Expectations: Fiction vs. Real Life

I take my fiction experiences–whether they’re written, on a stage, or on a screen–very seriously. An interaction on Twitter this morning made me consider some of the ways my feelings toward fiction manifest themselves.

Here was the Twitter exchange I had this morning:

I didn’t appreciate having my attitude toward villains described as “simple minded” or immature, yet I responded politely as shown. Yet it’s true: I’m not interested in the motives of bad guys in books or movies.

This is an old habit, going back to my youthful love of the Star Wars saga. The fascination people had with Darth Vader or Boba Fett, for example, eluded me. Even Vader’s revelation that he was Luke Skywalker’s father didn’t move me that much. My 11-year-old self assumed that he was lying. The subsequent confirmation of Luke’s parentage made for an interesting resolution to Return of the Jedi, but I remained a fan of the heroes. Vader didn’t redeem himself until very late in the game.

The prequel movies depicting the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a narrative mess, and I still wasn’t that interested in Anakin’s fall from grace. What did bother me was the Clone Wars movie, which was set between Episodes II and III. There, Lucas had already set the trajectory of Skywalker as heading down a dark path. What, then, was one to make of this cartoon that depicted him as becoming better or more heroic? Were we supposed to feel that much worse when he succumbed to the dark side? Anyhow, it didn’t work for me, given the narrative arc shown for the character at that point in the series. I was also not pleased to read “there are heroes on both sides” in the opening crawl of Star Wars III. The original Star Wars trilogy worked because it depicted a straightforward morality tale of good-vs.-evil. Who the heck do you root for if there are heroes on both sides?

For me, fiction is about structure and meaning. This is probably because I read and wrote stories as a way to make sense of the world or to make the world a better, more just place, if only in my mind. I had enough examples in my adolescence of the bad, the mean, or the violent succeeding; I didn’t need or want that in my fiction. Call it idealism, call it escapism, call it what you will: to be satisfying to me, stories with obvious heroes and villains need to end with the hero triumphing.

I recall another expectation about fiction that created a great deal of amusement for one of my professors in graduate school. It was a hypertext class, and one of the reading assignments was a “novel” called If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. That had to be one of the least-satisfying reading experiences I’ve ever encountered. The book consisted of a series of episodes in different genres, none of which connected to each other, and all of which ended without resolution. I came into class infuriated that the author had wasted my time. The professor, amused, asked me, “Why are you so upset by this?” I replied, “Good fiction isn’t supposed to do that!”

Since I’m probably on the verge of being called simple-minded again, I’ll just state my objection here: If I wanted that sort of experience, I could turn on the news.

Much of the fiction that works for me takes the form of a structured morality tale. There are other works that are not conflict-focused or are more ambiguous, like man vs. nature–I’m talking here about man vs. man stories. There are also tragedies, such as the darker works of Shakespeare, but those don’t appeal as much to me, either. Again, I’m trying to make sense of the world and perhaps reinforce my rather naive hopes that good will triumph in conflicts. If I wanted to hear that “the world doesn’t make any sense,” I could read any number of columnists or bloggers. If I wanted to see conflicted human beings acting in a manner perceived as villainous, I could turn on the evening news. If I wanted to see evil triumph, I could read histories about some of humanity’s worst despotisms.

There are writers and readers out there who thrive on relatable, multi-layered, or even sympathetic villains. I wish them well. However, I am not the market for those sorts of stories. They don’t interest me.