Jul 16 2009 12:34pm

Ambiguity in Fantasy

I once thought that what I loved about fantasy was the passionate declarations and the clarity of fighting for real good against real evil. I mean I think this is one of the things I loved about Tolkien when I was eight, and still love about Tolkien. But recently, I’ve noticed that there’s more ambiguity in fantasy, and I’m really enjoying that. In Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, there aren’t really villains. They all get a point of view, and they all have a point. It’s the same with Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, one of the things I like about it is the way as the series progresses you see that nobody is exactly right or wrong.

Tolkien said he didn’t like allegory, he much preferred “history, true or feigned.” I think most post-Tolkien fantasy is the detailed complex history of imaginary lands, and this ambiguity makes it more like real history, which is the story of real people. Few real people are villains inside their own heads. People don’t do evil things so they can cackle about how evil they are, they do evil things because they think they will lead to things they think are good, or because they can’t see any alternative. And that’s really much more interesting, especially because it can lead to different kinds of stories in those worlds, rather than just replaying the eucatastrophe of good snatching victory from evil.

I made a post on my livejournal some time ago about the way I love the passionate declarations and the issues of everything absolutely mattering because it’s light against dark that I get from reading high fantasy:

I want Frodo saying he will take it though he does not know the way, and Eowyn saying she has leave to be burned in the house when the men won’t want it any more. I want Laura talking to the unicorn and Patrick saying the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t answer back. I want Paul on the Summer Tree. I want Harimad-sol riding across the desert.

I want that range, that possibility of things absolutely mattering, of the whole world in the balance, and the declaration—at the beginning of Kay’s The Wandering Fire, Kevin Laine says “To this I will make reply, though he be a god and this mean my death!” When I want fantasy, I want situations where people can say that, and mean it, and where it can feel real and supported. There’s a bit of my soul that thrills to it.

There’s an ancient computer game called Lords of Midnight. I have a Spectrum emulator for DOS so I can play it. It has four colours, and it uses a whole 64k of memory, and you go around collecting people and armies and attacking the bad guy in his fortress of Ushgarak. The names are wonderful, in a certain way, and really, the names are all there is to create the atmosphere. Luxor the Moonprince. Farflame the Dragonlord. It’s a strategy game. It’s also like concentrated essence of high fantasy.

One day, years ago, I was playing it, and losing, and fighting out the long defeat. My remaining characters were gathered in the castle of Thimrath, vastly outnumbered. When Thimrath fell, there would be only scattered keeps between the enemy and my capital of Xajorkith and ultimate victory of Doomdark. The Utarg of Utarg began to address the other characters thus: “It is true we will die. But we shall not wholly die, though the world go down to darkness and even our names be forgotten. There are other worlds than this, and in those worlds we live again, and strive again, and perhaps one day we will yet strike victory from the jaws of defeat. But we who stand here, we will at nightfall fight, and die, my companions down this long road. The stakes are high. All our world rests on our defence. And if we die, we died doing what we knew best, and for the best reason there is. So I do not say we die for nothing or that our defeat is to no purpose...” Understand—I was making this up, it wasn’t on the screen, he was saying it in my head. And I realized I was crying, that there were tears on my cheeks, that I was crying over the doomed gallantry of this little band of heroes.

So, anyway, that’s the essential nutrient I get from high fantasy that nothing else gives me.

This isn’t something you get from complex histories where nobody is exactly right or wrong and everyone has comprehensible motivations. That’s something you only get when you’re fighting the Doomguard.

Fortunately, there are plenty of different kinds of fantasy out there. But maybe there could be a rating scale, a little bar rated from “Clear rallying cries of passionate declaration” through “Ambiguous as Pontius Pilate” to “Everyone has a point”? It would help people pick up the thing they’re in the mood for that day.

1. OtterB
Sometimes I want the same kind of passionate and meaningful commitment - "To fight for the right, without question or pause. To be willing to walk into hell for a heavenly cause..."

I'm reminded for some reason of Reepicheep, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who played excellent chess except when he lost himself in the game and sent his knights off on valiant doomed battles in defense of their queen.

Even Tolkien, who laid out the lines of good vs. evil quite clearly, had characters on the wrong side whose motives were more complex than inherent evil or mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. Boromir and his desire to carry out his father's will. Even Saruman, seduced from learning about evil into acting on it.

I enjoy a more nuanced view as long as it doesn't break down to lots of dingy gray characters running around doing things to each other. The situation may be ambiguous, but I am always a sucker for a viewpoint character striving to do what is right, not what is profitable or comfortable or expedient.
Daniel Abraham
2. DanielAbraham
Do you think those are really irreconcilable?

I know this is off from left field, but my comfort reading is Camus' The Plague, and the reason I like it is that it's exactly both of the thing you're looking for. The world it presents is wholly morally ambiguous, the people in it aren't good or evil, though they do things that are good or evil or stupid, but emotionally necessary. And there's also a sense of . . . jeez, I don't want to say nobility. A sense of maybe heroism? Maybe honor? about the doctor who does everything in his power, and even a little more, because doing any less would be unacceptable to him. Because (like Otter said) even if it was profitable or comfortable or expedient, it wouldn't be right.

I don't think The Plague is first class literature, but I think it's a damn fine sermon. And I don't see why epic fantasy *can't* do what it does. Though I guess it may require that the role of evil be played by something like a bacillus.
3. CarlosSkullsplitter
I know this is off from left field, but my comfort reading is Camus' The Plague,

You just made a sale.
Evan Leatherwood
4. ELeatherwood
DanielAbraham -- your thoughts going to Camus aren't at all off base, because this post is really about how fantasy can be a moral education for the reader. And Camus is all about providing a moral education for his readers. Nothing as tiresome as the "moral of the story" but rather a use of imagination as a way to knowledge. Moral knowledge.

John Crowley's "Little, Big" more than any other fantasy novel I can recall is "Ambiguous as Pontius Pilate." Ambiguity is necessary for the full enchantment of that book to take hold on the reader. I wonder if there are any other fantasies that actually RELY on moral ambiguity in order to be fantasies at all. That's not to say that "Little, Big" falls in any way short of the expectations of the genre. There are as many fireworks and special effects as any fantasy reader could hope for.

OtterB -- George R. R. Martin's characters are always doing what they think is right, what they think is expedient, and this makes some of them really, really evil. And always entertaining. To me, Martin is the king of "moral edutainment" you could say. The line between good and evil that is drawn at the end of "Game of Thrones" is all zig-zaggy, dotted, and faint by the end of the second book. You never know which of his characters will grow on you next.

Reading good morally ambiguous multi-POV fiction always leaves me fulfilled and a little wary. What if someone were writing my story and I wasn't the POV character? ...
Lena Vogelmann
5. kalafudra
Personally, I love me some ambiguity. Prime example would be Lukianenko's Watch Series. The way you - along with Anton, the protagonist - slowly realise that even though the myth is that the Night Watch are the good ones who have to fight the evil Day Watch, the reality just isn't this simple... it always gives me the chills.

But somebody, who walks the line between ambiguity and clear morality is Joe Abercrombie with his First Law Series. Though I'd say that he leans more towards ambiguity in the end, he's very clear in his morality: Everybody sucks. :)

In any case, one thing is true: ambiguity leaves little room for heroics. And good heroics are definitely awesome.
6. OtterB
DanielAbraham - the only thing I ever read by Camus was The Stranger, and I hated it. Will have to look up The Plague.

George R. R. Martin's characters are always doing what they think is right, what they think is expedient, and this makes some of them really, really evil. And always entertaining. To me, Martin is the king of "moral edutainment" you could say.

I read Game of Thrones some years ago and didn't like it enough to follow up with the rest of the series. However, I wrote one of my first author fan letters to him after I read "A Song for Lya" in Analog long ago, and I vividly remember "Dying of the Light" and some of the moral choices involved there. I've never reread that book - probably should - but I've never purged it in multiple moves either.

kalafudra - he's very clear in his morality: Everybody sucks. :)
See, this is what I dislike. Everybody sucks, everybody is running around on the premise of "Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you." If the descriptions says something is "dark," I may or may not like it. If it says something is "noirish" I'm 90% likely to dislike it. Not saying that books like that shouldn't be written, that other people shouldn't enjoy them, etc., etc. But at least at this point in my life, Do Not Want. YMMV.

I've been thinking about this a little more. It's not just that I like a main viewpoint character who is trying to do the right thing. There are characters whose "right thing" is something deeply misguided, and I don't especially want to be reading about them. I want at least some reflection on the moral choices involved, someone who recognizes that he/she might be wrong - though with limited angst-y whining about it.
Daniel Abraham
7. DanielAbraham
the only thing I ever read by Camus was The Stranger, and I hated it. Will have to look up The Plague.

The Stranger was published five years earlier, and I think he grew up a little in between. Give it a shot. See what you think.
8. JohnBrown
they do evil things because they think they will lead to things they think are good, or because they can’t see any alternative

Your generosity does you credit.

But even if we give the most heinous people the benefit of the doubt, the fact remains that just because they reason something one way, it doesn't mean we'll agree with them. There are people who value a laugh over someone else's dignity and see nothing wrong with mockery or belittlement. There are people who value their comfort more than that of others and see nothing wrong with theft. There are people who value their reputation more than someone else's life. Some people simply value most what they want and don't care who they hurt getting it. :)

So real life presents us sometimes with ambiguity, but it also presents us sometimes with great clarity. It hasn't been my experience that one is necessarily more realistic than the other.

As far as our response to fiction, however, I think this desire for nobility is all tied up in the rooting response. We love to cheer for someone. Love to feel anxiety and then a positive release. Love to feel right triumph. I don't know why, but we do. The problem is that in order to root for someone we have to feel they are on the side of right, however we define it, even if it's only just a little. Even if the only reason they tip the scale is because what they're fighting is so much worse. Or because the author's been very adept in keeping our focus away from the bad stuff.

The closer our hero gets to the dark side (and I think we judge dark by selfishness and pride) and the fewer good things that result from their efforts, the less we have to cheer about. But cheering isn't the only effect. I think you're right. Sometimes what we want is tragedy (although this is a spice I don't need much of personally). Or maybe cheering with a dash of poignancy. All, in the right circumstances, can be a very lovely dish.
Clark Myers
9. ClarkEMyers
Passionate declarations are scattered throughout the time line - SF and our own. Compare opening a door in Double Star to a hero of early Switzerland breaking the opposing formation by throwing himself on a handful of pikes.

For North America consider the San Patricios (listen to: ) but remember the Alamo (de Guello as e.g. by Dimitri Tiomkin in Rio Bravo, or obs SF Lost Dorsai or The Green Leaves of Summer from The Alamo - YouTube has nice performances).

For the UK it's a commonplace of Cliff's Notes that The White Company of Arthur Conan Doyle makes the reader root for good people who are the bad guys of history at least French history if not say Churchill's History of English Speaking People.

I think "the clarity of fighting for real good against real evil" is found only in the choosing sides early on - reading more, be it sequel or prequel one begins to see the backstory to "all shall love me and despair" in Tolkien - for divisions into 3 books arbitrary or appropriate consider Dune as a book in 3 parts - although the endless additions to Dune are I think silly, puerile for those who prefer Latin for literary terms - the original conception went beyond the first volume published as Dune into the inevitable end of the triumph of what once was seen as absolute even divine good.

Then again so few choose their sides some - Leiber's Snakes and Spiders - can have it both ways and some play the roles allotted.

I'd say there really are times "the best lack all conviction" (That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country) and there really are times the best are full of conviction (Their Finest Hour) - and I'd rather read of conviction than of despair.
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10. heresiarch
JohnBrown @ 8: "But even if we give the most heinous people the benefit of the doubt, the fact remains that just because they reason something one way, it doesn't mean we'll agree with them."

I think you're conflating "understanding why someone did what they did" and "thinking that that's okay." It's possible to accomplish the first without sliding into the second--and, when I think of some of the literature that I love the most, that is precisely why I love it: it makes clear the forces which drive these people to do what they do without making excuses for it. I think guiding the reader into that fraught space, sparking empathy without making excuses, is one of the most challenging and valuable literary feats.
11. JohnBrown

I can understand what you're saying. And sometimes it's wonderful to see exactly what you talk about. However, my intent was to focus on this passionate rooting effect. In order to generate that type of response, the reader has to not only understand but also agree. The moment the reader feels the character has moved over to the wrong side, even if we understand what might have made the character choose to do so, that's the moment the passion for the character's cause fails.
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12. heresiarch
JohnBrown @ 11: "However, my intent was to focus on this passionate rooting effect.'

Ah. On rereading your post, that is quite clear. Sorry!

Yes, unambiguous good guys do allow the audience to devote themselves (ourselves) to them one hundred percent. I guess the tension there, as in Jo's Lords of Midnight example, lies between the rightness of their cause and the certainty of their doom.
13. kaladorn
Complex characters are more interesting because they seem more real, just as people are both real and complex themselves. Finding out the villain has some streak of motivation you might at least empathize with, finding out that the hero has a flaw... these aspects humanize what are otherwise sometimes very two-dimensional archetypal characters.

I will draw one point of disagreement with the poster however: Some villains are just evil and knowingly do evil, not for any misconception of good. Torquemada the Inquisitor supposedly was very spartan and ascetic and probably thought he was doing the right thing.

On the other hand, I'm fairly certain a number of monsters in the real world guilty of some subgrouping of murder, child-molestation, sexual assault, cannibalism, torture, sadism, etc. are not doing so for any larger good - simply the thrill and the power of control. That to me means not every real villain has a good side.

The other aspect to remember is flawed hero characters end up being more heroic, following from the logic that he who is never tested by fear does not truly know courage. A character that has to overcome no deeper personal weaknesses (only having to face external challenges) doesn't make some of the key steps in the hero's journey and is commensurately less heroic.

Humans are at their greatest when they achieve great things despite their manifold weaknesses and foibles. Weakness is human and it is those essential human frailties and the mastery of them that makes individuals great.
Sean Scott Maguire
14. SeanScottMaguire
I like the rating scale idea. In addition to three out of five stars, or thumbs up and down, or whatever, you could also rate books on an ambiguity scale. Totally clear cut good and bad on one side, and totally obscure, it all depends on your perspective on the other.

Like: this series is ranked four out of five dark crystals on the ambiguity scale. Moral clarity is completely absent in the world create by this book.

Or: Three out of five light crystals on this book. All characters have a clear idea of right and wrong, and they follow their ideals to the death.

That's brilliant. Sometimes you want one or the other, but you don't know what you've got until you're halfway through the book. This would be a great help for sorting things out ahead of time.
15. OtterB
Following on kaladorn's comment about totally evil and non-sympathetic villains and flawed heroes (more complex than that, I know) ... I'm reminded of a quotation that I can't place and can't locate with a quick google, something to the effect that real tragedy is not the conflict of good against evil, but good against good. You get one kind of tension from books about fighting deep evil where losing is unthinkable and you're rooting for the hero all the way. You get a different kind of tension from books where there's merit on both sides of the conflict but seemingly irreconcileable differences, and you-the-reader can't see how it's going to come out "right" for values of "right" = "everyone getting what they deserve."

And I definitely prefer the heroes to have an internal battle to fight as well as an external.
16. cbyler
real tragedy is not the conflict of good against evil, but good against good

This reminds me of _The Lions of Al-Rassan_, which is very much one of those "everyone has motivations" stories, but nevertheless manages to maintain some of that feeling of fighting for something that matters.
Leland von Kugelgen
17. lelandvk
I actually frequently find myself despising the completely altruistic hero, who generally has hollow internal struggles, and a non-debatable goal. Even to the point of wanting them to fail in their quest. The author has to do a great deal of work to get me to empathize with that kind of character.

I do frequently crave that fantasy world almost completely dispossessed of official Villains and Heroes, (Steven Erikson's Malazan series is excellent at this) I find that the emergence of a terrible evil, or great good cause in the midst of such ambiguity to be still more compelling.

It's more real and tangible, but I think the point is well raised that there needs to be a credible motivation for the characters. Good v. Evil is a very ready-made way to accomplish this, but there are others.
Carl Rigney
18. cdr
Good lord, don't leave us hanging! Did Thimrath fall, or did Utarg's (imaginary) speech rally the troops and win the day? "Go tell the Xajorkithans, stranger passing by..."
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
CDR: Sadly, doomed Thimrath fell that on that occasion. The Utarg, whose personality is derived almost entirely from the fact that even when everybody else is afraid he remains bold, remains my favourite of the lot.

Damn, I want to play it now!
Maiane Bakroeva
20. Isilel
I have to say that I really enjoy ambiguity in literature in general and fantasy in particular. IMHO, it makes heroism shine all the brighter and also makes the story feel more believable. Real people are inconsistent - somebody who displayed amazing courage and leadership on the field of battle may be a moral coward at the time of peace. And vice versa.

A great ideal can lead to terrible things - freedom, equality, brotherhood, anybody?

Moreover, in RL conflicts it is far more common for both sides to have at least some points and they always have some drastic flaws.

I adore Tolkien, but there is only so much room for this kind of tale, IMHO.

And I, for one, can certainly enjoy gallantry shown in service of the wrong cause, if it is not a completely evil one.

In fact, I feel that fantasy's greatest weakness as a genre is it's general predictability. One would have thought that being freed of the constraints of real world, authors would explore all possible issues in all possible ways. Not so.

Apart from the overdone good versus evil struggle, stranglehold of which on the genre is thankfully weakening, there is the fact that the protagonists almost always win and almost always survive. Not to mention are almost always right.

I mean, geez, dear authors, if I wanted to know what would happen in advance, I'd have read a historical novel instead.
Don't underestimate the power of good tragedy, doomed causes, hopeless fight to the last without a bail-out in the nick of time.
Ursula L
21. Ursula

I'm curious how your observations in this post mesh with your earlier observations of fantasy as being a genre that grapples with the numinous.

My gut is hinting that there should be a connection. Possibly that worldbuilding that incorporates the magical/numinous into the world that is built would lend itself to ambiguity, while worldbuilding that makes the magical/numinous a tool to be used in otherwise conventional conflict would tend towards less ambiguity.

This because if the magical/numinous is out in the world, the protagonists would have to struggle to control/understand it as part of the plot's conflict. The magic or the gods are out there, and the protagonists must learn to deal with it. It has its own nature: the laws of nature, the will of the gods, etc. A Big Bad, or a clear good vs. evil would distract protagonists from having to learn to understand and work with the power that's out there,within the limits of nature/consent from that outside power.

On the other hand, if it is a tool used by characters, it will be under their control (or potentially under their control if they study properly), and therefore the conflict must be elsewhere – with a political rival, a Big Bad, etc. Not that there couldn't be ambiguity in that conflict, but rather that this type of conflict would be open to moral clarity in a way that learning to understand and control nature (even if that nature is magical/numinous) isn't.

If the numinous is a tool, then you have a two-way conflict, between protagonist and antagonist. But if the numinous is a power in its own right, you'll have a three way conflict, protagonist with the numinous, learning to understand it, and protagonist with antagonist, with the protagonist working with the numinous in a cooperative way to defeat the antagonist.
Tony Zbaraschuk
22. tonyz
I think that what I like in fantasy might better be called "recognition of complexity" than "ambiguity." I like the sense of dealing with things that are vast and wonderful and glorious, and hard to qualify in human terms, not without great caution. But I think, too, it should not be impossible to make moral judgments about them, even without total comprehension.

Martin has characters who are wonderfully complex (and watching, say, the re-humanization of Jaime Lannister is one of the really compelling parts of the most recent book for me). Seeing the traitor emerge from the mask of a friend, or the friend from the mask of an enemy, is a great part of the enjoyment of that series. At the same time, though, there are characters who are unquestionably good (Ned Stark, even if limited; Jon Snow) or evil (Gregor Clegane); they are complicated, granted, but one can look at them as a whole and say "Yes" or "No!" to their goals and conduct.

Fantasy is about the twilight, the land on the borders of night and day -- but though the border is ambiguous and uncertain, this does not mean that day and night are not tolerably distinguishable.
Sean Scott Maguire
23. SeanScottMaguire
I think it depends on the story, and what kind of read you are in the mood for. Sometimes I want something completely black and white, good vs. evil. Other times I want to be like "hmm, not sure who's good and who's bad, if there is such a thing."

That's the beauty of Fantasy. It can go to either extreme, and still have something for the reader.

Also, orcs and elves and dragons and hot warrior princesses. That's another great thing about fantasy.

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