The Lucifer Effect

The Lucifer Effect

Before I start, I’d like to thank Nevillegirl and Gallifrey, who both nominated me for awards recently. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to pass it on (mainly because I don’t follow enough blogs that aren’t industry professionals to actually nominate anyone), but I appreciate it nonetheless.

This week, I watched a lecture on TED.com called ‘The Psychology Of Evil”, which discussed something called the Lucifer Effect, also known as ‘how good people turn evil’. Philip Zimbardo starts the lecture with this question:

“Why do people go wrong?”

And from purely a writer’s perspective, I found this fascinating.

You see, I think a lot about good and evil, and what could possibly motivate people to do awful things. It’s particularly been something I’ve been focusing on this week, while planning for NaNoWriMo: the climax of my book will probably involve a very selfish and unforgivable action from one of my main characters, which is from many perspectives necessary, but nevertheless may make it difficult for readers to like her. I don’t want her to become unsympathetic and I don’t want them to feel she’s no longer the ‘heroine’ of the story, but at the same time… it has to happen. So how can I justify her actions?

This good and evil discussion was intensified when I watched an episode of Torchwood with a friend. ‘Countrycide’ is about halfway through the first series of the show, and it’s actually quite disturbing. The whole way through the episode, they are convinced that the brutal, cannibalistic murders are carried out by something alien, and it turns out it was humans all along. Gwen demands to be allowed to question one of those involved, and when she does she asks him to tell her why. And he doesn’t understand why she needs to know.

She tells him, “Because I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, and this is the only thing I can’t understand.” She’s seen horrific things. She’ll see worse, over the course of the next few series… and some of them will be carried about by humans. But not yet. So far, she’s seen weevils and cybermen and ghosts. In the past, she could dismiss the evil she saw as ‘alien’. As ‘other’. But this? This was humans behaving abominably.

The answer he gives her is this: “Because it made me happy.”

The pure evil here is astounding. There’s no explanation, no childhood trauma or justified desire for revenge. This is pure, concentrated evil,  for the fun of it, and it was human. Not alien. Not other.

Zimbardo talks a lot about heroic imagination versus becoming a villain, and how it’s the situation that makes people a hero or a villain. If somebody chooses to speak out and save someone’s life, they’re a hero. If they do nothing, that’s passive evil. And if they join in, they’re the villain.

It’s funny, the mental image that comes to mind when we think of heroes. Some think of superheroes, and he criticises this, because it promotes the idea that you have to be ‘super’ and gifted to be a hero. I don’t entirely agree with this (several Marvel heroes are entirely self-made, like Iron Man: arguably, his only ‘superpower’ is his intelligence), but nevertheless superheroes are fictional and they are ‘other’.

I started to think about in terms of my writing. I don’t really have villains. I just have a bunch of people who want different things. In the Death and Fairies trilogy, it’s a safe bet that those who are ‘evil’ in book one are good in book two, and those who are ‘evil’ in book two are good in book three. Because I believe in redemption. Because I think just killing the bad guy is boring. Because it’s very hard to form an emotional attachment to a character who is totally unlikeable.

My favourite books are the ones where people are supposed to be either evil or good and they end up being the opposite.

In Good Omens, a boy called Adam is supposed to be the antichrist, but he doesn’t want the end of the world. He loves, rather than hates, because without interference from heaven and hell he grew up normal. He grew up human.

Also in Good Omens, there is an angel who is ‘just enough of a bastard to be worth liking’ and a demon who, deep down, has a ‘spark of goodness’ in him. They’re friends, you could say.

There are countless books where people are destined to be something or the other and they choose not to be. And usually, it’s that they choose not to be the villain, and instead become the hero.

Would we care about a character who was intended to be one of Heaven’s pawns and chose instead to disobey? Would we care about a character who was supposed to be a hero and ended up choosing the other path?

Probably not. Because evil repels us.

Yet it’s in everyone.

I don’t believe that anyone is born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I don’t believe that anyone is pure evil. Even the people who seem to subsist entirely on hatred and have never done anything nice in their life – I believe they have a spark of good in them. And those who are seemingly saintly have a little smudge of darkness inside them, too.

So when I write, I refuse to accept any of my antagonists as ‘evil’, or any of my protagonists as ‘good’. They’re just people, and they all want different things.

My fascination with the question of why some people choose to take an ‘evil’ path and why others do not, if put in the same situation, remains, and my search for answers will continue. For now, the most important thing is that everyone can be a hero.

Equally, everyone can be a villain. What matters are the choices.

What are your thoughts on Good vs Evil, in writing or in the real world? Do you believe that redeeming a fictional villain is as satisfying to a reader as killing them? Let me know!

You can find the lecture on ‘The Psychology Of Evil’ here.

20 thoughts on “The Lucifer Effect

  1. Ugh, I should stop reading your blog posts. I go to say something interesting at the end of it, but you’ve already said everything, or I agree with you and just end up sounding like a parrot.

    So I’ll just say I think that characters are more interesting if they’re not predestined to be “good” or “evil”. Playing with others’ perceptions of them as such is always good fun, though. That’s what I’m doing in my tide-me-over-to-NaNo project at the moment. My main character has a whole lot of nasty in the system, but their choice is to do what they believe is the right thing. Whether they’re right or not, in the grand scheme of things, is a different matter.

    Also, need to read Good Omens. Seriously. Bah.

    1. Do not stop reading my blog posts! That would make me sad :(
      Yes, you do need to read Good Omens, but alas it is some time until Christmas… I might send it early. Ehehe :D

      1. Haha, don’t worry, I spoke metaphorically. I won’t stop reading until I die, or some other form of celestial nastiness occurs ;)

        Ehehe, either way, I can’t wait!

      1. True, I might *makes mental note* Ah, I know so much about Zimbardo, et cetera, because his study was one of the ones I had to learn for Psychology last year. :P
        Say, what A-Levels are you doing?

          1. Ah, that makes up for my dislike of the French, xD. Now, whilst I wouldn’t warn against doing five, I’ll say that you must be able to juggle everything and be confident in all the disciplines (not that I doubt you are) in order to succeed.

          2. The Greek is a very casual, after school thing. It may end up being a GCSE.
            (I also do English Language which is an optional AS but I probably won’t do the exam.) Everyone at our school does four A-Levels and some do five AS Levels. :D

          3. Ah, I thought you meant as an A Level. That’s okay, then :) The GCSE is okay if you can remember the squiggly lines as vocab! I did part of the Odyssey for the Lit and then I got the story of Echo and Narcissus in my Language exam.
            There were two of us doing five ASs in my year. (The strange thing is that we were two out of three doing Physics, and the third was technically taking 4 1/2 ASs)

  2. Very true! Gah, what is this?! I can never think of anything intelligent to say besides, “Wow, I really like what you just wrote, Miriam!” Anyway, I love wondering what makes people evil. I love learning why villains and heroes made the choices that they did. The world is not black and white and I love books that know this.

    1. Thanks. I think a few people feel that way – despite a leap in stats, I’ve had very few comments on this post! Perhaps they are all intimidated … or perhaps they think I’m talking nonsense but are too polite to say so.

    2. Both Liam and I have noticed a drop in comments on our blogs, though. Hmmm. I suppose people are getting ready for NaNo…

      *coughs* Such as, I haven’t had many comments on my review of The Hobbit. ‘Tis sad.*shamelessly advertises her own blog* *needs another person to fangirl LotR with her*

      1. I haven’t been commenting on anyone’s blog much recently because I’ve been out of the house and therefore reading blog posts entirely on my phone, in my email subscriptions – it makes commenting a little tricky ;)

  3. I think that there is a point at which a villian can’t be saved… Forgiven, perhaps, but sometimes, there is no redempton. – Maybe I’m just jaded, who knows, but I couldn’t see Wholawski ever being redeemed. Sharon sure, but then again she’s on that path when Sarah encounters her.

    But on the other hand, he’s the only real villian I have so far. Just about eveything else is more like what you do, where the good guy could be the bad guy next or visa versa, just depending on whose perspective you are looking at it.

    Anyway my two cents in the spare moment I have to catch my breath and try to save my brain at work. :}

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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