Gestures of Humanity
The following editorial is a guest post from Epic Fantasy author Peter Orullian. When he approached me about writing a guest post for EBR, I jumped at the opportunity. It is a rare author that can so clearly share his or her views on various aspects of their craft. I’m so pleased and honored that Peter chose to share his thoughts here with all of us.
Gestures of Humanity
There’s every possibility that I wouldn’t be writing fiction today if it wasn’t for horror. More specifically, Stephen King. Hyperbole? Maybe. In recent years, I’ve mostly written epic fantasy. And it’s also true I’ve had the itch to be a writer ever since I was a boy. But if nothing else, Stephen King catalyzed that desire. How? One way to explain it is the contrast between light and dark. Or, said another way: gestures of humanity.
Stick with me.
One failing of many stories is that there’s no contrast. Come to that, it’s a failing of many art forms—painting, photography, music, etc. The absence of contrast is like a droning note that has no counterpoint. It fast becomes intolerable, or at least uninteresting.
On the other hand, variance of notes, dynamics, catharsis and denouement, chiaroscuro techniques, all these things and more make art intrinsically interesting. They also lend themselves to good storytelling.
You’ve likely heard it said that, “The light was brighter for the darkness around it,” or somesuch thing. Of course, the opposite is true. But in either case, the presence of one highlights the existence of the other, makes it stronger, more noticeable, more meaningful.
For my part, because some of my literary roots are of the horror variety, I often explore dire scenarios, storylines that can be emotionally brutal. But I also strive to give the reader some contrast, a breath to be drawn after moments of catharsis. And these I call “gestures of humanity.”
While I’d heard this phrase during my time in college, I heard it again recently while sitting on a panel with Steve Erikson. At a recent con, he and I got to spend a lot of time together. Those were great conversations, discussing this, that, and the other thing.
And “gestures of humanity” was among them. Thanks, Steve.
I’ve had email from readers who tend often to say something to the effect of, “That scene you wrote was heartbreaking, but the darkness of it made the moment of hope that followed shine all the brighter.”
That’s precisely the point.
I’ve also had many readers say some of my short fiction set in The Vault of Heaven universe is rather grim. True enough. Some of these tales are akin to origin stories for my characters, or explore pivotal moments of my world’s history. They’re tragic. Not always, but often.
And yet . . . I usually take care to offer a “gesture of humanity.” A moment where a character does something that gives you the small ray of hope. A moment that helps you feel that the darkness and resulting catharsis were worth the effort. This might be a singular act of decency, perhaps from a character you wouldn’t anticipate showing “humanity.”
In fact, I can think of a scene right now in Trial of Intentions where one of my antagonists, whose actions are almost always vile, does something kind. It’s a moment of gentleness. And the reader can take a second to sigh, recognizing a moment of light amidst the darkness.
Similarly, I just turned in a novelette wherein the “good guy,” my protagonist, shares a story at the end wherein he admits a rather contemptible act. For most of the tale, he’s our hero, taking the right road, fighting the good fight. But all of that shines a bit more brightly when we realize that he’s flawed. That he’s made some mistakes. Big ones.
Of course, one needn’t have read as much horror as I have to execute such contrast. I suspect I’d have learned this technique regardless, as well. But I think maybe I come at this idea the way I do because of my horror roots.
For instance, I recently had a story released in the Blackguards anthology. All the stories are great, and do unique things. With my story, there’s no “heart of gold” rogue. He’s a highwayman. He traffics in human lives. And part of what I set out to do is help you understand why. Not, mind you, to make him overly sympathetic. Or sympathetic at all. That said, on the last page something happens. There’s a gesture of humanity that had me crying when I wrote it. It doesn’t change that he does awful things. But it shows you there’s a grain of humanity in him. He makes a gesture to ease the suffering of another.
To tell you the truth, these are the moments I write for. They mean the most to me as an author.
And returning to my point, the example above could well have been a part of a horror story, save for a little bit of magic and that it’s set in my second-world fantasy universe—The Vault of Heaven.
I’m not unique in this regard, though. Horror is less a genre and more an approach. Think about the film Alien. While set in space—and so able to claim a science fiction moniker—it’s clearly a horror flick. I’m happy for it to be called either, or both. The point is that the techniques that evoke this gut, visceral emotion can be leveraged to create a response in your reader, regardless of what you’re writing.
Then, after you’ve taken the reader on this journey through tragedy and pain, you have a choice to make. And that choice has everything to do with your intentions.
For some horror writers, for example, they leave the tragedy there on the page, like a suspended seventh chord, ringing out, unresolved. It’s unsettling. Writers of other genres do the same sometimes, too.
Another choice you could make is . . . a gesture of humanity. It needn’t be a parade or “all’s well” ending. In fact, I’d argue it’s more effective if you show something small, something quiet. Just a single note, so to speak, that suggests there’s light, hope. This small gesture can give the reader that breath of relief, as if to say, the darkness was bearable, worthwhile.
So, contrast is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. (Did you get the movie allusion in that?) I find contrast essential to good storytelling. There are various ways to write it; among them is to employ the techniques of good dark-fiction. And truth be told, the ratio of dark to light might wind up overbalancing on the side of things black.
But it’s my experience that even a single gesture of humanity goes a long way. And can be more remembered . . . more regarded, than any ten tragic moments in the story.
Author of Trial of Intentions