I love the opening credit sequence on Black Sails. It uses alabaster and bronze sculptures to show an intricate pirate scene. Two spots in this sequence stand out to me every time. One shows a man with a pistol in his outstretched hand, falling back in agony as blood splashes out of a bullet wound in his chest. The other simply shows a man’s hand gripping a woman’s bare thigh. Both scenes relate incredible detail. They show light and shadow, they show depth and relation. They show reality, and in so doing, they become more realistic.
Of course, no depiction of reality is complete without showing the darker side. Reality has shadows, after all. When art attempts to imitate reality, it attempts to show the depth of reality. It attempts to show distance, relation, and the effects of light. Even when the art form is unrealistic visually or thematically, it often still tries to imitate reality’s other attributes, such as depth of thought or depth of emotion. It has characters relating or it explores complex ideas.
Of course, this applies just as much to a story’s moral representations. If a character is too good or too bad, they defy reality and beg the reader to suspend disbelief. Such representations reveal an author with a cookie-cutter view of the world–a young view of the world if I might be so bold. Much like our early fridge-quality drawings that overlook depth or detail that our young minds fail to notice, so our ideas on morality can be too naive.
While we’ve often seen and called out that all-too-good protagonist in works of fiction, the same is often overlooked for antagonists. I wonder why that is. It seems that we’re ready to pinpoint the errors of the good in an effort to level the playing field, yet when confronted with questions on evil, we serve out a stock idea. A flat character that is evil just for the sake of being evil. No question to their motives, as though we assume that some people are just plain evil. As though there’s no hope. I find that disturbing, and I find it unnerving that so many seem to think this way.
That’s why I love a recent trend I’ve seen where the antagonist isn’t necessarily bad. At least, they don’t consider themselves bad, and sometimes even think they’re doing good. Netflix’s Daredevil comes to mind as a shining example of how to blur those lines effectively. I think this more realistic portrayal of morality is good for society. I think it helps us to better embrace the real world. It helps us see that life is still beautiful, even with its shadows. In fact, the shadows enhance this beauty and bring it to life.