busy Lives Worse
I’m including this in the writing section for a few reasons: first, I see a lot of articles regarding time management and writing, and second: I think it’s good to step back and consider our craft the way we’d consider any other task. Don’t let time management get in the way of your creativity.

10 Key Questions That Can Determine Your Success As A Writer
Great list from best-selling author Jonathan Gunson reminding us what it takes to succeed at writing. Fantastic advice. Give yourself the time to go through these and answer honestly.

Three Quotes On Villains
What makes a villain engaging? What is a villain anyway? I assembled three quotes from three great creators that challenge the notion of what a villain should be.

ART:

Spooky Glass Bottles Inspired By H.P. Lovecraft
Italian artist Andrea Falaschi has created a series of insanity-inducing bottles for your favorite concoction. Fantastic detail. I love how unique each one is and how weathered they look. [Thanks to Scot for sending this to me.]

The Gore and Agony Of New Baroque Sculptures At The Met
Absolutely stunning 17th century sculptures by Pedro de Mena. The level of detail in this work is astounding.

Viral Series by Jess Riva Cooper
I guess this weeks theme is sculpture. I stumbled across these ceramic busts and was struck by the craftsmanship and how they danced on that fine edge between beautiful and disturbing. Fantastic work.

The Sandy Beach Architecture of Calvin Seibert
I fell in love with these temporary sand projects. Incredible work. Part of me is disappointed they were reclaimed by the sea, but that is also what makes their existence so wonderful.

RANDOM:

Japan’s New Satellite Captures an Image of Earth Every 10 Minutes
I just… I can’t… how stunning is this? (Very.)

The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes
Sometimes it’s hard to realize the scale of an event in history until it is presented in a way that changes your perception. This quick animation from Slate does a good job in putting a number of lives affect during the slave trade into perspective.

The Death Of The Hippies
Photographer Joe Samberg looks back on the era of the hippies and his time on Telegraph Ave. for The Atlantic, recalling how drug addiction eventually destroyed the scene. (A cropped version of one of Joe’s photos serves as the lead for today’s link pack.)

WEIRD WIKIPEDIA:

Hotel Toilet Paper Folding
“Hotel toilet paper folding is a common practice performed by hotels worldwide as a way of assuring guests that the bathroom has been cleaned.[1] Elaborate folding is sometimes used to impress or delight guests with the management’s creativity and attention to detail.

The common fold normally involves creating a triangle or “V” shape out of the first sheet or square on a toilet paper roll. Commonly, the two corners of the final sheet are tucked behind the paper symmetrically, forming a point at the end of the roll. More elaborate folding results in shapes like fans, sailboats, and even flowers.” Continue Reading → 

H.P. LOVECRAFT STORY OF THE WEEK:

Fungi from Yuggoth
This poem, comprised of 36 sonnets, has long been a connection point between Lovecraft’s other work. Innsmouth is mentioned as well as Nyarlathotep and Azathoth, and we get more backstory for The Dunwich Horror and even Brown Jenkins from The Dreams in the Witch House makes an appearance.

GIF OF THE WEEK:

And, now you know how they worked...