When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, audiences were almost immediately exposed to the imposing figure of Darth Vader. The film has its famous title crawl, a scene of a small space vessel being chased by a massive capital ship, a scene of battle as the stormtroopers kill the royal guards…and then boom! The main villain of the entire trilogy walks right onto the scene, just four minutes into the series!
Meanwhile the story’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t show up until much alter. We have multiple scenes around the aftermath of the starship battle, of two droids escaping to a desert planet and being captured by junk traders, and finally Luke appears when the droids are brought to the farm where he lives.
By introducing us first to the size of the Star Destroyer, the cold efficiency of the stormtroopers, and the immense strength of Darth Vader, we are immediately impressed by how small and insignificant Luke Skywalker is in this world. We are able to hold both him and Darth Vader in hand and compare them directly.
There are many other stories that also begin by showing their villain and his power right off the bat, but there are also many that keep their villain in the shadows until much later.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, we open on a stranger coming to visit Holmes and Watson at 221b Baker Street, bringing news of a strange and mysterious case. The man relates how one Charles Baskerville died of a heart attack with an expression of intense horror upon his face. There were footprints nearby, those of a gigantic canine, which has reminded the locals of an old legend, which states that a massive and demonic hound will forever menace and kill the members of the Baskerville family.
Holmes is, of course, dismissive of that legend, but curious enough about the case to get to the bottom of it. So right at the start the audience has this idea put in their mind of a massive hound, but we do not actually see the thing right away like we did with Darth Vader.
In fact, all throughout the story we keep hearing about the legend of this fearsome beast, we even hear the cries of some dog out upon the moor, but never do we get a glimpse of the thing, and are left wondering whether the legends are true or not.
This approach is excellent for building up suspense, but sooner or later there has to be a moment of reckoning. A story that has strung the audience along like this must be able to provide a satisfying resolution to that anticipation. Fortunately, in the book’s climatic chapter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle provides a most excellent answer to all that expectation.
The cloud was within fifty yards of where we lay, and we glared at it, all three, uncertain what horror was about to break from the heart of it....A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog. With long bounds the huge black creature was leaping down the track, following hard upon the footsteps of our friend.
The beast is real and it is terrifying! It leaps upon their client, Henry Baskerville, and is about to mangle him, when Holmes fires five rounds from his revolver, slaying the beast. The spectral demon is dead.
But as it turns out, the truth of the dog’s origins lay halfway between the old family legend and Sherlock’s initial skepticism. There was never an actual demon hound, but a local murderer leaned into the legend by starving a massive canine so that it would kill any passerby, and painted it with phosphorous to create an even more fearsome appearance in the dark of night.
So on the one hand the great enemy can be introduced right at the story’s outset, and used to illustrate just how much of an uphill battle the hero will face to win the day. On the other hand the enemy can be kept as a phantom, teasing us from the shadows until they finally emerge in the climatic finale.
In both approaches the quality of the revelation still matters. We doubt Luke’s chances only because we have been impressed by the strength of Darth Vader’s introduction, and we despair for Henry Baskerville only because we have been impressed by the emergence of the fearful hound. Of course it is the latter approach, that of revealing the great evil towards the end of the story, that has the greater weight to bear. If a villain is insufficiently imposing at the outset of a story we will feel disappointed, but if we are let down at the very end we will also feel cheated.
When I began work on The Salt Worms I had to decide whether the titular creatures would make repeated appearances throughout, being a constant menace to my protagonist, or whether they would only be spoken of secondhand, saving for a dramatic reveal until the very end.
Ultimately I decided to go with the latter, even though it put a greater burden on me to reveal it in a satisfying and epic way. With my last chapters we finally saw that reveal, and I spent some time trying to make it sudden, powerful, and different from what the audience would be expecting.
Whether I succeeded in my ambition is ultimately up to you readers to decide, but I am glad to have had the exercise. Of course we haven’t seen the last of the massive worm, though. It will appear again at the very end for the last time, and hopefully that will be a memorable resolution,
Who is the one, great source of opposition in The Lord of the Rings? Of course the answer is Sauron. It is his will that compels every other foe that the heroes face up against, he is the one pulling of all the strings, his is the one life force that absolutely must be destroyed.
However…as a literary character Sauron has almost no presence whatsoever! He is more of a disembodied force, an idea, impersonal and vague. Yes, he is evil, but he isn’t a foe that the heroes can actually cross swords with.
And that is why The Lord of the Rings also has characters like Saruman, the Witch King of Angmar, and Gollum. These are villains with bodies and voices, villains who are able to compete over the same physical space as our heroes, villains who have to be dealt with as individuals. Boromir might not be the main villain of the story, but when Sauron bends his mind to try and take the ring from Frodo, that physical attack suddenly makes Sauron seem less like a vague concept and more like an active presence in the world. Thus, to be victorious, our heroes must not only overcome their more base natures, but also slay a few orcs along the way!
This same situation of a disembodied evil can be found in the first half of the Harry Potter franchise. Lord Voldemort is unquestionably the main villain of the series, but until the end of the fourth book he only exists as an intangible soul. Like in The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series remains visceral by then adding more corporeal henchmen to stand in for Lord Voldemort, flesh and blood enemies that the heroes must face up against. Professor Quirrell, Wormtail, Barty Crouch, Fluffy…all of these characters stand in as bodies that the audience can hate and fear until Lord Voldemort finally gets one of his own.
The Theoretical Made Real)
You can see this same notion in the final soliloquy of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. This John Steinbeck novel follows a family during the Great Depression, as they migrate to California in the hope of finding work. Instead they find one disappointment after another, several of their number die along the way, and they are made to witness all manner of extortion and corporate abuse.
Eventually this all leads to Tom Joad killing a man, and he knows he has got to make a run for it, as much for his benefit as for his family’s. His mother wonders how she will know where he has gone and what has become of him, but he replies that it doesn’t matter.
I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there....I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.
Tom is talking philosophically. He is seeing himself as being a part of humanity’s all-encompassing soul, which is necessarily a vague and impersonal thing. But then look at how he goes about describing it. He sees it in the corporeal, physical moments of hungry people fighting, a man being oppressed by the police, angry people shouting, and so on. To be sure, an idea is a real thing, but Tom needs to personify it in order to feel and express its realness.
Own Worst Enemy)
This same phenomenon is at play in the noir film Double Indemnity. In this movie Walter Neff is an unassuming insurance salesman, who then begins assuming far too much when Phyllis Dietrichson seduces him and convinces him to murder her husband! The idea is that he will be able to set up a double indemnity clause in Mister Dietrichson’s account, allowing for a large insurance payout when he dies.
But what seems to be a foolproof plan begins to unravel as the murdered man’s “accidental death” falls under suspicion of murder. Further complicating things is the fact that Phyllis is untrustworthy and unpredictable, likely to blow her cover when Neff very much needs her to keep a cool head.
So, what is the villain in this story? Lust and greed, of course. These are the vices that drive every bad thing that happens and leads to the story’s tragic ending. But of course, Walter and Phyllis are the villains as well. They are the ones who hold the vices, and so they stand in proxy of them, directly incurring the ire of the audience. Lust and greed might be their downfall, but also they are their own worst enemies.
My Story’s Villain)
Without characters like Boromir and corrupt cops and Phyllis Dietrickson, these classic tales would have felt philosophical only. They would have been like Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is more of a thought experiment on the nature of good and evil than an actual story. But by having the idea of evil fronted by a person of evil, each of these stories is both philosophical and literal at the same time.
In The Salt Worms I have also had a couple nebulous forces lurking in the background. For starters, giant worms are behind the story’s destruction, but we have not yet directly interacted with any of these, much like with Sauron and Lord Voldemort. My story also features a humanity that is competing with itself to survive, much as in The Grapes of Wrath.
I needed to make these unseen enemies manifest themselves physically, though, so I’ve introduced a physical antagonist in the form of Ranger Everett. This man takes all of the various forces that have tried to prevent Nathan in his quest and distills them into a clear and physical adversary, much like Boromir and the Death Eaters. He isn’t intended to obscure the deeper forces of opposition that Nathan faces, but rather to bring them into sharper focus.
I also made Nathan Prewitt something of an enemy to himself, similar to Walter Neff. Virtually all of the affliction that Nathan faces in this story is a result of his stubborn disregard for the needs of others, and his attempts to override them with his own intentions.
And I will continue to introduce new characters to keep Nathan’s struggle fresh, all the way until he comes face-to-face with the greater evils of giant worms and broken philosophies. Because, after all, that is the entire purpose of the smaller antagonists in these stories. They are there simply to keep driving the hero forward, pushing them on until they can finally face the larger, existential threats waiting at the climax of the story.
The 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion was a bit of a surprise to its audiences. Its main star, Cary Grant, was known for always playing a heroic or romantic lead, but the advertisements for the picture suggested that this might be his very first turn as a villain!
And though the film begins with Cary Grant’s character, Johnnie Aysgarth, being presented as a humorous, playful bachelor, there is also a sense of insincerity and foolishness about him. For example consider the very first scene, where he is called out for being in a first class train compartment with a third class ticket. He tries to laugh his way out of the situation, but eventually has to bum some extra change off of the lady he is sharing the compartment with. That may not seem like much of a concern at first, but awkward flubs with money become a defining characteristic of the man. After he wins the heart and hand of Lina McLaidlaw, she discovers that he has absolutely no money to his name, and is hoping to siphon money out of her rich parents instead!
But more surprising than Cary Grant playing such a shifty character is how natural a fit he is in the role! At this point Cary Grant had established a career defined by charisma, suaveness, and humor. In this film, though, he is outright immature and selfish, and he plays it very well, spending half the time with a stupid grin while everyone else is trying to have a serious conversation with him.
Worse than a freeloader, though, Lina starts to believe that her husband might actually be dangerous. As the burden of his debts continue to grow, he starts exhibiting some darker behaviors, which get her wondering if he wouldn’t kill her for the insurance money! Most concerning is a scene where he speaks with Lina’s friend, a murder mystery novelist, about whether there are any untraceable poisons.
The whole thing escalates to the climatic scene where the husband and wife are driving along a cliffside road. Lina’s door falls open and Johnnie reaches over. Lina recoils in horror, believing that he is trying to push her out. He sees this and breaks down in anger, asking if she is so repulsed by him that she would lunge away, even when all he is trying to do is pull her back to safety?
At last the truth comes out, about how he has been so ashamed of himself, so miserable that he has dragged not only himself, but also his wife, into financial ruin that he has been considering suicide. Yes, he has been a flawed and dishonest man, but he is not the remorseless killer that the advertisements would have had us believe. The couple drive for home together, resolved to face their challenges together.
Interestingly, Cary Grant would revisit the suspicious lead two decades later in 1963 with Charade. This was one of his very last films, and up to this point he still had never played a villain. Would this be his one take at being the bad guy?
This film opens with Regina “Reggie” Lampert discovering that her estranged husband, Charles, was murdered while on a train from Paris. This opens up a series of revelations to her, culminating with her learning that Charles was actually a spy, and that he had in his possession a considerable amount of wealth which several governments and his former colleagues have been trying to reclaim.
Coincidentally, Reggie makes a new acquaintance right before she hears of her husband’s death. Peter Joshua, played by Cary Grant, seems totally disconnected from the drama surrounding Reggie’s dead husband, but he soon becomes embroiled in her efforts to deter Charles’ former colleagues, who now suspect her of knowing where the missing money is.
Reggie is growing more and more emotionally attached to Joshua, her only friend in a quickly-shifting world. But then a great emotional blow comes when one of Charles’ former colleagues tells Reggie that Peter isn’t the man he is pretending to be. Joshua is trying to get the money from her, just the same as the rest of them.
Reggie confronts Peter and he admits that he lied about his identity. He now tells her his “true” identity: Alexander Dyle, whose brother had died on a former mission with Charles. But later in the movie that identity will be revealed to be a lie as well. Reggie had been falling in love with Peter/Alexander/whoever he is, but now she wonders if he won’t betray her as soon as it serves his interest to do so.
Everything culminates in a shootout between Cary Grant’s character and another man who may or may not be the actual murderer of Charles Lampert, the man who was presumed to have died in that former mission. Reggie is caught in between the two men, unsure of whom she should trust. Finally she follows her heart, joins sides with Cary Grant’s character, and this proves to be the correct choice. Together the two of them manage to overcome the would-be assassin, who was the last surviving agent who had intended Reggie any harm.
And then, in the film’s final scene, it is revealed that Cary Grant was a US government agent all along, who had been working undercover to solve this whole case. So once again Cary Grant’s halo remains intact, even if it came dangerously close to falling off!
The Pleasure of Being Unsure)
Of course, it is very unusual for the audience to not know whether a lead character is the hero or villain of the story. Virtually every story establishes these roles right from the beginning, making it clear who exactly you should be rooting for and who you should hate. Some stories might reveal a surprise betrayal later on, but typically those come from supporting characters, not the main protagonist.
Both Suspicion and Charade are unique in making the audience spend the entire film with a lead character that they still don’t know the loyalties of. Both of these films must walk the razor-thin line of giving their female leads more and more reasons to distrust Grant’s character, but not so much as to actually abandon him altogether. The tension can only continue if they stay both near to and fearful of him at the same time. It is truly remarkable how each of them manage to pull this off so well.
In my own story I introduced a main character that audiences will immediately assume is the hero. He is at the end of a great quest, has come to rid the land of a great monster, and will free the community that is living under its terror. He is like Saint George come to kill the dragon, clearly a heroic character.
But as the story goes along, the more suspect Nathan becomes. Bit-by-bit we have learned that he lies, that he steals, and most recently that he even kills! The three core qualities of a story villain.
My hope is that the audience will be conflicted and intrigued, wanting to finally get to the bottom of who this guy actually is. But unlike Cary Grant’s characters, the answer won’t be so black and white.
The final act of a story is where the hero has been truly converted to their guiding philosophy, and now they will trust in it to overcome the villain’s philosophy. Consider Disney’s animated film The Lion King. Simba has tried to run away because he feels responsible for his father’s death. But though he hides for a time, his royal calling comes back to him. He is convinced that he must take up his rightful place at the head of the pack. Thus he heads out to confront the villain of the story: Scar. At this moment Scar needs to be defeated. He needs to die so that Simba’s arc can reach its full closure.
But now the story comes to a snag: this is a Disney film, one that is targeted towards families and children. The idea of the main character killing anyone, even a cold-blooded murderer, is unacceptable. Simba has to show that he is better than Scar, has to show that he is capable of killing him…but then he needs to stop just short of actually doing it.
So what happens instead? Scar and Simba fight, Simba gains the upper hand, Scar asks if Simba is going to kill him and Simba says no, Simba tells Scar to leave the kingdom instead.
But rather than fade into obscurity, Scar throws some burning embers into Simba’s eyes and lunges at him once more! In self defense Simba kicks Scar off of the rock and down to a pack of hyenas. Unlike Simba, the hyenas do not have any halo to preserve and they are able to kill Scar without any moral scruples. Thus Simba proved his superiority over Scar and he maintained his honor by offering Scar a way out, but then Scar became a victim of his own malice.
And this is hardly a unique concept. Many animated Disney films make use of similar conveniences to get rid of their villain while preserving the hero’s innocence.
Consider Beauty and the Beast. Just like Scar, the villain Gaston tries to kill our hero: the Beast. Just like Simba, the Beast overpowers Gaston, but orders him to leave, rather than deal the killing blow. Just like Scar, Gaston isn’t willing to leave well enough alone. He later sneaks up behind the Beast and literally stabs him the back. The Beast cries in pain and flings his arm back as a natural reflex. The movement dislodges Gaston, causing him to fall all the way to his death. The Beast won in a fair fight, Gaston caused his own demise, and the Beast’s innocence is preserved.
Personally, when I watched these films as a child I wouldn’t have had any concerns about the good guy dealing a fuller measure of justice to the villain, but I guess the Disney executives didn’t want to chance it. Other studios have had to deal with the same issue, though, and some of them have found different solutions to it.
Shooting in the Back)
For example, take a look at the Old Western. The cowboy or lawman has to be able to outgun any bandit along their way and has to show off that expertise many times over. But we can’t exactly turn them into a ruthless murderer, now can we? What we can do, though, is have a lot of lethal self defense! So long as the baddies start the duel, it is okay for the hero to finish it.
And so it is that these films are full of scenes where the hero tries to bring a peaceful resolution to a volatile moment, but then the villain reaches for their gun as soon as the hero’s back is turned. Someone calls out a warning or the hero hears their movement, then spins on the spot and guns down the would-be killer.
This same idea of lethal self defense has been carried into many other films since, and remains one of the most popular ways to both showcase the hero’s prowess while retaining their integrity. And this approach has the added benefit of making the hero’s prowess shine all the brighter! Evidently they are so confident in their abilities that they can give every bandit a head-start and still finish first.
Consider the classic western High Noon. Here the sheriff is made aware that his old rival has been released from jail, and has arrived in town with three of his cronies. Now everyone knows that the four of them are here for the express purpose of killing the sheriff, but he can’t exactly arrest them (or gun them down) until they’ve actually done anything wrong.
So he sneaks up behind them and calls out their names. He won’t shoot them in the back of course, but he watches for them to wheel around and try to shoot him. Once they do, he outdraws them, taking out one of the bandits right off the bat.
There’s also the example of The Magnificent Seven, where Britt is egged into showing his speed with a knife. He throws his blade at a target at the same time as a blowhard shoots at his own. Britt claims to have won the race, but the other man disagrees and suggests they have a duel to prove it. The rowdy man even shoots at Britt’s feet and threatens to kill him right then and there if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. At this point Britt can’t be held accountable for what follows. It’s either his life or the other man’s.
This time there’s no disputation. Britt wins and the other man falls dead. Lethal self defense.
Of course not everything has to be a matter of life or death. In the last chapter of my story I had my protagonists forced into a promise with a villain that they needed to get out of. But I can’t have them just renege on their agreement because that would make them dishonorable. Thus it was the villain that had to break his contract first, freeing the children to let go of their end as well.
Most stories have a villain, which is a character who embodies the opposition to the protagonist. The protagonist must overcome this opposition, which means the villain must be destroyed, in most stories violently so. As such, the villain needs to be painted in a very negative light. So negative that the audience won’t have any qualms about them meeting an untimely end.
And such a common problem has a very common solution: make the villain do something so reprehensible that everyone will deem them unfit to live. The most obvious choice is to have them kill someone else early on, an innocent bystander who doesn’t deserve to die and who therefore must be avenged. Perhaps the bystander makes a small mistake and incurs the villain’s disproportionate wrath, or maybe the villain just kills them for the fun of it. Once that happens no more arguments have to be made. The audience hates the villain and will cheer their downfall!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all because this is the six-hundredth time they’ve seen this sort of scene play out. Every year there comes a deluge of films, television series, and novels that overuse this formula until it has lost any meaning whatsoever. Each of these scenes come and go like all the rest and we just can’t feel anything about them anymore.
Let’s Make a Good Guy)
Of course things are hardly any better in the hero department. Want to make the main character likable? How about we see them do an act of charity to someone pitiable? Perhaps share a loaf of bread with a beggar, or cheer up a crying child, or help an animal that is hurt. There, now the audience knows that our protagonist’s heart is true and they love them for it!
Well…unless the audience feels absolutely nothing at all. It just gets so hard for us to assign any feelings to a hero like this because they feel exactly like what they are: a contrived formula, not an actual person.
But what’s interesting is that each of these clichés usually have their root in a story that was actually impactful once upon a time. Take the example of the hero helping an animal that is hurt. Perhaps the earliest instance of this is in the tale of Androcles, where a runaway slave takes refuge in the den of a fearsome lion! The lion is in no condition to chase Androcles, though, it is suffering from a large thorn stuck in its paw! Androcles takes the thorn out and the lion is intelligent enough to feel immense gratitude for it. The two become fast friends, which friendship eventually leads them to a life of freedom.
Once upon a time that was a moving tale. But it’s been stolen from so many times that it becomes formulaic and incapable of eliciting emotion. Ironically, by the time someone first hears the story of Androcles today they will likely have heard so many other rip-offs that they won’t be able to appreciate the weight this original used to carry.
Shortcuts in Communication)
The main culprit in all this derivative work is good, old human efficiency. We are a species that ever endeavor to optimize and simplify. And while this is an excellent practice in many cases, it neuters the emotions behind any humanizing experience.
Consider the example of how we strive to communicate ourselves in more and more succinct terms. I must say, I find it very amusing how older generations will decry the vowel-missing lingo of modern text messaging, utterly failing to realize that this is only the natural progression of a trend that they themselves pushed forward. Far before the advent of cellphones prior generations were already greatly abbreviating our style of communication. First formalities were dropped, then grammatically complete sentences, and now vowels. Is that really so surprising?
Obviously increased efficiency is desirable in many walks of life and even in communication it has its uses. Knowing the right combination of gesture and tone can allow us to convey a complex meaning in a fraction of a second. But It can be taken too far and render the whole experience redundant.
Brian Christian makes note of this fact in his book The Most Human Human. Here he points out that we now have entire conversations that are nothing but short clichés in which no actual substance is ever communicated.
“Hey, good morning.”
“Good morning. How are you?”
“Doing well. And you and your family?”
“All doing well, thanks for asking.”
“Nice weather, today, isn’t?”
“Yes it is. Oh, you know what, I’m afraid I’ve got to run!”
“Oh, me too. We should catch up later.”
“Definitely. Well, see ya!”
There is literally nothing communicated in exchanges such as these. The entire give and take is performed on pure autopilot. Half the time we’ve already got our default response loaded in before we even hear the what the other person says to the last robotic statement we made.
Stories Should Say Something)
And I’ve read and watched entire stories that were exactly the same way. A synopsis of these tales could very accurately be given as “it begins, the usual stuff happens, and then it ends about how’d you expect.”
To be fair, I get it. Originality is hard. I myself feel the temptation to take a trusty cliché rather than invent a new way to express what I want in a story. I ran into this exact problem during the last section of The Favored Son. Here I wanted to show that a leader was really a tyrant, and I kept slipping into the tired, old routine of him losing his temper at some innocent peasant and brutalizing them.
Fortunately I fought down that temptation. I stuck with it until I felt I had something a little more original to say. This more original scene was also far more complex. In it I introduce a group of slaves who are dragging a massive stone behind the tyrant, for a reason that is never explained. It is clear that they are a broken people, though, paying a penance of some sort. Then the members of a resistance ride onto the scene and urge a few of the slaves to escape with them! One of them does, to which the other slaves seem quite distressed. The reason for this is made clear when the royal guards chase off the resistance riders and the tyrant makes the remaining slaves atone for their missing fellow by slaying one of them.
The final outcome of this scene was the same as the cliché: the tyrant kills an innocent waif. But the path to this was far more intricate and involved. One gets a sense of political struggles, of victims being manipulated by competing powers. It is different, it is original, it took effort, and it is therefore far more likely to make an impression.
I will endeavor to keep fighting down the pull towards cliché, and instead imbue my stories with something more thoughtful. Come back on Thursday when I post the next section of my story and pay special attention to how I incorporate original ideas instead of settling for something more trite.
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!
But a terrible fear was starting to rise inside of the drummer. What if he couldn’t catch up? What if he couldn’t find her? Did such questions even matter? He had to, he must. For her to be lost was just…just unthinkable.
He hadn’t liked that droopy bear. Not from the moment they had met him. They should have just hurried by him without so much as a “good day.” What had the drummer been thinking speaking to such a toy? He wouldn’t be making any mistakes like that again. From now on it was just him and the dancer, no one else.
“Good evening there, chap,” a sly voice called from the side. It was a jack-in-the-box, popped out to welcome newcomers. “First time at our fun, little wayside?”
“No thank you,” the drummer said sternly, but even as he said it he felt bad for being rude to a toy that might not deserve it. “I’m sorry,” he turned to face the affronted jack. “I’m just in a hurry.”
“Well what are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”
“Did you see a bear run past this way? With a dancer on his shoulder? It wouldn’t have been more than a moment a go.”
“Oh yes, that bear!” the jack-in-the-box nodded enthusiastically, even before the drummer had concluded speaking. “Yes of course I saw him. Friend of yours? He came here, signed in, and went between those two buildings right there. Probably on his way to the motel on the other side.”
The drummer turned to look down the alleyway that the jack-in-the-box was pointing towards. It was a narrow crevice between two of the leaning buildings, completely covered in dark shadows.
“Through there?” the drummer asked fearfully.
“Yes, through it towards the motel.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The jack-in-the-box folded his arms indignantly. “You ask me where to find them, I say that’s the where they went. So don’t go if you don’t believe me, what do I care?”
Something felt wrong to the drummer, but the jack-in-the-box seemed so certain. The drummer couldn’t really afford to pass up such a good lead, especially when he couldn’t even explain to himself why it was he felt so hesitant. So he took a deep breath and charged forward.
“Wait, you have to sign the registry!” the jack-in-the-box called after him, but the drummer didn’t stop. Soon he had passed into the shadow between the buildings.
What few windows lined this alleyway had been smashed in, with bits of broken glass littered about and crunching under the drummer’s feet. The rooms beyond had been stripped of all their furniture, and the wallpapers were heavily stained by dirt and grease. The only light was the occasional prism of orange streaming through the broken windows on the right, beyond which the sun was slowly setting.
As the drummer pushed on through the darkness he became aware of some voices just ahead of him. They were low and muttering, speaking in quick, hurried breaths.
“H-hello?” he called out, and all at once the voices fell silent. “Oh don’t go away,” he pleaded. “I need some help, please.”
“Oh…he needs some help,” one of the voices said silkily. “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning, stranger?”
Out of the shadows a tall, wooden doll emerged. Its original unvarnished surface had been covered all over by a wide array of rainbow colors. Behind it followed two weeble wobble brothers.
“Helping people is our favorite thing to do,” the wooden doll grinned. “The jack-in-the-box sent you?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He always sends toys here for us to help them.”
“Oh, well actually he sent me here to find someone I’m looking for.”
“Yes, that’s often what we help people with. To find someone. The person you’re looking for is right this way. Follow me.”
“But…you don’t even know who I’m looking for!” That strange discomfort was returning to the drummer and he started to take a few steps back. He thought that maybe he shouldn’t have come this way at all. He wasn’t sure why he felt so wrong, but maybe it didn’t matter if he didn’t know the reasons why. Somehow he knew he just ought to listen to that feeling.
“But I do know,” the doll said. “And I hate to tell you this, but she looked like she had been hurt.”
“Yes, she didn’t look good at all. She needed a lot of help. I think she was calling for you.”
“The dancer was?”
“Yes,” the doll nodded solemnly. “It was her.”
The hesitations left the drummer immediately, replaced with a fresh panic.
“Where is she? Take me to her!”
“Of course, though I think we’re going to need some money to reach her. Might need to bribe a guard or two, you understand me?”
“Yes. Have you got any?”
“I–no. I don’t even know what that is.”
“Oh…so it’s like that. Well no worry. Maybe someone left you some money. Let’s go and see.”
The doll put his arm around the drummer and steered him towards the end of the alley and down another path.
“Well I’m not sure who would have done that,” the drummer was saying, still a bit confused.
“One never knows,” one of the weeble wobbles said from the drummer’s elbow.
“But it wouldn’t hurt to check, of course,” the other said from the opposite side.
“No…I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. But maybe we should go and find her first. We’ve got to get her back, whether with money or not!”
“Of course, of course,” the doll soothed. “Trust me, I know just what to do.”
They had made a few turns down crooked streets and were now approaching a large, iron factory. It was grimy and smelled of soot and didn’t seem like a particularly nice place to be at all. At the front of it was a heavy door, and beside it a receptionist seated behind a glass window.
“Hello there, Orr,” the doll said to the receptionist, who was a piggy bank.
“Duth,” the pig droned lazily.
“I’ve brought you a new worker, he’ll do excellently on your team.”
Orr grunted and leaned forward, squinting appraisingly at the drummer. “Well he’s new, probably has at least six months of hard labor in him, so that’s good. But they didn’t make his arms very big, won’t be able to lift so much.”
“Oh but he is a determined, spirited sort.”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
The drummer didn’t understand just what they were talking about, nor how this was helping him to obtain money, nor indeed how the money was related to finding the dancer. He was just about to say all this when the two concluded their discussion.
“…and three large discs as a standard finder’s fee,” Orr said, sliding three plastic chips over to Duth.
“Is that…money?” the drummer asked.
“Oh, so we can go get to the dancer now?”
“Well…no,” Duth said awkwardly. “We’ll need a bit more. But I’ve got you a job now, see. You’ll be earning money at a rate of…” he glanced over to Orr.
“New workers are compensated at 2 small discs per week. Food and lodging is provided.”
“There you go!” Duth said energetically. “That’s a capital rate for you.”
“But I don’t understand what it’s for.”
“Money gets you anything you want,” one of the weeble wobbles said.
“If you want to convince your girl to come back, money will win her for sure,” the other said.
“Oh, she didn’t leave me. She was taken by another toy, a teddy bear.”
“Yes, yes, the story of us all, brother,” Duth smirked. “But either way, you make enough money and you’ll be able to buy her back from the bear.”
“Actually I had been thinking more of just grabbing her and running.”
“Oho!” Orr laughed. “More a rough-and-tumble sort of guy, huh? Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you’re a little small for a job like that.”
The drummer paused and looked down at his hands. The pig had a point, the bear had been much larger than he was.
“Yesss,” Orr continued, “you know it’s true. But once again, with some money, you can hire some other toys to help you out with that. I know some who will even make sure the bear never comes back after you, if you catch my drift.”
“I see,” the drummer said slowly. “Well thank you for explaining. I think I’m finally beginning to understand. I’ll do some work, I’ll make some money, I’ll be able to pay to get her back…”
“Exactly,” the doll praised. “And it’s the only way, believe me.”
“Then…I guess I’d better do it. Where is the work?”
“Capital attitude,” Orr snorted approvingly. “Come right this way.”
The doll and the two weeble wobbles slunk into the night while Orr let the drummer in through the door, and led the way through a maze of corridors into the heart of the place. The drummer had never seen a place like this before, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he cared much for it. It was dark, with only the occasional, weak candle to give any light. Worse than that, all the toys that they passed along the way seemed to be in a very dire strait.
It wasn’t just that they were so dirty, chipped, and torn. It wasn’t just that most of their paint had scratched off and they had been scored with deep gouges. It wasn’t just that they were missing eyes and buttons, and some of them entire limbs! More than all that it was just the haunted, vacant expression they all bore. Toys with no soul in them, more machines than living things.
The drummer vaguely wondered why so many gaunt, expressionless workers might have come to this sort of place, but then he pushed the thought from his mind. It didn’t matter. All that mattered now was the work, and the money, and buying the dancer’s freedom. He realized that he still was quite confused about a few matters. How was he to know when he had enough money? Where was he supposed to go to pay other toys to help him get her back? And still he didn’t even know where she was!
He felt a little bit of anger towards all the people that had helped him thus far: the jack-in-the-box, the doll, the pig. Each of them had made clear that they really wanted to help him, but none of them had really seemed to listen to him very much.
Again, never mind that now. Work now. Money now. Ask more questions at the next opportunity.
And so it was that the drummer found himself shuffling with a small army of workers down a massive corridor towards an even more massive furnace. At first all the drummer could see of it was the huge cloud of smoke, yawing ahead of them like the end of the earth. The closer they got to it the more it choked them. Soon the drummer was coughing black onto his white, painted gloves. Still they pressed forward, and now the drummer could make out the flame at the furnace’s base. It was too shrouded in smoke to see any tongues, but there was a definite glow of deep, vibrating orange. Its heat was immense, and the drummer felt a crackling along his fresh paint.
“Team three back to barracks! Team four, your quota is two mountains before relief!” A foreman in his toy car snapped down to them. He was gesturing to two immense piles of coal, each more than ten times the height of the drummer! One-by-one the workers walked up to the first pile, selected a single lump of coal, and marched with it towards the flame. When they got close enough that their faces began to singe they hurled it forward with all of their might, eliciting a shower of sparks which proved that they had made their mark.
If ever they missed their mark then they were handed “the pole” and had to shield their eyes to try and see their stray piece of coal and jab it into the flame. All the while the foreman would shout at them, counting down how long they had before he would throw them in instead!
The drummer had a lot of questions about this process, but it didn’t seem to be the sort of place that would care for questions. So he set to work, following the pattern of all the others. All of his first lumps of coal failed to find the furnace, and he quickly was given a nickname by the foreman: Useless.
That harsh toy shouted at him and shoved him, telling him it would be easier on them all if he would just dive into the flame and rid them of his nuisance. All the while the drummer frantically thrust out with the pole, silently pleading for the shower of sparks that would mean he had managed to right his error. When at last the blessed torrent came he ran with from the spot, only to be clutched by dread anticipation as he came back to the pile of coal, and knew he was about to miss yet another throw.
There was no relief, he found himself in perpetual fear. The terror in front of the flame, the anticipation of failure, the despair of the missed throw, the terror, the anticipation, the despair. Each time round they seemed to come faster, seemed to nip more savagely at one another’s heels. The terror. The anticipation. The despair. He was going to be thrown in, that was all there was to it. He couldn’t keep up at this pace. Terror. Anticipation. Despair. But for as quickly as the cycle repeated, the mountain never grew any smaller! The task would never be done, they would never leave here. He couldn’t keep doing this! He had to collapse, had to give up, had to be thrown into the furnace and get it all over with. Terror! Anticipation! Despair!
The little drummer cried in agony as he thrust his blistering gloves forward. The small lump of coal sailed high into the air and a shower of sparks burst forth.
“Well,” the foreman said in surprise. “You get to live a minute more. Move along, useless!”
And so it was. The drummer shuffled along with the line and made his way back to grab another piece of coal. Heart thumping he threw that one clean into the fire as well. Another minute to live.
Things certainly went from bad to worse for our little hero! It would seem that we’ve gone from a happy fairy tale into an Orwellian nightmare. Along the way we met a few new characters, including a jack-in-the-box, the posing doll, the piggy bank, and the foreman.
I explained on Monday that my purpose was to write each of these characters so that the audience could instantly judge the quality of their character. To accomplish this I made use of a few tricks.
The first was that in the first section of this story I carefully selected the setting where these characters live. This wayside village is clearly a seedy hovel of reprobate amusement, and one assumes that the sort who live here will be just as despicable.
Secondly I chose toys that could symbolize their diabolical natures. The jack-in-the-box is not what he seems at first, the doll is a contortionist, the piggy bank is greedy, the foreman drives things hard.
Then I used descriptive terms and actions to immediately communicate that these characters are wretched. The jack-in-the-box speaks slyly, the doll mutters, the piggy bank droneslazily, the foreman snaps.
Finally, each of these characters are simply much too quick to try and “help” the drummer. Right from the outset this over-eagerness sets our suspicion sky-high. What is frustrating, though, is that the doll does not see what we so clearly do. There is a lot of tension in this piece because of the separation between what he understands and what the audience does.
I would like to examine this idea of characters making choices that the audience already knows are bad. Come back on Monday for that, on then on Thursday we’ll pick things back up with our poor, little drummer. Until then, have a wonderful weekend!
The trucks were upon them now. The winged discs stopped shooting from the back of the first, the engines sputtered out, and the doors opened. Out stepped eight men, all dressed in jeans and dark-grey jackets. They were uniforms, and each of their shoulders bore the name “Clecir.” Two of the men were carrying large briefcases, and four of them had sidearms on their hips. They didn’t draw their weapons, though, instead all eight slowly walked towards the two brothers, fanning out to keep them contained.
“Hello, boys,” one of them said. He had curly, white hair and dark sunglasses on. He grinned broadly. “My name’s Maxwell. Please don’t be alarmed, we’re not here to cause any trouble. Just to take back what is rightfully ours.”
“Yours?” Gavin asked. Curtis frowned at him.
“Yes, the beacons.”
It took the boys a moment to realize that “beacons” must be the men’s term for the strange materials.
“You’re the ones who left the box of them out?” Curtis asked, anxious to take over the conversation before Gavin could try to argue about ownership.
“That’s right. A careless mistake.”
Curtis nodded. “Well they’re in that storage shed over there.”
Now it was Gavin who frowned at Curtis. To him it seemed like a betrayal. But really the mass of “beacons” still hanging off the sides of their shed had already given that information away. It was just about appearing accommodating.
Maxwell smiled, then nodded to the two men carrying the briefcases. They broke ranks and made their way to the shed. One of them came back a moment later and tossed one of the rods to Maxwell. Maxwell caught it and peered closely at the grooves on the rod’s side. He smiled.
“Batch 18, confirmed.”
The two men filed back into the shed, opened their briefcases, and began filling them with the brothers’ work.
“How long ago was Batch 18?” Maxwell said to no one in particular. “Twelve years now?” He turned back to the brothers. “Did you two work them this whole time? You said you found them in a cardboard box?”
Gavin’s frown deepened. “You didn’t misplace them at all! You planted them.”
Curtis elbowed his brother, but Maxwell seemed pleased by the insight.
“How perceptive of you,” he smiled. “And an excellent choice of words, we call it ‘seeding’ ourselves. I’m sure you’ve found that the secrets of the beacons are extensive. Infinitely so. Some of us even think responsively so.” Maxwell’s voice grew low, reverential. “Whichever way you push it, it discloses new truths. And so it is all the better to find curious minds that think differently from our own. We let them work uninterrupted, and sometimes they come up with the most novel inventions.”
The two men returned. They had selected the most complex examples of the brothers’ work and held them up for Maxwell to see. He looked them over one-by-one.
“I see. Crude clothing applications…but you’d run into trouble once you tried to make a full body-suit of course,” he chuckled. “You’d lose the wearer inside!”
Maxwell paused to look closer at the tunic, his brow furrowing. “Still…the fact that you’re using linked pieces instead of plates…how did you get them so small?”
“Perhaps this one sir?” One of the men held forward a piece fashioned by Gavin. It was the one where he had discovered how to create increasingly larger or smaller components.
Maxwell frowned in concentration as he turned it over until understanding set in. “But of course,” he gasped. “We’ve been blind all these years!” He turned it over more quickly now. Hungrily. “And it’s dual-ended! You can scale up or down with it! And I’d guess that this node-centric approach amplifies the resultant power!” His fingers clenched against the piece and a shudder passed through his body. A moment later he relaxed, and gently returned the piece to the briefcase. “Keep that one, get the bin ready for the rest.”
“Why take it all away?” Gavin asked before Curtis could stop him. “We’ve put so much of ourselves into it!”
Maxwell turned to Gavin and took off his sunglasses, looking him eye-to-eye. “It’s too risky to leave any developers operating outside of the organization, this stuff is just too powerful. Not to worry, though. We aren’t merely seeding new beacons, we’re seeding talent. The two of you have definitely proven yourselves ingenious and persistent….”
“You’re–you’re offering us a job?” Curtis cocked his head.
“So much more than a job,” Maxwell extended his hand. “I want you to be a partner to the future.”
The two brothers paused and looked to one another. Unspoken meaning passing between their eyes. They looked back to Maxwell.
“With all due respect,” Curtis said slowly, “we don’t like your style.”
Maxwell forced a smile. “Our way is necessary, but we know that it doesn’t appeal to all. Still boys, I like you. So just make sure you stay out of our way, and we won’t need to discuss the matter any further. You’ll do that won’t you?”
The two men with briefcases had finished hauling the rest of the brothers’ work outside. They had even brought all of their notebooks, clay, and graph paper, as well as all the winged discs that had slammed into the side of the storage shed. Another two men lifted a large “tube” out of the bed of one of the trucks. It was far cruder than Gavin’s solution for making larger structures. This tube had been fashioned by simply taking hundreds of the normal-sized discs and angling them to form pointy rings. Those rings were staggered so that they could slide over one another like some sort of giant telescope. The tube was capped at both of its ends.
Without a word the men opened a hatch on the side of the tube, put all of the brothers’ things inside, then closed the hatch and pushed the ends together. The overlapping flaps slid across each other, compressing down like an accordion until the two caps clanged against one another.
Gavin gasped as understanding set in. They had made the space inside too small to hold all of their things. With an open tube that had always meant the things would just spill out. In a capped one like this, it must mean that the items were obliterated into nothingness. Just like that, all their work was destroyed.
“You boys sure you don’t want to reconsider my offer?” Maxwell asked. “There are no second chances.”
Curtis shook his head.
“Suit yourselves.” He turned to the rest of the men and nodded, then they all filed back into the trucks and drove away.
Gavin and Curtis walked in silence back to their shed and stepped inside. They already knew what they would see…nothing. The men had been thorough. All that remained were two empty chairs and desks, the power generator, the lights and the fans.
“So that’s it,” Gavin said flatly.
“Yeah,” Curtis said, walking over to the power generator. He unplugged it and waited a few seconds for it to wind down. “Or at least it would be if they weren’t so stupid.”
He ran his fingers along the generator’s cord until he found a bump in the sheath. He felt out a slit in the rubber and peeled it back, revealing a microscopic tube that they had wrapped around the electric cable.
“I forgot about that!” Gavin said, clapping his hands to his head. “From when we were trying to get an electrical charge inside of a tube. We never took it out?”
Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like they aren’t accustomed to their ‘beacons’ being so small. They didn’t even think to check.” He unclasped the tiny tube and pulled it off the cord. “Of course those winged discs of theirs were able to hone in on us once…it’s a safe bet that they’ll realize they missed something sooner or later.”
The two brothers looks at one another, silently weighing their options.
“I say we don’t give it back,” Gavin finally said. “I say we run with it and start building again. Prepare for their return.”
Curtis grinned from ear to ear. “I was hoping you’d say that! Let’s go. I’ve got a lot of new ideas.”
The two brothers slapped each on the back and hurried over to their parked pickup truck. Curtis hopped into the driver’s seat and started the ignition while Gavin went around to the passenger side. He had just stepped up onto the running board when he froze.
“Uh-oh,” he said, and Curtis looked up to where Gavin was staring.
The two black trucks had turned around and were making their way back up towards the brothers and their storage shed.
“They figured it out already,” Gavin said.
“Yeah…do you still want to run?”
Gavin grit his teeth, then swung into his seat and pulled the door closed.
Curtis pressed the pedal to the floor and spun the truck out in a wide arc. They turned 180 degrees and moved off the road, pounding across the rough desert ground, kicking up a tall plume of dust as they fled from their pursuers.
As I said on Monday, the ending of Instructions Not Included is only an ending of its first act. This would signify the moment of transition where the story enters its central conflict. The brothers would continue an ongoing battle with this strange corporation, the tension escalating until the point of climax. The brother’s triumph would depend on them resolving the philosophical differences that have been introduced in the first act.
In the end, I like where this story is headed. I think it could be a fun adventure story targeted towards older children and teenagers. I would like to complete it, but I’m already committed to one novel, with many other concrete ideas for other ones after that. For a while I struggled with how many story ideas I had. I didn’t want to accept that there simply wasn’t enough time to make every novel that I wanted to.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but in the end I was able to accept the truth of the matter: my productivity will never keep up with my imagination. I’d like to talk a little more about the realistic limitations of an author’s productivity, how to accept those shortcomings, and how to choose which stories one should write. Come back on Monday where we will discuss these topics. Until then, have an excellent weekend!
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.
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.