The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

The trouble with orgasm, according to Marie Stopes, is that it’s too obscure. Not the orgasm itself, which seemed to function just about the same a hundred years ago as it does now, but the word. Dr. Stopes, in her 1918 Married Love (a treatise on marriage, sex, and birth control, among other things), used the word climax instead of orgasm. She thought it was more straightforward, more intuitive to her readers, and her use of it helped to promulgate a new, sexual meaning of a very old word.

Climax wasn’t always so sexy. In the 16th century, it was a rhetorical term used to describe a chain of logical reasoning – not surprising, given that the Greek, klimax, from which it descended, meant, literally, ladder. Ladder to rhetoric to orgasm. Not a bad career for the word.

Of course, story-lovers tend to use it in yet another sense. When someone mentions the climax of a book, they’re not usually talking about a massive ejaculation or feat of rhetorical bravado (unless it’s a book about sex or rhetoric). A dramatic climax is one in which the tension building throughout the novel comes to a head. Everyone’s seen the graph – tension on the y-axis, time on the x-axis, and a rising line that looks like the stock market in a good month.

I hate that fucking graph.

The problem is that it makes the climax of a book look pretty straightforward. Just pile on more stuff (the graph seems to say), more tension, more fights, more speed, more volume – make that mountain higher! – and the pile becomes a climax. If you had two people dueling in the first scene of the novel, you should have two thousand at the climax.

Seems straightforward. Trouble is, the sex/stock index approach to literary climax doesn’t work.

I was reminded of this just recently, as I worked through the final chapters to the second book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. While I’d started writing with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, the ending pretty near killed me. The walls of my house were covered with huge sheets of paper, each of which mapped out an abortive attempt to pull the plot threads together. Then I gave up on the papers and switched to a dry-erase board. Then I gave up on the dry-erase board and started wandering the streets of Brattleboro muttering to myself, my pockets stuffed with color-coded index cards. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy enough to have the characters pair off, protagonists and antagonists, like square dancers preparing for a particularly bloody number in which half the group ends up dismembered on the parquet floor. While that can be fun and useful, it’s not enough. We’ve all seen that movie, the one that ends with a long, loud bloodbath. If that’s all there is to it, the climax tends to be somewhat less than orgasmic. We want something more, something better, something deeper…

Sure. Ok. But what?

In an effort to save the ending of my book and my sanity both, I charted out the elements that I need in a satisfying ending. As far as I can figure it, there are five.

Mysteries Resolved: It’s human nature, when we encounter a riddle, a mystery, or a question, to want to know the answer. Most shrewd writers capitalize on this. In N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, we want to know the identity of the Reaper (among other things). In Martin’s Game of Thrones, we want to know who murdered Jon Arryn (among other things). In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, we want to know the name and nature of the shadow that is chasing Ged all over creation. All of these books eventually give us a degree of satisfaction, but there is a danger in relying too much on mysteries and their resolution: the satisfaction of learning the truth tends to be intellectual rather than emotional, and we want an emotional reward at the end of a story.

The Slaughter of the Bad Guys: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I will read thousands of pages to see a detested villain get his or her comeuppance. Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye, from J.V. Jones’ wonderfully imagined A Cavern of Black Ice spring to mind. Fifty pages into the first book, I wanted to see these dudes painfully slaughtered, and, as a result, I read on. And on. And on.

Protagonist Reaches Her Potential: The main characters of most stories are not fully formed. We endure chapter after chapter in which they are unable – either through inexperience, confusion, or some outside constraint – to operate at their full potential. This inability frustrates a reader, but that frustration can lead to release, when, at the very end, the protagonist achieves a breakthrough. Think of Katniss’s cold resolve at the end of The Hunger Games.

Separate Threads Converge: A few weeks back, I helped a friend’s four-year-old daughter put together a puzzle. Actually, we put together the puzzle about a dozen times, giving me time to reflect on the pleasures of puzzle-putting-together. The joy, of course, comes from connecting seemingly disparate elements. We like watching order emerge out of chaos. This is why it’s so great at the end of Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT. ACTUALLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH IT) when we discover that Darth Vader isn’t just some random galactic tyrant, but Luke’s father. And Leia isn’t just a woman with a pluck, grit, and great hair. She’s his sister!

Apocalypse: I’m using the word in its old sense here: unhiding or uncovering, that moment in which the seemingly irrelevant or insignificant reveals its true importance: There is a tiny detail in Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (I won’t reveal it here) that appears trivial for most of the novel… until, at the very end, we discover that this same detail is, in fact, crucial. It’s an astounding moment, and one that makes the ending of the novel deeply satisfying. We like to feel as though there’s an order in the world, “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (although Hamlet defies this augury) – books can uncover this hidden significance.

What have I missed here? Are there any other structural elements that you look for in a satisfying ending? (Aside, of course, from convulsive multiple orgasms and sweaty naked bodies strewn across the page.)

Galaxy Crushers and Miserable Shits; the Binary World of Villainy

Sometimes, hatred is awesome. Not, obviously, in the real world, where it makes you itchy, cranky, and disagreeable, but when dealing with books. There are few pleasures as exquisite as loathing fictional villains for hundreds of pages, groaning at their triumphs, cheering at their failures, and then, in the end, watching them get what they so richly deserve. I will stay up all night reading, regardless of the quality of the writing or the coherence of the plot, just to see a character I detest brought to justice. And there are some truly detestable characters out there.

William Hamleigh, the central villain of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, springs to mind, establishing his villainy early, awfully, and often. By the end of the book he’s killed and raped dozens of innocents, helped to slaughter Thomas Beckett, and generally made life miserable for just about everyone he meets. Pillars of the Earth is a long book. I would have read ten of them to see the end of William.

Interestingly enough, it’s not simply the badness of the baddie that makes us hate him or her. Darth Vader is pretty bad. He helps to destroy an entire planet. Hannibal Lecter isn’t so nice either. The thing is, I never really detest these characters. In fact, if the thriving prequel and sequel market are any indication, it seems as though most readers and viewers actually want more of Vader and Lecter (more on that here). They’re frightening. We accept that they must be defeated in the end. But then, even Agent Starling has a soft spot for Lecter.

It seems that we can classify villains into two broad categories: the loathsome and the frightening. There is overlap in the Venn diagram, naturally, but not so much as we might expect. Lecter: mostly frightening. William Hamleigh: most loathsome. That’s because the traits we find terrifying are not the same traits that we detest.

Let’s consider Lecter and Vader for moment. Both are scary, but they are also brilliant, extremely capable, and in the case of Lecter, funny. It’s hard to hate a character who’s brilliant and capable, even if he’s turned his (impressive) cloak to serve an evil, galaxy-crushing Empire, even if he wants to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

William, on the other hand, is somewhat dim-witted and relatively incompetent. He holds power by virtue of his birth, his gender, and his size. In this he reminds me of another execrable turd: Joffrey Baratheon. I wish George R.R. Martin would devote an entire novella to Joffrey’s demise; cut the Daenerys plotline and just give me chapter after chapter of Joffrey getting kicked in the shins. The thing is, neither Joffrey nor William is all that scary. I would be worried if I were in Joffrey’s clutches because of the advantages afforded him by his position, but I wouldn’t be scared of him personally any more than I’d be scared of William if I ran into him at a bar. They simply don’t have the personal stature, in and of themselves, to warrant fear.

It’s an interesting situation for a fantasy writer, one with, I think, an obvious conclusion: you really need two villains (unless you’re over the whole bad-guy thing), because the one the reader loves to hate won’t be the same one who makes the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Of course, in this, as in so many things, Tolkien was a step ahead. Sauron is terrifying; Saruman, once you take away his orcs, is just a little shit of a magician who doesn’t belong in the big leagues.

While we’re at it, let’s just get a list going. Who are the great villains of fantasy, and where do they fall on the spectrum?

The Vader Effect; Our Fondness for Fictionalized Evil

Why do you enjoy seeing a little kid dressed up as a brutal murderer?

Well, you might not, but at least fifty-seven million of us – and I include myself in that number – certainly do. If you missed it, check out this wonderful Volkswagen ad. It features a small boy dressed as Darth Vader wandering around his house trying to use the Force. It’s clever and cute, evoking both the magic of childhood and the ability of parents to prolong that magic for their children.

It’s also, if you pause to think about it, a little strange. After all, Darth Vader is a genocidal maniac. He is the right hand of a totalitarian empire responsible for the murder of billions. He stands by during the destruction of Alderaan, and, though he does not give the order, he is obviously complicit in the act. If we were to search for a real-world analogue, Vader might be the equivalent of Heinrich Himmler, one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi party and commander of the Gestapo. And you’ll notice that Volkswagen isn’t making ads of little kids dressed up as Himmler.

Please don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some sort of call to arms or expression of outrage at Volkswagen. I watched the VW ad half a dozen times while writing this, and I enjoyed it every time. I don’t feel guilty about this, and I don’t think anyone else should either. The phenomenon does, however, raise an interesting question: Why are we so willing to cozy up to fictionalized portrayals of evil?

Before answering, let’s be clear that this “Vader Effect” isn’t limited to the PR folks at Volkswagen. Dick Cheney, in an interview with John King, said that people figured him to be the “Darth Vader of the administration.” The Washington National Cathedral includes a gargoyle of Vader high on the northwest tower. There are thousands of t-shirts portraying Darth Vader, including one reading “World’s Greatest Dad.” Most strikingly, some people evidently feel comfortable slipping into a little Vader lingerie in a way I suspect they would not for, say, Pol Pot or Stalin.

Clearly, our relationship to fictionalized evil differs from our response to that same evil in the real world, and in a way, this isn’t surprising at all. Books and movies are made up; their villains can’t really hurt us. On the other hand, wouldn’t we expect fictional atrocity to elicit something related to real-world outrage and horror? Wouldn’t we expect to loathe Jaime Lannister and Hannibal Lecter in the same way, although with less intensity, that we loathe bin Laden and Adam Lanza?

We might expect this loathing, but, oddly, we do not seem to feel it. Jaime throws an innocent child out a tower window at the start of Game of Thrones and yet his character remains a fan favorite.

I can suggest two possible explanations for the Vader Effect. The first is that fiction often brings us into the lives and motivations of villains in a way we rarely encounter in the real world. We get into Jaime Lannister’s head by book three, but we never get into Lanza’s head. This explanation for our willingness to accommodate Jaime (and other characters like him) strikes me as compelling but incomplete. Even were we somehow to know what passed through Lanza’s brain, I can’t imagine our condemnation of him would be one whit diminished.

I suspect the more powerful reason for our attraction to some fictional villains is that they are more interesting than workers of evil in the real world. Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who lived through the Second World War, argued famously for “the banality of evil.” In Arendt’s estimation, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Writing of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, she argues, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Whatever one might say about Darth Vader, Jaime Lannister, or Hannibal Lecter, they are not normal. They are preternaturally talented, or strikingly good-looking, or devastatingly witty, or incomprehensibly brilliant, or all of the above. We forget, while reading about them or watching them, that most real-world perpetrators of evil are stunted little people with small minds and small hearts. In the wake of yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, it’s important to remember that there is nothing interesting about people who set bombs or kill children. They are vile, but they are not remarkable. They need to be killed or locked up, but there’s no point listening to them. Real evil is not sexy or exciting.

In the real world, the only characters worth following are the good guys.