Will It All End in Gloom and Doom? (or) What Kind of Writer Am I, Anyway?
Every once in a while, if you're any kind of artist, I think it's good to reflect on the question of what you're trying to bring to the world.
I got an email the other day from a reader of The Chaos Chronicles. This fellow—let's call him Q—had read and enjoyed the first four books (bless him), and was wondering about the next one, which I'm currently writing. Q wanted to know if I was intending to follow the path of other once-favorite writers who had let him down, saying:
"One class of authors have determined that you are not a professional writer unless you rip your heroes to shreds in the end. [My once favorite] author subscribed to that theory and turned [his] protagonists into really rotten people ready to kill each other." Was I planning, he wondered, to do something like that with my characters—and if so, could I let him know now, so he could save himself the trouble of reading my next book?
Although I might not put it in such stark terms, I've noticed a similar trend in current entertainment. I can't count the number of times I've read about the upcoming season of a TV show, or a sequel in a movie series, promising: "This next one will be darker. You'll lose some people you love." Examples include even comic book fare such as the Batman movies, and Superman (both in film and in TV's Smallville). And I just recently read that we can count on the next Avengers movie being "darker." Darker is better, so often goes the thinking. Frankly, I'm not a big fan of the trend. I don't find it all that entertaining, or a particularly wonderful world view; and when it's done just for the sake of being dark and not for sound storytelling reasons, I don't see it as necessarily contributing much to the human endeavor.
Not that darkness is never warranted, or is always wrong. There are great tragedies, obviously. (Though on balance, I'm way more drawn to humor than to tragedy.) But in SF terms, take BSG, with which I was peripherally involved as a novelist. That certainly went dark and gritty, plumbing the depths of its primary characters' pain. It was so well done, and for the most part justified psychologically, that I kept with it (though my daughter dropped out of watching it, saying enough is enough). Certainly there was realism in it: If your race has been nearly exterminated, and you with the final remnant are being pursued across space by an implacable enemy, things will probably get pretty dark. At the same time, there's a fine line that divides dramatic exploration from wallowing, and at times I felt BSG sheared pretty close to that line.
So how did I answer Q? Here's what I said, more or less:
"I do not subscribe to the school of thinking that all roads lead to misery, or that all good characterization leads to corruption and degradation. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have viewed the journey of my characters as being one of growth and maturity. Obviously there's sacrifice. But if there isn't a sense of hope and redemption at the end of the story, you have my permission to shoot every one of my characters and put them out of their misery. I don't promise no pain, loss, or grief. But if something good doesn't come out of the pain and loss, then I'm not doing my job as a writer, as I see it—which is to bring a ray of light into the world. I do not want the reader to feel depressed at the end of one of my books. Sad maybe, grieving at a loss maybe, but never dark or depressed. Uplifted, preferably."
Think the end of The Lord of the Rings. There's a kind of ending I aspire to.
Why do I feel this way? If I said it was because I think uplifting is better than down-dragging, healthier for life and better for us as an audience and as a planet, that would be true. If I said it was because I think God gave me some talent as a writer so that I could bring a little more light and life into the world, hope rather than despair, that would be true. If I said it was because those are the kinds of stories I want to read, that would be true.
So take your pick, whichever works best for you. They're all me.