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Ethics in SF #7: Matthew Graybosch

Matthew Graybosch explains why he believes fiction has a villain problem.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Matthew Graybosch at Niagara Falls Matthew Graybosch studied computer science and applied demonology at Miskatonic University, but learned that even after the dotcom bust, software development pays better and is steadier work than exorcism. He is the author of Starbreaker, a serialized science fantasy novel published by Curiosity Quills Press, and lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and a cat who insists on reading the Okal Rel Saga with him.

Roadwork on the Highway to Hell

Writers on the fantasy side of speculative fiction face the temptation to take the easy way out when characterizing their antagonists. Once they decide that their antagonist is a villain who wants to take over the world (or destroy it), they have a ready-made conflict since the protagonists stand to suffer if the antagonist succeeds in his ambitions. They have the basis for a plot, since the protagonists will struggle, suffer, and eventually prevail. J.R.R. Tolkien made this approach to fantasy famous in The Lord of the Rings, but it also shows up in modern media such as George Lucas’ Star Wars.

This approach to fantasy is ultimately sterile, because it offers unsatisfactory answers to questions concerning the villains’ motives. Why did Senator Palpatine orchestrate the suppression of the Jedi order and create an Empire from the ashes of the Old Republic? George Lucas offers no answer. What was Sauron going to do with Middle-Earth once he had conquered it? If J.R.R. Tolkien concerned himself with that question, the text of The Lord of the Rings offers no evidence to that effect.

An antagonist who aspires to take over the world and has the means to make a serious attempt at realizing his ambition is unlikely to celebrate his victory with a vacation in Disneyland. By not exploring an antagonist’s motives, writers discard a valuable opportunity to enrich their characterization, as well as valuable possibilities for crafting a compelling plot and a conflict that genuinely matters to their readers.

As an example of the narrative complexity that can be unleashed when a speculative fiction author gives his antagonist understandable human motives and even good intentions, let’s consider Heroes Die, a 1998 science fiction/fantasy novel by Matthew Stover. When Stover is not exploring the obsession of American entertainment media and its consumers with violence through the inner monologue of his protagonist, Caine, he is making the reader consider the actions and motives of one of the novel’s principal antagonists, the sorcerer-turned-emperor Ma’elKoth.

Ma’elKoth is a complex character for a fantasy antagonist; his intentions are arguably nobler than Caine’s. Caine cares only about protecting his wife and getting revenge on a boss who placed his wife in danger for the sake of profit. Ma’elKoth attempts to be a just ruler. He uses his powers to help people, and is shown using magic to alter the weather and provide relief in the form of rain to a drought-stricken region of his empire. At the same time, he has made his empire into a police state and uses a series of purges called the Aktir-tokar (Actor hunt) to dispose of his opposition without inspiring the people to rise against him.

As a result, one cannot readily identify Ma’elKoth as the villain. Nor can one identify Caine as the hero, since the novel’s title is also a promise. Heroes Die shows the complexity in plot and characterization that can emerge when a writer gives his antagonist human motivations, and perhaps even noble or altruistic intentions.

Therein lies the problem. If the reader cannot distinguish between the hero and the villain, then the protagonist of the story -- good or evil -- is the one with whom the reader identifies. Telling a story in this manner is risky, regardless of genre. The complexity such moral ambiguity brings to a novel can tax a writer’s skill at both plot and characterization. But success on the author’s part enriches his work with greater psychological realism, and offers readers value beyond entertainment: a mirror in which each may see something of themselves.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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