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.