The Goth Phase

Whenever I hear “It’s realistic” as defense for some element of a story, it’s never used to justify a happy ending.  If a character is raped or murdered or simply dies tragically and pointlessly, the “That’s life” argument is often used.  And certainly, that is life.

But sometimes people don’t die tragically.  Sometimes, people grow and learn.  Sometimes, even despite ourselves, we succeed and things work out.  That’s life too.

The paradox of The Realism Argument is that it’s always used to justify the negative, never the positive.  That’s a damn frightening notion, when you think about it.  It means that, underneath it all, nearly all human beings think the universe stinks, that it’s out to get them, and that all happiness is merely a temporary reprieve from the misery that’s just around the corner.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but there is a definite reflex, as we age, to start viewing good characters and positive stories as childish and foolish.  There’s even some justification for that because the super sunny, everyone can get along, let’s hold hands and sing about buying the world a Coke version of reality that we’re sold as children is certainly unrealistic.  Yet the response as we grow older isn’t to seek a more nuanced understanding of this world, but the wholesale rejection of positivity as “immature”.

I get it.  There certainly is no such thing as “happily ever after”.  In the end, we all grow old and die and most everything we accomplish will disappear into obscurity.  But while we’re here, good things do happen.  The world doesn’t always become a worse place.  And even if none of it might not matter in the cosmic scale, it might matter today.

This is why I tend to dislike anything deemed “mature” or “realistic” because, to me, it’s usually just as absurd as stories where everything works out for the best.  In the rejected Happy Ending Universe, everything works out for the best, despite the absurdity of it.  Meanwhile, in its more “realistic” Sad Ending Universe, everything always falls apart.  Neither universe strikes me as more believable.  They come across as caricatures of the more nuanced and complicated world we leave in.

I’ve never claimed to write realistic stories, but putting aside the space squids and the monster gods, I’ve never deemed my stories as childish escapism.  I’ve nothing against escapism, but even that label seems like a trap designed to reinforce the notion that reality is a horrible thing to flee and hide from.  My stories might be fun.  They might not feature horrible deaths, rapes, and pointless tragedy.  But neither does reality always bring these things down upon us all the time.

Some people have good lives.  Some people get into scrapes and make it through the other side without having become broken.  Sometimes, life works out.

That this is considered an immature perception never made any sense to me.  It’s like all humans hit a goth phase at some point, and while they might not wear the makeup or the black clothes, they have the same “Everything sucks” attitude that so classifies that cliched stereotype.

It’s why I hate when anything aimed at a younger ages is made “more mature.”  It’s why Batman, a guy designed to have weird adventures fighting crime while dressed like a bat, is now stuck fighting serial killers while brooding about how sad he is.  It’s why most every female character in fiction will eventually be raped (if she isn’t retconned into having being raped in the past at some point).  It’s why every writer in the world (as far as I can tell) can’t wait to write that story where Superman goes nuts and just starts killing everyone.

This is the problem with realism as we tend to see it defined.  It just isn’t very realistic.  It so often embraces the tragic, the sinister, the horrible without acknowledging the positive, the fortunate, the lucky.  Sure, if many people had the powers of Superman, they would immediately become super tyrants.  But some people wouldn’t.  If you don’t think that’s true then you’re suggesting that not one human being is capable of being a genuinely good person.  And if you honestly believe that then you’re living in a different world than I am because I know that terrible stuff happens every day, but not ONLY terrible stuff.

Ultimately, I don’t care if someone prefers more grimdark in their stories.  All those terrible things are definitely part of our world, but tragedy is no more realistic than triumph, joy is just as much a part of the human experience as pain, and the good guys do win sometimes.  Even in this world we live in.

That I like them to to win just a touch more often in my fiction than in reality is a preference.  It’s not immaturity.

There is a place in this world for Superman.  That’s not being childish.  That’s just seeing the world as bigger than most people are able to admit.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Jesse
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I am kind of upset that the new Superman movie looks like it’s going to be a lot of Superman brooding about “Oh woe is me I’m the last of my kind.” because one of the things I like about Superman is that he’s happy a lot. I wanted to see a upbeat movie about Superman happily destroying large invading Brainiac robots. Instead it looks like broody Smallville angst stuff. 🙁

  2. Mark
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    I guess I fall somewhere in the middle on this issue. While I really enjoyed the Dark Knight movies, I disliked Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns comics because of their negativity. I totally agree that the whole idea that unhappy endings are more realistic is ridiculous. Any real life story can have either a happy or unhappy ending, and it all depends on when you choose to end the story. Generally, critics are invested in a somewhat negative worldview, either because most of them are failed writers, or because spending time studying creative works that were created for entertainment through an academic viewpoint that is totally inappropriate gives you a warped perception. Sorry, I’m still bitter about how stupid most of my film school classes were. Anyway, I don’t feel like positive stories are any less realistic as long as there are real stakes for the characters and a possibility of both failure or success.

One Trackback

  1. […] A. Lee Martinez offers a belated entry in this year’s grimdark debate and argues that worlds w…. I think this is a very important post, because a lot of the proponents of “realistic” grimdark fiction live comparatively comfortable that are anything but bad. Though I disagree that people tend to crave more darkness as they grow older. In my experience, the taste for grimdarkness truly is something of a goth phase and usually starts sometimes during one’s teens. By the time they hit thirty, most people grow out of it, though some never do. So the taste for grimdark fare is not a symptom of age but of some perpetual adolescence. […]

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