Good and Evil in Stories

I’ve shied away from writing about writing, since I’m still learning myself, but I had a thought recently that I figured could use some fleshing out.  So here goes.

There have long been voices decrying “simplistic” models of good and evil in books and movies (and, I suppose, video games).  Tolkien is often mentioned (though anyone who calls the morality of Tolkien’s tales “simplistic” either hasn’t really read them, or wasn’t paying much attention when they were), particularly in regard to the orcs.  Interestingly, this was a problem that Tolkien himself wrestled with.  His own Catholic epistemology denied that any thinking being could be created as “evil.”  Evil is a defect, not a positive characteristic.  He tried to work out the nature of the orcs until he died, and never quite figured it out (see The Later Silmarillion Part 1: Morgoth’s Ring.)

One sees much more simplistic approaches in later works, that seem to regard “good” and “evil” as faction labels more than anything else.  “This group/band/nation/race are the Good Guys, and that group/band/nation/race are the Bad Guys.”  Some of this has doubtless been helped along by the atrocities of the Second World War, the Gulag, and the Islamists, who commit unapologetically evil actions.  But “Good” and “Evil” are concepts, rather than badges.

Perhaps we have become accustomed to equating “enemy” with “evil.”  Such is not always the case.  Two groups can be enemies without either one being inherently evil.

Many of those who decried the earlier moral simplicity of struggles between Good and Evil have endeavored to subvert the tropes.  In fact, “subverting genre tropes” is presently all the rage in publishing.  Sometimes this can be done well, where there is a sympathetic character on both sides.  All too often lately, however, it seems to have devolved into making everyone involved an irredeemable bastard, effectively denying the existence of Good altogether.

It’s something I’ve tried to explore a little with Kill YuanShang Wei Feng Kung is a ruthless individual, in service to a totalitarian regime that is the heir of the horrific slaughter of the Cultural Revolution, but I daresay most would be hard-pressed to describe him as evil.  He’s doing what he sees as his duty.  That doesn’t mean he’ll hesitate to kill Dan Tackett if he sees it necessary, nor will Dan hesitate to put a bullet in his head.

It may be a touch pretentious for a hack action writer to talk about “literature,” but I think as a whole stories would be better served, and would speak better to the human condition, if we learned to put a divider between “enemy” and “evil” again.  They can be separate concepts, and provide a lot of fodder for interesting storytelling that can’t be found if every character is on one side of the fence or another.

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2 thoughts on “Good and Evil in Stories

  1. To me it is all about viewpoints and perspectives. If the bad guy for example views what they are doing as a necessary evil or even good for their cause, then they will commit the most devious evil actions for the right reasons.

    Same with the good guys, they will go to great lengths to fight what they consider evil even though the bottom line is that they are just as dirty as the bad guy.

    rob

    1. You’ve got to find a balance, though. I think too often lately it’s tended to curve a little too close to the latter, to where everyone involved is either a bastard or a helpless victim. Reality’s a little more complex than that. I find it frustrating that to some people, “realism” means dragging every character down into the mud. “Guddling about in the filth,” to use a Scottishism.

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