Ambiguity and Absolutism in Literature

Image: Copyright 2015 Melody Daggerhart

Clearing out email (yes, doing a lot of clearing lately, mostly to clear my head) and came across this superbly written article from Mythic Scribes on the differences between “black and white” fantasy and “gray” fantasy. If you’re not familiar with these terms, they are exactly what they seem to be. “Black and white” or absolutism is when the good guys vs. the bad guys is easy and obvious to distinguish: think J.R.R. Tolkien. “Gray” or ambiguous writing makes determining who is good and who is bad a very complex question because good guys sometimes do bad things, and bad guys sometimes do good things: think George R.R. Martin.

I like both. I think both have their places in terms of escapist entertainment and in terms of reflecting on realities in human behavior. I’ve tried to sprinkle a little of both in my novels. Some of my characters are static — they have absolute values and will stick to what they believe no matter what. But most of my characters are dynamic — they change and grow as they are influenced by their experiences, for better or worse, like real people. For plot tensions, I deliberately started with an absolutist pov where prejudices are revealed throughout the course of the tale, but then I deliberately broke those group demographics in half to make the point that blanket assumptions are a poor way to go about understanding or determining what’s good and evil.

I believe that the real world is gray because it is full of black-vs-white idealisms. For every faction that believes they are doing the right thing, there is an opposing faction that believes that group is doing something wrong. Faction B believes they are doing the right thing by opposing Faction A. Often there is also a faction C and D, etc. Each faction may or may not want the same goals, but each faction has its own ideas about how to achieve or disrupt those goals. You need look no further than politics or religion to easily see how broken and divided humanity is, each believing their own dogma holds the “only truth” and the “best answers” to life’s problems.

Ambiguous fiction tells us, “This is how the big picture looks,” while absolutism tells us, “This is how we perceive ourselves and our world.” The ambiguous pov offers a less biased overview compared to the one-sided pov of the heroic tale, but both contain important truths about human behavior. You can’t truly understand human nature without understanding each of the opposing forces and the overall consequences of how they behave regarding each other. So, I’m glad we have both forms in literature.


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