My topic this time for the In Fiction series is a study in contrasts.
Kindness and killing feature heavily in fiction, the latter particularly in the crime and horror genres. Kindness turns up in the classic fairytales and in fantasy and will often be those moments in a story when our hero/heroine has to rely on someone else to help them through a difficult time. It is that break, that help, which enables them to go on and successfully complete their quest etc.
This acts as a reminder to us that no man is an island, we all need help and kindness at times, and that kindness can reinvigorate us. Fiction should reflect that.
Whatever a character does in a story, there has to be a good reason for it. Even with crime and horror, the criminal/monster has to have a reason to kill. It doesn’t have to be a good reason. It does have to make sense to the character and the reader should be able to see where they are coming from, even though they/we would disagree with the conclusion the character has reached.
I am not a fan of gore. For my crime reading, I prefer the cosier ends of the market and I still think Alfred Hitchcock was right to imply a lot of horror (and everything associated with that) rather than show everything to the viewer. Less is more in fiction and implication has the effect of having a reader/viewer engage with the story/film in more depth. I don’t like being spoon-fed either with my stories! (That is probably a reflection of what I write too given I don’t have the word count room in flash to spell things out in detail, even if I wanted to do so).
For kindness, it should seem to the reader that the character who is being kind is capable of it. We should have seen the potential for kindness early on in the story so when it happens for the main character, we’re not surprised by it. We would feel yes, Character B is the kind of character who would do this for Character A. The crucial act of kindness that makes all the difference to the “star” of the story should happen at a pivotal point of the story where we feel the overall outcome could go either way.
Kindness should make a difference here. In the classic fairytales, kindness is often rewarded. Those being kind to the old man/woman end up surprised when said old man/woman turns out to be a powerful magical being in disguise who was looking to give the kind-hearted (and usually poor) a magical “break” and the character goes on to make their fortune. The arrogant who despise the old man/woman in disguise usually end up humiliated in some way.
WHY READ CRIME/HORROR WHEN THE WORLD IS THE WAY IT IS?
Ironically, for escapism is what I would say. With books you generally know the issues are going to be resolved. That sadly isn’t true for the news. So you read books then to have a story from start to finish and there will be a proper finish and a proper resolution. So often in life those resolutions don’t happen but in fiction we can make it so. I think it is one of the great comforts of fiction.
There is also the element of wanting to work out the puzzle. Who is the murderer? Will the detective catch them? There is some criticism of cosy mysteries here as they tend to reflect on the puzzle element rather than the fact a (fictional) character has been killed but it is not the role of the cosy end of the market to reflect on the sad side of the story in any depth. Other kinds of crime novel do that. And the cosy mysteries know their readership. They know we want to try to fathom out who the killer is and find out if we’re right. That alone is what the reader is focusing on here. There is also no question of the killer getting away with it here.
With the Sherlock Holmes stories, given he himself is a logical creature and can come across as unfeeling, almost not human, you do actually need Dr. Watson to “rein that in” to an extent (and he himself is being kind in trying to stop Holmes’ drug addiction too). So even in stories where killing comes in, kindness can as well, even if that kindness is not appreciated or acted upon.
SIGNS OF STRENGTH
It can take great strength to show kindness especially when under stress and this is reflected in fiction too, especially on the epic quests. Frodo Baggins is right in his wish to think the best of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee is right to want to save Frodo from his kindness given Sam can see the treacherous side of Gollum and can see how Frodo could be endangered by his own good nature here.
Yet there are moments in the story when you think Frodo’s kindness is beginning to do something on Gollum. The fact it wasn’t enough (and I refuse to believe that’s a spoiler after all this time) is another matter. Was Frodo right to try to be kind? I think so. It shows a depth to his character and, for me, makes him a richer, more rounded figure and even easier for me as the reader to root for. Do I sympathise with Sam trying to save Frodo from himself? Oh yes. There’s kindness there too – the kindness of a genuine friend.
As mentioned above, justice is usually carried out in some way in the crime novels. Even in the cosy mysteries, there is no question that killing is wrong. It is a given. (Rightly so in my view too). Tragedies such as Hamlet are tragic because the lead character is on a path which can only end badly, even though we understand why he acted the way he did. Stories of all sorts can reinforce the basic idea killing is wrong.
Stories of all kinds and their characters can show kindness is generally a good thing. (Yes, you can have characters spoiled by too much kindness. There the characters usually end up going off the rails with things ending badly for them but you will see this is because they have been spoiled. Where characters are not spoiled, they stay on those rails well enough.).
Fiction reflects what we know then about human behaviour and attitudes. Whether we agree with what we read/hear/see in a film or on stage is another matter. But given we are capable of killing and equally capable of great kindness, then those things should be in our stories. It would be odd if they were not. We write what we know. And what we know is us.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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