Mackel Tour; Fantasy and a Christian Worldview, Part 13

So I finally tracked down the other bloggers who are posting about Kathryn Mackel’s newest release The Hidden. If you take some time to check out these other posts, I think you’ll get a good feel for this book and for Mackel as a writer.

Jason Joyner – Spoiled for the Ordinary
TL Hines’ blog
Cheryl Russel – Unseen Worlds
Jim Black’s blog
Mimi Pearson’s Mimi’s Pixie Corner
David Meigs’ The Curmudgeon’s Rant
Kevin Holtsberry’s Collected Miscellany
Linda Gilmore’s blog
Gina Burgess’s blog
Bonnie Calhoun’s Bonnie Writes
Valerie’s In My Little World
Jezreel Cohen’s Jezreel’s Reviews
Chris Mikesell So Much Stuff I Can’t Recall
Tina’s Scraps of me

I’d also suggest you take the time to look at Mackel’s own web site which will give you more background and a feel for the scope of her writing.

As to fantasy, I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about good and evil, partly because of Mackel’s The Hidden. In this book there are some characters who believe that the amnesia victim, who main character Susan Stone stumbles upon, is the perpetrator of violent crimes. Susan, on the other hand, believes he is himself the victim of abuse.

I won’t do a total spoiler and tell you which is the case, but I think this leaving the reader suspended, uncertain of who is good and who is evil leads to ambivalence about the characters. I wonder if it also doesn’t confuse the issue of good and evil.

More and more, novelists are convinced that in order to paint all characters as three-dimensional, there must be a section in the antagonist’s point of view. Of course, Mr. Bad Guy has to have believable motive, because after all, he is the hero of his own tale.

So we the readers must endure the rapist giving his reasons why he is right in doing what he does. Or the murderer. Child molester. Or whoever perpetrator of whatever crimes the writer has assigned the character.

I don’t buy the idea that this even-handed treatment of the antagonist is necessary, or even good in Christian fiction. Mr. Bad Guy does what he does because he has a sinful heart like everyone else and has chosen sinful means to attain his sinful desires.

This idea that we need to “understand” the bad guy has cropped up because of the humanistic philosophy of our culture. Without some trauma or some wrong choice or unfair treatment, the humanistic reasoning goes, Mr. Bad Guy could have ended up more nearly like Mr. Good Guy. You see, left to himself, without the ills of society (as if people don’t make up society), our poor victim would certainly have followed his good nature.

Uh, no, since it is not in existence!

And yet we as Christian writers seem to be buying into this approach. Either that or the devil made him do it (see supernatural suspense, i.e. horror).

Fantasy, the classic kind or the adventure kind, doesn’t have a problem painting bad as bad and good as good. Yes, for this to work, evil characters must be painted realistically, in 3D. To me that also means assigning motives, just not mixed ones. He does what he does because he’s greedy or selfish or power-hungry. Those are all believable.

The impact on the reader is a removal of ambivalence, freeing him up to root for the good wholeheartedly. The way we should root for God to win over Satan.

Am I the only one who thinks this way?

Published in: on May 31, 2006 at 5:00 am  Comments (8)  

8 Comments

  1. Well said. Too much “Evil exists because it’s someone else’s fault” has penetrated Christian thinking. Yes, we know horrible acts perpetrated against individuals influence their abilities to process “life”, but reality is always found in God’s offering of Jesus Christ to heal, mend, deliver, and finally to produce good fruit through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Good can only be found through the Lord, and evil is in all of us.

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  2. I think you’ve made a good point, but–

    showing the antagonist’s line of thought can serve a valuable purpose. It can show us the potential for self-justification and self-deception which live in all of us, particularly if we recognize some of our own thought-patterns in the wrong-doer.

    It can emphasize the fact that ALL have fallen short, but also that ALL still can be redeemed – for example, C.S. Lewis does this in That Hideous Strength when he shows us how the demon-worshippers think and how they could still repent but find it nearly impossible. It’s true that people can be just plain greedy, selfish or power-hungry, but as you say, they should be three dimensional or we fall into the trap of demonizing them completely.

    Finally, while acknowledging the reality of original sin and personal choice, it can be good to explore the environment, history, and community which shape an antagonist. It lets us see how the sins of the father are visited on the son, how sin and evil works itself out over time, twisting people over generations. It helps move us away from modern individualism to see a more biblical view of how whole communities can be infected with evil, or cleansed of it, and the idea of structural sin. It can help us to see how our own moral choices will have larger consequences and make us think about what sort of environment we want to create for future generations.

    And hopefully it will engender some humility in us. Most of us like to think we’re righteous, but then again so do many villains. We often don’t know where we really stand – let he who thinks he’s standing beware he does not fall, as it says in Corinthians.

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  3. Good points, Elliot, and I don’t think anyone’s advocating leaving any of those points out in the antagonist. It’s the additional text trying to justify, rationalize, or excuse either the antagonist’s or the protagonist’s, for that matter, sinfulness in all its various forms–pride being the quintessential danger for ALL of us. Good comments.

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  4. Thanks for the comment, Becky! I love your site!

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  5. I agree with Nicole. Your points are well-made, Elliot. However, I don’t think denying the antagonist a platform means that character has to be drawn any less realistically.

    Our culture has this belief in tolerance—the only wrong thing is to say something (or … horrors … someone) is wrong. That has worked its way into our fiction and even into Christian fiction.

    I read one fantasy last year that gave us scene upon scene from the antagonist’s POV. When the clash came with the hero, I wasn’t all too sure any more who I wanted to win. This was fantasy, where delineating evil and good in stark terms is acceptable. It was Christian fantasy, no less, where the evil is a metaphor for what is opposed to God.

    Oh, I just remembered another novel that had me feeling sorry for Nero. YIKES!!

    So while I see your points in theory, Elliot, I resist this trend because of what I think it says about us and our cultural fear of offending someone by actually standing up and saying, That’s wrong.

    Here’s my list of what portraying an antagonist in 3D should NOTdo:
    * glorify or glamorize his evil deeds
    * give the impression that whatever ill he’s experienced justifies the evil he perpitrates
    * make him sympathetic

    There’s probably others you all can add to the list.

    Becky

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  6. What you’re saying makes sense to me!

    As for making the character sympathetic, I might make an exception for that, if it’s handled well. Apparently Milton makes the Devil seem sympathetic in Paradise Lost, because his point is that we’re all fallen and sinful, and we tend to be attracted to evil.

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  7. Becky, I couldn’t agree more! I was left feeling somewhat empty after reading The Hidden… it raised some theological questions in my mind and I don’t like that. Although, I really like Kathy Mackel; she’s very personable, and I don’t have anything really against her book. I just didn’t think it was the best of the summer. Waking Lazarus, on the other hand, gets 5 stars. Hines goes into the mind of the antagonist, but it isn’t a gagging type of study, it is more suspense building how evil that mind is without all the gore and graphic-ness of other novels I’ve read.

    Anyhoot! I’m delighted that you spoke out about this. I’m in total agreement with you! I do not want to feel sorry for an antagonist. I want to stand up and cheer with the antagonist gets his just dessserts (like in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, everyone in the theater stood up and cheered at the end of that movie.)

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  8. Gina, thanks for the comment. I’m glad to know someone else sees the same issue I see. And I agree with you about Mackel. Though I don’t know her, I like her wiriting. She really does paint vivid scenes and believable characters.

    With Hines, he goes beyond that to a plot that grows his protagonist. The storyline is suspenseful, certainly, but the protag is such a compelling guy, and the antagonist is never someone you feel any sympathy for. That, to my way of thinking, is a stronger story. Add to that the spiritual implications and it seems like we writers should think twice about the in-vogue way of portraying bad guys.

    Becky

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