The Attitude of Ingratitude

Written by . Posted at 5:48 am on January 4th, 2011

As the walls and floor of the dark fortress reverberated from the quake of the surrounding Deadlands, Gaius Sunblade shouted across the chasm at the wizard on the far side.

“The sword! Now!”

The robed figure waited momentarily, resolving his faith in his champion, before hurling the blade across. In his mind, the wizard Ustar relived the journey to this point; how he had found Gaius in a small village, matched the signs of prophecy to the circumstances of the young man’s birth. Ustar had guided him toward this final destiny. When Gaius failed to follow Ustar’s words concerning the Five Trials of the Amethyst Court, the wizard had had to go to great expense to aid his friend in teleporting to the Deadlands so that Gaius could finally face the demon Atarez in his lair, fulfilling his destiny. Ustar had lost faith in the prophecies momentarily, keeping the legendary sword hidden, intending to fight the demon instead by himself. Gaius had fought his way through the Deadlands, however, and had managed to get himself across the chasm of bubbling, gaseous lava, to the gates of Drgo Keep itself. The young man had proved that he was the hero of prophecy after all, and was now ready to confront his enemy.

The blade arced towards Gaius’ outstretched hand. The wizard exhaled a sigh of relief as the sword reached Gaius’ arm, a sigh which was cut short—the hilt had hit the hero’s gauntlet and deflected off, away from his outstretched hand. Gaius’ quick reflexes reacted automatically, stretching precariously over certain death, barely catching the Sword of Neul just before it could plummet into the blazing, roiling magma below.

Gaius looked toward Ustar one more time, then dashed in the gates. As he did, the portcullis slammed shut behind him, followed by a gate made of an obsidian material, obscuring him from view. Ustar let up another prayer to the Maker, shaking his head.

“Bastard,” he sighed, “he never did thank me.”

Okay, so this may be an overly-dramatic introduction to this topic, but it’s something I’ve noticed over the past few months about literature in many different forms. It actually bothers me. No matter how noble a hero is, or how nice one character is to another, there seems to be a general disregard in today’s writing for the ideal of gratitude.

The first time I noticed this was in an episode of Castle on ABC. If you’ve never watched this show, it’s about a best-selling mystery writer named Richard Castle (played by Firefly‘s Nathan Fillion) who goes along on cases with Det. Kate Beckett to get inspiration from real police work. Along the way he adds his own knowledge to the cases and often ends up helping to solve them.

The short of this example is that the facts of a case pointed toward a specific man as a suspect, he was arrested and brought in, and then later the facts exonerated him. The detectives found out that he and his fiancĂ© had been headed to a fast food restaurant when he was arrested because they were celebrating the anniversary of when they met at the place they met. In order to say “Oops! We’re sorry!” they brought a large meal from the same restaurant to him and his fiancĂ© in the interrogation room. The engaged couple acted like “Hooray! We can still celebrate our anniversary!” Do you think they thanked the detectives, though? I mean, the evidence was pretty strong that the boyfriend was a suspect, enough that he couldn’t have sued. The police officers didn’t have to go out of their way to make it up to the couple, but they did. While it did add to the characterization of Det. Beckett and her fellow officers to do a kind gesture, it didn’t add anything to the characters of the couple to leave this detail out.

My wife’s suggestion is that the editors left the scene of gratitude out to shorten for time constraints. I’ll buy that to an extent, but realistically how long would it take for at least one of them to just say “Thank you!” as the detectives left the room?

Another example comes from Tim Burton’s recent re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland (which I thought was fantastic, by the way). Since most of you should be familiar with the basics of Alice and her magical world, I’ll briefly describe only the scene(s) in question one: a bloodhound dog named Bayard is searching for Alice, because the Knave of Hearts has promised him that if he finds the girl, the Red Queen will release his wife and puppies from the dungeon and let them all go home safely. Bayard has already let Alice slip once and misled the queen’s guards. Then he found her again, but rather than leading the guards to her, he carried her in her magically shrunken form to the Red Queen’s palace. Though it was never said, I would assume that had he been caught helping Alice, his own life and the lives of his family would have been forfeit. To say that he was taking a huge risk is an understatement.

Bayard deposits Alice as close to the castle as he can, coaches her across the steaming mud pits, and then tosses her the Mad Hatter’s hat, which he brought with them at Alice’s request so she could give it back when she saved the Hatter. As soon as the hat is safely in her possession, Alice turns and walks into a crack in the wall of the castle, never expressing any type of gratitude to the hound for his help and great risk.

Now, as my wife pointed out to me as well, it might not be necessary. Admittedly, I’m a fan of the quote from Antoine de Saint-Exuper, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” especially in writing. Alice’s character in this film has her as the daughter of a wealthy family and about to be betrothed to a wealthy Lord, but she doesn’t seem to fit into high society. Showing gratitude would have actually helped add to that character.

I have some more examples from books that I’ve read in the last few months, but I think these two are sufficient to illustrate my point. Perhaps there is some rule I’m unaware of where gratitude is implied, like I inferred that Bayard’s family was at risk by him helping Alice, but I have another theory: writers and editors, in general, are just ungrateful. They don’t write about it or they strike it out in draft phase because they don’t think it’s important.

Don’t bother being an Alpha reader, because the author probably won’t really care. The section where they treat their book like an academy award and thank God, their families, and everyone they had a conversation with while writing that book? Oh yeah, totally fake. They don’t mean a word of it. They just know it’s expected of them or the people they depend on will abandon them and leave them to build a whole new support structure. Editors are just as superficial, never even bothering to thank anyone in any of the books they work on.

Kidding aside (you knew I was kidding, right? I’m still lobbying for the inclusion of a <sarcasm> tag in HTML 5), I wonder how much of this is conscious and how much is not. Is it really about time constraints or brevity? Is it because you, as a writer, feel it is implied? Is it an extra scene that doesn’t need to be shown, such as how Stormtroopers use the bathroom? I will confess that my wife and I have not sent “thank you” cards to anyone for Christmas, but I’m not certain if anyone does that anymore. You tell people “thank you” at the time you exchange gifts, and you know they are grateful. In this frame of mind, however, when that “thank you” card does come, it all makes it all the better. There is probably some clue here that I could apply to my writing, if I could only search deep enough…

As I go forward with my writing endeavors and life, this is something that I’ve paid attention to and will continue to do so. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m ungrateful, and unless it would really go against the nature of my characters, I plan to keep some form of gratitude in my stories.

I may even get around to those Thank You cards from Christmas.

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