A number of years ago when my daughter was in sixth grade, she was studying for a spelling bee, and one of the advanced words was agathokakological. It took us a while to track down the definition: “consisting of both good and evil.” What a fabulous word: agathokakological.
We humans have agathokakological hearts, motives, dreams, passions.
Chesterton called us “broken gods.” Pascal called us “fallen princes.” Philosophers have long wondered how we fit into this world, somewhere between the apes and the angels. To make us into one or the other is to deny the full reality of who we are because we have both animal instincts and divine desires.
A friend of mine told me that we are each Cinderella in the moment of transformation—half dressed in ashes and rags, half clothed in a royal gown ready to meet the prince.
We can tell we’re from here but don’t belong here. We’re meant for more than this. We are an odd race capable of both martyrdom and murder, poetry and rape, worship and genocide. Search the ragged terrain of our hearts and you’ll find that we are both nurses and terrorists, lovers and liars, suicide bombers and little grinning children with milk mustaches.
So what does all of this mean for us as writers?
Well, I believe that when it comes to fiction, we should tell stories that express the full measure of humanity—stories that reveal both the glory and grandeur of life, while also honestly acknowledging the darkness and deviance that is there as well.
How to do this? Here are three specific ways.
#1 – Avoid Worn Out Cliches
In your fiction, stay clear of simplistic and trite themes such as “Follow your heart,” “Pursue your dreams,” or “Be true to yourself.” After all, serial killers follow their hearts. Rapists pursue their dreams. Pedophiles are true to themselves.
We need to follow something greater than our hearts, choose very carefully which dreams to pursue, and be true to something more trustworthy than ourselves.
Pursue virtues which are universal, not “values” which are subjective and personal. Why? Because what if someone values cowardice? Or greed? Or killing endangered species? Stick with exploring virtues.
#2 – Be Honest About Evil
In our culture, evil is most often muted or glamorized.
Some books and television shows do so by diminishing the value of human life. A person is killed and no one grieves; a cop just mutters a wisecrack about the body, then we cut to a commercial or a chapter break before diving into solving the crime. This isn’t honest.
Death matters because life matters.
We measure the worth of something by how much pain it causes when it’s lost, so if people are slaughtered or indiscriminately killed in our fiction and no one grieves, we end up devaluing the worth of human life. The more pain someone’s death causes, the more value their life had and, by inference, the more value our lives have.
On the other hand, some fiction makes violence seem glamorous and intriguing. The most interesting person is the serial killer or axe-wielding slasher. Readers almost begin to identify with the justification of evil. This desensitizes people to it. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that celebrate violence draw people toward it.
Instead of muting or glamorizing evil, our books should lead people to look honestly at what our world is like. People’s lives need to be treated as precious. Portray evil as disturbing rather than alluring.
#3 – Tell the Truth About the World
Rather than opening both eyes to see both the wonder and horror of our world, most of us see things either through the lens of wishful thinking or the lens of nihilism. Those who don’t weep have closed one eye to the world. Those who never laugh have done the same.
It just doesn’t make sense that life could be both this magnificent and this terrible, but yet it is. People really do live in palaces. People really do live in garbage dumps. Those of us who make our homes in middle-class America tend to believe the illusion that this is a middle-class world, but it is not. It is a world of great poverty and great wealth, great pain and great peace. Ecstasy and oblivion.
The only option left is to accept the paradox that our planet is somehow full of both tear stains and giggles, both delight and despair. It’s an all-of-the-above world.
The poet Robert Bly beautifully noted the paradox of this world’s sadness and splendor when he wrote of “the puzzled grief we all feel at being appointed to do mysterious tasks here, on this planet, among mountain meadows and falling stars.”
In the end, the glass isn’t half empty or half full. It’s not half anything. Life is both more full than you’d ever expect and more empty than you can imagine. Lift the strange cup of reality to your lips, look closely at the world for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.
Let your stories explore that, and they’ll begin to make a real difference in people’s lives.
We are an agathokakological breed. And part of our calling as storytellers is opening up people’s eyes to that fact by being honest in our fiction.
About Steven James
Steven James is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels. He serves as a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest Magazine, hosts the biweekly podcast The Story Blender, and has a master’s degree in storytelling. Publishers Weekly calls him “[a] master storyteller at the peak of his game.” Steven’s groundbreaking book Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules won a Storytelling World award as one of the best resources for storytellers in 2015. When he’s not working on his next novel, Steven teaches Novel Writing Intensive retreats across the country with New York Times Bestselling author Robert Dugoni.
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