On Realism in Fantasy and Joss Whedon’s Winifred & Wesley

This post is pretty much entirely brought to you by the song “Winifred” by Seth Boyer. Basically, I really got into this song, and as a result this artist. Looking up his stuff online, I learned that this song was, in fact, based on the events of Joss Whedon’s Angel season 5. I didn’t pick up on that at all, though the title reminded me of the character. Which reminded me of what I thought of the show. Which brings us here, to this post. I can’t really take us into the future, at least not in an introductory paragraph… I can, apparently, go from Joss Whedon to a thesis arguing that “realism” is not a method but a goal, and that fantasy does not pursue that goal defined in that way.

So the basic story here is that this song was the “weather” on an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. We’ll get to that show by month’s end, I promise. But the song really got to me, as many of their “weather” selections tend to. So I looked Seth Boyer up. He has a bandcamp page, and you should totally check him out. But what I learned, when I looked up this guy and this song, is that it’s about events in the fifth season of Joss Whedon’s Angel. Basically, Seth Boyer did a short album about whatever the hell he was thinking about at the time. As an album concept, that’s cool. But it did weird shit to my psyche as I listened (and listened again) to this song and this album. So in the spirit of this, our greatest holiday here at Wondrous Windows, I thought I would try to describe the layers of strange feelings that came upon me.

I should provide a little background to this odd sort of post I’m making. I spent the summer of my eighteenth year (just before I turned nineteen, in fact) watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, in re-runs. I really enjoyed both. But as both shows went on and on, I got less satisfied, though I never really noticed it. It wasn’t until Firefly and its aftermath that I reached the thesis that drives every reaction I have to a Whedon production: the man needs to be taken off every project after the first season (or its equivalent — hence my conviction, obviously unproven as of yet, that Whedon really  shouldn’t have been allowed to make the first and second Avengers movies).

Odd, right? I happily watched Buffy for five seasons, and Angel for four, before I had to go back to school and my inability to sit around in the afternoon and watch two hours of re-runs (and by that I mean wake up in time to watch Buffy at four in the afternoon — my nostalgia for simpler times is burning softly in my heart right now).

Despite my convictions on Whedon’s general aptitude, I was thoroughly convinced at the time, and so I followed the shows like everyone else under God’s green sun. Even then, though, I thought Angel the better show. I guess, even back in the mists of undergrad time, that I really liked detective fiction.

The point of all that was so I could then tell you this: I actually have a plain old complaint about a show and I am willing to discuss it.

That is, given that usually I try to make conversations about the shows, rather than what they could be. But I want to use this as an entrance ramp to something else, so maybe (maybe!) it will be interesting anyway.

My complaint is simple: Joss Whedon fucked up a character at the end of Angel really, really badly. Specifically, Wesley. Wesley first appeared in Buffy as a hapless British stereotype, all sweater-vests, glasses, and cowardice. He was an archivist working with the secret order tasked with helping the Slayers. Eventually he left Buffy and appeared later in Angel as a bad-ass biker monster killer… except that is all an act. He isn’t as cowardly, but he isn’t actually that good at his self-appointed job. It just so happens he’s only run into easy-to-solve supernatural problems up that the point he enters the Whedonverse again. He stays on as a researcher and sometimes-killer-of-nasty-things on Angel, and the point that is made regarding his character — repeatedly — is that he is obsessed with the truth. He is an archivist after all, this isn’t even that much of a stretch. But it’s hammered home again and again.

Meanwhile he starts to date another researcher on the team, Winifred (see song above). She is ultimately consumed by a demon who wears her body in order to stay in the mortal realm. They keep her on, in the hopes of getting Fred back, but eventually the demon trusts everyone enough to say that Fred is already dead. The soul passed on the moment the demon took over.

Wesley is, you can imagine, not pleased. Here’s the shitty part, though (for us, not the characters; that last part was shitty for the characters): As Wesley lies, dying, in the final episode, he asks the demon to pretend to be Fred, which she does admirably (you know, still being the same actress and all). Wesley dies happy, giving in to an illusion.

I probably don’t need to spell out the problem here.

Instead, my reaction: “wwhuhhhhuuuuu??? huuufuffffffffffffffu… WHAT?”

So why does this matter? It annoys me, I think the text itself has, now, in inherent flaw. What does that matter to anyone else?

Well, consider the problem itself: in an effort to make a character more human, Joss Whedon violated one of the internal consistencies he had set up within his own fiction. He did not provide enough rationale for the character changing in such a fundamental way. But that’s roughly equivalent to criticizing a grammar error — it’s a flaw in the making of the piece. What I want to take away from it is the hint it provides to an ever-present pressure in fantasy fiction: the pressure to be “realistic.”

A lot of people appear to believe that fantasy worlds need to be gritty and grim because that makes them more believable. They are, in fact, propagating the same things that are leveled at them by critics of the genre: that it’s not realistic. They are, like those of us still slowly going through Cookie Clicker, losing because they are playing the wrong game. LIke trying to win an insult contest with the local bully, the only way to win this is not to play. If you want to watch or create grim fantasies because that shit gets you off, go for it! But since the 80s, I would say, there has been a lot of pressure to add such elements to fantasy fiction because it somehow makes them less assailable by the critics who think that the level of realism in a piece of fiction is somehow indicative of how good it is. I could make a lot of different arguments here, including the vast history of literature and how small the realism movement is within it — or the case for many accepted works of realism being anything but —

However, here’s what I will go on at length about: fiction is inherently fantasy.

Fiction is, in its deep heart’s core, not realistic because it is the antithesis of the real world. It is not “an escape,” but it is hallucinatory. Engaging in any kind of fiction, either writing, reading, watching, playing, or listening to it (or whatever, feeling it, hapticvalvetimehalflifeskinsensorthingie), is essentially an act of guided hallucination. You don’t see the characters before you — at least, not everyone does, though some can do so — but you experience them in a way that is not the same as them being in the room with you. You do experience them in a real way, though.

William James (brother of Henry James, the Turn of the Screw guy), wrote a really famous non-fiction book called The Varieties of Religious Experience. Without bothering to comment on whether the experiences were real or not he recorded and cataloged hundreds of examples of religious experience, from general euphoria in church to detailed visions of angel visitations. He argued that the experiences were real even if the things seen were not, therefore we needed to understand them as real things, because real does not necessarily mean extant.

Fiction lives inside that space. Fantasy fiction is nothing more or less than the logical conclusion of the history of literature. Realism is, historically, coded as a concern of the middle-class, and pushes for realism usually come when the middle-class takes on a new role or (partial-)identity, meaning new portrayals of the middle-class as those things are necessary.

Let’s return to my original example there. My reading of Joss Whedon the author (the author-construct, the linking thread between all his fictions, not Whedon the person who is likely just as well-balanced as the rest of us nuts in starship Earth) is that he is obsessed with sudden deaths, emotional traumas, and the like because that makes good fiction, and not for their own inherent value as fictional tropes. I say that because I believe those elements tend to come out of nowhere consistently, like the same O. Henry trick over and over (see Wash’s death in Serenity). They happen so often, violating certain assumptions about narrative structure, that they must be intentional. He’s a better writer than someone who would be putting them in in this way because he or she didn’t understand that they were, for lack of a better term, “breaking the rules.” The only goal I can see, though, is to add some gritty verisimilitude to his works. “People don’t always make sense,” Wesley’s deathbed weakness says. “Sometimes they give up.”

But fiction makes sense out of the world, which doesn’t. And fantasy fiction, as my first fiction teacher taught me, has to make more sense than realism. Because it is about constructing a world, not just characters.

Because “realism” and “making sense” are two different things. People who write and criticize realistic literature can conflate them because the goal is always realism, and so questions of whether the work actually makes any sense, whether it hangs together, can be held under the umbrella question “is this realistic?” So when someone critiques a fantasy work, it is common to hear someone say it doesn’t work because X element “isn’t realistic” (see the entire history of fans being mad at SF movies for not having good science in them — you know, good versions of science which doesn’t exist, because if it existed the work would be a work of realism, or at least a zero-world romance/adventure narrative). So consider what exactly “realistic” means in the world of literature/fiction/narrative. It is historical, not ahistorical. It generally reveals a middle-class obsession with reflecting the audience in the text, and usually in a way that supports the assumptions of the middle-class audience aforementioned (middle class characters in realistic novels are never the same as poor characters, are they? Complacent middle class readers want to be reminded that they have the proper amount of sympathy for the poor — middle class readers who aren’t complacent are most likely, dare I say it? probably reading SF instead. Or at least older realistic works). Realism is not, in itself, a measure of skill or craft. It is a goal, not the means to a goal.

I don’t dislike Wesley’s turn away from his own character because it’s “not realistic.” I dislike it because it doesn’t make sense. If I had a problem with its realism, I would really be more concerned about the demon easing his passage into death.


3 thoughts on “On Realism in Fantasy and Joss Whedon’s Winifred & Wesley

  1. Ⓢ Ⓔ Ⓣ Ⓗ | Ⓑ Ⓞ Ⓨ Ⓔ Ⓡ (@sethboyer)

    First of all: holy shit a dumb ol’ song I wrote inspired a post about the nature of fiction narrative. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

    Second, w/r/t Whedon killing off characters seemingly just to do it, I liken it to something someone tweeted about GRRM once. (I’m paraphrasing here:) GRRM isn’t a good writer cuz he kills off character – he’s a good writer because he makes you love them first.

    I’ll fully agree that Buffy and Angel suffer toward the end, but both of them have pretty decent series finales and some great episodes in those middling final seasons. Bear in mind that Joss was only working on either in supervisory capacity by the end, and at one point was “showrunning” Buffy, Angel and Firefly all at once. So maybe rather than pulling him off shows after one season, someone should stop him from multitasking quite so much. Though I think in interviews he has said something along the lines of “yo that was way too much work and I’ll never spread myself that thin again.”

    Anyway, good read. And thanks!

    1. cuchlann Post author

      I already said it on Twitter, but HOLY SHIT HI SETH!

      I’m glad I managed to make you happy. I’m beginning to believe this whole “remix culture” we live in might be the best thing ever (you know, where a guy makes a show, you make a song about the show, and then I write about the song and the show, each “remixing” what came before).

      About Whedon’s writing: I’m not sure I knew that about his advisory capacity. Given how much I like the first seasons of each, you’re probably right. It’s a bit much to ask anyone to supervise that much at once, never mind the person who wrote it all up. I really do dislike the first Avengers movie, though it makes me feel like a douche to say so (I know so many people who like it). But Firefly’s still some of the best TV I’ve ever seen, and you’re absolutely right about loving the characters before they’re killed (though GRRM never did it for me, alas).

  2. Pingback: «Joss Whedon is a badass» « Cultural news

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