Years ago, I read a Tumblr post that was wrong. Though I am older and wiser, that post is still wrong and I think about it a lot. Not for its wrongness – though I excel at dwelling on such things—I think about that wrong post because its so very wrongness allowed me to coalesce some of my wispy thoughts about right into a sort of guiding principle for myself.
The wrong post popped up on someone’s fan account during the weeks following the release of Marvel’s Captain America: the Winter Soldier. The post was two sentences: Bucky Barnes is a victim, not a villain. Full stop.
Now, I know everyone who has known me longer than two minutes is scratching their head, wondering what I—among the loudest to squee about Bucky Barnes—am objecting to regarding that post.
Here’s the thing. Yes, I’m inclined to file Bucky Barnes under victim rather than villain. But, that’s where my contemplation of his story led me. But, it’s not a conclusion I’ll demand from others. Because—here it comes, the sort of guiding principle I wrangled from that post– good stories don’t give us irrefutable answers. Good stories teach us to ask questions.
Whether Bucky Barnes is a victim or a villain, isn’t ultimately as important as whether or not the viewer walks away questioning the heavy stuff behind the story. And more importantly, asking themselves equally heavy questions about similar issues in the real world.
Good stories are just that: good stories and good stories need to deliver satisfying endings. Which means good stories generally follow Emily Dickinson’s words: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. They bring up heavy issues but slant the telling in favor of the ending they want. So then, yeah, Bucky Barnes gets to be a victim (definitely a lesser of two evils thing) rather than the villain, but that’s the story Marvel wanted to tell. And all story elements: Bucky’s character, his backstory, his interaction with other characters, the evilness of HYDRA, an endearing catchphrase, horrible torture, body horror, all that was slanted towards making Bucky’s coming in from the cold feel like a good, satisfying ending.
For that particular story. But while the real world contains millions of stories of people coerced into doing bad things, it unfortunately usually doesn’t supply us with good-story slanted facts, contexts or backstories. And we bring a lot more prejudice and disregard to real world people’s failings that we do to pretty superheroes. Meaning, story characters get way more wiggle room while inching towards redemption, and we give them a fair chance at convincing us—assuming the rest of the story hasn’t been slanted into us suspicion. If Bucky Barnes had been cruel or racist or a rapist or any other type of awful person, would his torture and brainwashing and forced killings still play to his redemption or would they be viewed as Karma’s wheel spinning.
And to take the notion a little further, it wasn’t the poster’s declaration of “he’s a victim, not a villain” that struck me as the major wrong. It was the “full stop”. I’m happy the poster sifted through evidence and came up with a stance they felt strongly about. But that doesn’t mean they get to snatch away the pleasure others may take in coming up with their own conclusions.
Or put a stop to the necessary ruminating that widens another person’s capacity for justice, open-mindedness, compassion, empathy, consideration, and a thousand other social skills. Or force one’s own line in the sand to be the line for everyone in every situation. Or, to shut down conversation and differing opinions.
A few weeks ago, this idea—that good stories don’t give us irrefutable answers; they teach us to ask questions—gobsmacked me during a D&D game. Our campaign is one of my all-time favorites. The DM has created a world largely populated by kind and generous people doing kind and generous things.
For me, a writer, it’s been a masterclass on nice not equaling fluff and that you don’t have to go grimdark to hit people hard in the feels. It’s a world with kindness in its bones, and I will go down protecting that kindness. For me, a player, the game has been especially wonderous. I’m usually reluctant to kill anyone in a game. Even when folks are obviously irredeemable bad people. It’s the judge, jury, executioner aspect. Unless innocent others are in more danger, who am I to decide who lives and dies? Who am I to decide upon and deliver the punishment for a perceived crime?
These questions come up for me a lot in RPG’s. Combat is fun! Ridding the world of bad guys feels good. In my early years, I would make purposely weak characters so that I wouldn’t be expected to kill much, so I could hide during combat. The tactic has stuck with me, though I’m proud to report, I’ve also figured out other ways to minimize killing.
But during that game a few weeks ago, I openly questioned the killing we were planning out. I used my words and I explained why this particular situation felt like crossing some lines I had drawn in the sand. Doing so was hard. Who wants to be the killjoy in an RPG? But I spoke up and in doing so, averted my party from committing an atrocity and found away for us to act that was more in line with our ethics.
I was proud of myself for speaking up, for asking questions. I was proud of my party for listening to my concerns and adjusting the plan to avoid the worst and to ask questions themselves. We ended up committing a little more bloodshed than I cared for, but the conversation before, of us working out the mechanics of ethical behavior and considering all angles— that gaming session uplifted me as a person and a writer.
That’s great storytelling. That’s gut-deep involvement. That’s the stuff I’ll carry with me through life, and (I hope) imbue my stories with.