On the one hand, I’m rather fond of messed-up social dynamics and mindscrewy plots and behaviors, in my fiction and sometimes even in my gaming (when done well): they’re interesting reading, they show me a part of human nature that I really don’t want to deal with face to face but do think that I need to understand, and… well, the overall combination of those with other factors leaves me downright fascinated. I can go for hours attempting to explain, for instance, the twisty social dynamic between two of my long-running NPCs, and one of my favorite PCs never seemed to be quite so happy as when she had a dedicated villain with whom she was battling it out with wits and words for control of her brainspace. “Yeah, these are messed-up people,” I find myself saying halfway through the explanation, but I still love it.
On the other, there are some things—stories, books, you get the idea—where the overall dynamic is very similar, but it absolutely pounds on my squick buttons, and next thing I know I’m carefully steering a patron away from getting this one for her kids– “Yeah, I read that when I was a kid, and I didn’t realize until I was older just how screwed up some of the themes were—here, I think they’ll do better with this one, or if they like their material a bit more gritty, this one is gorgeous.” And heaven forbid someone ask me for my opinion on something like 50 Shades of Grey (oh, book, how closely do you mirror an abusive relationship? Let me count the red flags).
It’s easy to ask how these are so different. Certainly, the characters’ actions might not be; I could claim that this PC has more of a spine than that fictional character, or this particular antagonist considers sexual harassment beneath him, but looking simply at who does what, there probably isn’t that much to choose. Heck, even the aforementioned PC has occasionally toyed with the idea of trying to get her opponents to change, though she’s always been far more interested in the Powers of Rhetoric, Common Sense and Dogged Cunning than any ideas about redemption through love. (There are more excuses. I’ll drop them for now.)
The difference, I think, is in how the situation is portrayed. The creepy I embrace is actively, deliberately, unrepentantly creepy. It recognizes that fact. It wallows in it. The narrative voice may not explicitly say “dang this is screwed up”, but it’s pretty easy to gather from it nonetheless, and that’s the point. The situation, fascinating though it may be, is one that needs to be worked its way out of, and that’s the conflict. The ones that squick me out… not so much. Some of them—Twilight, for instance—just don’t recognize how creepy what they’re portraying actually is. Then you get things like Fifty Shades, or Hush, Hush, that do acknowledge what a mess Creepy Character’s behavior is, and then wave it away because Romance, and the optimal, final happy ending state is still Creep Gets Non-Creep. In short, whether they mean to or not, they turn creepy into desirable.
And this is something I wish more writers would do in this day and age: recognize when what they’re describing is just screwed up. People will still read it—I’m sure my predilection for this sort of psychology is not by a long shot unique—but it won’t normalize the screwed-up behavior in the same way. I’ve heard all the arguments about people telling fantasy from reality; I’m a fantasy reader, I’m a tabletopper, I know what they say. But I also know that people learn from books, about how people interact, about what society says is awesome and what it says is horrible, about how they’re expected to behave, and how they’re expected to excel, and what they’re expected to dream about. I’ve seen people wonder, not “What must be going through this character’s mind right now, that she’s not seeing the problem with this/not acting on her ‘run for it!’ instinct/playing along?”, but “How do I get me a guy like that?” And that squicks me out more than anything.
And hey. Once it’s clear that the situation’s being recognized for what it is on some level? Let’s get back to our previously scheduled mindscrew.