Monday, April 30, 2007

Wrestling With Evil

I don't believe in evil. Still, that doesn't keep me from writing about it and creating characters who are loathsome in their behavior and thoughts.

I recently had a dialogue with someone regarding developing a foil for a protagonist, which led to a discussion about the nature of evil.

"What makes a good villain?" I asked.
"Evil."
"What if a person isn't religious?"
"It doesn't matter. Evil is evil."

Is it that simple? Is there an absolute yardstick for evil? Or does it depend on which side of the road you are standing?

Does a suicide bomber see himself as evil? Does a general, whose actions cause the death of thousands of civilians, see himself as evil? I know that a person who believes in God would state that according to their world view that certain acts are evil. Okay, but what about the other person who believes in the same God, but believes their actions are guided by a religious point of view?

The point? In writing about villainy, someone can either paint a character in broad strokes so that the reader has no question about that person's morality, or else one can paint three dimensional characters, each character with his or her own moral compass. In that situation, the reader might have to question his or her own views and make a decision about whether that person is entirely evil or not.

I recently read "A Game of Thrones" by George RR Martin. While I criticised the novel for being too "soap operish" in its plot construction, I will give Martin credit for creating characters that were complex. One of the most foul of these characters is a boy suddenly thrust into the role of monarch. It would be easy to dismiss him, branding him as pure evil, but Martin helps us see how the child emerged as a tool for the ambitious mother, and how he is in many ways a victim of his upbringing. Does it it any way excuse his behavior within the book? No. No more than any current political figure can be excused for their actions. However, by giving the character depths, by rendering him more human, we have something more powerful than a cardboard representation of "good" and "bad".

I'm not saying a writer shouldn't occasionally create an old fashioned monster with a handle bar moustache and nasty demeanor, but the three dimensional villain makes a deeper literary footprint. Who is more menacing, the Lord of Mordor (remote, unknowable, an abstract representation of evil), or Hannibal Lecter (the soft spoken, dignified, manipulative serial killer)?

15 comments:

Clifford said...

I agree -- one-demensional depictions of evil have their place, but when you're striving for "truth" in your fiction, it's virtually impossible to create a "pure evil" being with no rhyme or reason for being such. I think "evil" is the result of sickness or trauma. But like most things in our lives, it's easier to label things black or white. Imagine identifying three countries as part of some "axis of evil"? As if every resident, from the smallest babe to the holiest holy man is tainted. That's just bad fiction...

spyscribbler said...

I agree, too. Great post! What people call evil, I believe is switch inside all of us. Maybe it can get flipped by weird genetics, chemical use, or screwed up childhood, conditioning, whatever. It can also be a choice.

Travis said...

Excellent post. I think evil can be a matter of perspective.

Life is gray, with the occasional black or white hi-lite.

Lucas Pederson said...

Well, I agree with the three dimensional aspect of a villian. But as for evil...
Stewart, let me ask you this: Do you believe in good? Do you believe in being kind, doing the right thing and peace? Do you believe in love?
Without "evil", my friend, there is no "good". One can't be without the other. Yin and Yang, so to speak. It's a balance.
But as far as creating a villan who is three dimensionaly spooky or cruel? I agree with that very much. I do prefer Lecter over The Lord of Mordor. Lecter is a perfect example of three dimensional evil.
Great post!

SQT said...

Very thought provoking post.

I kind of agree with Lucas, but I think I would use different terminology. I think if you have good, then you have bad, not necessarily evil as its opposite.

I mean, if we're going to define evil as the blackest of black intentions, then good has to also be the extreme of pure intentions. I think it's safe to say that most of the world lives in between the two extremes.

Creating a purely evil villain might sound interesting, but if there are no shades of gray, then there is no unpredictability. We always know they will do the evil thing. But if there is always the slightest possibility they might show some compassion as an unexpected moment, they're almost more terrifying. After all, what will the price for that compassion be? There is always a price.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Cliff, as a horror writer, I don't give much thought to evil, but rather to what motivates a character and work from that perspective. Sometimes I use heinous acts so that characters can have something to respond to. Wouldn't it be frightening if there were a God and God acted that way?

Spy, I rather like what you suggest. If evil is something that can be switched on or off, then perhaps it can be controlled with a drug or a surgery. In that case the world would force people to indulge in the cure. Sort of reminds you of the fundamentalist Christian response to homosexuality, doesn't it?

Thanks Travis. Lucas, your comment made me think. If you have good, then there must be evil. WHY? Are you suggesting that there is some sort of natural law to emotions, behavior, or human behavior? What if there is no GOOD? What if we say that good is as subjective as evil?

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, I think that good and bad can be used in fiction as a way of determining cost. The greater the cost, the greater the tension and the reader involvement. What is the cost of an action on a character with which a reader empathizes?

Fab said...

It doesn't matter if your religious or not to have a real evil character. I like to read books where the evil ones have this ... something that gets you drawn to them. An evil character that doesn't look the part is to me convincing, because evil deceives. It manipulates. I like that a lot in books. The evil you don't expect. Just look around you. There is much evil in the world. But it often comes from where you least expected it.

avery said...

I agree with you, Stewart; the definition of 'evil' is about social order and majority rule, and what better way to sway the majority to one's way of thinking than through religious doctrine?

As for all those historically branded 'evil,' I'm sure they had good reasons in their heads for doing what they did. It's just that their reasons didn't jibe with the rest of society's thoughts on what was considered morally right at the time.

I don't believe such a thing as pure evil exists. Even the most depraved, heartless killer has some capacity to love. Even if its twisted into something conventionally unrecognizable, its still there -- thus negating the possibility for the condition of total badness.

Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, great minds, I guess. I just did a post about character types and multi-dimensional characters on my own blog this morning.

Lucas Pederson said...

Stewart, you also got me thinking. I think good, bad, and evil are very thought provoking terms. And why must there be evil if there is good? Well, in my opinion at least, it's just how it is. There's no real explaination for it. IS it a balance, yes, I think so. We have to have evil to have good, without one the other couldn't exist. As I have mentioned before. And how do we know we are being good, or evil, or bad for that matter? Think about how you feel when you give something to someone else, a gift, and they're entire face lights up in a smile. Or when you buy a kid you don't even know an ice cream cone at the fair who has no money to buy it for his/her self. That feeling is good, no? What else would you call it?
And for bad and evil, well, i suppose there are those who get off on molesting children, murdering people, torturing dogs and cats, but I wouldn't call that feeling good. Ther person in question might think so, but that person is ill, very mentally ill.
Just my thoughts. Again, great post.

Beelzebub said...

I've got to go with the Lord of Mordor because his evil is an ungodly one, whereas Hannibal's is "just" an evil human one.

thepinkangel said...

great point! I like that because it really would make people questions whether that person is evil or not. It's almost like being told two sides to one story.

on one side everybdoy thinks that person is evil, but they don't truly know the motivations and if they did would they really think that person was evil or maybe just misguided.

great post.

cs harris said...

I don't believe in evil, either. I see it as a dangerous religious concept that enables people to call others "evil" and reassure themselves that they are god's chosen. People are very, very adept at justifying what they do--destroy the village to save it, burn the heretic to save his everlasting soul, kill a few million people to bring them the blessings of freedom and democracy and untrammeled capitalism. When writers create purely "evil" villains, they sap them of their ability to scare because they become unreal. It's the realistic nuances that make a villain both memorable and frightening.

Sam Van Dellen said...

have you read the "Gap" series by Stephen R. Donaldson? You want three dimensional, he's got it!