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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-05-09 05:54
Subject: [process] Do we need Sauron and Voldemort?
Security: Public
Tags:books, culture, politics, process, starship, sunspin, writing
A day or two ago, I asked the question on this blog, "Do we need Sauron and Voldemort"? By which I meant, do we as writers need strong antagonists to make a story compelling?

Obviously, that's a storytelling modality that works very well. One can hardly argue with the commercial success of either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Either of those series probably moves more books in any given month than I'll sell in my entire publishing life.

Humans, or at least humans living in the storytelling and cultural traditions of the West, have a strong affinity for dualism. Perhaps we're all birthright Manichaeans. The simplicity of moral contrast, of a binary choice, appeals strongly to us. Many people distrust nuance in ethics, in morality, in politics, in law. There's something very comforting about a simplistic good-vs-evil dynamic. You know who the "us" are, and you know who the "them" are. And certainly in both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, that is unambiguous on the page.

Yet there's a gentleman down in New Mexico who's shifted more than a few million books writing about a world where the good guys aren't very good, and most of the bad guys have mixed or even noble motives. Kind of like real life, where everyone is a protagonist, a hero of their own story. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has proven in a big, big way that you don't need stark moral dualism to sell well. Damned near everything in those books is ambiguous. There is still a decidedly strong moral dimension. It's just ambiguous and complex to the point of being non-Euclidean.

So I think about my own work in this context. Most of my books don't have clear-cut, central antagonists. (Well, maybe none of them do.) My plots tend toward one of two models — the hero(es) opposed by a shifting collage of shadowy forces; or a set of interlocking protagonists with conflicting goals. I like what I write. Bluntly, if I didn't like it, I wouldn't write it. But I don't write like Tolkien or Rowling. Or Martin, for that matter.

I write like Jay Lake. And Jay Lake is a guy who sees the world as complex and nuanced, and largely filled with people who think they're trying to do the right thing, even if too many of us cannot see the consequences of our own actions and beliefs for what they really are. (Yes, that's a not-very-veiled reference to contemporary American politics, but it also really is how I see the world in general.) So I write fiction where the world is complex and nuanced. I don't think I could write a Sauron or a Voldemort. I just don't believe in pure evil for evil's sake, any more than I believe in pure good for good's sake.

So, no towering antagonists for me. Which makes me wonder about Sunspin, which is decidedly in the vein of interlocking protagonists. Much as the precursor novel Death of a Starship was. It also makes me wonder about my sales figures. Am I really writing stories people want to read? Or am I doing it wrong?

What do you think? Do we need Sauron and Voldemort? Or does George R.R. Martin have the right of it? Where do you fall as a reader? Where do you fall as a writer?

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Twilight: WriterRose
User: twilight2000
Date: 2012-05-09 13:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

From a reader's perspective, either work - it's about the writing and the depth of characters for me.

I suspect for many, if they can view the "antagonist" from the eye of the "protagonist", they'll see a "bad guy" - but flipping that around in the middle of the story, or even opening with the "bad guy" from *his/her* point of view makes that antagonist much more interesting...
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User: a_cubed
Date: 2012-05-09 13:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
They can all be good. It can be very hard to write from a "bad guy's" point of view, though when done well it can make a really interesting story. I like well-written dualist plots and also complex multi-protagonist plots where no one is "good" and no one is "evil". One of JMS' comments when he was writing Babylon 5 was that "no one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says 'I'm evil'". Everyone is the hero of their own tale. Well, mostly. THere are weak people who know they're doing ill but can't resist. Glen Cook wrote in one of the Black Company books that "It's as hard to remove the last shred of light from ourselves as to remove the last shred of evil". The Black Company series, although it has Saruon/Voldemort types twice, also has lot of people who are at best anti-heroes, which I really like. When I think up plots to maybe write fiction someday, I tend towards the complex "apparent bad guy who turns out to be a good guy in an imossible situation" or a hero facing a variety of actors, some of whom are heroic by their own lights or driven by forces beyond their control... Fantasy detective works, of which I'm a big fan, can often manage without a "big bad" (as Joss Whedon calls the end-of-level bosses).
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Matthew S. Rotundo: Typewriter
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2012-05-09 13:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I would argue that for all their moral ambiguity, even the Song of Ice and Fire books feature strong antagonists, to wit: Cersei Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton (nee Snow), the Mountain, etc.

Further, "strong antagonist" doesn't necessarily mean "thoroughly evil overlord." It can, certainly, but it's not a requirement.

Edited at 2012-05-09 03:37 pm (UTC)
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2012-05-09 16:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thumbs-up to both of these points.
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User: madrobins
Date: 2012-05-09 13:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you need both kinds of books: ones with stark moral distinctions, and ones with nuanced continuums of morality. They scratch different itches.
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2012-05-09 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One way to think of this topic is the controlling metaphor you use for plotting. If the metaphor is "war," then the other side is more likely to be a villain. The plot, then, is a struggle between two forces at combat with each other, and wars often demonize the enemy.

But if there is another controlling metaphor, like a story is a birth, then there's no need for an identifiable enemy. The story is a record of the character becoming something else.

"War" is a perfectly seviceable metaphor, but so is "birth" and dozens of other ways to think of a story (and all their combinations).

Martin is a great example because the story is filled with war, but "war" is not the plot metaphor. His metaphor looks more like Brownian motion to me. Characters vibrate and move on their own agendas, and they bump up against each other on their separate routes, very much like life.
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User: etcet
Date: 2012-05-09 15:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Illustrating with examples:

Jack London, "To Build a Fire" - the adversary is simply "cold" and the motive "survival."

Ted Chiang, "The Story of Your Life" - the adversary is the inevitability of death, and the motive is to live despite having that knowledge.

The argument has been made, often and well, that villains make the hero. Without adversity, there's no challenge, no threat, and no growth (this is, fundamentally, the biggest stumbling point in my own writing thus far; literally tilting at windmills... or just the wind, in one case... is not compelling enough even when it's wrapped clever banter).

You absolutely have villains, in several sizes, from your protagonists' points of view, even if they don't always begin that way: Iso and Osi and the Bittern Court come most immediately to mind; Green may change her mind later, but there's no questioning when she views someone as an enemy in the moment. I think it's safe to say that people who threaten to destroy your protagonist's patron deity or her clan qualify as "big" bad guys.
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Matt Ruff
User: matt_ruff
Date: 2012-05-09 15:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Catcher in the Rye is at 65 million copies sold and still counting. I don't remember any Dark Lords in that, just a lot of phonies.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-09 15:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And you of course have just twigged me to how unconsciously genre-centric my post is. I mean, it is also consciously genre-centric, but I was making some foundational assumptions about story telling that were probably a terrific overreach.

Now I have to go think some more.

Thank you.
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Matt Ruff
User: matt_ruff
Date: 2012-05-09 15:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Wikipedia has a page on bestselling books/book series of all time. It's a very interesting mix of genres:


Tied for first place, with an estimated 200 million copies sold each: A Tale of Two Cities and The Little Prince.
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User: daveraines
Date: 2012-05-10 02:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting article - "Why fiction is good for you." On p5, the author talks about a study he did with some colleagues on Victorian literature, where heroes and villains were pretty sharply differentiated in these "simulated social worlds":

"Our survey respondents reacted to the characters as though they were real people: They admired the protagonists, disliked the antagonists, felt happy when the good guys succeeded, and felt sad or angry when they were threatened. By simulating a world where antisocial behavior is strongly condemned and punished, these novels were promoting ancient human values. And from these books, and from fiction more broadly, readers learn by association that if they are more like the protagonists, they’ll be more likely to live happily ever after."

He argues that fiction increases empathy and molds behavior. Reading compassionate stories make it more likely that people become helpful. He cites studies for these conclusions.

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