Levity, Grit, and the Grey Man

Unseemly, dishonourable, villainous, immoral, vile, hateful, destructive; all manner of epithets and appellations pursuant to the ruination of one’s moral character in the pursuit of some warped destiny. Whichever form the abrogation of the common tenets of civilised man might take, it yet holds some macabre appeal; a morbid fascination with the excesses of human action, an often violent contrast against a perceived set of normal behaviours – a violation, deliberate, of the social contract and parameters therein necessary to ensure survival of the species. Harmonious living isn’t exactly the desired end-state for most villains.

Then come the justifications. Conflict is costly, but a necessity for change and growth. One must die, that the group may yet endure. Selfish, opportunistic gain at the expense of those who support you will likely not be allowed to occur a second time, so seize with daring all that you may. There is a price, and blood will call when shed. Overt truisms in many circumstances, but I marvel and wonder at the darker predilections of humanity, and why they make for such fascinating reading.

Oddly enough though, some of the most amoral and self-serving characters in Fantasy literature come across less as blooded, fell-handed conquerors and more as petulant, egocentric children in my reading of late.  The ragged scoundrel and the dust-knuckled drifter, even the proverbial grey-man at least are permitted have a genuine laugh or two along the road to damnation, a shared sense of gallows’ mirth in the face of their timely appointment with the reaper, and perhaps even find themselves a shred of redemption.

The wholly iniquitous can prove engaging (though rarely endearing) as characters, but many fail to find much appeal with me, particularly those who are not bereft of an underlying catalyst or tempered, tragic promissory note that excuses  much of the character’s flaws and abjuration of decency or honour. An emptiness in a villain’s motives can be both poor writing and oversight, or a thoroughly stimulating enigma to unravel  – in some circumstances,  the villain is so alien and utterly devoid of an appreciable perspective the reader can understand or relate to – in a sense, wholly evil, or Total Evil Personified. These magnificent, towering chasms of suffering and decay tend to be so ethereal and unconquerable in scale as to truly make any hero’s journey to extinguish such a force of destruction and despair truly epic.

What of those lesser ‘villains’? The hero undone by his own best intentions, cracked, and bitter? A broken hero, a failed hero, still has charm and appeal for my part. I turn thus to the unscrupulous and ambitious upstart, who might have been a force for good but for some harrowing personal tragedy that skewed their worldview and lead them to serve themselves, ignorant, apathetic, or scornful of any heroic code or honour, in place sacrificing at the altar of self-aggrandisement.

I appreciate the nuance and deftness of characterisation required for the grey man, as a staid template of a villain can easily plummet into an ignominious appraisal as cartoonish, lazy, or uninspiring, robbing the tale of essential conflict. The multi-faceted, extremely ‘grey’ villain or anti-hero who has been broken too many times, however, seems conditionally more vulnerable to their resilience being bested and destroyed utterly, than being merely malleable under extreme duress. A more nuanced, more complicated and detailed portrayal to be certain, yet it feels a chore in excess – and one that is, ultimately, forgivable, or a guilty pleasure for many readers because deep down they acknowledge the tragedies and injustices inflicted upon said protagonist that propagated and engendered a far harsher, realistic, or cynical view of the world where one’s selfishness is the only guarantee for a climactic synergy of destiny and free-will.

So at what point does the broken hero instead become an insipid little goon far too clever for his/her own good? I’ve grown to find this element in some Fantasy, particularly Grimdark, remarkably tedious, especially when much-lauded  works are more a character study than anything else; narrative and world-building eschewed to favour introspection, brooding, and the indulgent, gloating propaganda of the protagonist. Utilising elements of this Grimdark ‘grey man’ morality mandates a requisite, self-designated verisimilitude for my part, and also confounds and frays the enjoyment I might otherwise have derived from reading works that feature such characters.

Thus, a strong character study-as-narrative piece should be riveting, but where does that leave me when I find the character wholly unsympathetic, possessed of an overweening pride, and singularly dismissive of the multiple , deeply damaging traumas encountered and endured but for the commendable way such hardships have given rise to an arse-kicker of epic proportions? It feels… unbalanced.

So I think, in the end, I’d rather have a sardonic chuckle or two, and begrudgingly be along on my way with scalliwags and cut-throats who, after it all ends, are just bad men trying to do good things.

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