The Importance of the Impossible
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David Farland on Fantasy. Amen!

Posted by A.E. Marling in Author Interview | Fantasy: Modern Myth

I invited David Farland to share his thoughts on the themes of morality and good and evil in the fantasy genre, and he graciously accepted.

David Farland is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author who has penned nearly fifty science fiction and fantasy novels for both adults and children. Along the way, he has also worked as the head judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests, as a creative writing instructor, as a videogame designer, and as a movie producer.

Algis Budrys, a literary critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, once said that “Fantasy (and it’s sub-genre science fiction) is the last bastion of moral fiction in the United States. It’s the only place where good and evil are popularly portrayed as black and white, opposites. It’s the only place where one dares talk openly about good and evil within the framework of a story.”

In literary fiction, he pointed out, writing about good and evil became unpopular more than a hundred years ago. In the late 19th Century, so much of literature in schools was aimed at teaching Johnny how to be a good boy that authors revolted. As the theory of evolution took hold, many authors began to believe that there was no “absolute right and wrong.” Ideas that had long been taught by Christian fundamentalists began to be challenged, and new ideas on morality were introduced, including the notion that morality is more “relative” to social norms and individual situations. Existentialist authors pointed out in their fiction that “since there is no god,” life is basically meaningless, and some went so far as to preach hedonism in various forms. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

In an effort to avoid offending non-religious readers, editors began to demand that religion as an influence in the life of protagonists be kept at a minimum.
When was the last time that you read about a protagonist who was a strong Baptist or Catholic or Methodist? The answer is that even though some 40 percent of all people in the U.S. attend church on a regular basis, we don’t see such people appearing in books as protagonists. Normally, if we see a religious person in literary fiction, he or she is an object of derision, someone who clings stupidly to outdated beliefs. If you want to read about such people, you have to go to the Christian Bookstore down the street, where religious issues tend to take the forefront of the story.

Authors quit talking about “Good and Evil” in mainstream fiction, at least in absolute terms. It might be there in the subtext of the tale, a sort of underlying influence, but it’s not discussed openly. That attitude carried over to most genres—Westerns, romance, thrillers, horror, and so on.

But not fantasy. Not science fiction. Instead, moral questions often strike right at the heart of such stories. In fact, in my Runelords series, I have a protagonist sit down and read a treatise on the nature of good and evil. He actively wonders how to live his life, how he can become a good person in a society that has gone astray. I couldn’t have a protagonist in the mainstream sit down and read the New Testament in that same way. Not only was the book well-received, it became a bestseller internationally.

So what’s the difference between the genres?

The answer is simple: power. In many science fiction and fantasy stories, the protagonist gains new powers. Frodo Baggins finds the One Ring. Paul Atreides goes to the planet Dune, where worm spice is everywhere—in the food he drinks, the air he breathes—just waiting to transform him. And in my own novels, Gaborn Val Orden must take attributes from his vassals, borrowing their strength, their speed, or their wit, in order to face down an overwhelmingly evil opponent.

As soon as any protagonist gains great power, one must ask the question, “Now what do you do with it?”

Heroes often make mistakes. Frodo can’t let his power go. Paul Atreides struggles to maintain control over a dozen factions while still remaining a compassionate leader. Gaborn Val Orden has to figure out how to serve mankind in a world where his very system of government is not only corrupt, but corrupting.

I have seen authors try to deal with the issue of power while skirting the moral consequences of the protagonist’s actions. Usually, the writer feels . . . wishy washy.

Indeed, Budrys argued that a writer of speculative fiction had to confront the problem of good and evil in his fiction. To fail to do so was a sign of moral and intellectual cowardice.

So when you begin writing about any character who will gain or seize great power, be aware that writing about the nature of good and evil is something that you’re going to have to confront. Be prepared to ask—and answer—the really big questions.

The other day Nova Science Now talked about experiments with a chemical that makes people forget long-term memories and as soon as it became public that a scientist had figured out how to do this, he started receiving letters by sad people asking him to experiment on them and wipe out their memories.
Coincidentally, in my just released novel, NIGHTINGALE, the masaak, a species of homo-sapiens that secretly live among us and have the power to share memories or erase them, struggle with the morality of these kinds of issues. Lucky for me it was well timed. Stories like this have the power to shape our culture and as a writer you should use that power thoughtfully.

Find out about NIGHTINGALE.

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5 Responses

  • A.E. Marling says:

    Thank you, David Farland, for sharing your insights.

    I hope the discussion of the themes of morality in fantasy will continue on this and future blog posts. Also, I wanted to mention that Nightingale features an enhanced version of the novel, including music, images, and more, which intrigues me as an author. Digital books provide a new frontier for storytelling, and David Farland is a pioneer.

  • Sadly, there seems to be a growing trend to remove this aspect of storytelling from Fantasy as well. Authors strive to turn evil into good and good into evil and to leave nothing behind but a giant grey area. I find it very disturbing. My own writing will fight against it and hopefully fall into the tradition that Tolkien wrote in.

  • Thanks, David, and A. E., for sharing this.

    The consideration of power is definitely an important one in my own work, and one I still need to fully grasp. There are decisions about the moral implications of my unusual power for my character that I think are important to make–and yet I worry that I will offend people by making them. I suspect this is the reason for the wishy-washy approach David mentions.

    I shall strive harder. Thanks for the inspiration!



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