No White Knights Here

Melissa’s post about killing off characters reminded me of another topic that writers sometimes disagree on- the place of the “bad guy” in fiction. Science fiction and fantasy have a history of famous series built around characters who really can’t be called “good.” These genres continue to be filled with an increasing number of anti-heroes- characters who are protagonists, but don’t have many (or any) heroic qualities. Here are a few famous examples:

Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Glen Cook’s Croaker (the Black Company), Stephen King’s Roland, and Roger Zelazny’s Corwin (Amber series).

Anti-heroes cover the whole spectrum of gray, from characters who are just a little too morally conflicted to be called heroes, to those who are just downright evil, but have managed to steal the spotlight. Does this put us in the position of rooting for the bad guy? Maybe.  A good author can pull the reader into the story and make them care about what happens to the protagonist. The reader feels the main character’s desires, is happy when they succeed, and disappointed when they fail. But what if that character’s desire is the enslavement of all mankind, or something similarly wicked? Should we be comfortable entering a mind like that?

There are arguments to be made for it, of course. Gray characters feel realistic, and even really evil ones can probably strike a chord with us, if we’re honest. Everybody has a little bit of monster in them. And it’s good escapism. After a bad day, who wouldn’t want to do a little mischief to the source of the aggravation? Most people wouldn’t dream of doing anything of the kind in real life, but dark characters offer a guilt-free way to cause mayhem vicariously.

So, how can we justify writing and reading about dark characters? Or do we even need a justification? Is it enough that, for both reader and writer, letting a little of the evil out is fun?

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4 thoughts on “No White Knights Here

  1. I think that it depends on how a writer portrays their dark characters as well as how dark they actually are. I am reminded of R.A. Salvatore’s ‘War of The Spider Queen’, a series in which none of the characters is anything even remotely resembling good until the third book in the series and one of the two characters who ‘becomes good’ goes back to being evil before the end. Also from Salvatore is the ‘Sellswords’ series featuring Artemis Entrerie and Jarlaxle, both of whom run the borderline between gray and black in their morality.

    The fact that many readers appreciate these characters say more, I think, about our culture in general than it does about the authors who write them. That being said I certainly enjoy delving into a little bit of evil every now and then, whether it be in my reading, my writing, or my role-playing. However I think that we must know where we draw the line, a character who has no chance of redemption, or more-so of CHOOSING redemption is something that does not appeal to me.

    In the book I am currently writing ‘The Neshelim’ the main character is being slowly drawn more and more into evil, however this is not done (at least I hope not) in a manner that glorifies that evil but in a manner that show how easy it is for him to accept it. The dangers it presents to his personality, his mindset, the joys it gives and the price it demands for them. I think that evil is a necessary part of fiction because it is a part of real life and I think that always presenting it in a manner that removes it from the reader is unhealthy. We face choices between good and evil every day, perhaps not set in stark black and white (because choices rarely are) but we face them nonetheless. I think that fiction should help us see those choices, should portray the honest consequences (both good and bad) of making those choices.

    This is why I have trouble with stories where the heroes are always happy and hopeful while the villains wallow in misery, anger, and despair. This portrayal of good and evil tells us nothing about ourselves.

  2. I have found myself drawn to the morally compromised anti-hero. S/he tends to have so much more fun than the upstanding hero type. I wonder if that’s the real reason that we like the anti-heroes. Being “good” just sometimes seems so much more boring than being bad. If you are constrained by the rules of chivalry and right and all that nonsense, you can’t really let loose and just enjoy your adventure, can you now?

    Literature tends to vascillate between the goody goody hero and the seriously flawed hero. Either we want to see the shiningly perfect Sir Galahad or we want the knight who’s willing to get his gauntlets a little bloody. Kill the bad guy! Don’t let him live out of mercy! What kind of nonsense is that?

    I do wonder if it says something about us that the Galahad figure tends to bore us. Shouldn’t we aspire to perfection? But I think you’re right. We can’t be that perfect and, sadly, don’t really want to be at this point. We want to see the hero who has a little more fun and does… not so shiningly perfect things.

    Why am I think about Richard from Looking For Group right now? I’m pretty sure he would be offended if we tried to put him in the gray area, but we still root for him, don’t we?

  3. Ah, yes the morally suspect characters do have more fun. They don’t mind the blood and sometimes their dealings are a little shady but I think what makes them so appealing is that in the pinch when it matters the most, the morally suspect not quiet the white knight in all things does the right thing–He saves the kittens and returns the medicine to the sick children. To quote The Emperor’s New Groove “nobodies that heartless.”
    I think of one of my favorite heroes/ anti-hero Mel from Firefly. He is a thief, a murderer, and sometimes completely immoral, yet he is the good guy in his own way. And I think that we like him so much because his flaws are similar to our flaws we see ourselves in his actions but Mel well do the right thing in the end. Even Richard for all his “I am evil undead” works towards the good of the hero and his campaign that makes him not completely evil.
    However, with this trend then of the morally suspect characters becoming the heroes of stories, the villains by necessity must become even more evil. I think of the Harry Potter books and how the Dursleys become increasingly cruel to the point that they are truly horrible. There is almost nothing redemptive that they could do to make you like them. I am concerned with this trend of the evil characters becoming too evil, or the trend that we revel in the villainous behavior of our evil characters.
    I think of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien spoke of Sauron but he never reveled in him. We know he is evil by his very nature even though we never speak with him directly we know that he embodies deceit, cruelty, and torment. Saruman is evil but Tolkien give him the chance to repent. I think the important thing is that the evil characters get soundly beaten and the morally suspect characters gain a few morals.

  4. I think that part of the problem is there is such a fuzzy line between dark heroes/anti-heroes/villains. Mal, for example, may not do things the legal way, but he’s very much a hero who constantly puts himself in danger for others. In comparison to Thomas Covenant (a dithering, cowardly rapist) Mal is practically angelic.

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