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The Author As Psychopath

We all have an idea of what a psychopath is like. Everyone’s view is different, but there’s one overriding property possessed by the psychopath – he doesn’t care about what happens to other people. He’s only interested in what pleases himself.

People who consider only a small set of people might not be psychopaths, but we would consider them to have warped values. We think it right for someone to favour his own family and friends, but not to the extent that other people matter not at all, or to such a lesser effect that we think it reasonable to cause extreme suffering to a stranger for the mere convenience of a spouse or offspring.

Enter a fictional world, however, and this viewpoint becomes the norm. I’m reading George R. R. Martin’s Song Of Fire And Ice series at the moment. It has a vast range of characters, from a variety of noble families. We are definitely more in favour of some than others – but each of them is sympathetic to some extent, and we worry a little bit about all of them. Some of them we want to get their comeuppance – some we want to survive to the end, though with little expectation that they will.


The story is regularly enlivened with battles and massacres. Are we emotionally moved by this? Well, a bit. Mostly we care about it because it gives us a chance to see how clever Robb turns out to be, or how treacherous Littlefinger is. If we are worried about the people getting massacred, it’s because we know that Sansa will be upset about it. When her servant is killed, that’s sad – but not really as sad as when her pet wolf is killed. That’s possibly the saddest part of a very bloody book.

OK, but that’s just genre fiction. Literature with a capital L will be different, won’t it? Well, look at War And Peace, considered to be among the greatest novels ever written. Large cast chiefly of aristocratic families? Check. Huge war killing hundreds of thousands of people? Check. What do we care about? Natasha, how could you be so stupid! Running off with that scoundrel! The battle of Borodino has 70,000 casualties. What are we worried about? Whether Andrei will forgive Natasha before he dies.

Yes, but that’s big epic literature. What about small-scale works dealing with small communities, and the interactions between a handful of people. Jane Austen, for example. There’s nobody dying violently in her books. Well, not on-screen. Pride And Prejudice takes place during about the same period as War And Peace – but the war is simply ignored. Ditto poverty and oppression. What are we worried about? Lydia, how could you be so stupid! Running off with that scoundrel! Whickham, the villain of the piece, is a soldier. What do soldiers do? According to Pride and Prejudice, they chiefly exist to have moustaches and be admired by young women.

The trouble is – these are really good books. I mean, so good that they define what the novel is. They tell us an enormous amount about what being human is like. Still – they are, in essence, psychopathic.

Is there any way to avoid this? Can we have a story which regards everyone as of equal importance? Well… not really. It’s just not possible, it seems, to worry about people en masse. We can care about individuals, but as soon as a group appears, we stop worrying. Douglas Adams can destroy the entire planet for a joke – or Princess Leia can witness it, and as hilariously caricatured in Family Guy, give no emotional reaction whatsoever. Ten minutes later and brother and sister can forget the deaths of everyone they’ve ever known, and have a quick snog while escaping. Obi-Wan gets killed – and suddenly, that’s a big deal.

But I think at least it’s possible to give some thought to the problem. In Lord Of The Rings, there are effectively four protagonists. They are hobbits, which in the context of the most fully-realised fantasy world ever, means people of no importance – the typical background characters. Tolkien created a huge history for Middle-Earth, and it’s noteworthy that hobbits appear in it not at all. All of his background stories relate to the major heroes.

Of course, humble beginnings don’t make humble characters – but we are constantly reminded that these are people of no great importance. They blunder into important scenes, and make things happen by accident. They never demonstrate any great skill, wisdom or intelligence. They just stick to it. Meanwhile, big heroics are going on all around them.

Still, this wouldn’t be enough. We care about what happens to Merry and Pippin, but the few thousand massacred folk of Rohan and Gondor? Meh. Can we even remember who was massacred when? Probably not. When Aragorn is crowned and the ring safely destroyed, we’ve forgotten all that.

Tolkien is clever enough not to let us away with it. We think it’s all over– but it isn’t. The Scouring Of The Shire, unforgivably omitted from the film, takes the horrors we’ve been skimming over for three volumes, and inflicts them on the people we do, in fact, care about. It’s a reminder of what it all means.

Of course, this is my own personal reaction to these various works. I expect that different people will have a very different view. That’s to be expected, because ultimately, the way we react to these things – what we care about – is subjective. There’s a little psychopath in all of us.

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