Why so Cynical?

Posted on March 25th, 2013 in opinion, The Inquisition

Back to the Inquisition, and I’m working my way gradually through the many questions would-be Inquisitors have left there.  So without further ado, Pierre Colinot wanted to ask:

“why you chose the ultra-cynical angle to write your books. Is it because you think it makes for better stories, is it because it is coherent with your worldview, is it just because you enjoy writing characters in such a merciless world, or another reason altogether?”

Interesting, and somewhat relevant to recent discussions on the value of gritty fantasy.  There’s a degree to which many of the things that emerge when you start writing aren’t particularly thought through in advance, they’re not things you choose, exactly, they’re the natural direction the story takes you in.  It’s often not until long after the event that you start to wonder why you wrote what you did, sometimes with a smug nod, sometimes with a shamed wince.  But when it comes to cynicism I guess the reason comes down to something like – because I’d read a lot of very predictable, repetitive, morally simple and entirely uncynical fantasy and I wanted to write something which would sit on the other side of the scales.  I wanted (and I’m not saying I achieved it, how badly I failed is for others to judge) to do with fantasy the sort of thing that Unforgiven does with the western – a modern updating of a form, a comment on a form, but ultimately a great example of the form.


For me, that meant including a lot of the classic tropes (or cliches, if you’d rather) and then putting a twist on them, inverting them, subverting them, whatever.  Leading people to expect what they’d always had before then giving them something different, in order to make them think about their expectations.  Sometimes it was about looking at a more ‘realistic’ version of a trope.  Sometimes it was about presenting a pessimistic mirror-image of a trope, or a complicated version of a simple trope.  The fact that these were often morally simple, heroic, optimistic tropes led inevitably to morally complex, unheroic, pessimistic inversions.

So I had a boy with a special destiny, but he was an arrogant coward whose special destiny was invented by a puppet master as a means of control.  I had a perfect royal couple, but rather than finding love they came to despise each other.  I had a world-weary man of violence, but his violence was explosive, directionless and horrifying, as destructive to himself and his friends as to his enemies.  I had a wizardly mentor who claimed to be the one man who could save the world from evil, and proved to be that evil.  I had a couple of used-up, bitter people who found some comfort in each other but in the end couldn’t get over the damage in their pasts.  I had an epoch-ending war for control between right and wrong, except both sides proved to be about as wrong as each other, and the new epoch was very much like the last.

Having written all this, I suppose it would still have been possible to end the series in an entirely uncynical way. Logen and Ferro could have found happiness together. Jezal could have resisted Bayaz and married Ardee and together ushered in a new age of prosperity and equality. Glokta could have been healed by magic and found peace.  There could have been a neat tying off of plot threads, minimal examination of the consequences and the aftermath, and the dawn of a wondrous new era THE END.

Fuck that shit.

I felt that it was necessary to see it through. To provide an ending like an avalanche, as it’s been called.  An ending that some people were sure to dislike, but that they’d find difficult to ignore.  To look at the consequences and the disappointments and the failures.

Occasionally I hear people say that the world is full of light, humour, and love, and books that don’t include those things are just as unrealistic as those which feature nothing but.  Well, no book contains every aspect of life, they all emphasise some things over others.  But I think it’s fair to say that commercial epic fantasy in the wake of Tolkien, through the 80s and 90s, was generally very much on the simply heroic, trope-filled and predictable side of the scales (with some important exceptions, of course, with gaming stuff written in the Warhammer world and Martin’s Game of Thrones being important influences on me).  It seems to me that some books which examine those tropes and present a different take on life are not only unsurprising but deeply necessary.

And, honestly, out of a scale of 100 with everyone dies at 0 and everyone wins at 100, I wouldn’t put the First Law any lower than, what, a 30?  It’s dark, yeah, but it’s also pretty mixed.  Some people die pointless deaths, but most of the principles live.  Some end no better than they started.  Many struggle to become better, some have limited success, some fail, some realise they are helpless tools in great events.  Some are revealed to be far worse than we hoped, some are revealed to be better.  Some try to do good, some fail, are frustrated by the harshness of the world, others succeed in small ways.

You know what, sometimes, that’s life.  Wonderful royal couples can turn out to be shiny distractions held up to the public that are hell for those involved (Charles and Diana, anyone?)  Wise old leaders who claim to have our best interests at heart are often more interested in their own interests, thank you, and those held up as noble heroes often have a skeleton or two in the cupboard, if not to say an attic full of the bastards.

Of course the world is not nothing but bleakness, darkness, horror but my books, in common with a lot of epic fantasy, cover great upheavals, wars, collapses of society, struggles for power.  Those kind of events do come with moral challenges, with disappointments, with failures, with deaths and horrors, with ragged consequences.  I wouldn’t want to become predictable for horrifying cynicism any more than for cloying optimism, so I doubt I’ll always be as cynical as I was with the First Law.  Despite some people saying that Red Country is the most witheringly cynical of my witheringly cynical oeuvre, I thought it was much the least cynical of my books to date.  You write the end the way that feels right, that feels true, that feels honest.

Occasionally I hear people say that it’s actually way easier to write a grim ending than a happy one, and I just don’t see that. Certainly the commercially easy thing to do is happy endings. Even in this age of more cynical entertainment, the vast majority of stories still have overwhelmingly happy endings. It’s what most people want from their entertainment, most of the time. So no, cynicism is not the easy way, that’s crap.

Sometimes it’s worth doing, though.


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  1. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. (and vice versa)

    Aside from your humor, that’s really what sets your stuff apart from other authors imo.

    I get the same feel from Martin’s SOFAI series. (except he doesn’t normally have me lol’ing at inappropriate times)

  2. Thanks for the reply Joe, just finished Best Served Cold and I think you redeemed yourself regarding flat female characters with Monza Murcatto.

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