Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Explaining vs. Excusing

A couple of weeks ago, I read the first three books in Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam series.  Boy, did I like those books.  Well written, complex, gritty urban fantasy.  The books came to my attention after there was a bit of controversy about them around the interweb because the heroine is a… wait for it…  hardcore drug addict.  People were clutching the pearls left and right over that, let me tell ya.  Apparently, it is ok to have a hero who supplies drugs to dealers, (I’m talking about you, Rehvenge,) or a pot smoker*, (that would be you, Phury),  or even an assassin – god, there are too many of those to name - but a protaganist who uses hard drugs!... oh no, we can’t have that.  

Now, I like the anti-hero.  I like the bad boy.  Show me a guy who’s behavior is warped by his tortured past and I’ll show you a book I’m gonna read.  (And if he has long hair… well, what can I say – I am a hair whore.)  But if there is no understanding of why a character is the way he is, instead of getting an anti-hero, I just get a character who is a dick.  (Which, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.  At least dick characters are interesting.)  So I also like when an author builds a backstory that makes me understand why the hero is an assasin/drug lord/addict/bad dude.

That was one of the reasons why I enjoyed the Chess Putnam series.  With each book, we learned more about the demons (inner) driving Chess and why she kept herself perpetually high.  That girl had some serious baggage.  Drugs were her way of drowning out the screams in her head.  It could be painful to read but no matter how destructive her behavior was, it was always believable.  And the reader understood her behavior without necessarily condoning it.

Then there is Rehvenge, from J. R. Ward's Lover Avenged.  Rehv started out as a fascinating character - a member of the aristocracy, a sympath, a nightclub owner, and the local druglord.  Yup, that's right - he wasn't just a dealer, he ran his own little drug empire. One dark, dangerous dude.  So what led this aristocrat down such an immoral path?  Turns out he needed the money because he was being blackmailed.  (By his half sister, who also forced him to have sex with her... um, whoa.)  He couldn't afford to pay the blackmail and keep his mother and sister in the fancy pants style they were accustomed to so he turned to drug supplying.  Makes total sense, right?  Luckily, in the BDB world, being poor is much worse than being a drug kingpin and so Rehvenge was absolved of his sins and got his HEA.  

Here's the thing, sometimes authors go to far in explaining the antihero's backstory.  No longer just an explanation it becomes an excuse for the character's actions.  But some behavior cannot be excused, only understood.  If an author is going to attempt to excuse bad behavior then they better have a damn good reason and not, Sure, I'm a drug dealer but it wasn't my fault.  I had to do it because otherwise we would be poor...  

I gotta tell ya, those kind of explanations make me despise the hero.  I get that likeable characters are an issue for authors and readers but likeable doesn't always mean good.  Why did so many people like the Sopranos?  Because they were morally conflicted, thrilling, three dimensional characters.  Good didn't enter into it.  I don’t need a good reason and I certainly don’t want a bad reason for why characters act the way they do.  I just want a believable reason.  So authors, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to justify morally corrupt behavior.  I'm not interested in judging the morality of fictional characters.  I am interested in a good story.  I want to read about all different types of people, not just characters who share my values.  I want my anti-heroes to own their actions.  Help me understand but don't try to excuse the hero's actions.  Understanding why helps me understand who the characters are.   I'd much rather have a character say, Yes.  I did some horrible things.  I did what I had to do to survive.  It may not have been right but if I had to do it all over again, I'd probably make the same choices.  At least then I could respect the character.  But the whole, it's not my fault, I was forced to act this way, I had a crappy childhood, etc., turns the tough guy into a weakling, rendering them pitiful, and for me, contemptible.
So, please, no more excuses.  It only hurts the story.

*I know, I know.  In the BDB universe, red smoke is a mild relaxant akin to a glass of wine and not marijuana... but -c'mon, we all know it's pot.

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