Heroes and Villains
I’ve gotten to wondering lately if fiction could be having a negative effect on how we perceive one another.
We’re fortunate to live in a fiction-rich time. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that human beings have never consumed as much fiction as they are consuming right here and now. Overall I think this is a good thing; I not only love fiction myself (both reading and writing it) but I also think fiction can serve as a window into the minds of other people. Fiction allows us to understand the thoughts, emotions, and actions of others in a deeper way than just trying to sympathize with theoretical people in a theoretical way.
But just because some of something is good for us, doesn’t mean more is necessarily better. A person can overdose on vitamins or even water. And just because something nourishes us in one form, doesn’t mean all its forms it will be equally beneficial. Our prehistoric ancestors ate some grass seeds we now call wheat, but modern farmers have bred it so much that the proteins in it now cause some people celiac disease. As technology has grown we process this wheat so highly that it’s become devoid of nutrients and fiber – eating too much refined white flour may cut short our lifespan even if we tolerate wheat perfectly.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Much of what passes for fiction nowadays is not the healthy and nutritious whole grain wheat of our ancestors, chewy and filling, taking a long time to digest. Our modern fiction is highly refined and processed. It tastes delicious and it’s all too easy to overindulge.
And it is EVERYWHERE, in everyone’s face constantly. We read books and watch tv and listen to music and play video games and all of it has a narrative arc. We even communicate with each other using a constant stream of fictional metaphors. Darmok at Tenagra is no joke – try to communicate with someone without either of you using the occasional pop- or classic- culture reference. It’s next to impossible.
At no point in human history have human beings ever consumed so much fiction, and a lot of what we consume is the equivalent of Little Debbie Snack Cakes.
My son, who’s also a writer, gave me a gag gift for Christmas this year. It was a book about scriptwriting called “Save The Cat“. It’s basically a set of directions on how to take a sack of delicious whole grain fiction and grind it into sugary, easily digestible pap. It’s not much of a leap to say that “Save The Cat” is at least partially responsible for the grist mill of mediocrity that Hollywood has become the last decade or so.
One of the elements of the “Save The Cat” approach to storytelling is the idea of a catalyst. A catalyst is a triggering event that causes a character to take action or change. Walter White’s catalyst is getting cancer. Luke Skywalker’s catalyst is seeing a recording of Princess Leia. Buffy becomes the chosen one. Harry Potter gets a letter from Hogwarts. You get it. The idea of the catalyst is ascendant in fiction right now.
Some might call a catalyst character development, but I’m not sure it really is. Because the catalyst appears to have a lot more to do with plot than character. For John Wick, his catalyst is of course the bad guys killing his dog. John Wick’s character transformation, on the other hand, actually appears to have happened before the movie ever started – he fell in love and decided to get out of the bad guy biz. That is a character transformation. Him going on a killing spree is the result of a plot device – the catalyst.
So I believe a catalyst and a character transformation are two different things entirely. Walter White does experience a character transformation, sure. But it isn’t because he has cancer, it’s because his choices after finding out he has cancer strip away the veneer of a kindly teacher to reveal the bad guy who was lurking there all along. The catalyst starts the action of the plot, it doesn’t determine a character’s arc.
Except for when it does.
One of the most popular genres (I’m aware this is not a genre, exactly, but I’ll gladly misuse the term if you agree to forgive me for it) of fiction currently is “The Backstory”. You know what I mean – you take a well-known character and retrofit a story about an event in their past that will, in one fell swoop, explain why they are the way they are. In Backstories, the catalyst IS a character transformation. One minute, a character is one way, but then something happens, usually something bad, and they change into a different character entirely.
Certainly we’ve all had transformative moments in our life, but I find the idea that any one moment, a day, a week, a month, even an entire childhood could COMPLETELY explain and predict a person’s future behavior, to be utter nonsense. I just don’t believe that a single traumatic event (and I’ve had my share, so this is not a position of ignorance) turns a good person into an evil one. In fact, I’ve seen a fair few people with every privilege who’ve never suffered a trauma who are total a-holes. I don’t believe that humans are a computer program and as such, one bad entry corrupts the database irrevocably. I believe in free will and in redemption and forgiveness and the power of love and I will never stop believing in those things.
There’s a new Joker movie coming out which has been rumored to reveal the Joker’s backstory. I find this concept both mindnumbingly boring for me as a viewer, and as a writer, ridiculous. Because I don’t WANT to know the Joker’s backstory. It’s scarier and by far more interesting not to know. After all, as one reviewer of The Dark Knight theorized, maybe nothing happened to the Joker. Maybe he was just a guy who concluded that rules and morality didn’t matter so much. I like that take much better. Whether something bad happened to him or not, the Joker is the Joker because he decided to become the Joker. That alone makes him a terrifying figure – and also sets him apart from Batman, who was supposedly created by the trauma of his parents’ murder.
Giving the Joker some relatable backstory about a rough childhood and a traumatic event that transformed him actually diminishes the narrative punch of the character, because the Joker is the fictional embodiment of people using free will to sow seeds of chaos and to undermine the social order. If the Joker has some deep underlying psychological reason for being the Joker,, if it’s really not his decision, if he was subject to forces beyond his control, rather than asking an interesting question about the consequences of free will, doesn’t that completely undermine the notion of free will all together?
Worse, doesn’t having a bad guy who can’t control himself undermine the concept of redemption? If someone chooses evil, they can choose good and be redeemed. But a flawed computer program running amok? Batman may as well kill the Joker like a mad dog, because there could be no saving him anyway. There’s little room for redemption and forgiveness in a story where every bad guy has a reason why he is the way he is.
It’s not only bad guys who get the backstory treatment. One of the most infuriating backstories for me was that of Ned Flanders, the kindly Christian neighbor on The Simpsons. He was one of the few non-hypocritical Christian characters on tv and as someone who has always been treated very well by Christian friends and neighbors, his character rang very true to me. But eventually the Backstory Brigade came along, and Ned was revealed to only be nice because his parents had been beatniks whose lax parenting caused Little Neddy to be warped. So they took him to a psychologist who warped him even more. Ned Flanders was only ever good because he had repressed his anger since childhood. Ned Flanders was only ever good because he was a broken and warped person. I mean, I don’t even know what to do with that – surely the writers of The Simpsons cannot be saying that an unusually nice person is unusually nice only because they’re mentally ill, can they?
I guess so, because they did.
So if the Joker is only bad because something bad happened to him, and Ned Flanders is good because something bad happened to him, then haven’t the words “good” and “bad” lost all meaning? How can any of us be held responsible for being bad, or given credit for being good, if all we are is conscienceless computer programs easily corrupted by a traumatic childhood? If we have no free will to begin with, how can evil even BE evil, and how can good even be good? If we’re broken irrevocably when we’re damaged, and we’re all damaged eventually in some way or the other, then how can anyone be a better person? How can anyone ever be redeemed or forgiven?
It seems a toxic message, or at the very least, a confusing one. And yet we the viewers are downing works of fiction containing this messaging one after the other just like we’re eating a can of Pringles or something.
We live in a time of Internet mobs running amok. I personally find Internet mobs deeply troubling even when I agree with their overall premise. Because Internet mobs invariably compress the actions of complicated and flawed humans – humans who get tired and sick and angry and sad and impulsive and drunk and have PMS sometimes speaking from extensive personal experience – into a single moment in time. Rather than grant even the slightest credit for the many wonderful things a person done and who they are 99.99% of the time, Internet mobs punish a person for an impulsive action (often undertaken at a personal low point) in perpetuity, in every arena of their life. People who have successfully worked for companies for years get fired for Tweets that took them 10 seconds to write. People lose their livelihoods over offhand remarks that a particular of group of people don’t happen to agree with even if the majority of everyone else doesn’t have a problem with it.
And while this may be me looking for patterns in chaos as I am wont to do, I’m wondering if our steady diet of highly refined fiction has anything to do with it. Maybe we’ve seen one too many Jokers turned from a person to a monster in one fell traumatic swoop and we’ve seen too many Flanders who are only good because they’re warped, to believe in redemption and forgiveness any more. Maybe we’re looking around us and not seeing human beings with free will who made a mistake and can make different choices in the future. Maybe we’re looking around and seeing the Joker in each other, forever broken, permanently warped, our faces stretched in identical horrible grins. The second a Flanders falls, even if s/he’s been a Flanders every second of every hour of every minute of every day up till then, we cannot take a chance on forgiving, on waiting to see if they’ll be redeemed. They need to be either stuck into Arkham or run out of town on a rail. Because once you go black, you never go back.
Here’s the part of my piece where if I was following the mindset of “Save The Cat” I would unfurl some grand plan to solve this problem I just totally made up. So what would I do about it, anyway? I would do precisely nothin’. I’d not do a thing. You can’t unring a bell. Not every problem needs a solution. I’m sure people’s brains were affected in unexpected ways when the Internet was invented and TV was invented and radio and dime store novels and Shakespeare plays and this chain runs all the way back to the first cave paintings probably. Technology affects people in many ways, some of which are negative, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace it.
But I do think it’s something worth thinking about.
We’re doing an experiment, trying something that’s never been done before in history. We’re immersing ourselves in massive amounts of fiction from birth till death. Not challenging, thoughtful, wise fiction, either. We’re lying on the couch, wallowing in our own crapulence, stuffing our faces with lazy, cheap, white flour fiction. It seems within the realm of possible to me that it could have a psychological impact. Can I change it, no, and I wouldn’t try, but it seems worthy of consideration, and maybe even a little pushback against those who see every person they meet as a potential Joker.
Personally, I prefer to define myself by my successes, not by my traumas and my failures. I screw up, I get screwed over, but I pick myself up and start all over again, a little wiser for the experience. That’s part of being human instead of a fictional character. We try our best and get it wrong a lot, but there’s always room for improvement.
Our story arc is messy, there are no neat and pretty bows that our lives are tied into at the end of the story. But this is true for everyone. So lower the bar, expect imperfection, disperse the mob, and quit seeing people as either flawless paragons of virtue or irredeemably fallen villains.
Life is not a tv show and it’s not a comic book.
Photo by matt.davis
This piece originally ran on the atomic feminist blog April 3, 2019.