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 easy

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.

It’s safe

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.

It’s comfortable

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.

It’s reactionary

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.

It’s fun

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.


Rafael said...

I like my characters to be moraly complex, or at least explore why those that are evil are well evil. Sure you can have the nasty goon here and there, and that is not totally unrealistic (just look around you) but a main bad guy has to have reasons why he/she does what they do, be they be simple or complex.

Angela said...

I think good vs evil works best when the motivation is strong. Nothing's better than a villian who makes negative choices to achieve an understandible or logical goal. The same can be said for the 'good' hero who battles choices with negative side affects to reach his goal but who altimately reaches his goal with morality intact. As readers we want to know things aren't always black and white, but that ultimatly the good guy will make good choices and avoid negative temptations. If he does, then there's hope for us and our choices in real life. The evil character is the personification of what our own lives will look like if we don't make good decisions.

GunnerJ said...

These all seem like excellent reasons to never write a story of Good vs. Evil, to me.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

Now, on this one, I agree with Rafael. (waves hello to him)

I also like morally complex characters. Totally good and bad characters bore me. I like when the good guys sometimes err and when sometimes I think the baddie has a point. It's much more realistic and thus, draws me in more emotionally.

Although I can understand the appeal that you and others find in things like The Transformers- it's just not my thing. :)

GunnerJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GunnerJ said...

(Reposting because of errors, etc.)

Since I don't want to seem snarky, I should elaborate: I realize that this is primarily a list of reasons why GvE plots have broad appeal, but as a writer, the only item on the list that appeals to me is "fun," but I doubt I would have fun writing about something that is easy, safe, comfortable, and reactionary.

I don't think that GvE is inherently bad as a conflict, I just think it isn't often used well. There are a lot of cool things you can do with it, but I identified three primary reasons why these stories often leave me bored and frustrated: cliche elements, lack of proof of "badness," and simplicity of characterization. I think a GvE story could be written without these elements.

For cliches, well, the idea itself is fairly well mined, but you can change the format up. How about a rat-tag band of villains going up against an established and decent power? For proving that someone really is a bad guy, you basically have to develop an idea of morality that readers will identify with and show how your bad guys violate this. It's not enough for me that they wear black and have British accents. Then you have the hurdle of making your evil characters believable: because they have to have a motivation besides "being evil." Character shouldn't think of themselves as evil (without a whole lot of guilt and rationalization at least), rather they should disagree with the author (and readers) about what is good, and they have to disagree convincingly.

While GvE plots have a lot of mythic overtones, they also have a lot of pop culture baggage. Just as it's problematic to simply plop down some stock-standard elves and dwarves and never develop or expand them, just saying "battle of good and evil!" and not going any farther is boring and unconvincing, especially if those three flaws aren't avoided.

Take Paradise Lost, one of the best mythic treatments of GvE. Sure, Milton has a leg up because a Christian audience doesn't need to be convinced that Satan is a bad guy, but he goes through the effort of both showing how he waged a war in heaven, a literal revolt against God, which establishes what he's done wrong, and then has Satan explain his motivation; and it's pretty sympathetic one a superficial level, and on deeper examination reveals further flaws with the bad guy's character (i.e., pride, willfulness, childishness). I doubt it would be as much of a classic if it was just another Everyman Morality Play with a devil tempting serfs into wrongdoing, without any further development.

Incidentally, I am focusing a lot on the bad guys, but the same could be said for the good guys too: how do we know they are good? Are they really so sure of the rightness of their cause? And just declaring them good and going forward with that assumption uncritically leads to all sorts of ugliness, where the hero can lay waste to kingdoms and the author nods his head and blesses the act because the (surely good and admirable) ends justify the "unfortunate" means. (See: Terry Goodkind's Naked Empire, or, Richard the Randian Superman Slaughters Anti-War Protesters in the Name of Goodness.)

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

To me, moral complexity is like filet mignon and black/white storytelling is like a McDonalds Quarter Pounder. Nutrition-wise and taste-wise, one of them is probably better. But sometimes I just want a nice cheap Quarter Pounder. :)

I have to say, though, while I enjoy Transformers as it is, I also like stories* which deal with the negative qualities of the good guys or any positives of the bad ones. So even in the black/white zone, the shades of grey creep in.

*Usually fanfics.

Anonymous said...


Good analogy! Sometimes you do just want a burger. :)

Marian said...

Hey Jordan,

You, snarky? Never!

Seriously, though, I understand what you’re saying. I always try to make my protagonists three-dimensional, complex characters – they’re realistic, not always predictable, and sympathetic.

On the other hand, there’s a certain fun in GvE when it’s done well (or even done entertainingly, not necessarily the same thing). You mentioned a bad of villains going up against an established power – well, that immediately reminded me of The Day of the Jackal, where a lone professional assassin sets out to kill Charles de Gaulle.

The Jackal, as he’s called, is utterly amoral (for instance, he has sex with a woman and breaks her neck the next morning after she discovers who he is). Readers probably don’t want him to win. On the other hand, he’s clever, determined and very, very good at what he does. So there’s the coolness factor again. Or maybe it’s a fascination/revulsion thing, but either way, the readers have an emotional reaction towards the character.

I can’t remember whether the Jackal had any motivation beyond making half a million francs, but one thing was for sure – once he got trapped in France with the authorities after him, he really didn’t have much of a choice other than going ahead with the assassination. He’d gotten in too deep by that point. That’s part of the fascination as well – the fact that he’s one man with a lot of cops and special agents after him.

I’m all for character development (I’d rather have George R. R. Martin’s characterizational skills than Frederick Forsyth’s), but some stories do well even with the black/white system and lack of real motivation. Of course, “do well” is subjective, since different readers enjoy different things, but you get my drift.

One thing Jackal did well, by the way, was not to fall into the trap you mentioned, where it’s evident that the author loves all the good guys and hates all the bad ones. IIRC, some of the OAS (the people paying the Jackal to kill de Gaulle) were very sympathetic.

Marian said...

Hey Angela,

Nothing's better than a villian who makes negative choices to achieve an understandible or logical goal.

Yup. And who uses that goal to justify the choices. That's a lot of fun because it's a technique which could be used for the heroes and the villains.

GunnerJ said...

I do see what you mean about fun, even if I like my fun to be complicated too. And I think there is still a lot of fun to be had with GvE plots. There are some people who are just bad; they want what they want and don't care how they get it. But maybe one of my big complaints is people dress up stories with this big, epic robe called "Good vs. Evil" and forget at any point to actually discuss morality, pretending that evil is some substance we can detect by certain fashion choices, and the presence of which justifies the execution of the bearer. I'd like to see more Star Wars and fewer Zooms.

Rafael said...

There is another pitfall which is ancillary to the G-vs-E construct, what comedian Bill Maher calls "blatant" evil. It is the usual conceit in Hollywood movies (SW being the worse offender) that in order to show how evil is the bad guys are (and by way of contrast how good the heroes are) that the bad guys do extremely blatant evil acts, like take hostages, torture them and blow up pacifist planets with giant lasers.

The problem I have with that is that it tends to then justify any and all actions done by the "hero". Take for example the Joker in the recent Batman movie. Great acting, but he is so demented, so over the top that it frees Batman to do whatever he wants to do in order to bring him in, regardless of the morality of his actions.

Morality is then framed not in the context of individual actions and responsibilities but on how "bad" the villains are. The villain becomes so irredeemable that the heroes are freed from doing whatever they want without repercussions from the audience who clearly want the bad guy stopped.

It also robs the hero of any inner motives for doing what he does as the villain's actions conveniently externalize and remove any inner conflicts, remorse or for that matter thought on what is right or wrong.

Marian said...

"I do see what you mean about fun, even if I like my fun to be complicated too."

I can take mine either complex or simplistic, depending on how I feel. There's something of an appeal in the variety. If I get too much of one, I can always try a bit of the other and they'll be that much more enjoyable for the contrast.

Probably the reason I have both Christmas carols by Enya and techno-trance by E Nomine on my iPod. :)

Marian said...

Something I forgot to add to my latest comment - I know that the good/evil vs. moral complexity is a difference of value as well as of taste. These days, you're not likely to get too far with very black-and-white characters. I'll advise any writer to push the envelope rather than playing it too safe.

But moral simplicity can be enjoyable as well, under the right circumstances. I like the familiarity of Ser Gregor the Mountain being a vicious psychopath, Ellsworth Toohey being a manipulative s.o.b. and the Stunticons being aggressive lunatics (for the most part). None of them are ever going to change or be redeemed*, and that's fine by me. :)

*With Martin's characters you never know, but given what's happened to the Mountain so far, at least the probability approaches zero.