[process] Do we need Sauron and Voldemort?

A day or two ago, I asked the question on this blog, “Do we need Sauron and Voldemort”? By which I meant, do we as writers need strong antagonists to make a story compelling?

Obviously, that’s a storytelling modality that works very well. One can hardly argue with the commercial success of either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Either of those series probably moves more books in any given month than I’ll sell in my entire publishing life.

Humans, or at least humans living in the storytelling and cultural traditions of the West, have a strong affinity for dualism. Perhaps we’re all birthright Manichaeans. The simplicity of moral contrast, of a binary choice, appeals strongly to us. Many people distrust nuance in ethics, in morality, in politics, in law. There’s something very comforting about a simplistic good-vs-evil dynamic. You know who the “us” are, and you know who the “them” are. And certainly in both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, that is unambiguous on the page.

Yet there’s a gentleman down in New Mexico who’s shifted more than a few million books writing about a world where the good guys aren’t very good, and most of the bad guys have mixed or even noble motives. Kind of like real life, where everyone is a protagonist, a hero of their own story. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has proven in a big, big way that you don’t need stark moral dualism to sell well. Damned near everything in those books is ambiguous. There is still a decidedly strong moral dimension. It’s just ambiguous and complex to the point of being non-Euclidean.

So I think about my own work in this context. Most of my books don’t have clear-cut, central antagonists. (Well, maybe none of them do.) My plots tend toward one of two models — the hero(es) opposed by a shifting collage of shadowy forces; or a set of interlocking protagonists with conflicting goals. I like what I write. Bluntly, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t write it. But I don’t write like Tolkien or Rowling. Or Martin, for that matter.

I write like Jay Lake. And Jay Lake is a guy who sees the world as complex and nuanced, and largely filled with people who think they’re trying to do the right thing, even if too many of us cannot see the consequences of our own actions and beliefs for what they really are. (Yes, that’s a not-very-veiled reference to contemporary American politics, but it also really is how I see the world in general.) So I write fiction where the world is complex and nuanced. I don’t think I could write a Sauron or a Voldemort. I just don’t believe in pure evil for evil’s sake, any more than I believe in pure good for good’s sake.

So, no towering antagonists for me. Which makes me wonder about Sunspin, which is decidedly in the vein of interlocking protagonists. Much as the precursor novel Death of a Starship was. It also makes me wonder about my sales figures. Am I really writing stories people want to read? Or am I doing it wrong?

What do you think? Do we need Sauron and Voldemort? Or does George R.R. Martin have the right of it? Where do you fall as a reader? Where do you fall as a writer?

11 thoughts on “[process] Do we need Sauron and Voldemort?

  1. Fernando Salazar says:

    Well, LoTR is a myth and Harry Potter is a soap-opera, and both story types need outsized characters to be credible. However I think the thing that is important for all types of stories is the stakes the characters face. Stakes have to be high — it may be physical stakes, like risk of death, etc., or it may be emotional stakes or other nuanced things. Without big risks — in the context of the story — the story won’t seem important.

  2. Ben Godby says:

    Aren’t Sauron and Voldemort protagonists? They are, after all, the causers of action in those series, whereas the “main characters” tend to be reactionary, manning the wall that looks upon the face of evil, antagonizing the dark missions of dark forces…

    I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire, but I would suggest that saying that some narratives are morally exogenous and others are ambiguous ignores the point that only actions are moral or immoral, not people, so the good versus evil narrative is properly a fantasy of morals (and a fantasy of characterization) from the outset.

  3. Personally, I think the answer to your question is implicit in the essay itself. As you say, no one can argue with the success of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Likewise, no one can argue with the success of A Song of Ice and Fire. They are very different models for storytelling. But clearly, both are valid models.

    In that way, I’m not sure there’s much to be gained in this analysis by comparing your own sales figures. “Doing it wrong” is a subjective matter. But subjectively or objectively, these are not the only qualities that matter for purposes of goosing sales. Some of those qualities are outside the author’s immediate control.

  4. Michael Fay says:

    You know, I liked the Potter books, but I think TLOTR is kind of long winded and boring in a lot of places. A Song of Ice and Fire bores me to tears (if it weren’t for Tyrian Lannister, I would find nothing redeemable about those books). On the other hand, my favorite series is Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (Tekla not withstanding). Which is a round about what of saying I like a single or small number of protagonists with a clear focus and at least a general idea of who the antagonist is.

    The more characters there are, the less chance I have to connect with one of them and the greater chance I have to tire of the novel quickly. I noticed that with Joss Whedon shows – I loved Buffy, liked Angel, disliked Firefly, and loved Dollhouse – the more characters Joss added that I had to sort through all the time, the less I liked his show – Buffy and Dollhouse were pretty focused (Buffy on 4 main characters, Dollhouse on 4 or 5).
    As Buffy added more “scoobies” it was less entertaining. Angel started out great (3 main characters) but quickly balooned out of control. Firefly started out of control (7 characters? c’mon man). Dollhouse really focused on 3+1.

  5. David says:

    I think your view of both Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, and Rowling’s world of magic is short sighted. You miss the forest for the trees so to speak. Let’s take Middle Earth, you see Sauron for what he is the leader of evil, but if you know the whole story you’d know he didn’t start evil. There are also many character who are on the bad side, yet not all bad, and those who are good who are not all good. Look at Islidur, he fought for the side of good, but made a selfish evil choice that effect everyone. I could go on and on. Dwarves greedy, Hobbits glutans, elves Prideful……. I could go with this same focus thru the other books as well. There is no ultimate all good person in either set of novels. Look at Snape is he good or bad? Sirius? I think it is much more complicated picture than you have painted it. The thing that makes there stories draw you in is the characters are real life just bigger……… Not some ultra good, against Ultra evil.

  6. Rese says:

    wow! sounds like the way i write. i found i couldn’t write a pure-evil character, either. aren’t they all the same? – trying to take over the world, blah blah blah

    i think tolkien incorporated his religious good vs. evil morality into his books, and people have been copying it ever since. but now that we’re tired of that, fantasy will move more towards nuanced novels, like martin’s.

  7. Chad Lynch says:

    There are evil people in the world. They don’t think they are evil. They have reasons for doing what they do that seem valid and reasonable to them, but they’re still evil. Usually they’re just selfish to the point of being sociopaths or cowards giving way to bullies.

    Obviously perfect good and evil do not exist in the real world, yet fiction doesn’t, even shouldn’t be a perfect reflection of the real world. Stories, along with religion, are part of the social DNA that sets the rules for how a culture operates. They describe the sins and virtues people should shun or reach for.

    Overly moral ambiguous stories break down that social DNA by telling people there is no reason to try to be good or honorable or there is no consequence in being evil. They contribute to the spread of Nihilism, a cancer in any culture. Rome didn’t die because barbarians broke down the walls. Rome died because they gave up on being Roman.

    Besides, it’s very unsatisfying to go through a story just to find out everyone is either pathetic or selfish and nothing they did really mattered.

  8. ces says:

    I think we need all of the characters that writers create. It’s diversity that makes life interesting. And it’s diversity that makes books interesting. Write what you want, create characters that you want, and don’t worry about sales. If you, the writer, are engaged with your characters, we, the readers, will see that and read read read.

  9. stevie says:

    Right v. Wrong!
    So where would you put Hell Tanner in this analysis?

  10. Jeff Faria says:

    You’re quite right – the supposed ‘need’ for a larger-than-life villain IS a cliche, and those who follow it tend to write cliched stories (even if they do well in the marketplace, as Star Wars and Harry Potter did). Perhaps what the maxim really means is that COMMERCIAL (ot ‘artistic’) success depends on this formula. But even then, as you pointed out, Martin does quite well without resorting to the cliche. And for that matter, was Moby Dick, the whale itself I mean, a villain? Was Ahab a villain, or just mad? I think a great book engages great issues in a compelling way. I think a ‘great villain’ can be entertaining and even memorable, but it is not a necessity. Good for you for questioning this.

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