It’s taken me quite a bit of time to figure out how I wanted to word this post. A decent part of it is a topic I bring up a lot when discussing fiction. I’ve never understood why “realistic” was synonymous with “dark and depressing.” Yes, a lot of bad things happen in the world, but most of my life isn’t mired in oppressive awfulness. A great portion of my life is spent in happiness. Even to people who’s lives are mired in tragedy, not all of them unanimously walk in a cloud of doom.
One of the ideologies that forms this thought is an extreme teleological view. LEARNIN TIME!: See, there are these two sort of competing types of ethical arguments (There are nine billion types of ethics, don’t stress). One says that the only moral decision you can make is what’s right in the moment. You can’t possibly know what the future holds so do the right thing right now. For instance, in a situation where killing one innocent person could save a thousand you refuse to kill that one person because murder is wrong. The other says bugger that, you have to make the moral decision based on the outcome. We do know that killing this one innocent person will end up saving these thousand people so tough luck hombre, that one innocent person has to go. Hit up the wikipedias or talk to your local college student studying ethics to get the low down on what these things actually are. One’s called Teleological Ethics and the other is called Deontological. AWW YEAH FANCY LEARNIN!
So where does this lead us? Back to fiction, and for my example, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Reading this book, you can only come to believe that Mr. Martin thinks anyone who holds on to even the slightest of teleological theories is an idiot. (Don’t lose faith, this is going to tie back into the realism thing sooner or later). If you haven’t finished anything beyond “Game of Thrones” don’t worry I won’t give away any major plot spoilers, just talking about ideas.
Our boy Eddard Stark is a staunch believer in do the right thing now. If you have read the book you know the series of events that leads up to his beheading and can totally skip the next paragraph. If you haven’t read Game of Thrones or watched the first season on HBO here’s a very brief recap of Ned’s story.
Ned Stark, most honorable man in all of Westeros. No, seriously. Dude is honorable. Except for that time he stepped out on his wife and sired a bastard. Even after he did that, he treats the bastard like he’s true born. (Quick aside, this whole true born thing is incredibly stupid). He raises that Jon Snow right up with his own kids. What a nice guy. Then the King’s Hand (sort of like a vice president) winds up dying and the King wants Ned to replace him. Ned goes because he things something fishy is up and he can solve it and help protect the king (who is kind of like his best bud).
Then all the bad things in the world happen. The King ends up dead, Ned finds out that there are plots among plots in the palace. He learns that the prior king’s hand was murdered. Then he realized the king might have been murdered, and not only that, but all the king’s legitimate offsprings actually aren’t legitimate! They’re born of incest between the queen and her twin brother! Before all of this goes down the queen’s brother has the city guard kick his ass and kill all of his household guard.
All of this leads up to the pivotal moment of the book. One character shows up and offers Ned a choice, take control of your situation now or die. Well, the choice is to kidnap the queen’s children and hold them hostage in order to make himself reagent now that the king is dying. This would have been simple as the character offering this had a small army ready to move on his word. What Eddard Stark decides to do at this point in time is the dumbest decision he has made, yet. Up until now he’s done nothing but make a series of stupid decisions because doing the honorable thing now is most important (This includes covering up for a dumb decision his wife made which ended up getting all of his guards killed). Eddard refused to shed blood during the king’s last breaths on this Earth. Because of this one of his daughters goes missing, his oldest son is declared a traitor, his youngest two sons end up hostages and presumed dead, his oldest daughter is taken hostage and brutalised by an evil 14 year old, and his youngest daughter goes on the run with a group of all male murderers of thieves. Oh yeah, he gets beheaded.
Now, what we could be thinking here is, that’s just one character who is designed to show the folly of a too strict honor code. I have no doubt that’s the purpose of this character, the problem comes in with all the other characters Martin sets up as “heroes.” The people we want to follow are just about universally stupid. He takes evil villains and sets them up for redemption stories, and the way we know they’re fully redeemed is when they do something utterly ridiculous.
It’s a recurring theme. We see in “A Clash Of Kings” where a major character ends up goofing up, we then learn in “A Storm of Swords” how complete and total his mistake was. In “A Dance With Dragons” two of our main characters spend the entire book making mistakes based on the idea that you must do the right and noble thing now, and then paying for it in the end.
So what’s my problem with this, you ask after a thousand words? It’s this, all good people aren’t stupid. I have a problem with the notion that people who are honest and good can only think with their heart and never look into the consequences of their actions. I greatly dislike the idea that the reason the bad guys succeed is because they use their brain over their heart and will do whatever it takes to gain or maintain power. I dislike that this is what we consider realistic. The very thought that people are jerks and the only people who dare to stand up to the jerks are intellectually incompetant doesn’t work for me. I don’t understand how the only way to defeat evil people is by becoming all dark and grimey yourself.
I look around me all the time and I see people who are all armored up in moral convictions and walk around burdened with the ideas of ‘family, duty, honor’ every day. I often times see these people finding ways to cope and get around the obstacles in their life without resorting to being more evil than who’s putting the obstacles in their way. I see people look at a situation and determine the best coarse of action is a different one than their taking. That doesn’t mean they’ve quit on the situation at all, it just means they realize what’s up and are going to find a better way of doing it. There are good people who would find a tactic different than having their entire family killed off instead of just grabbing the three little bastards and ruling for a while. There are many many good people on the planet that would inspire others around them to do good. That’s realistic, too. I don’t read a lot of this speculative fiction stuff and find realism where it’s described. The most realistic stuff I read comes from the whacky and absurd (check out Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series of books for one of the most realistic marriages you’ll ever read. Check out some of the early Ultimate Spider-Man stuff where it’s just Pete and the crew talking. Check out Phinneas and Ferb for some surprisingly realistic family dynamics.)
Realism is something that’s littered throughout fiction, but rarely when it’s called out. If I hear someone describe a book or comic or tv show as “realistic” I more and more want nothing to do with it. What they really mean is that the world they’re creating is ultra damp and humid and no one in there is going to act like the people I like to hang around would. Instead the bad people will be truly bad and the good guys won’t be much better. The ones who do try to rise up and do good things are idiots and will be rewarded with more tragedy and suffering. No thanks guys. That’s not what I’m looking for in life. I’ll take my fake worlds with their plucky smiling do gooders over your real world of noble corpses.