Can you write an existential "anti-hero" without the grimdark?
Fiction needs real good guys & bad guys.
That life is chaotic, unjust and apparently blinded without reason or direction anyone can see; if the universe leans either way it is toward evil rather than good, as regards life and humanity. That there is any eventual goal for the human race rather than extinction, I do not believe nor do I have any faith in the eventual Superman. Yet the trend of so many materialists to suppress all primitive emotions is against my every instinct.
– Robert E. Howard
I confess – I don’t read much modern-day fantasy or science fiction.
I don’t watch TV and see very few movies made after 2000, but from glancing at the reviews, I see I’m not missing much.
There are many reasons for this, though none stands out to me more than the nihilism absorbed so easily by today’s writers (in my experience with them).
Barring certain exceptions – such as the superb and uplifiting works found in the Superversive SFF movement – too many “genre” stories run to the bleak for my tastes.
When I say bleak, I don’t mean the express sort of total cynical pessimism and pessimistic cynicism that you find in a Peter Watts or R. Scott Bakker novel.
We’re all swimming in a vast and empty ocean of postmodernism. Ask the fish about the water and they’ll meet you with a question mark.
Even the superficial good-guy characters turn out to be enigmatic ciphers with no personality of their own.
Which raises the question:
Can there be any such thing as a real hero in a colorless world?
Heroism supposes villainy. Such an opposition can only exist in a world painted with rich shades of moral color.
Moral valence raises unavoidable questions of freedom and responsibility.
If we’re all postmodernists now, living by the rules set by doctrines of materialism and scientific naturalism, can there be heroes?
If villainy can be explained away as a motley assortment of medical disorders in the brain, a result of socio-economic forces, the conclusion of historical class-struggle, the action of impersonal “power” on living bodies – in short, as anything and everything but the product of an individual’s own responsible volition – can there be a real hero?
What to do?
The pragmatic advice to writers is simple enough: Write heroic heros and bad bad-guys.
When the critics come – hell with them. Find your audience and give ’em what they want. There’s enough of us out here starving for good fun writing without oppressive grimdark or ideological finger-wags.
Nagging philosophical worries are best put aside when getting on with the important creative work.
Still. Yes, there’s a still.
Even the bleak nihilism that seems handcuffed at the wrist to scientific materialism isn’t incompatible with heroism or a robust concept of villainy.
Freedom is a shifty mutant thing, but that doesn’t mean we can obliterate it with a handful of influential scientific theories in physics and biology.
Freedom persists despite the march of science and technology.
Robert E. Howard, like Lovecraft, believed the world to be without purpose. But he still wrote the likes of Conan, Soloman Kane, and Bran Mak Morn as if they lived in a universe of Good and Evil, and where a man of good will could outmatch even the Devil by wit or weapon.
Conan, the amoral barbarian? There’s more ambiguity, harder choices, more gratuitous swordplay in a Howard story compared to, say, Tolkien or C. S. Lewis.
Even so, for the most part, the reader is never left in doubt.
You never doubt who the bad guys are, and who you want to win.
Conan has a point of view. He is capable of good and evil. And he exists in a world where he, and the reader, can make sense of the difference.
That little provocation leaves us with a few tantalizing threads.
What’s going on with this attraction to heroic barbarism when we’ve got a comfortable and safe civilization going on up here?
Is the world as meaningless as our sober-minded rational-humanist intellectuals tells us must be?
Does a heroic character have to be a pure and saintly helper of the weak and downtrodden without exception?
Might our moral intuitions be as confused as our postmodern culture’s worship at the altar of Desire?
Might good and evil appear in the mundane world of everyday deeds rather than grand gestures of Kindness and Justice?
Tune in next time for more...
PS – If you enjoy these posts, why not subscribe? That way you can receive them directly in your inbox... and you'll get the members-only posts.
There's no charge (yet) to subscribe as a free member, so click here and join now.