A Time for Douchebags

I sometimes wonder if my writing will forever be trapped in that rebellious teenage phase.

When I first started writing Tome of the Undergates, it was in direct response to a rough draft that I had begun penning when I was fourteen, which was influenced largely by the books I was reading at the time.

Hence, there were a lot of words like “hero,” “good,” “evil,” “dark master” and I think once I actually unironically wrote “nefarious fiend” being thrown around.

You know the kind of story I’m talking about.  The sanitized, bloodless, swooning-damsels, muscular-men with hearts of gold because that’s what they do versus the ugly, weird orc-like things that are totally ugly and gross and stuff.

I gather that, from all the discussion we’ve had about grittiness lately (and no, we’re not going to talk about that here…much), a lot of people were reading the same books as me.  Hence, when I wrote Tome of the Undergates to feature a lot of unpleasant people doing exceedingly bloody things that bordered on bastarddom, I was pretty pleased with myself.

But now that your average hero in fantasy tends to be an asshole of one kind or another…I don’t know.  I guess I’m getting a little bored?

Don’t get me wrong, I can see why we went down that road.  Beyond just rejecting the idea of white hats and black hats, we were interested in seeing what makes bad guys tick.  It was fun and unique to find out what makes these wicked people do what they do, because up until then, we’ve kind of taken it at face value that bad guys will do bad because they are bad and good guys will do good because they are good.

And it’s paid off.  We’ve come very far in understanding more about the former.  And yet, I can’t help but think we might not have asked ourselves the same questions about the latter.  And one of those questions now is…

Is there room for good ol’ fashioned good guys in fantasy?

Before you answer, let me do it for you: no.  There is no room for good ol’ fashioned good guys in fantasy (emphasis mine).  The traditional sanitary morally-irreproachable fantasies of your granddad’s day are dead and buried and should stay that way.  There are a lot of reasons why, of course.  They simplify all the morality and thought of a human being into an insulting stereotype.  They carry with them a lot of negative and iffy connotations as pertains to the aforementioned swooning damsels and the “other” (orcs, goblins, anything that isn’t a hero vaguely based off a medieval European dude) as a villain.  But for the purposes of this blog post, we’ll be talking about a sin they commit that has led to a slow decline of the “good guy” in fantasy.

They take good and evil as rote.  And that makes them dull.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned my friend Carl before, but for those of you just tuning in, he’s equal parts friend, spiritual advisor and fellow nerd.  Carl and I share a love of most video games and chief among them are RPGs.  From Baldur’s Gate to Skyrim, Carl has had one character he prefers to play and it will always be the first character he makes in any RPG: the lawful good paladin.  If there’s an option, he’ll always choose for nonviolence and making everyone happy.  If there’s no paladin class, he’ll come as close as he can.  If there’s no morality system, he’ll impose one on himself.

I can’t remember which game it was, precisely, that led to the conversation, but he was recounting an experience in which he pulled off the classic Lawful Good heist.  He saved every innocent NPC there was right down to their puppies.  He smote every last villain he knew to be wicked.  He made all his companions happy, saved the day and brought about a mighty triumph for truth and goodness.  For his troubles, he was awarded a sword of inestimable power.

And he sighed deeply and turned off the game in disappointment.

“Well, isn’t that sort of the course for video games?” I asked him.  “You are given a task to complete, you do it, you get rewarded.”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “If you’re the average adventurer.  I was the good guy.  If I’m doing it for the obvious reasons, then it’s not really interesting.”

And this, I think, is where we go wrong in writing good guys.

We live in a society where, basically, “good” is taken as the norm.  In most situations, our parents bring us up with the same basic values: don’t hurt other people, think of other peoples’ needs, be generous, try not to be an asshole.  Hence, we’ve sort of come to expect it as the default setting for most people (hence why we get dramatic variations of “I have lost faith in humanity” all over the internet whenever some dumbfuck does something awful in the world) and hence, we’ve kind of figured out all we care to know about it.

And a lot of that got translated into our early fantasy.  This guy is the point of view character.  He is like us.  Hence, he is good.  He tries not to hurt people, he isn’t an asshole, he thinks of other peoples’ needs.  That’s just what he does.

If the point of writing is to help us figure out what it means to be human, then it’s a small wonder that we rejected that idea of good as the “default” setting and started figuring out what makes a person a bastard.  We know what makes bad guys tick now, quite thoroughly.

But do we know what makes good guys tick?  Have we honestly asked ourself why someone would choose non-violence?  Have we honestly asked ourselves what makes someone give up everything for another person?  Have we given the good guys the same moral scrutiny that we gave the bad guys?

Possibly.  I’m certain you savvy readers out there could point me to a few examples.

But I’ve become more and more interested in exploring the idea.  If we look at good as “default,” then obviously it’s boring.  We didn’t put any thought into it.  But if we look at good as a choice, as hard and difficult as any bastard’s decision, then it becomes more intriguing.

I guess it wasn’t until The Skybound Sea that I started exploring this in my own work more.  But I wanted to make sure that the desire to do the “good” thing wasn’t the easy thing.

For Gariath, the decision to stick with his friends meant giving up the closest thing he would ever have to people like him.

For Dreadaeleon, the decision to give up power meant losing his one chance to be the hero he always wanted to be.

For Lenk and Kataria, the decision to cling together meant giving up their very identities.

I mean, it’s not like sacrifice, love, friendship, heroism and all those other happy snuggly things are subjects that inherently repulse people.  We’ve seen some of our most timeless masterpieces of science fiction and fantasy penned with those themes in mind (Star Wars comes to mind.  The good ones, anyway).  Every kid grows up wanting to be a hero, after all, but for a very long time our understanding of what it means to be a hero didn’t grow out of that childlike phase.

What we rejected, when we tore away from the old fantasy, was the idea of a spotless hero.  The idea that the world could be totally black and white wasn’t something we were very interested in because we knew the world didn’t work that way.  And don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for a return to that at all.  It was rejected for good reason.  The idea of the hero as something pristine and flawless is stupid and boring.

But lately, it almost seems like we’re going the other way, where we measure worlds and people in shards and fragments: they are sharp and they hurt to touch, they are broken and the only way to tell the difference is whose pieces fell off in the biggest chunks.

When I think of a hero, I think of something cracked and dirty.  Something that seems like it’ll never quite break, but it’s something that only someone who’s been with it a long time could love.  Because they could point to each smudge, each crack, each break and recall how they got that scar.

I guess the best example of this would Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series.  He’s not what you’d call a classically good guy.  I mean, he’s a thief.  He robs people, deceives them and he is fairly unrepentant about it.  But he sacrifices, he puts other people over himself (not everyone, mind you) and generally is willing to go beyond the typical pettiness.

Perhaps if we stop treating it as rote, as routine, as default, the idea of “good guys” doesn’t seem so boring.  Perhaps if we understand how painful it is to give up something, how heartwrenching it is to let something go for what you know is right, how beautiful love can be if the world burns for it, then maybe it’s worth talking about?

I mean, I don’t know.  Part of my general desire to rebel against establishment means I’m not always going to reflect what the readers, as a whole, want.  Maybe I’m deluding myself.  Maybe there isn’t a way to portray that idea of “good” as interesting.

But I can’t help but wonder.  If Tome of the Undergates, in all its bloody glory, was a rejection of the stuff I used to read, there must have been a reason it appealed to me in the first place.  Even if I outgrew the presentation of goodness, I never stopped being fascinated with the idea of it.

Maybe there’s still more to say about that.

9 Responses to “A Time for Douchebags”

  1. Anne Lyle

    I have to agree that I’m not interested in either the squeaky-clean paladin or the irredeemable bastard – neither of them seem terribly realistic to me (and the latter tends to be depressing to read, tbh).

    I think the reason Locke Lamora is so likeable is that he punches up, not down – his victims are rich, powerful people, not the poor or defenceless. That may be in part because there’s no challenge in besting the weak (the guy has one hell of an ego!), but the fact is, he’s unfailing kind to children, kittens, etc. How can one not love him? 🙂

    If the purpose of good fiction is to move us, then what could be more moving than a character who struggles against his or her worst aspects and at least occasionally wins?

  2. Eric Chase

    I like “good guys” but I can’t stand when they’re good for empty, all-too-noble reasons. It’s nice to have a protagonist whose actions I agree with, but has a darker side, or someone who does the “good” thing to do because he or she feels compelled to because of his or her past.

    One of my favorites is Kelsier from the Mistborn series. He’s a likeable scoundrel, but it takes a serious loss for him to consider doing something “for the greater good”, and even doing that elevates him to a point where there’s a lot of discomfort around his character later in the series.

    I think a lot of great characters come from a space of “doing the right thing for the wrong reasons” or “doing the wrong thing for the right reasons,” and the amount of shit that inevitably brews for everyone involved.

  3. JB

    I think Daniel Abraham has pulled this off beautifully in the Dagger and the Coin series, especially with Marcus Wester, but really most of the characters, though very flawed, are pretty likeable. And to boot, the women characters demonstrate really interesting and different kinds of strengths and weaknesses that are rarely treated in fantasy. Better still, the really awful guy, who is pretty muvpch Hitler, is queasily sympathetic. Plenty of villains are pathetic, but Abraham takes us through Geder Palliako’s entire development from nerdy, picked-on nobody to terrifying, unpredictable tyrant step by inevitable step. That really inverts the whole grimdark paradigm that’s kept me away from most fantasy. Definitely check it out if you haven’t.

  4. Adam Matthews

    Nice article Sam. Firstly, I don’t think old fantasy and new fantasy are any different as concerns the question of what it means to be a hero or what it means to be good. All of the heroes in old fantasy act on a code of values whose premises are firmly rooted in an altruistic ethics. The hero always engages in some kind of self sacrifice… either for the betterment of his race, country, child, or god. Either way, self sacrifice is the norm and that has not changed in more modern fantasy books.

    In modern fantasy, a hero may be an alcoholic, he may be a thief, he may be a bastard, or a womanizer, but when push comes to shove, he’s going to jump in a pit of fire and burn himself alive in the name of some overriding altruistic theme. No matter what, the hero must put other’s needs above his own to complete his role in the story. In modern fantasy, it just takes the hero a lot longer to realize that (and maybe that’s why we have so many books of enormous length… lol).

    In any case, the good guys are boring because at this point, everyone just assumes (correctly) that the hero, no matter how defective, either psychologically or in some other way, is going to “do the right thing in the end” — meaning giving up what matters to him most for some greater good.

    Did it ever occur to you to question the basic moral premise of altruism that is inherent in almost every fantasy book? Does a hero sometimes have not only the right, but the moral obligation to choose his own happiness over someone else’s? Why can’t selfish happiness be moral and heroic? Perhaps you’d think it simplistic to apply an ethics of rational self interest to fantasy heroes, but I think it would be really interesting to write a hero who saves the day by figuring out how ‘not’ to give anything up that he really cares about. Or stated another way, perhaps the hero’s basic struggle should be overcoming some major obstacle that stands in the way of his own provincial (but legitimate) goals/desires.

    I’ve tried to grapple with these questions in my own fiction writing… primarily by trying to define the standard of the good apart from an ethics based on self sacrifice. It would be great to read other fantasy books that take this tack on things.

    Just food for thought….

    • sam

      One of the interesting things that Abercrombie did was basically turn the premise around and say that, when push comes to shove, people inevitably fail. I hear a lot of people cite him as a grimdark, which doesn’t really jive with me, as I consider a sort of overarching nihilism or acceptance to be key to grimdark. Joe’s stories tend to be a lot about how the hero doesn’t accept and does struggle, but when it comes down to it, is ultimately a failure.

      Anyway, what I’m arguing is a look at just that. We’re taking heroics for granted at this point and it’s rendered them quite dull. Excellent post.

      • Adam Matthews

        I have not read any books by Abercrombie, but if his protagonists “fail” the way you say, I would view that as bad philosophy. In the real world, some people struggle and end up failing, but when one asserts failure as a general condition that no individual can surmount by nature, it’s a problem. I could understand if the antagonist of a novel operated on those set of premises and failed, but to make it impossible for the ‘good’ to succeed is to paint a picture of a very malevolent (dark) universe indeed. Perhaps that gives new meaning to the elusive term “grimdark?”

        • Adam Matthews

          I should also mention that I fail to see any real significant difference between the type of grimdark where a protagonist ‘accepts’ his dark immutable fate, and one where the hero struggles but ultimately arrives at the same conclusion… that it’s all for not. Both points of view rest on the same premise, that the universe is malevolent and that challenges are insurmountable for man, so far as his personal interests are concerned. Whether he “struggles” or not becomes irrelevant in that scenario… it just adds unnecessary pages. Ha.

  5. Johanna

    So, let’s abolish stereotypes. Easier said, than done.
    I would like to read about a hero, who struggles to be bad, but is thwarted at every turn. Couldn’t he struggle against his best aspects and occasionally win?
    Let’s not discard those poor evil heroes in one blog post. They are kind of endearing.
    The whole good-evil thing: sides of the same coin. One just needs to place those heroes in a different society / setting and they get understandable. With that comes ‘likability’ and you get readers, who applaud your cleverness. And are moved by good fiction, of course.

    • sam

      I think struggle is at the heart of every concept of a “good guy.” For the decision to do a good thing to have an impact, the struggle must have more than a few layers. It needs to be a struggle against the base nature, it needs to be a struggle against the external threat and it needs to be a struggle to consider if the decision was right or not.

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