The Big Idea: Ruth Vincent

Revenge: Is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Author Ruth Vincent asks this question, in relation to her new novel Unveiled, and also in a larger sense. What’s the answer? Read on.

RUTH VINCENT:

It’s often said that the role of the protagonist in a fantasy novel is to be the person we, the reader, wish we could be. But given how bloodthirsty this genre is, I’m not sure what that says about us.  It makes sense that our escapist literature is often about vengeance.  Speculative fiction is the genre of us “nerds,” and it sells us a feel-good fantasy of finally getting revenge on a realm’s too-mighty “cool kids.” We never tire of watching the scrappy hobbit/farmer/orphan defeat the slick, glib, arrogant monarch/mage/authoritarian; we cheer as they run this villain through with their sword, or shoot them with lasers, or light them up with fireballs, and we don’t stop to think about how horrifying we’d find these “heroes” if they were that quick to murder in real life.

Without giving away any spoilers for my novel, Unveiled, let’s just say that a bad thing happens to my heroine, Mabily Jones. In the end, she’s given the opportunity to kill the villain who wronged her. Because the bad thing occurred in the fairy realm, she will face no consequences for her action; the law of the land will be on her side, and she’ll probably be hailed as a hero for killing this character. But does that mean she should do it?

This was a soul-searching question, not only for my heroine, Mab, but also for me as an author. First, I had to examine if revenge would be consistent with her character? Mab is not at all prone to violence, but she’s been emotionally devastated, and revenge appeals to the emotions. What almost pushes her over the edge though, is that she won’t be held responsible for her deed. I’ve recently been riveted by the HBO drama “West World,” whose premise asks the question, who do we, as human beings, become when we think that our actions have no consequence? “The park shows you who you really are,” as one character put it, and the disturbing implication is that most of us are murderers, rapists, and generally horrible people if we’re given the chance.

The “Changeling P.I.” series exists partly in a realistic New York and partly in a parallel supernatural world. It’s an interesting thought exercise to realize that Mab probably wouldn’t have felt tempted to kill the villain if the crime had taken place in the “real world;” her temptation to violence is much stronger in the “other” world, especially since the would-be victim is nonhuman. Mab recognizes the primal pull of vengeance in herself, but is disturbed by what this says about her:

“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this power, the power to hold someone’s life in my hand like the most delicate egg, didn’t secretly elate me.  But I stopped myself. If I killed him […. ] what did that make me?

It makes her no better than the villain, she realizes, whose own actions were primarily motivated by revenge. She knows if she crosses that line, she’ll no longer be the same person. She’ll be a killer, and no matter how justified, even heroic the other characters will view her action, it will forever change the way she relates to herself.

However, as a writer, I was afraid that if Mab didn’t kill the villain, even if he was satisfyingly punished in other ways, readers would look at my heroine as being weak for letting him live. Creating a “strong female character,” is often narrowly and superficially viewed as making a female character violent, as if that’s the only way to show strength. If I chose this path, so that I could make my heroine look like more of a badass, was that a tacit approval of an over simplified moral system where every “bad guy” must be given the death penalty? If I didn’t believe in that in the real world, why would I make those the rules for my fictional universe?

I won’t say whether or not there’s an alternative ending of Unveiled on my hard drive, where my heroine gets sweet, gory revenge upon the villain, but ultimately Mab and I both chose to forebear. This doesn’t mean I had my villain and heroine holding hands and singing Kumbaya at the end. While I’ve always striven to create empathetic antagonists in this series, some characters cannot be redeemed. Mab ensures through her actions that the villain’s evil is contained, that he faces justice for his crimes, and that he is prevented from harming anyone else. But she steers clears of the vigilantism that’s fashionable in urban fantasy.

The reason I chose to write urban fantasy was the genre’s potential for realism, even if that potential isn’t always utilized. After all, in urban fantasy, one doesn’t have to travel to other realms or universes to find magic; these stories take place in our world. It’s accessible, relatable speculative fiction. But the thing about the real world is we rarely get the opportunity to take revenge on those who’ve done us wrong. Even if we do get the chance to give those jerks their just deserts, it doesn’t mean we should. It might feel good to fantasize about, but if we’re grownups, we understand that it won’t change the past, it won’t even make us feel better once the moment of sweet satisfaction is passed, and the act could cause rippling harm to ourselves as well as victims unintended. Because in the fantasy of revenge the act of justice always occurs in a vacuum, and that’s seldom the case in real life.

Once the villain is no longer able to harm others, Mab knows she must walk away from vengeance, turning her focus to her own healing and moving on. It’s doesn’t give her the satisfying snick of closure she’s emotionally seeking, but it’s the adult decision. To some genre critics, her choice may make her look weak. To me, it makes her strength believable.

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Unveiled: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

7 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Ruth Vincent

  1. I find complex villains and deep heroes make for a far more interesting/memorable read. LeGuin and C.S. Friedman are two that immediately come to mind. Look forward to reading this one. Though I rarely post, I do greatly appreciate the “whatever” that your blog brings, John Scalzi.

  2. Hello again, John, excellent synopsis.

    Interestingly, I’ve fought with myself on similar principles in the book I’ve been working on for over a year now. Literary Fiction genre because I resolve that the most natural action(s) are just that, Natural. Additionally, I love going against the grain, I want to tell my audience everything they do not want to hear, actions and thinking that make them cringe or embarrassed in ways they don’t expect.

    Hence, people are, by nature, violent, perverted, murderers, and liars, and.or capable of the same. Even the so-called holiest individuals justify freedoms of nature, the human factor. So, whatever the ending in “Unveiled” sounds like, you definitely understand the ‘human touch’ of matters.

    Thanks for an informative insight.

  3. This piece got to the heart of why I don’t often like “urban fantasy” – that violence, that revenge motivation, that vigilantism – and the assumption that strength = violence. I hate that shit in real life and it doesn’t appeal to me at all in an “escapist” read. If I want “escapism” I’ll read a Regency romance novel.

    This is not the type of book I would ordinarily choose to buy, but on the basis of this thoughtful essay, I will.

  4. Hi everyone – the author here, thank you so much for the thoughtful commentary! I hope you enjoy UNVEILED. And thank you again, John, for giving me the opportunity to opine here!

  5. This reminds me of a conversation in Sandman: A Game of You (spoilers ahead!):

    One character is urging our heroine to take vengeance on the villain, but she forebears and asks instead for “the Dorothy option”, to get everyone home safe and sound. I remember thinking that I wished more people took that option, even if it’s not as emotionally satisfying. Looking forward to your book!

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