My favorite character from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, is Jaime Lannister, the heir to the Lannister family, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and an all-around terrible person. No, really. There are forum threads dedicated to his awfulness, and I don’t disagree with anything they say. He is awful; that’s not up for debate. But I don’t care; I still like him. There is something about his wit, his tenacity, his strange sense of honor, and his odd drive to do right by his family that draws me in as a reader. He’s my favorite.
In his Banquet Speech, William Faulkner observes good writing as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I adore that line. As a character, Jamie embodies that for me. There is so much to loathe but a lot to like. It makes him complicated, and it makes him human. However, in some circles, my statement draws ire. How can I enjoy reading about someone so terrible? After all, he is someone who symbolizes the opposite of many values I hold dear. To those people, it doesn’t make sense; it feels two-faced and hypocritical.
These voices are nothing new. I remember hearing them as a kid from conservatives, and I’ve heard them as an adult from progressives. Recently they’ve become particularly pronounced on social media, shouting down and hunting those who dare explore life through the lens of problematic fiction. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several authors attacked—on social media, within articles, in reviews, and on blogs. Fans have gone after them for the problematic circumstances, events, and behavior of characters within their novels. It’s not surprising; it’s an extension of the same attitude we have seen play out in the social sphere. In addition to holding real-life humans accountable, fandom is now trying to hold fiction accountable.
In 2016, the internet was in a frenzy over one of the questioners from the second presidential debate, Ken Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois. Overnight, he became an internet sensation. He saw endorsement deals, a “Bone Zone” T-shirt line, appearances on ESPN, and was satirized during a Saturday Night Live cold open. But like all people, Ken Bone was human, and soon his heroism was tarnished. Afterwards, Katie Rogers of The New York Times wrote an excellent article exploring his rise and fall from fame titled “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” The article discussed the depth in which people investigated, and eventually exposed all of Ken Bone’s history-both positive and negative. Within the article, there was a line that struck me regarding the fragility of the internet. One I found myself mulling over and over. That line? “The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”
Within some fandoms and genres, there is this strange narrative forming that our heroes, and largely our fiction, need to be morally and ethically pure. It leads to the belief that fiction shouldn’t have flawed characters, or focus on stories with plotlines that wrestle with difficult themes. And heaven forbid those characters don’t get their comeuppance, and those themes don’t get resolved satisfactorily. That sort of nuance doesn’t play in the fandom echo chamber.
This leads back to Rogers’ statement: She’s not wrong. The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance. The internet, in particular, abhors it. Nuance is challenging. Nuance requires you to read the whole article, not just the headline. Nuance wants you to put aside your initial emotions and reflect. It forces you to observe the entire character, rather than their action at a particular moment. It loves to do nothing more than draw lines in the sand and force others to step over and pick a side. You are this, and I am that. You’re bad; I’m good.
In early January, Fonda Lee, the author of Jade City (Go read it; it’s good.), had a great little thread on Twitter separating fiction into “the world as it is” or “the world as you wish it to be.” We can call these the mirror and the beacon. The beacon, as Lee says, shows us the world as it could be. It’s aspirational, the shining city on a hill. While the mirror forces us to wrestle with the ugliness of reality and its contradictions, it also takes Faulkner’s approach to fiction—it forces the heart to go to war.
If you’ve sat in on any of my panels, you might have heard me mention that one of the reasons I love genre fiction is that it allows us a place to explore difficult—and often challenging—ideas. Books can be closed and put away. However, that doesn’t mean the themes and ideas held within the pages won’t be disturbing. It also doesn’t mean characters won’t say vile things or perform despicable acts. Often both will happen, and sometimes the results might not align with the reader’s worldview. Here be dragons, after all.
I think grappling, as both a reader and a writer, with challenging ideas, plots, and characters are necessary for a vibrant fictive landscape. It’s also faithful to humanity; human history is rich in dichotomy. Nothing with people is ever black and white. People let you down as often as they impress you. That’s what makes them people. That’s what makes love, love. Love goes beyond the faults. It forgives in spite of transgressions.
Lately, when someone asks me what my manuscript Coal Belly is about, I often have a simple answer: “It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.” I want that complexity in my work. I want people to like a character, yet struggle with their decisions. I want to explore the gray. It’s why fiction like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia never drew me in the same way as other fantasy novels. The villains were too villainous, the heroes too heroic. The points made were too explicit and too heavy-handed.
That works for some readers. They’re both fine examples of the beacon, and some people want that in their escapism. However, to me, it comes across as patronizing and quixotic.
Mikey Numan, in his review of the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, described its cast of characters thusly: “No villains; only viewpoints.” This means that within the movie, “evil” or the concept of “bad” becomes a byproduct of the characters’ behavior; even the good, well-intentioned characters say and do problematic things. In reality, villains don’t see themselves as villains, and heroes aren’t always heroic. I am more intrigued by stories willing to take this stance, stories that ask difficult questions and force me—the reader—to decide rather than go out of its way to hammer home a particular point.
Some people aren’t keen on being uncomfortable. What is an engaging plot point for one person might be disturbing for another. That’s okay. Fiction is like food; not everyone’s tastes are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that we should restrict one set of narratives in favor of the other. Nor does it mean that challenging fiction is inherently bad. The existence of characters and circumstances that are problematic aren’t excusing harmful behavior. Neither are they praising or glorifying the legitimate evils of the past. They’re merely an observation. Good fiction interweaves those challenges into its prose. Sharing points of view, circumstances, and experiences through fiction gives us a place to build both empathy and sympathy. It can help to expose us to other walks of life, and it lets us explore the viewpoints of others—viewpoints that we might not have access to in our everyday lives.
For many readers and some fandoms, it seems that, unless the writer features a Jim Halpert, who slowly turns and stares at the camera as punctuation for what is absurd or offensive, we’re unable to parse it for ourselves. It was funny in The Office, but I loathe it in my fiction. I’m not into passive consumption. I don’t want or need my hand to be held as I read a book. I want the challenge. I want nuance. I want to struggle with my emotions about characters. I want to be offended and shocked. I want to be pushed and made uncomfortable. I want a place where the world’s imperfections are mirrored and explored. I want problematic fiction, with problematic circumstances, filled with problematic characters, experiencing problematic viewpoints. I want to get out of my small echo chamber and explore the vastness of humanity—warts and all. Within the mirror, reconciling those things isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. This is why we have fiction. This is why we tell stories. This is what fandoms and the echo chambers need. This is why Jamie Lannisters exist. So, let our hearts be in conflict.
1 Most notably, Young adult and New adult but it’s bled into Sci-fi and Fantasy. Also, soapbox moment here… New adult features protagonists ‘between the ages of 18-30.’ Look, I’m 36 right now, so this is an old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-clouds thing, but at 30 you ain’t a new adult.
3 Also for emotional maturity, but more on that later.
4 There are a few exceptions here, most notably: Boromir, he is an incredibly complex personality, and arguably the best character in the series. Yeah, I went there.
5 It’s a great review and a pretty solid film. I say this as a guy who is not a fan of Miyazaki movies.
6 And discussing them. Please, discuss away! Dialog is vital and important. You could argue that discussion is why complex fiction exists. It wants to be talked about.
[Note:] I originally published this article with the title “Your Fav is Problematic—That’s Okay.” While either is technically correct, I have since changed the “Fav” to “Fave” to closer align with the Problematic Fave meme.
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