Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Good vs. Evil
I recently read a blog post by my friend Jordan about why the age-old archetypes of Good vs. Evil often fail – for instance, it’s simplistic, it’s often unclear why the Evil side is considered so bad, it pushes the story into a track too well-trodden, etc. All excellent points.
So while his post made me want to write about a similar theme, it would be redundant for me to simply agree with his points. But then I thought of taking the opposite tack, and writing about why Good vs. Evil appeals to people.
It’s relatively easy to create characters who fall solidly into the black/white camps, rather than people who are as grey as they are three-dimensional. The same goes for conflicts, so the brave rebels against the evil empire is a common concept.
Much of the foundation for such a story has already been laid by previous novels or films. You know that the lone warrior or orphan boy will be Good, while the leader of the empire (whether he be named Palpatine or Jagang or Galbatorix) will be Evil. So you don’t need to spend a lot of time deciding who’s going to win, or planning scenes which show the emperor to be as multifaceted a character as the hero. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if the writer can bring something else new to the table which will balance the well-worn trope.
Start with a main character who does things that are morally very questionable (such as the drug-using heroine of Stacia Kane’s upcoming Unholy Ghosts), and you risk turning some readers off.
As well as everyone having different comfort levels when it comes to characters’ ethics, some people also believe that to show a protagonist with serious flaws that are unchanged at the end equals tacit approval for those flaws. So writers often stay with the safe flaws, the ones which don’t alter alignment. The character is flippant or can’t sing. That kind of flaw.
Your emotions will be intact at the end. You’ll never be afraid the writer will put the hero on one side of the battlefield and the heroine on the other – and set events in motion so that they fight to the death. You won’t start liking a character, only to watch in dismay as he gives in to his ambition or anger and commits murder.
That’s another reason readers might feel more secure with the Good/Evil camps clearly designated and a barbed-wire fence between them.
Shades-of-grey characters are fairly common these days, so a deliberate regression to a white hat/black hat code of morality might well stand out – similar to the “women who use magic are evil” concept in Robert Newcomb's The Fifth Sorceress.
Part of my fondness for ‘80s cartoons like Transformers is their black-and-white nature. Sometimes I don’t want depth or complexity – I need mindless entertainment instead, and my cheese threshold is fairly high in this regard.
Though I must admit, I usually find the arrogance, treachery and aggression of the bad guys much more entertaining than the Boy Scout-esque niceness of the good ones. Maybe that’s another reason writers still go for the archetype – not only does Good vs. Evil have that “impressive and mystic” quality that Jordan pointed out, but Evil can often be made very appealing (e.g. Darth Vader). Good tends not to be so cool, but they say virtue is its own reward.