When Good Things Happen to Bad Characters

Imagine a story where the sun sets on humanity, not to rise again….

This is article is, in some ways, a follow-up to yesterday’s post, and in other ways just a semi-related tangent inspired by yesterday’s title. Yesterday I wrote about the obligations and challenges any  writer faces “when bad things happen to good characters,” and particularly when they die. I randomly thought, as I pulled out my computer at the café to write today’s article, how I could flip that concept around, not expecting much success, and I immediately remembered a conversation I had years ago, in college, with a fellow humanities student and great friend named “Anne.”

THE CHALLENGE: LET THE BAD GUY WIN

Anne and I watched Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” at her dorm, because I had never seen it, she’s a Muppets fan, she said I MUST watch that movie, and I was sick of my stepfamily making references I couldn’t understand to something called “Fizzgig.” Well, Fizzgig is not important to this post, as intriguing a creature as he is. What stuck with me about the movie, when Anne and I were discussing it post-screening, was the character Kira. Kira is a sacrificial heroine type, a kind of character I have always had a soft spot for. I mentioned to Anne that if the lives of those characters pretty much are horrible, at least they know they are living for something important and doing something worthwhile with their existence. They’re not wasting their time on earth, and they can take comfort in that. Heck, I wouldn’t mind that assurance most days. The sacrificial heroine archetype is unselfish, and there’s real value to that.

Anne shocked me, when I finished talking, by taking our discussion in a new direction: the world, she said, could really use a sacrificial hero/heroine to set things on the right track, because western society is headed down a dangerous path. Anne specifically said she thought we could all use a good wake-up call via a story where the bad guys triumph, as a warning that, yes, shit can get real, real fast. She wanted someone to write that story.

That idea comes back to me now, and I think it’s fascinating. I was actually writing the first draft of “The Crimson League” at the time, and told her I didn’t know how the story would end yet, so it was possible I could write that story. I considered writing that story, and then, I didn’t. I never have, and I think if I (or anyone) does, it would interesting to debate whether it would work better as a short story or a novel. But I’ll come back to that.

NOT A TRAGEDY

Tragedy has existed as a genre since classical times, and that’s not what Anne was referring to. Tragedy has always functioned a certain way in society and had particular psychological effects (remember “catharsis” as a vocab word in high school English?) No, what Anne meant is a Harry Potter series where Voldemort survives after definitively killing Harry and expands his control even to the subjugation of the muggles. She meant a Lord of the Rings where Frodo fails to destroy the ring and Sauron gets it back. Perhaps a Peter Pan where Hook kills Peter and the crocodile eats Wendy, or a Star Wars where Vader kills Luke and all the rebels die: that kind of story. People don’t write that kind of story, because frankly, we judge our lives and our real world to be messed up enough without that kind of drama in our fiction. We want to see good triumph over evil in our tales because deep down we know there should be order in the world. We long for the order and justice we always feel denied us, always lurking beyond our grasp.

Please please please, if you’ve ever read a story that qualifies as this kind of victory for evil, let me know! I’d love to know if it exists.

SHORT STORY OR NOVEL???

At the moment, I find it fascinating to think how Anne’s wish for that story could actually come to fruition: short story or novel? I think as a short story, more people would read it. I think it would be less frustrating–the flouting of the reader’s expectations more forgivable–in a shorter form. But then, to write it as a novel would REALLY drive Anne’s point home. A novel-length defeat of good would be nothing short of soul-crushing, I think. A real literary wake-up call. Of course, such a story would so completely rewire all our cultural and psychological expectations that I’d be surprised if any house ever published it….

So, what do you guys think about all this? I had completely forgotten about this until twisting switching around “When bad things happen to good characters” brought it back to mind. Would you write this story? Read it? How? Do you think someone should? Why do you feel that we, as humans, don’t tell this kind of story?

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2 responses to “When Good Things Happen to Bad Characters

  1. I think that would be a cool idea for a short story, but I don’t know about a novel. I mean, to invest so much emotion into characters, and then for them just to DIE, or be enslaved, or whatever … that’s pretty dark. Although it can work really well sometimes. It’s not a book, but have you seen Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods”? That has a similar ending to what you’re talking about, and it was really good. Although I did know going in that it was a horror/suspense movie, so I was expecting a dark outcome. If I had thought it was a fun, fantasy movie, and it had turned out the way it did, I would have been very displeased. But then, I do love happy endings 🙂

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