And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
-William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 3 Scene 2
I’m a news junkie. I have a compulsive need to watch/listen to local, regional, national and international news. Every day. So I do, although my “newsfeed” is primarily a reflection of my hopelessly dated generation: radio and TV, with magazines (yes, those obsolete piles of compressed tree pulp) thrown in background information rather than up-to-the-minute-news.
My wife hates this constant parade into our home (particularly the dinner hour television edition) of death, destruction, malfeasance and chaos. She points out, quite rightly, that there’s not a damn thing I can do about most of it. She also points out, again, quite rightly, that it tends to be depressing as hell to watch or listen to --- except for one segment at the end of our local television news program: it focuses on mostly light-hearted, occasionally humourous or ridiculous things that the man in question (I’m afraid I have a hard time calling him a journalist, which probably reveals all sorts of things about my own news prejudices) parades for us just before the final look at the weather forecast and the signoff. It’s a segment I pretty much universally turn off, with a muttered admonition to the man to “get a real journalist’s job.”
When people pass by a car accident on the road, what do many of them do? Yep, that’s right: they slow down and gawk at the carnage. Or when we want to talk about watching some facet of human behaviour that is unbelievably destructive, self or otherwise, the simile we often use to describe it is that it’s “like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”
Curious. Very curious. Mildly disturbing, too.
And it’s really the same with the stories we write or read. Why do our stories --- even those supposedly written for children --- pretty much deal with the darker side of human nature? Look at the ogres, the horrible animals, the wicked stepmothers (there seem to be a lot of wicked stepmothers in traditional fairy tales... makes you wonder what kind of family dynamics were going on back when such stories were being written), the Creatures That Go Bump In The Night --- it all makes you wonder why we raise our children on such a literary diet. And then we continue with it when we leave the dark forest of children’s lit behind --- as evidenced by Will’s comment above.
Why, Will, why? Why do we want this constant parade of sad tales of broken lives and evil deeds?
Well, I think the surface answer is simultaneously deceptively simple and weirdly contradictory: because such tales make way better stories than tales of sweetness and light, of kings ruling wisely and well. Curious, but true.
Going a little deeper, the argument can be made that such children’s lit stories were didactic --- instructing children on what to do and what not to do (like don’t listen to your woodcutter dad when he proposes a pleasant stroll in the woods to give stepmom a little time to herself, perhaps).
Also, many people like being frightened, whether on midway rides or in darkened film theatres. I don’t, but I’m clearly in the minority as far as that is concerned. Again, an argument is often made that people like being scared when they know that nothing bad is going to happen to them.
But I think, ultimately --- based on my own reading preferences and writing experiences, anyway --- most of us want to read about characters we can identify with and like dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and overcoming them. In other words, we want to witness the ongoing struggle between good and evil --- with good coming out on top, although invariably it does not happen without cost. But it makes us feel better about our own struggles, be they the daily problems and irritations we all deal with, or the truly titanic battles against organized evil we hope never to be confronted with. The protagonist of my novel Gryphon’s Heir falls into that latter category: he really doesn’t feel like he’s hero material, but he’s handed a pretty big sling/arrow of outrageous fortune. Like all of us, he has a choice: he can either back off, saying, “Nope, show me the exit,” or he can square his shoulders and say hoarsely, “Okay. I’ll try.” (Bet you can’t guess which option he takes.)
Finally, these sad tales of Will’s quote make us feel we are not alone. Each of us deals with the toll life exacts every day. Sometimes, that toll is remarkably, mercifully light; other times, it’s almost unbearable. But we’re not alone. There’s a world of literature out there to confirm that.
So go and read it.