I’ve been re-reading A Wheel of Time lately, and one of the things that struck me is the sheer complexity of the characters and the cultures.
I don’t just mean the sheer breadth of detail Jordan included. I mean the fact that almost every character, and every culture, seems to have shades of grey. The line between good and evil cuts through every human heart and every society.
I just finished The Fires of Heaven, and Nynaeve is (as of now) a raging sexist and a bully who’s blind to her own flaws. She’s also willing to risk death and worse to try to save a man from her village from one of the Forsaken.
There are lots of characters like that. Mat is a lecher and a gambler, and often lies to himself and his friends to their detriment (how much easier would Rand’s life be if Mat actually talked about what he went through and what he can do?). But he’s also willing to pick a fight with the Black Ajah to save three women. Rand is so harsh he might look sociopathic from the outside, but he wants to weep every time a woman dies.
This is even true with the series’ villains. Kadere is a monster who still desperately misses his sister. One of the Black Ajah sisters takes care of stray cats. And that’s just what I remember off-hand.
I’ve seen other great stories do this too. Harry Potter is famous for this, of course. Dumbledore is a kind grandfatherly figure, who raised Harry like a pig to slaughter. Snape is vicious and mean-spirited, and also the bravest man Harry ever met. Sirius would happily give his life fighting Voldemort, but also treats Kreacher terribly. And on, and on.
I think great fiction is like this because real life is like this. Our world is messy, because people are messy. Mass shooters can be Bernie supporters (which doesn’t indict Bernie’s philosophy), race-baiting Donald Trump supported the First Step Act, and even the heroic Martin Luther King had affairs. Stories that paint one side as all saints, and the other as all sinners; or where every detail falls neatly into a narrative (like the Jussie Smollett hoax); are often oversimplified at best and made-up at worst.
I’ve said before that I think stories are channeled, or discovered; not made. To me, they exist outside of us; and we as authors are just lucky enough to get to unearth them. That means that fiction should be every bit as authentic and real (and therefore as messy and complex) as our own lives.
I’ve been noticing this in the story that I’m writing now. I’m still early in the revision process, so it’s important to note that everything I think is written on water; but I’m unearthing a culture now and in some ways it seems absolutely laudable. And in others, I’m amazed at the barbarity I think exists.
I’m writing a main character who does terrible things, and I think he brings the world to war (or a good chunk of it) to bring back the woman he loves. But I’ve also never seen him break his word. I’ve watched him butcher innocent people, but if he told you he wouldn’t kill you, I think you’d be perfectly safe taking off your armor and weapons and lying down for a nap next to him.
When I’m writing this story, it’s not like I’m looking for complexity. Remember, I see the story as predating me and existing outside of me; so trying to make the story more complex or less complex would essentially be meddling. But I do see the complexity show up, sometimes. And that’s interesting to me.