18 September 2009

Fantasy Elements #3: Good Versus Evil

It's an interesting dilemma, one that all fantasy writers - if not all writers - have to deal with at some point or other. Good. Evil. Where's the line? What's the difference? And how do we deal with that in our writing?

Conventionally, the MCs are the Good Guys. People who oppose their aims are the Bad Guys. Good Guys win. Bad Guys lose.

I have an entire series that plays with this idea; it was my first novel, though, so it's not as deep as it could be, and I can't wait to sink my teeth back into it and ask and answer some of these questions.

Because that's just the thing: it isn't all as simple as that.

Maybe it was, once - in writing, if not in life. Maybe there was a time when you could get away with straw villains and two-dimensionality.

But that time is not now. Now we are post-post-modern. Now we ask questions like, "Is evil really evil? Is my evil your evil? Can we make judgements about someone else's evilness? Is there objective evilness?"

Which all means that our work has to be a lot deeper, a lot more textured - a lot closer, in many ways, to reality. The world isn't black and white, and neither should our writing be. There should be shades of grey, areas where the boundaries aren't clearly defined, where everyone's maybe acting in the way that they think best, and they're trying to do some good but doing it badly, or even trying to do some bad but doing that badly so they end up doing good. Villains should be as motivated as heros.

Heros should be motivated.

Things happen for a reason; people get entangled because they Believe In Things, whether that's God, the Universe, or Themselves. Or even Mice. 42.

It's my opinion that the most interesting stories are those that happen in the grey; they're the gritty stories, the edgy stories, the stories that leave us slightly uncomfortable with either the way things are, the way things were, or the way they someday might be. They make us think about ourselves, our lives, our culture - our own stories.

But on the other hand, sometimes evil is just evil. And black-and-white stories - like archetypal stories, like fairytales - serve a great purpose also. They remind us, in our post-post-modern world of relativity, that some things just are; that some things probably aren't subjective; that we pretty much agree on basic standards of human decency.

They remind us of the things we need to protect.

And the grey stories remind us of just how hard that can be, both to protect what needs protecting, and to decide on what needs protecting in the first place.

I'm curious: Which type of stories are you more likely to read? Which are you more likely to write? Why?


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shades of grey, please. I wrote the first draft of my fantasy WIP with a bad guy who was the cardboard evil person. He became much more interesting when I tried an exercise to interview him about his childhood. Suddenly, he had depth and motivation. The story got more complex and rich, as well.

Merc said...

I love shades of gray the most. Black and white/good vs evil can only do so much for me, because in a fantasy world, I have to actually be able to believe your evil is EVIL, etc. From a worldview, I can believe the good vs evil in "real world" stories (fantasy or not). In a secondary world, you face the challenge of establishing worldviews and a system and whatever else so you CAN have good vs evil.

I don't know if that makes any sense. :| Anyway. :P

It's funny, my NaNo novel this year is about what happens when the archetypal "forces of good" in fantasy looses (at the beginning) and then all you have left is shades of gray. %-) I'm looking forward to it.

But yeah, in almost all my writing, I play with shades of gray in some way or another rather than straight black and white lines and moralities and good/evil.

Great post, Inky!


Inkblot said...

Tricia - I had the exact same experience with my first fantasy novel too. I still haven't finished writing it though, because I'm having trouble meshing the old ideas with the new characters properly o.O So it's a shelf novel for now ;):)

Merc - It makes sense. How does that work for fairytales for you, then, though? Because they're a secondary world, so by your theory they have to work harder to establish their moral code and thus should be grey, but their inherent power is in /being/ black and white... ?

Merc said...

Inky--for fairy tales, I've possibly always been more fascinated by the supposed "bad guys", and try to find the shades of gray under the overt black/white (good/evil) tones. :P I don't think I ever quite believed the writers that the witches were wicked or the wolves were bad.

For me, they're not so much powerful because of the black/white worldview, but more for the darkness (like in the originals) and themes... or maybe I just read more into them than I should. :P

So no, fairy tales don't really convince me of the good/evil thing, generally. *shrugs*

You may have noticed I tend to, ah, re-think fairy tales in terms of grey and re-write them from different points of view (often the antag). O:)

~Merc (brought to you way too early in the morning and without caffeine)

Snazel said...

In writing, there has to be at least some shadeing into grey for me, because I have to understand WHY the bad guys are doing this. Sometimes it's because they're heartless bastards who only want power, and sometimes it's because they were broken and only left with suicide or join up as the option. ^_^ I guess I haven't really been doing this long enough to make a full call on that, maybe I'll end up with black and white! But it seems that people usually have reasons, and those are not necessarily "I want to hurt people." Especially smart people, who make the best villains! :D

And currently I'm avoiding writing my "good" characters slaughtering their followers in an attempt to regain what was stolen. I should get on that. Ahem.
-Snazel, before the coffee has kicked in.

Inkblot said...

Merc - hmm, interesting analysis. In a way, it relates to the whole reason why I like fantasy: fairy tales take our fears and virtues and give them life, and we can see the fall out more directly. As archetypes, they're black and white; but as people, as how the 'evil' is chosen to be portrayed, they are grey: who decided wolves should be the epitome of evil? (for example)

Only they're not quite, really, even in that context; they're not a symbol of evil, but rather symbolic of what happens when you stray from your path (for example), so they're not being used as characters so much as personifications.

Hmm. This warrants further thought, methinks.

Snazel - Hope you got the scene done! :D *sends coffee* I think, pondering on what I wrote in response to Merc just above, that if we're to write as people then they must have shades of grey. People, after all, do. So good on you for motivating your villains and making your good guys do complicated things :D Sounds fantastic.

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