Really Real?

One of the most common statements in writing advice (and something that I mention in my book reviews) is that readers are likely to enjoy a story more if events and actions are realistic or plausible. One of the theories for why this is is that it allows readers to better imagine they are there. I remain convinced that plausibility strengthens fiction, but I found myself asking again today whether we actually want to be part of these worlds.

I came across a trailer for a new television show about a man who ends up in conflict with his clone. In one of the clips, one of them accuses the other of being Dr Jekyll and the other mocks them by saying he was the good one and Hyde the bad one. Certainly to the original audience, and to my early teen self, that is a reasonable statement: Dr Jekyll is the avatar of science and progress trying to free us from our base natures; Mr Hyde is a cruel brute without fine qualities.

However, to my more experienced adult self, Hyde might not be the villain. Certainly, his actions are cruel but he is a product of a drug designed to leave only one set of qualities; so, is a personality formed only of the negative aspects of humanity at fault for harming others, or is he no more “evil” than a snake that strikes on instinct or a storm that destroys a house?

One could even reframe Jekyll & Hyde into a tale about science seeking to strip away diversity to make everyone “good” through drugs.

Which reminded me of the debate over relative morality in fiction: the war over whether villains who have sympathetic motives and are marked by traumas and heroes who are grubby and ethically grey, rather than antagonists who are evil and protagonists who are good improves or spoils speculative fiction. Unsurprisingly, I can see good points on either side and enjoy a good barbarian hunting down the necromancer who wants to enslave the world as much as I enjoy a complex tale about the morality of using mind-control for virtuous purposes. But being reminded about the debate did bring me to my original question: whether we want the fantasy world to actually be real.

Plenty of people read books, watch series, write fan fiction, hold long debates, and roleplay so they can experience stories that aren’t the ones they mundanely experience. And, as someone who falls into those categories, I’ll freely admit that—for example—if there were a dragon burning down villages, I’d not turn down the opportunity to be the one who stopped them; and I suspect most of us would also want to be the hero who stopped the dragon.

But, things change if the question is turned around: given the opportunity, would I live in a world where dragons burnt down villages?

Given the choice, I pick no hostile dragons over being the hero who stopped the dragons.

In the same way that I’d pick having a happy romance over discovering the apparently obnoxious person I get stuck with is actually decent but marked by trauma; and so on for other genres.

So, I disagree with Scorsese and Coppola on two levels: not only over whether cinema must teach the audience to be cinema rather than merely lights and noise, but also over whether the Marvel films teach us anything; I believe they teach us that for there to be big shiny heroes, there first have to be huge grimy problems.

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