Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Free will in fiction

Free will is an important concept in theology, but I recently read a story that made me realize how necessary it is in fiction as well.

In the story, one particular species was created to be evil. The narrative made that explicit. And right away I knew that unless the writer was going to twist the concept, to make it unusual and surprising, the story was doomed.

1. Moral judgment

Say that a species was developed to be violent and I’ll buy it. Dogs, after all, were bred to serve different purposes, and some breeds can be more aggressive than others. But when we get into good/evil, that’s a moral judgment and it’s much easier to spot the hand of the writer pulling the strings. Even if this is inspirational speculative fiction, it’ll be difficult to pull off.

2. Definition of evil

What exactly is evil? Aggression or venality or any other of the seven deadly sins are clear in comparison, but evil is a broad blanket term. Does it mean crimes against other people, against animals, against the environment? Or does it extend to personal decisions and choices which may not be approved of? And who does the approving?

Unless a novel operates within the preestablished framework of a religion, such as Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, telling me that a person or species is evil tells me… well, nothing.

3. No option but evil

Would you expect a dog to fly?

If you wouldn’t, if dogs as we know them can’t be expected to fly, then a Created Evil species or character cannot be expected to do good. So it/they can’t be held morally responsible for any wrong actions either, because it/they had no other choice. That would be like getting mad at your oven for not keeping your ice cream frozen.

4. Unrealistic premise

How does a species that’s completely evil manage to function at all? Raising children, for instance – how is this done if individuals are incapable of attachment to their children? How are such children even conceived? Is there such a thing as consensual sex in their society?

5. Readers’ emotional responses

When I realized that the evil characters had no choice but to be evil, I immediately felt sorry for them.

Yes, even when they were killing people. What choice did they have? Authorial bias was so much in evidence – with the narrative stressing that they were supposed to be that way – that I could only sympathize with them for their lack of free will. They weren’t being cruel because of their own ambition or their own greed; they were being cruel because the writer was pulling their strings.

And I knew that sooner or later the writer would punish them for doing exactly what the writer had made them do, so I felt sorry for them.

6. Lack of surprise

If a species or a character is completely evil and created to be evil, readers are unlikely to feel surprise (or shock, which is even better) by what this race or character does, especially if the narrative spells out in advance what to expect.

There’s no choice, and when there’s no choice there’s no tension.

7. Where there’s a drow, there’s a Drizzt

Having one member of the race of puppets turn out to be good isn’t too startling a development. Such a character often has a ready-made moral compass installed in him courtesy of the writer, rather than struggling with the ethical dilemnas that he should face in such a society.

Worse, he doesn’t make really serious mistakes, nor is his future in much doubt. If the Drizzt is the protagonist, he ends up with the good guys; if he isn’t, he dies a martyr’s death, usually helping the good guys. He has little loyalty to his own race, nor any guilt about what happens to them. Nor are there any aspects of his former life that he misses.

Tolkien’s world accomodated completely-evil races such as the orcs and goblins because he wrote high fantasy in the 1940s. Since then, not only is this concept rarely used but there have been fantasy novels from the perspectives of said evil races – for instance, Mary Gentle’s Grunts. Anti-heroes, flawed protagonists and nuanced villains tend to be more realistic and entertaining than a black-and-white worldview where some characters or races are intrinsically evil and some are intrinsically good.


ralfast said...

In my second book, I gave the bad guys The Hunger, a psychological compulsion to do very bad things (indeed), but while they embraced their evil side (they can't help themselves) they do struggle to survive in a world that would destroy them if it got a chance.

That's why they hide in the shadows, or at least go to great lengths to hide their evil side from the public eye.

Mary Witzl said...

There is so much food for thought in this post. I always think that evil is like pornography -- that defining it may be hard, but we ought to know what it is when we see it. But the truth is much more complex.

I hate books with bad guys who are so loathsome and unrelentingly evil that they are just plain boring. I'm not a big fan of reading books with evil or cruel main characters, but if I have to, it is much more interesting when they are sympathetically treated and not merely used as a dramatic device. And you are so right about the lack of tension this causes: if the bad guys are just plain evil and never going to change, I might as well put the book down and go to sleep. I'd like to think that there is a possibility of change -- that they may even acquire empathy.

Anna L. Walls said...

A writer must always be careful about such things. When a term is relative to personal definition, you've only added a drop to an ocean. "Evil" is a very large ocean.

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - That would work for me! Even though the bad guys are Created Evil, it looks like there's a worldbuilding-related reason behind it, rather than "the author made them totally evil because it was easier than giving them two dimensions".

And the fact that they're struggling to survive makes them sympathetic.

Mary - One reason I find the concept of evil complex is because, to the community I left behind in the Middle East, I'm probably evil for not following their religion, for dating white men, for writing books with sex scenes, etc.

We all have different definitions of the term. So a book has to show me that a character or race actually does something unforgivably cruel before I'll conclude that they're irredeemably evil - as opposed to being ambitious, vengeful, misguided, etc.

Anna - "When a term is relative to personal definition, you've only added a drop to an ocean. "Evil" is a very large ocean." That's a great summary of it. Thanks for commenting!