This week I’m going to go back to something I wrote a couple weeks ago, about the movie Excalibur and how a ‘realistic’ version of the Arthur story would not be anywhere near as good as the wondrously fantastic version we got. A little later, I was listening to a Big Finish audio drama and in the extra comments, Tom Baker said something I thought was pretty interesting. He said (paraphrasing slightly) that you can tell the difference between literature and the real world because literature is the place where you know that good will conquer evil, in the end. Not so much for the real world.
Obviously (and I have no doubt that Mr. Baker is perfectly well aware of that) this isn’t true of all literature; there are lots of stories that don’t end up very well and go to dark places. However, authors do (as he pointed out in the interview) have the ability to arrange things so that they work out well in the end. That isn’t the arrangement that always gets chosen, I guess, and tales where things do not work out well seem to be especially popular these days. A lot of the more successful movies, TV shows and books in recent years are either about fairly awful characters, end up in fairly awful ways, or both.
Just as obviously, there’s a reason why these stories are popular. At least part of it, I think, is that we have the idea that these kinds of things are realistic, and I suppose to some extent that’s true. The real world is riven with flaws and we are surrounded by flawed people a lot of the time. It probably is fairly realistic to create tales of flawed people in flawed places, then, and if you do that a lot of times those stories will end up with less than perfect conclusions.
I’m not sure what it is that makes us (sometimes) think that a ‘realistic’ story must be a better story, but a lot of the time, it seems, we do. Perhaps it makes us feel more mature or intelligent to be trading with ‘reality’ rather than the fantastic. Maybe we feel that realism is close to truth, and the truth is something we are often inclined to embrace, and told to embrace. We often like solving a puzzle, and maybe uncovering the ‘real story’ behind something like the King Arthur stories satisfies in that fashion. Perhaps we’re avoiding the charge of ‘escapism’, which is often used to dismiss things as a waste of time. Thus, perhaps, we choose something ‘realistic’.
However, these aren’t the kind of stories I really like, these days. Just as I like the profoundly unrealistic (and ultimately positive, or at least redemptive) Excalibur much more than I could ever imagine enjoying a gritty, realistic tale of a real 9th century warrior (somewhere out there, perhaps a writer just went ‘Challenge Accepted’ to themselves, and if so I hope you prove me wrong), I like stories that aren’t afraid to have fundamentally good characters in them (along, of course, with some gleefully horrible ones) and end up in situations where, on some level, ‘things are better’.
Perhaps that’s the kind of story Tom Baker digs as well – I like to imagine so, at least – and that’s where I am, as a reader and writer, these days. I’m not really terribly concerned with what could or would really happen; I like a story that, whatever kind of journey it takes you on, ends in a place where you can say, on some level, that ‘things were better’. Basically, I enjoy a story where there are the ‘good guys’ (or at least, good people) and, on some level, they succeed in the end. At something. It doesn’t have to be unproblematic success, or even entirely unproblematic characters; there’s certainly room (in my picky little mind) for some shades of grey (perhaps not fifty of them, though) as long as it isn’t unremittingly darkness.
I lost about any interest I might have had in the new Batman/Superman movie after it became apparent that the grimdarkness dial had been cranked up to 11. (Yes, of course you can have a positive Batman story) Part of the reason I have liked the new Flash series is that it is just plain fun to watch, and has such a basically decent main character. Several people on my Twitter feed pointed out how nice it is to see, in the pictures for the upcoming Supergirl series, to see a hero who is, of all things, smiling, rather than scowling angrily at the world.
Now, none of this is to say that I can’t appreciate a dark story. I can, and I think if you had asked me about what kind of stories I enjoyed more a few years ago, I would have answered differently. To pick a reasonably recent example, Snowpiercer was about the bleakest movie I can remember watching in a very long time, although it was also immensely well done and a film I enjoyed – I just had to do a little counter-bleak palate-cleanse afterwards (with, I believe, Pirates of the Caribbean). I’m not sure what it says about me that the stories that I like to read and am most interested in writing, these days, are not ‘realistic’ and tend to be more of the type where at the end, things are better. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe this too will change.
At the moment, though, I feel like I get quite enough examples of things working out for the worse and the right side coming out second-best in the real world and in my real life. When I spend some time with a story, I’m really in the mood for a happy ending. You can dismiss that as ‘escapism’, I suppose, but to me that’s something stories have always been for – taking us out of the real world for a little while.
Thanks for reading again; I hope your plot takes a happy turn today.