This article is the first in a three part series dealing with villains and evil, along with their uses in and their effects on a story.
One of the most important things that an author should know in order to write good and even great stories, readers and future writers, is that evil in fact exists. It is a real, terrible, and powerful force in this fallen world. Some of you may know this better than I do, having experienced it directly. Some of you have not, and more than a few of you are in between direct knowledge and naïveté in this regard. But you will have to understand two very important facts about evil going forward with your careers: you will have to know what evil actually is, and why some of your characters (usually the villains) will choose it.
These two topics are more closely related than you might think at first glance. The fact is, no one simply “becomes” evil overnight. It is not a disease, like smallpox or the flu, which one contracts and which may kill him/her. Neither is it something like a cold, which you can catch and recover from with a little TLC – self-administered or otherwise.
Evil is a difficult thing to discuss or write about, as it may manifest itself in either minor, major, covert, or overt ways. It may be personal, national, intercontinental, or intergalactic. In is at best unpleasant and always produces vile to catastrophic results. The fib, the little “white lie” is vile because it can acculturate the teller to larger and more grandiose lies. The greater the lie, the more terrible the consequences which are so horrible that most of us refuse to think we could ever become evil. But the simple fact is that we can become evil; anyone, any human being, very quickly and very easily. We have free will; it is our gift – it is our right to choose.
This is an unpleasant realization for us; evil is neither an ailment nor an assault, it is our choice. If we are being honest, it should be absolutely terrifying to us. That is why ninety-nine point nine percent of us refuse to believe we could be anything less than “a good person.” By this I mean that most of us refuse to believe we could ever do what the Nazis did; or what Soviet Russians, Red Chinese, Cambodians did to more than 100 million people. Or, in fiction, what those who joined the Empire in Star Wars chose so infamously to do.
But to move forward in our lives and careers as authors, we should refuse this automatic rejection as the abject self-righteousness that it is and recognize that all humans are capable of evil. If any of us had lived in Germany during the Nazi regime, we might have become Nazis ourselves. Many, in that time and place, in fact did so for what seemed to them at the moment to be sane and justifiable reasons – beyond the oft-quoted evasion “everyone’s doing it.”
That is the question Romantics, Realists, and Naturalists prefer to avoid asking – or answering. Remember that to the Romantic, evil is not real. All things resolve themselves into good in their transcendentalist worldview, so for the Blind Romanticist, evil cannot actually exist. It is just a construct or a passing shadow that is easily conquered. And so stopping the villain with a bullet or a sword stroke is considered “becoming as evil as the enemy” the protagonist is fighting to stop in Romantic fiction; that is why the heroes of such work “overcome evil with love.”
Meanwhile, Realists consider evil a disease that can be treated or managed. They deem it a psychological aberration that can be reduced to a minor problem with the “right care.” The undeclared part of the Realist code, of course, is that when such treatment fails to contain the evil, then more or a different treatment is needed.
Naturalists, we know, tend to embrace evil. Jack London has the dog Buck choose to murder the Indians who murdered his final master, remember? In Boxing Helena, the physician wants Helena for himself. So when she is seriously injured in a car accident, he amputates her remaining limbs to prevent her from running away from him. The fiendish delight the depraved Joker takes in killing his enemies in The Dark Knight shows that he finds evil unduly attractive.
All of this leads to the two important questions hinted at above: What is evil and how does one succumb to it?
Evil is found in a preference for darkness where succeeding options are between endless multitudes of “grays.” It is a turning away from the purifying light of day; it is, quite simply, the choosing of our own wicked desires over our good instincts. For the Christian, “the good” is not some amorphous set of shifting principles which advocates the special treatment of one group on Tuesdays and another on Saturdays. God Himself is the source of all goodness; to become evil is to turn away from Him, the source of all being and goodness. This renders the choosers into “wraiths and shadows,” as Tolkien showed us with the Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings.
Evil is putting our hubris before everything else, to the point that we damage ourselves, our fellow men, God’s creatures, and Creation in order to achieve various twisted desires. In basic terms, when one chooses a wicked course, and lies to rationalize that choice, and enacts that plan, then evil has flowered.
Now that we have defined evil for the purposes of this essay, we may look at why people choose it over good. Every would-be author on the planet has to have heard a version of the tired adage that the villains do not believe themselves to be evil. What this brief phrase fails to explain is why the antagonists do not see themselves as evil. They neglect to see their own evil because they have lied to themselves repeatedly, to the point that they truly believe their own fabrication or they truly believe they can make it a reality.
How could those Germans who joined the Nazis fall for the arrant lies of Nietzsche and company? The Germans who became Nazis fell for those lies because they wanted to. In Boxing Helena, the physician believes the lie that he can have Helena to himself once he renders her unable to move autonomously because he wants to believe it. The dog Buck believes he can murder the Indians who murdered his master because he wants to believe his desire for revenge is right. Whatever lie allowed the Joker to begin his murder spree, he is following it to the letter in The Dark Knight because he believes – or wants to believe – that it is true.
And this is not the only evil one may fall for, though it has the most gruesome results. What about those times we hear whispering going on in the next room and decide to listen in on the conversation, “just so we know what is going on,” or to assure ourselves that we are not the ones being murmured about? What about those times we decide no one will really mind if we take one quarter from the donation jar at the store counter? We can always come back another day and put a quarter in the jar to square the deal, can’t we? And who is going to miss one quarter, when they have so many coming in every day?
Or why shouldn’t we embezzle from the company that makes billions of dollars but which will only give us a small pension every month? Why shouldn’t we tease someone for the way they dress, their bad hygiene, or the fact that they have some disability which may make them socially awkward or unacceptable? We’re just teasing, after all. What’s more, it is the truth; that person does dress strangely. They also smell like they haven’t had a shower in a week, and they have a physical irregularity which makes them appear “unattractive.”
As you can see from these examples, the path to evil is neither steep nor narrow; in all cases it begins on a broad highway amid a great open sunlit plain at the exit marked “your choice.” Here the road turns downward to an increasing degree, and that choice snowballs with many others to block the light, until it breaks upon the base of a great, immovable mountain of truth and is destroyed. This is the series of gradual decisions to do something one knows is wrong in order to gain what the perpetrator desires. No matter how big or small the results, the decision itself is still to do evil.
It does not matter whether the person choosing this course wants to satisfy an inordinate craving (Boxing Helena), or to fulfill a good aspiration (restoring Germany’s national self-respect and international standing). The fact which matters is that the person who has made the decision has chosen to gratify his urges at the expense of those around him and at an unfathomable cost to his own immortal soul.
Our capacity to rationalize away our choice to do something we know is evil – whether great or small – is literally limitless. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Minh are historical proof of this. Fictional proof resides in the likes of Gollum, Emperor Palpatine, and the Joker. They all have one thing in common: they want their “precious” – their power – more than they want anything else. Evil starts when we decide that we want our “precious” and that we will have it by any means necessary.
Of course, if this is so, then how are our fictional heroes to stop evil? We have seen that the paths of the Romantic, the Realist, and the Naturalist lead toward more iniquity, not away from it. If they cannot – or will not – provide a way to stop evil, then who can?
Let us look at two very disparate fictional characters to find the fourth option – the Romantic Realist’s answer to this question. Nightcrawler, a member of the X-Men, was abused in childhood by everyone but his adopted parents because of his appearance. Considered “demonic,” he was maltreated throughout his youth because he looked like an incarnate devil.
However, Nightcrawler chose not to “take revenge” on normal people for the cruelty heaped on him in his early days. He made the much more difficult choice to stand between those people who might fear him and those who would do harm to the general population of Earth, and he does so with a zest for life and fun that is absolutely contagious.
Contrast this with the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin claims he needs Palpatine alive in order to save his wife from death in childbirth. Yet before the movie ends, he Force-chokes a pregnant Padmé Amidala, thinking she has betrayed him to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Why? Why would he do this when his stated reason for becoming a Sith was to save her life?
He did this because he desired power more than he wanted to protect Padmé or their children. In this scene she was no longer his wife, but a threat to the power he had desired since his youth; power he would use to make others suffer in the way that he had suffered. This meant that whoever might interfere – even someone he claimed to love – became his enemy because they were trying to take his “precious” power from him. That was why Anakin choked Padmé and, later, as Darth Vader, killed Obi-Wan Kenobi aboard the first Death Star.
This brings us to the answers to the questions posed by this article. Evil is the absence of good. The decision to do evil is personal, not external. It affects the chooser and everyone and everything that follows from that decision.
With this in mind, one must wonder how can evil be stopped? It is ended when one chooses the light rather than the darkness. As we have seen in song, story, and reality it is halted when Luke Skywalker chooses to trust the good still present in his father. It stops when the leader of the Magnificent Seven shoots the Mexican bandit chief dead to save the Mexican villagers. It is stopped when a murderer confesses to his crime after viewing The Passion of the Christ. In short, evil is arrested by good men and women who refuse to choose it, accept it, or allow it to continue.
This is the difference between heroes and villains. It is a difference authors at all levels – beginners or professionals – once understood clearly. But as with most things in what we choose to call modern society, an effort is being made to obfuscate this truth. This effort in and of itself is evil, and the best way to stop it is to refuse to take part in their confusion of the facts. The best way to do that is by making heroes who say “No” to the natural human capacity to rationalize away the evil that they can do, or that is being done around them.
When you create villains, future writers, keep these facts in mind. Otherwise, you may lead someone into evil yourself.
8 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil, Part 1 – What It Is, and Whether It Is the Fault of Others or the Choice of the Villain”
I find the characterization (as evil) of Buck’s vengeance in “The Call of the Wild” to be somewhat strained and problematic.
On the one hand, the dog is just that– a dog, and not a Moral Agent in the same way a human protagonist would be. On the other, his rivalry with– and eventual victory over– Spitz is perhaps the most malicious and disturbing act in the entire book. Further, the Indians who killed Jim Thornton are explicitly a Mortal Foe in the narrative and must be addressed accordingly for the satisfactory resolution of the story.
I see what you’re getting at, but Buck’s ambush of Spitz is the better example from “The Call of the Wild.”
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Agreed; the battle and “victory” over Spitz would probably have been a better example. I think I didn’t use it because Spitz’s name slipped my mind. That won’t happen again.
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I am saving this article. Have not a read a good piece like this in years. I glanced through your other articles. Found an inspiring one about praying before writing. Saving that too.
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John Rabe was a member of the Nazi party. People joined the Nazis for all sorts of reasons, including to facilitate anti-Nazi work.
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