Oddly enough this is not yet another post about Amazon. You want to beat that dead horse, you go right ahead. You can haz beat horse without me.
This is a post on the nature of evil. Since I was accused (grin) of being a philosopher (okay, I did consider it as a degree but you know, weirdly, no one pays you to sit on the street corner and spin theories) you might think I’ve decided to embrace it, but no. This is still a writer’s blog and I’m still a writer, and this is on the nature of evil in fiction.
Someone commented on my post that most – or all, I think this person said (snort) – the evil in fiction these days is some sort of corporation against which the plucky heroine goes up, single handed.
I suppose that’s true… if the only thing you read is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo which was written by a man who willed all the profits to the communist party. (I KNOW you’re shocked. I am too, what can I say?)
I will confess there is a lot of stuff out there about evil corporations against which the plucky heroine fights. This is because until recently the submissions were all strained through gatekeepers who frankly had no more knowledge of what they were doing in business or what business was for than my cat does. Perhaps less, since my cat has no ulterior motives, besides getting tuna. These people were using their job for a massive corporation to reward those they agreed with, punish those who didn’t, redistribute money accordingly, and “educate” the reading public. Of course it never occurred to them publishing was a peculiar business at a peculiar point in time, where they could control both the distribution and (through it, because if you’re not on the shelves) the sales, and where accounting has always been at best loose, so that their playing of favorites and complete lack of regard for what the consumer wanted NEVER came back to bite them in the fleshy part of the back. And because this never occurred to them, corporations and those who worked for them MUST all work like they did in their publishing corporations, and therefore they made perfect and convincing villains to them.
Because the rest of us didn’t necessarily work for corporations and because most of us knew how business can and does bite when you behave that way, most of us found this less than convincing. (I remember being in a workshop with someone who submitted a story in which this man was running from corporate assassins. It was never explained WHY and the editor running the workshop saw nothing wrong with this. Both author and editor looked at me like I was a lunatic when I pointed out most corporations don’t have assassins – though I worked for one, long ago, who had corporate escorts of both genders. Don’t go there – and even if they did, they had to have some reason to spend money sending them after someone. In their minds corporation=evil, no explanation needed.)
In my case, I was bored with this by the mid nineties, and stopped reading SEVERAL mystery series once I figured out the solution to every crime was “business eeeeeevil” and “corporation eeeeevil.”
I’m not particularly fond of “government eeeevil” either, though of course I believe it is, or rather – it is an unaccountable power, which has to be limited to keep from being evil. But I’m not going to give you a pass, whatever my personal beliefs, if in the universe of your book someone is evil because they work for the government. The sweetest of my nephews is a government bureaucrat, and I really don’t see him becoming evil any time soon. Sarcastic, occasionally, but not evil.
The other thing I’m not fond of is what I call “Moustache Twirling Syndrome.” The villain is eeeeevil because he’s an eeeevil dude and does eeeeeevil things. He eats babies for breakfast and cooked his own grandmother for lunch. Why? Because he’s eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.
As a subset of this “he was good but is now eeeeeevil because he went mad” is … insane. And lazy. And a cop out. Also, I don’t think it ever happens, but I’ll get into that later.
Oh, and “he’s eeevil because society made him so” is dead. That dog won’t hunt. If you want to sell that book – other than to our blinkered gatekeepers, most of whom were last awake or off opiates back in the seventies – I suggest a time machine. Most of us have long since come to the conclusion that no matter how wretched your beginnings some people turn out more than all right. So if your character went to the bad, there’s more to it than that. I’m not saying his circumstances (duh) or moral upbringing aren’t to blame, but just “society made him bad” won’t cut it.
Ditto for the villains religious convictions; racial prejudices; or political beliefs. Even when something like that is evil in itself, evil is not usually that black and white (pardon the pun. Today is national pun day) and it doesn’t come that easily.
So… how does evil work? Don’t you need evil in your work?
Well… for the type of thing I write, you do need evil or injustice to be conquered. This is because I’m not satisfied with writing grey sludge in which, at the end, everyone is equally good or bad or … cheese! Lasers! Whatever!
I suggest you study theological writings or the works of older philosophers (all the way to Greece) on the nature of morality and evil, and how evil arises. Or… read history, particularly the wretched, wretched history of the twentieth century.
If you’re not willing to do that work, I’ll give you the short version: there are two things from which most of the really great evil of humanity arises. One of them is the desire to do good. The other is the desire to fit in.
But… but… but… greed! Doesn’t evil come from greed? Don’t people want to achieve lots of power, steal tons of money and then roll in it, like Uncle Scrooge? Well… Uh. I wouldn’t object to that except for the rolling in, because ew, who knows where that money has been.
The thing is, mostly greed is not an end itself. Wanting to have a lot of money is not usually brought on because you really like paper and metal, or you want to look at it. It’s also not brought on because you want to take all the money and make everyone else have none (this idea, anyway, is based on the finite pie idea of economics, which, like most of what Marx ever wrote, is a crock) or even because you want to have all the luxuries. Oh, sure, the luxuries are nice, but most of us have an upper limit to what we’re willing to do for them. Will one or two people really kill for a slightly better grade of sheets? Possibly. But it’s not something most of us can empathize with, and therefore not something that translates well to fiction.
Greed is usually a means to power. I.e., have a lot of money or stuff = have a lot of power. And whether this is true or not, most people who crave power over others tell themselves they’re doing it for the good of others.
So it comes back to that: the desire to do good and the desire to fit in. Most of the editors, for instance, who perverted the writing field beyond all market-forces reason were doing so for “good” motives: i.e. to “educate” the public or (gag) to “raise public consciousness.” Occasionally, a few, might have been doing it to fit in with the other editors (and a few writers) in the cool kids club. But most of them were doing it for the absolute “good.”
But… you say, sitting there… Don’t most people do things for those two reasons? Well, of course. Apes – not just humans – are inherently moral (in the sense they’re prejudiced FOR fair play – ask Dave Freer) and inherently social, so these are basic drives of ours.
The difference – and if you read Romeo and Juliet this will make sense – is a matter of degree. Evil usually comes from the desire to do good, coupled with a lack of perspective about the limitations of reality, coupled with something in you that pulls out all the stops – the type of drive that turned inward could make you a saint, but turned outward…
Say you love birds. You really, really love birds. You have nursed countless birds to health. You give all your money to bird foundations. How is this bad?
Well, for one, if you’re giving your entire salary to bird charities, who is supporting you? Do you see how you’ve become a burden on the family and friends who look after you?
But, you say, that’s not an evil. Uh… Think about the stuff they could do for themselves. Think about how much harder they have to work so they can support themselves and you. Then think again.
Okay, okay, you say. You can see how this would make you a sort of minor domestic evil, and perhaps a good candidate to become a murder victim, but…
But suppose you’re the same bird-loving schmuck, walking around in a wheeze of feathers, spending all your money on seed, but you inherit a company from your uncle Gander. No, let’s say it’s a controlling interest in a corporation. You find out what this corporation makes are bird feeders. And you work with engineers, make your bird feeders the best money can create. Only one problem. You’re selling them too expensively and they don’t move. So you discount them to undercut all the other guys (!) and… go under, taking with your company the jobs of thousands of employees and all the savings of your trustees. Or you – since this is fictional – deploy corporate spies to figure out how the other companies build bird houses so cheeply. Or you – sabotage the other guys’ factories, so your superior, better-for-birds birdhouses will sell. (If you use corporate assassins, though, unless your company is set in Russia or China, we can’t be friends any more.)
Now, suppose you’re the same bird-loving schmuck, but instead of inheriting a controlling interest in a corporation, your third cousin twice removed, Rudolph, is the ruler of the small and isolated country of Upthere, in the mountains of Europe. He dies, and you’re next in line. All of a sudden, you are in charge of a kingdom with a couple million subjects, an industry consisting of painted clogs, and a standing army of a couple hundred thousand (bear with me.)
You immediately, on your first day in office, write laws forbidding the killing or exploiting of any birds, in the fastness of your kingdom. It takes some weeks before you realize that many people in fact lived from the chickens in their backyard, and because chickens are birds, people are starving. Worse, the paint used to paint the clogs is made from eggs and because getting eggs is “exploiting” the birds, clogs can no longer be painted.
At this point, you can, of course, back off. But the thing is, if you back off you’re sure that people will start shooting innocent sparrows. So you double down. You make it impossible to use even old feathers… When people disobey, you arrest them. Soon your persecution against the Bird-Exploiters is in full sway, and you’re censuring books that talk about making pillows out of feathers. And then you find yourself in a very short time ruling over a starving nation, where people can’t help but obey you because you have the army and it’s too difficult to move (borders can be closed, besides most people for some reason don’t like to move away from what they know.)
Okay, the above examples might be influenced by the fact that I think while any group of humans is suspect, to really screw up things you need a government – otoh, keep in mind governments DO have armies, and often also assassins, and also that while it’s unlikely anyone would want to distort all of a kingdom in the name of birds, people have done it for crazier, less concrete reasons: in the name of equality and fraternity, for instance, of which no one has seen hide or hair.
But – but – if you must make a government the villain, keep in mind that it’s easier to do evil when you’re trying to do good and also that – WWII notwithstanding (or even the cold war) – not all evil comes with spiffy uniforms and goosetepping. It’s easy enough to do evil with a writing implement and an official order.
This is not to say your evil people shouldn’t be truly evil. There’s nothing as scary as those who think they’re doing good. What I mean is that they can’t simply be evil because they work for a corporation; or because they are in government; or even because they live on the street and wee on themselves. You MUST create believable villains – at least you must if you don’t want me rolling my eyes at you – and that demands they get where they are rationally.
People who want to see the world burn exist, but there aren’t many of them – and most of them aren’t rational enough to PASS anyway. (Except perhaps natural psychopaths, but that’s a complex and still being researched subject.) – but most of us – yes, you TOO – can be led to extreme evil by our desire to do extreme good. And that makes a very satisfying villain.
Oh, yeah, I’m running an interactive workshop over at Mad Genius Club for the next five (maybe seven) weekends. Come on down and join the fun.