Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Free will in fiction
Free will is an important concept in theology, but I recently read a story that made me realize how necessary it is in fiction as well.
In the story, one particular species was created to be evil. The narrative made that explicit. And right away I knew that unless the writer was going to twist the concept, to make it unusual and surprising, the story was doomed.
1. Moral judgment
Say that a species was developed to be violent and I’ll buy it. Dogs, after all, were bred to serve different purposes, and some breeds can be more aggressive than others. But when we get into good/evil, that’s a moral judgment and it’s much easier to spot the hand of the writer pulling the strings. Even if this is inspirational speculative fiction, it’ll be difficult to pull off.
2. Definition of evil
What exactly is evil? Aggression or venality or any other of the seven deadly sins are clear in comparison, but evil is a broad blanket term. Does it mean crimes against other people, against animals, against the environment? Or does it extend to personal decisions and choices which may not be approved of? And who does the approving?
Unless a novel operates within the preestablished framework of a religion, such as Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, telling me that a person or species is evil tells me… well, nothing.
3. No option but evil
Would you expect a dog to fly?
If you wouldn’t, if dogs as we know them can’t be expected to fly, then a Created Evil species or character cannot be expected to do good. So it/they can’t be held morally responsible for any wrong actions either, because it/they had no other choice. That would be like getting mad at your oven for not keeping your ice cream frozen.
4. Unrealistic premise
How does a species that’s completely evil manage to function at all? Raising children, for instance – how is this done if individuals are incapable of attachment to their children? How are such children even conceived? Is there such a thing as consensual sex in their society?
5. Readers’ emotional responses
When I realized that the evil characters had no choice but to be evil, I immediately felt sorry for them.
Yes, even when they were killing people. What choice did they have? Authorial bias was so much in evidence – with the narrative stressing that they were supposed to be that way – that I could only sympathize with them for their lack of free will. They weren’t being cruel because of their own ambition or their own greed; they were being cruel because the writer was pulling their strings.
And I knew that sooner or later the writer would punish them for doing exactly what the writer had made them do, so I felt sorry for them.
6. Lack of surprise
If a species or a character is completely evil and created to be evil, readers are unlikely to feel surprise (or shock, which is even better) by what this race or character does, especially if the narrative spells out in advance what to expect.
There’s no choice, and when there’s no choice there’s no tension.
7. Where there’s a drow, there’s a Drizzt
Having one member of the race of puppets turn out to be good isn’t too startling a development. Such a character often has a ready-made moral compass installed in him courtesy of the writer, rather than struggling with the ethical dilemnas that he should face in such a society.
Worse, he doesn’t make really serious mistakes, nor is his future in much doubt. If the Drizzt is the protagonist, he ends up with the good guys; if he isn’t, he dies a martyr’s death, usually helping the good guys. He has little loyalty to his own race, nor any guilt about what happens to them. Nor are there any aspects of his former life that he misses.
Tolkien’s world accomodated completely-evil races such as the orcs and goblins because he wrote high fantasy in the 1940s. Since then, not only is this concept rarely used but there have been fantasy novels from the perspectives of said evil races – for instance, Mary Gentle’s Grunts. Anti-heroes, flawed protagonists and nuanced villains tend to be more realistic and entertaining than a black-and-white worldview where some characters or races are intrinsically evil and some are intrinsically good.