Bad, but Not Too Bad

On Thursday I shared the middle chapter of my latest story. In it, our main character has discovered an object that will create for him anything that he imagines. He decides to entertain himself by creating two small creatures to fight to the death. This occurs, but rather than being fun, he finds himself horrified by its stark realism. It is all the more terrible because of his responsibility for the act. In this world, he has invented its first violence.

I wanted this moment to hit every reader as unquestionably wrong, but I also want them to see it as a mistake, not a sign that Jeret is the embodiment of pure evil. I try to bring about this perspective by immediately showing Jeret’s reaction of horror at what he has done. Perhaps he should have known better, but he did not. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely, but it does shift him from the malicious category into the foolish and unthinking.

The fact, also, that he did not perform the violence himself, is an important factor. Consider a similar case in A Christmas Carol. Here Ebenezer Scrooge turns down a request to donate to the poor, suggesting that these people should go to the poorhouses. He is rebuffed by the statement that many would rather die than go to those miserable grindhouses. His response?

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

It is a truly terrible thing to say, and Scrooge later regrets these words. But at the same time, it isn’t as though Scrooge performs an actual act of violence in the story. He never so much as slaps another individual, he only thinks and says hard things. In fact, the story makes firm the fact that Scrooge really doesn’t know what he’s talking about in this moment. He says, in reference to how deplorable the situations in the poorhouses are “Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.” By which he means he has not verified the conditions of these facilities.

And so Scrooge is guilty of not taking an active interest in his fellow man, and much like Jeret he later sees the reality of his ignorant words and comes to regret them. A Christmas Carol never tries to suggest that what Scrooge does isn’t wrong, indeed the whole crux of the story is that what he does is wrong, but it carefully walks a line to make sure it isn’t irredeemably so.

On the flip side, consider the characters Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan from the stage play and Hitchcock film Rope. The story opens with them murdering a fellow student, and then holding a social for mutual friends. Throughout the party, the story takes some steps to explain the boys reasoning for their crime, and also to show them in a multi-dimensional, relatable light.

But in the end, no audience member is going to get over the fact that these two have done unspeakable wrong, nor indeed does the story ever expect you to condone their actions. It isn’t trying to make murderers more palatable to us, it is trying to caution us that men can reason their way into being unreasonable monsters.

Thus far we’ve talked about how to help keep a character from doing something that is irredeemably wrong, but another consideration is what actions are unquestionably wrong. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge simply wouldn’t have the same emotional impact if we didn’t dislike him from the outset.

We can have a character that is a thief and a liar, but still beloved by the audience, such as Captain Jack Sparrow and Starlord. Though they perform behavior that we pretty universally consider wrong, we give them a pass for some reason.

We can also have a character that says they have done something wrong, but which the audience doesn’t condemn them for. Think of Tony at the end of West Side Story. He is given some misinformation that his beloved Maria has died. This makes him reckless, and ultimately leads to his being mortally wounded, just as he sees that Maria is actually alive. As he fades in her arms he sadly confesses that he “didn’t believe hard enough.”

In a story about how loss of faith in humanity literally kills us, Tony’s crime is enough to warrant death. But obviously we, as the audience, don’t hold his momentary weakness against him. He might be flawed, but we don’t consider his actions as morally wrong.

The thing in common with Jack Sparrow, Starlord, and Tony is that they are never seen harming the innocent. Indeed, this seems to be a very important line in establishing the morality of a character. And so if you want the audience to think of your character as bad, the surest way is to have them hurt another. Ebenezer Scrooge is wrong because he is carelessly consigning others to suffering, he is redeemable because that cruelty is kept within careful bounds.

I believe that virtually every reader will agree that my main character, Jeret, did something wrong in creating two creatures to fight to the death. In the end, a being suffered at his whim, and that is bad. The fact that it was an artificial being of his own making does not let him off the hook. Indeed it makes him even more culpable.

When I first wrote this segment, I actually played around with it to make sure it would hit as impactfully as I could manage. One of his two creations was going to die, and I found that it was sadder to have it be the first one. There was something special about it being the first, about having heard it built piece-by-piece, and discovering the little quirks in its nature. It made that first creation more interesting, and therefore more valuable to the reader. It was good, and thus it was very wrong to destroy it.

But at the same time, I believe Jeret can be redeemed. Because while he did wrong, he was ignorant of the extent of it, and he has shown true and immediate remorse directly afterwards. We’ll see where that remorse takes him in the next chapter, coming this Thursday. See you there!

Black and White

silhouette of grass under white sky
Photo by João Jesus on Pexels.com

On Thursday I wrote a story from the point of view of a plant, one that was being eaten by an animal. As one might expect, that animal was viewed in a very dim light. It was a destroyer, a killer, and therefore inherently evil. At the very end a part of that plant became autonomous and had a fantasy of growing bigger, more powerful, and then exacting vengeance on that animal.

But of course, had I written the story from the point of view of the animal, then it would have seen itself as doing no wrong. It ate some food, just as every creature does. It adhered to its basic nature. We people do just the same thing, so it would seem we shouldn’t be taking sides in nature.

Evil Things)

And yet we do. Certain animals and substance are considered inherently evil by us because they are known to do us harm. Snakes, bears, and poisons are bad. Bunnies, kittens, and vanilla are good. But from a more removed point of view, is there really anything more evil in a bear that eats people than in a kitten that eats mice?

It is our nature, and seemingly the nature of all creatures, to hate those that can cause it harm, and to love those that can benefit it. We can’t be blamed for having this instinct embedded in our DNA, it is essential to our basic survival. It is perfectly understandable for a person to say that they just don’t like large spiders.

But humans don’t stop at labeling animals and substances as evil, though. Some people are determined to be bad as well. As before, these tend to be people that by their very nature mean us harm. Whenever two nations are engaged in war, we always see both sides labeling one another as evil. This is understandable, even if misguided. The other nation is seen as a threat, capable of destroying you, so your self-preservation instincts kick in and you see them as subhuman.

But we don’t stop here either. Those that threaten us on an emotional or spiritual level are quickly labeled as well. If we hold something sacred or true, then it is genuinely painful for us to hear others disparage that thing. Why would that atheist say I’m wrong for believing in God? Or why would that Christian tell me that I’m a sinner? It can only be because they are evil.

Obviously somewhere along this spectrum we’ve crossed a line. Probably several lines, in fact. It is true that some things and people are bad for us and are worth avoiding, but that does not necessarily make them evil. The bear that wants to eat us is trying to preserve its own interests by doing something bad for us. Our boss that wants us to work through the weekend is trying to preserve her own interests by doing something bad for us. But these facts alone do not make them evil. And though we might be able to logically appreciate the invalidity of demonizing those we dislike, it is still a very difficult thing to stop doing.

Villains are Evil)

For this reason characters in a story are often portrayed as either “all-good” or “all-evil” as well. If a hero has flaws, they are minor and easily excused. If a villain has virtues, they are warped and twisted into something unnatural. It is unheard of for a story to finish by the hero convincing the villain of the error of his ways, and certainly not by coming to appreciate the villain’s point of view. The villain is fundamentally evil, after all, so rational reason would never be able to work on them.

Well, almost this is unheard of in a story.

Undertale was a game released in 2015 that on the surface might have appeared like any other RPG (role playing game). The world is quirky and humorous, but there are some definitely evil rogues that the player has to go and violently destroy. And if the player chooses to, they are allowed to play the game in exactly this way.

But there is also a “pacifist” version of the game where instead of destroying all those evil villains, you can instead befriend them, listen to their point of view, and finally help them to let go of their anger. They cease trying to destroy you, are no longer a threat, and thus are no longer perceived as evil.

When approached in this way the player wins by destroying the barriers between them and their enemies, rather than the persons themselves. One might assume that such a peaceful resolution might lack a necessary catharsis and make for a hollow ending, but actually the game was lauded by critics and consumers alike. But this isn’t to say that Undertale denies the existence of evil.

Is There Any Evil?)

While it is true that our society applies the label of evil too quickly, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist. Children see things in black-and-white, young adults start to see things as shades of gray, and then at full maturity one sees a dual nature: both black and white in the same being. Each of us have parts that are truly good and other parts that are truly evil.

In Undertale the villains are doing things that are truly evil, they knowingly hurt others for personal gain. But so do all of us, and still we know that there yet remains a goodness inside. The player is able to communicate to those parts of them that are good, and by so doing can bring an end to the evil behavior.

The reason that the classic story A Christmas Carol works is because Ebenezer Scrooge is truly a bad man, but one who also has a goodness inside. In the story’s opening pages we find it has been a long, long time since Scrooge has listened to that goodness, so long that he himself has forgotten that the part still exists. Over the course of the tale we travel back to witness the moments before he became a bitter old curmudgeon, a time where he was still divided between two natures. In that past Scrooge suffered a defeat to his worse nature, and then, like so many of us, assumed that the good part was dead and gone forever. This Christmas tale thankfully offers a more hopeful perspective in the end.

Evil Without, Evil Within)

Did you notice that we shifted from talking about evil in others to talking about evil within the self? As I said before, each of us have parts that are truly good and others that are truly evil. At different times, one or the other side will hold the reins of our behavior. So long as it is the more evil part that drives us, we will never be able to awaken the good in anyone else.

When the evil part of us that interacts with the evil parts of those around us, then we are in a state of war. When the evil part of one interacts with the good parts of others, then we are in a state of abuse. The only path to peace is for our good parts to find their way past the evil to touch the good in others.

In Les Miserables we meet a convict name Jean Valjean, and a prostitute named Fantine. Each of them is deeply ashamed of the things that they have done, each tends to view themselves as evil. However the two of them do not meet while both are at their lowest points. Indeed, if they did their interaction would most certainly have been destructive to each. Thankfully, Jean Valjean has the good part inside of him awakened and is redefined by it before he meets Fantine. In that moment he sidesteps the bitter-for-losing-her-employment part of her, he sees past the self-hatred-for-being-a-prostitute part of her, and instead he reaches the mother part at her core. In Fantine’s last moments she becomes good again by having had her goodness touched by the goodness of another. Jean Valjean is only able to do this because he once had his own goodness touched by another as well.

Hope in the End)

Undertale, A Christmas Carol, and Les Miserables all give a message of hope for humanity. Each of them allows that evil is real and that it is the enemy to our nature, but each of them also suggests that evil can be overcome. We must overcome the evil in ourselves, though, before we can help others to do the same.

With my next short story I would like to explore this idea of seeing the good in an individual that is initially despised. I will introduce a character whose behavior is good in his own eyes, but bad in another’s. At first each character will consider their own perspective as being the source of truth, but by the end we’ll see if we can get them seeing more broadly. Come back on Thursday to see how that turns out.